The Yellow Vests: who will benefit from the movement?


By Quantité Critique, Translated by Hector Uniacke

Is the ‘yellow vests’ a populist movement laying the ground for the far right? It’s a difficult question. Beyond the contempt shown by certain commentators against the working classes, something that this question is often an expression of, it remains one that must be faced up to for several reasons.

First, every sociological enquiry has shown the presence of a large number of far right voters among the yellow vests and their supporters. While they are by no means a majority, the presence of this the far right puts into question the capacity of the yellow vests to form a movement in defence of democracy and social progress. Further, five months after the beginning of the movement, the polling nationally puts the Rassemblement National (RN) far ahead of other formations opposed to macronism.

The omnipresence of these figures invites a part of the media to make of the far right party a natural receptacle of the anger unleashed in the country. It is thus impossible to avoid the question of the risk of a move towards the far right of the yellow vest mobilisation. Finally, we must be particularly attentive to this question after the publication of an enquiry by the sociologist Luc Rouban whose results seems to indicate both a predominance of populist political tendencies among the movement’s sympathisers, and that Marine Le Pen would be the first figure to benefit from the yellow vest movement.

Yet, this interpretation of the politicisation of the movement towards the far right is far from a consensus in the abundance of collective inquiries that have appeared since November. If on certain points of analysis, like the socio-professional composition of the movement, these inquiries show very similar results, a work on the characterisation of the political dynamics of the movement remains to be done. In fact, the inquiries at times reveal contradictory ideological positions that render the debate particularly complex.

Here we will evaluate the hypothesis according to which the yellow vests incarnate a populism favourable to the far right, starting with analyses drawn out by different groups of sociologists and political scientists, while also using our own work on the subject.

The multiplication of data can create confusion, by circulating figures and results which were not produced according to the same methods, nor on the same people. This can however be turned into an advantage. Each of the methods used capture a particular dimension of the movement. Face-to-face questionnaires for example help to capture positions openly declared, while enquiries on the Internet, thanks to their anonymity, can reveal positions that are harder to assume. Similarly, the diversity of groups questioned by the different inquiries enables us to understand the differences in politicisation in relation to the distance from the heart of the movement.

What are the effects of the mobilisation on these different fringes? By privileging an approach that distinguishes between active yellow vests and their supporters, we will highlight the different logics of political subjectivation between the centre and the margins of the movement. This distinction then enables us to nuance the idea that the movement has a propensity to ‘populism’ of which the RN would be the principle beneficiary.

The Engima of the Active Yellow Vests: The Improbable Defeat of the Far Right

All studies so far have tended towards the idea that entry into the yellow vest movement comes from highly polarised political position, from either end of the left/right political spectrum. Yet one of the major characteristics of the movement has been the predominance of a refusal to refer to such an opposition. An inquiry done at Sciences-Po Grenoble at the end of December 2018, through an online questionnaire on yellow vest Facebook groups across France, gives the following proportions: 60% of respondents didn’t positions themselves on this axis, but among those that did, the left had a small advantage.

The inquiry by the collective Quantité Critique, conducted with the same method and in the same period, gives similar results: more than 50% of ‘neither-norists’, 12% of people positioning themselves on the right (of which 7% far right) and 15 % on the left (of which 3.6 % far left). In total, after including the ‘neither left nor right’ and the non-reponses, 70.2% of yellow vests from the sample didn’t position themselves on the left-right axis.

As this opposition constitutes a pertinent reference for only about a third of the sample in the case of both inquiries, it is necessary to find another means to characterise the yellow vests politically: the vote in the first round of the presidential elections in 2017. In Quantité Critique’s inquiry, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are neck and neck, each obtaining 19 % of the votes of the people questioned. Despite important variations, all the inquiries signal an important presence of FN voters. If we add to this the fact that, according to a well-established conclusion of electoral sociology, a part of non-responses dissimulates Marine Le Pen voters, it is probable that the far right vote was the principle option voiced in 2017 by the population here studied.

Care is however necessary when we use these figures. If they give us a precious image of the forces at work in the month of November 2018, they give no sense of the effects of the mobilisation over time. The question of the place of the Rassemblement National must then be posed dynamically: how do we explain, given the proportion of yellow vests who voted for Marine Le Pen in 2017, the RN’s failure to hegemonise the movement?

Despite the attempts of far-right militants to guide it, notably through intensive propaganda around the ‘pact of Marrakech’[1] in November, xenophobia has remained marginal in debates internal to the movement. The migration question has never been seen as a decisive point. In local and time-specific cases, the lists of demands of the yellow vests might include a wish to limit immigration, but in the large majority of cases, this is not their subject.

The demands have rather concerned the reestablishment of the ISF tax [solidarity tax on wealth] or on wage-raises. Further, the political scientist Samuel Hayat has brought to light the pertinence of the concept of the ‘moral economy’ developed by E.P Thompson to interpret the values of the yellow vests: here there exists a tacit moral consensus over the legitimate means of organising the economy which is seen to have been wrecked by successive reforms.

The ‘pouvoir vivre’ as the central demand

What’s more, the interventions of spokespersons like François Boulo or Jérôme Rodriguez have systematically defended the idea that ‘anti-migrant’ demands do not have their place in the movement. Even those representatives most identified at the beginning of the movement as being close to the far-right, such as Maxime Nicolle, have been intent not to publically nourish racist discourses. It is particularly illustrative, from this point of view, that Benjamin Caucy, a member of Debout La France [Stand up France] largely exterior to the occupations and demonstrations, was one of the rare figures to have claimed that the ‘great debate’ was censoring the migration question.

This positioning of media figures, among which the predominant strategy has been to put aside the migration question, is broadly analogous to that which we find on a number of roundabout occupations. The role of group leaders in these places of mobilisation has been, from this point of view, crucial to the development of conversations. As they very often commit the yellow vests to not positioning themselves on bases that would put the unity of the movement in danger.

The migration question appears neither on open display (tracts, banners, etc) nor in the collective debates. During the handing out of questionnaires, it became clear that a large majority of yellow vests had a clear vision of what was and wasn’t the subject of the movement. The migration question is perceived as a ‘troubling subject’, inclined to weaken the social and economic demands formulated elsewhere. Yet out of the 700 questionnaires treated by researchers of the Centre Émile-Durkheim of Bordeux, only 22 mention immigration.

This framing of the debate, linked to the fact that a very notable fringe of the yellow vests, either absentionist or on the left, have taken resolutely anti-racist positions, has rendered ineffective the attempts at politicisation around these themes. The polemic around anti-semitism, for its part, has not been the subject of daily political work by the leaders of the roundabouts, so much is it perceived by the participants to be a media creation exterior to the movement.

This burying [enfouissement] of xenophobia by certain fractions of the yellow vests is very deep. It leads them to a self-control of their public political stances in order to preserve the unity of the movement. This includes Le Pen voters, who are end up frequenting sympathisers of the far left.

These voters exercise plenty of discipline in the public expression of their positions. They separate that which is born of intimate conviction from those opinions that are to be contributed to collective discussion. In the Oise region, for example, out of 43 Marine Le Pen voters questioned by Quantité Critique, only 4 believe the movement should take a position on immigration.

Of course the effect of this self-control on political subjectivities is difficult to measure. It might produce an effective devalorisation of far-right ideas or simply an occultation of xenophobic attitudes that remain significant. Only future inquiries into the ideological and electoral attitudes of the yellow vests will permit a balance sheet of the movement.

We can however note the fact that on the far-right, xenophobia is not a side issue ­- a particular and isolated element of politicisation. It amounts instead to a prism through which an ensemble of political stakes are apprehended: economic problems are held to be the result of immigrant workers, insecurity of a supposed non-intergration.

This tendency of the yellow vests to censor xenophobic aspects of political discourse and to build a language in which there is no need to target a foreign scapegoat can therefore only be positive for the production of alternative and emancipatory societies. This surprising fact, given the political bases of a part of the participants, has not seemed to interest the continuous news channels, which have instead covered those rare racist and anti-semitic acts that run counter to the ways in which discussions internal to the movement are organised.

From Social to Democratic Crisis

The marginalisation of xenophobia has enabled the movement to develop a basis of demands organised around the ‘ability to live’ [pouvoir vivre] as its central demand. This ‘ability to live’, brought to the fore by the inquiry of Science-Po Grenoble, ‘is formed around demands very rooted in the everyday (loss of buying power, insufficient wages and pension, complaints about taxes), which speak to the desire of the yellow vests to “be able to live and not merely survive from their work”’.

The attachment to the value of work is a consequence of the fact that the most precarious parts of the working classes are a majority within the movement. The researchers of Sciences-Po-Grenoble thus found 74 % of precarious people in their sample [a proportion based on the EPICES ratings, used by certain administrations like health insurance – EN], while in the sample of Quantité Critique, 89 % of the yellow vests say that they ‘struggle to make ends meet every month.’

Reciprocally, a survey conducted by the Elabe Institute shows that 27 % of people who have ‘difficult ends to the month’ declare themselves yellow vests, which is 7 points more than the average. The heart of the movement is thus made up of active workers - the Émile-Durkheim centre finding for example 75 %, while the Sciences-Po Grenoble team find 67 %.

Social Conflict has Moved Outside the Workplace

If geographic position and the question of transport served as trigger points, the yellow vests very quickly seized upon the question of wages. The originality of the movement resides without a doubt in its bypassing of classical mechanisms of collective bargaining. From the end of November, the scale of the demand for a rise in wages put buying power at the heart of demands.

More remarkable still, the demands weren’t addressed to either employers or their reprentatives, but to the state. This originality has little commented upon, other than from the classic and overused angle of a crisis of unionism. In truth, this originality is accounted for by the concrete experience of employees and the crisis in the historic mechanisms of collective bargaining.

The organised yellow vests seem to come mainly from small businesses, characterised by a lower level of social conflict. The field-study conducted by Quantité Critique in the Oise region in effect shows, among employees of TPE-PME [from Very small Businesses to Small to Medium size Businesses] an over-representation (more than three-quarters) of people who say they have a ‘friendly’ or ‘cordial’ relationship with their employers, who are often integrated in the workplace.

Up against this positive image of the small businessman and the real financial difficulties of small companies, collective action at this level is rarely envisaged. When we asked the participants in the Oise region about their recent demands for wage increases, they were sceptical. The responses collected to the question ‘Have you asked your boss for a raise’ attest to this: ‘to do what?’; ‘We already know the answer.’

In these conditions, social conflict moves outside the walls of the workplace and outside of working days. The yellow vest movement is thus an expression of the impracticality of bargaining at the level of the business, as the Sarkozy and Hollande governments had conceived it.

In this sense, it then seems normal to find the State as the actor called upon by the participants. Yet, this crisis in collective bargaining has been combined with a refusal of the State to propose a solution to the wage demands, expressed through the broad signifier of buying power. This ambiguous notion may obstruct the question of wages but equally enables the aggregation of numerous other demands around social benefits; disability benefits or, to a certain extent, pensions sizes.

The executive’s proposals in December were deemed insufficient but also out of line with the object of the demands. The ‘great debate’, furthermore, proved the intent of the government to occlude the question of wages, neither evoked, nor taken into account by a government which that nonetheless continues to repeat that ‘work must pay.’ The yellow vest’s suspicion of those in power, and to a certain extent of the ‘elites’, is thus not necessarily just the expression of a hostility to the state’s draconianism nor of a ‘populist’ fervour of the mobilised working classes. It results from the unwillingness of the government to take into account the social demands at the heart of the protest.

This impasse explains furthermore the emergence of institutional demands: facilitated by militant practises that developed within the movement (meetings on roundabouts, autonomous action groups, general assemblies, forums on social media), the democratic question came to the heart of the demands.

The Referendum of Citizen’s Initiative has become the political response symbolising an impasse against a recalcitrant State. It is one of the responses found among the working classes to this crisis of mediation. A study of the base of the demands thus tends to discard the hypothesis of a politicisation towards the far-right of the actors engaged at the heart of the mobilisation, because the principle stakes (question of wages, democracy) do not resonate with typical political imaginary of the far right.

From the heart to the margins of the movement, a politicisation in concentric circles?

It is nevertheless impossible to avoid the question of the success of the far-right and of reactionary ideas on the margins of the movement and among some of the declared sympathisers of the yellow vests. As seen in the survey from Luc Rouban, as well as in the declared voting intentions for the European elections, the Rassemblement National appears to be the opposition force who has most benefited from the current crisis.

However, it remains crucial not to reify the yellow vests as a homogenous group. Between the occupants of the roundabouts, the Facebook cyberactivists and the non-active sympathisers, the opinions observed at different levels vary too much to permit such a simplification.

The level of observation has thus a determining influence on the results obtained by the inquiries. This has led us to hypothesise a configuration of the movement in concentric circles. We note the success of far-right ideas in its little mobilised exterior margins, those susceptible to reactionary themes. On the other hand, these ideas can only penetrate the core of the active yellow vests with great difficulty. It is indispensable then to delink these two levels of analysis to understand how, over time, an effective participation in the movement is productive of a political socialisation inclined to distance those who take part from far right ideas.

On the margins of the mobilisation, we find a fraction of the population who support the yellow vests but who do not play an active part in their revolt. In the study of this population, the national samples are particularly interesting. They are characterised, as Luc Rouban has shown, by a surfeit of far-right opinions. In his analysis, hostility to immigration, calls for the return of the death penalty, and the banning of same sex marriage are gathered according to an index of tolerance [indice de tolérance]. He shows that 65% of people who strongly support the yellow vests have a low index of tolerance, in contrast to 38 % of those who don’t support them.

Luc Rouban, similarly, shows support for the yellow vests as being dominated by dispositions that he terms ‘populist’, because of their critique of elites and their desire for participation. To qualify this legitimate defiance and this demand for more participative institutions as populist, however, is to risk maintaining a level of intellectual confusion, which can be recuperated by a part of the media. The term populism is too often used to discredit the aspirations to more political participation coming from certain parts of the population.

Signs of Class Consciousness

This mode of inquiry, which consists in mixing opinions about the movement with political ideas in national samples, prevents us from wholly understanding the dynamic of politicisation at work at the heart of the movement and from appreciating the political stakes raised by the yellow vests in all their complexity. In short, analysing heterogenous groups as a single bloc (the yellow vests and those who support them) does not enable us to measure the effects which degrees of participation have on ideological positions.

It is thus necessary to complement this approach by differentiating between active yellow vests and the mere sympathisers in order to understand the real distribution of far right opinions within the movement.

Unfortunately, at the present time little data from national samples consider the importance of this distinction. Only the Kantar Institute, in a survey carried out between the 21st-25th February, during Acte 15 of the movement, differentiated between active participants and sympathisers. It shows that active yellow vests are less authoritarian and xenophobic than simple sympathisers. And similarly for xenophobia: 50 % of active yellow vests esteem that there are ‘too many immigrants in France,’ against 54 % of their sympathisers (with a national average of 44 %).

Active participants are at times even below the national average. Concerning Islamophobia, 43% of active participants esteem that ‘we give too many rights to Muslims,’ against 51% of their supporters and a national average of 45%. The people having participated in the movement are thus slightly less Islamophobic than the French average, which is a notable result and is in total contradiction with the hypothesis of a shift to the far right within the movement.

There results are similar for the susceptibility to discourses on law and order: 60% of active yellow vests feel that the law is ‘not severe enough with small criminals,’ against 72% of their supporters, whereas the national average is 64%. As far as knowing whether we should ‘give much more power to the police,’ 31% of active participants in the movement agree, against 45% of those who support them, with 45% as the national average. These last two points can certainly be explained by the juridical and police repression which has been unleashed on the movement, but also show the scepticism of the yellow vests regarding the discourse of ‘laxity’, an idea which is however emblematic of far right thought.

On the other hand, at the interior of the circle, the most active yellow vests, this difficulty for far right ideas to penetrate is held up by two elements. First, a strategic consideration that we have already mentioned: the need for unity among the working classes defined primarily by their material conditions which enable the aggregation to the movement of the ‘those in care [les assistés]’ who are targeted by far right discourse.

Second, an experience of political subjectivation specific to this original movement. Here we reference the works of the sociologist Raphaël Challier, who conducted an ethnography of the movement in a particularly mobilised town in Lorraine, where Marine Le Pen came out roundly on top during the first round of the last two presidential elections.

He remarks that active participation in the movement – that is the occupation of roundabouts and demonstrations – brought about an encounter between categories of the population who do not frequent one another in normal times, and from which emerged ‘a sense of common belonging’ among those who ‘who share the fact of being humble [d’être des petits].’

These new solidarities call for a reduction of partisan divisions and judgements between the one and the other. Raphaël Challier cites for example a member of the RN who fears ‘arguing with people who say their opinions,’ or a member of France Insoumise who avoids the subject of politics, because ‘not everyone agrees, and that creates problems.’

According to Challier, this ‘popular entre-soi’ undermines the triangulated consciousness, a tendency identified by Oliver Schwartz among the working classes to construct themselves in a double opposition, both against those above (the political and economic elites) and those below (immigrants, the unemployed, people in care). This is re-evaluated by their action within the movement. This tripartite vision of society thus gives way among the yellow vests, through a process of accelerated socialisation among the parts of the working classes who meet each other for the first time, to a dual vision opposing the privileged to the exploited, which strongly resembles the first signs of a class consciousness.

Of course, this element is invisible in the power relations captured by the national surveys leading up to the european elections. Two reasons potentially explain this unstranslatibility of the movement into a left wing voting intention: the small demographic size of the active yellow vests who will go and vote in the european elections, as well as the delegitimization of the party system.

Despite the early support from La France Insoumise and the PCF, for many yellow vests (those most active as well as the supporters) the left looks incapable of becoming the voice of popular aspiration. This crisis of the relation between the left and the working classes has opened a window of opportunity that the far right seized upon long before the yellow vest movement.

Until now, the political organisations of the left have wagered on rallying the mobilised actors to their cause rather than on the work of conviction among the supporters who constitute a halo around the movement. It is however there that the decisive battle is playing out today.

Originally published by Mediapart. Translated by Hector Uniacke.

[1]. The ‘Pact of Marrakech’, or the ‘The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’, was a UN agreement intended to discourage illegal migration, set to be signed in Marrakech on the 9th December 2018. In France and elsewhere, the conspiracy was propagated by far-right figures that Macron was intending to sell off the country to illimited migration, playing off fears of a ‘great replacement.’ [TN]