Blog post

Understanding the Gilets Jaunes

Enzo Traverso on the elusive meaning of France's new horizontal populist movement. Can the Yellow Vests achieve their aims without reference to the red flag?

Enzo Traverso15 February 2019

Understanding the Gilets Jaunes

Observers have been surprised and puzzled by the unusual forms, symbols, and practices of the Gilets Jaunes. Everybody recognizes the protest’s radicalism, determination, and remarkable duration, but their movement remains in many respects a strange and unclassifiable object, either naïvely idealized as the announcement of revolution or obtusely stigmatized as dangerous and potentially “proto-fascist.” The Yellow Vests are supported by both the Left and the Right, but claim their independence; they do not accept any political representation or “recuperation.” This rejection of any form of representation is both their strength and their fragility, at least in the short term.

The fact is that the Yellow Vests cannot be interpreted with the traditional categories of political analysis. They cannot seriously be depicted as a reactionary, “Poujadist” movement. In a political conjuncture shaped by the rise of xenophobia, racism and radical nationalism, they do not search for a scapegoat, nor do they call for the expulsion of immigrants and refugees, and they do not wish to protect a supposedly threatened “national identity.” Rather, they put forward the question of social inequalities as a threat to democracy and social cohesiveness. In doing so, they do not claim an ethnic but rather a social identity. When the media interviews them, they do not mention their origins but their profession: worker, nurse, teacher, self-entrepreneur, shopkeeper, driver, unemployed, etc.

Social equality is historically a left-wing value, but they do not belong to the culture of the left; they neither know its symbols – there are no red flags in their demonstrations and traffic circles – nor adopt its forms of organization. Their revolt is completely external to the trade-unions, in spite of a recent, limited convergence. They do not act as a class, as a homogeneous body, but rather as a community, as a heterogeneous, plural body. Amongst them, there are many people who are participating in a demonstration or a protest action for the first time in their lives. Their symbol is not a red flag but rather a yellow vest: this allows them to become visible in a world that condemns them to public invisibility and social suffering. They do not seem to be aware of the political symbolism of the yellow, a color that at the turn of the twentieth century expressed one of the components of the French “revolutionary right” (les Jaunes), carefully investigated by Zeev Sternhell. One century later, the meaning of this color has changed; it is the red color that has lost much of its symbolic strength.

According to some historians, their protest in the name of social justice and equality unveils the “moral economy” of the crowds (a concept forged by the British historian E.P. Thompson to depict social rebellion at the time of industrial revolution). This comparison is probably pertinent, but it could also be interpreted as the mirror of a gigantic political regression: two centuries of the history of the Left simply forgotten, ignored and abandoned as a useless past. The Yellow Vests demonstration do not include any reference to 1848, the Paris Commune, the Resistance or May 68. Instead, they take some symbols of the French Revolution: the sans-culottes, the rights of man and citizen, the execution of the King, etc. Does it mean a return to the social protest of the Old Regime? I don’t know, but this lack of historical memory certainly proves the erosion and weakening of many left-wing symbols. 

On the other hand, the Yellow Vests are not archaic at all and show very modern features: they structure their movement through social media, they use Facebook as a tool of counter-information against the TV channels, and handle the internet as a collective organizer (much like in the Arab revolutions of 2011). They have transformed the propaganda of the government regarding their supposed vandalism into a campaign against police violence. One of their latest demonstrations was opened by dozens of Yellow Vests who had been injured and mutilated by the police. They claim the legacy of the French Revolution, but many features of their movement reveal significant affinities with Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish 15M and Nuit debout.

Some critics view the Yellow Vests as the expression of a new form of populism. In several respects, this is true, insofar as they oppose the people to the elite in power: Macron as the president of the “ultrarich,” the embodiment of a financial elite. At the same time, however, they explicitly reject many features of classical populism, notably nationalism and charismatic leadership. Neither Marine Le Pen nor Jean-Luc Mélenchon could represent them; they strongly defend the principle of self-representation and are proud of practicing a form of horizontal democracy. This is why, according to Etienne Balibar, the Yellow Vests are inventing a form of “counter-populism:” a democratic and horizontal instead of a vertical and authoritarian populism; a populism of actors, not of followers.  

The possible future developments of the Yellow Vests are unpredictable. All polls indicate they are extremely popular and supported by a large majority of French citizens, but they represent and mobilize only a segment of civil society. This segment is certainly large, heterogeneous and theoretically borderless, insofar as they pretend to embody the “people”, but they cannot win alone. A successful movement should include and mobilize other segments of French society, from wage workers of big companies and public employees to the youth of the suburbs (les jeunes des cités), beyond high school and university students. A new “social bloc” against neoliberalism, speaking with Gramsci’s categories, does not yet exist. What is clear, however, is the failure of Emmanuel Macron’s project to create a hegemonic neoliberal “historical bloc,” to impose neoliberalism as both an economic model for society and an anthropological model for its citizens (a model made of consumption, possession, individualism, and competition). Triumphally elected less than two years ago as a man of the future – intelligent, cultivated (many obsequious journalists portrait him as a philosopher), energic, and a modernizer – Macron has quickly become a very despised and detested politician: the president of the “ultrarich.” Current social protest focuses on his strongly defended measure to abolish the “wealth tax” (ISF), which has become the symbol of social inequalities.

Macron considers the “ultrarich” as a kind of vanguard of progress, as a model for ordinary people. His vision of progress as a natural “trickle down” movement from the rich to the poor people (le ruissellement) is ridiculed and mocked in all the Yellow Vests demonstrations. His project of transforming France into a European capital of victorious neoliberalism has fallen apart. Thanks to the institutions of the Fifth Republic that give him a very strong majority in Parliament, he will probably complete his term, but Macronism has failed. He seems to have already given up the idea of stopping the protests with concessions and explanations of the beneficial effects of his policies and decided to compensate his lack of legitimacy with violent repression. This is the meaning of the latest “anti-riot” laws that reinforce the “state of exception” measures already introduced after the terrorist attacks of 2015. In this case, his “Jupiterian” neoliberalism will be maintained as a form of authoritarian Bonapartism. His presidency is certainly the most repressive in France since the years of the Algerian War.

The failure of Macronism as a social project is one of the biggest achievements of the Yellow Vests. According to many of them, the meaning of their movement transcends its claims. The traffic circles are much more than forms of action; they have become realms of new social practices in which people always accustomed to living alone and to considering their difficulties as individual issues have discovered collective values such as solidarity, mutual help and fraternity, what Jacques Rancière would call “le partage du sensible”. They have discovered a feeling of community against individualism. And this is the key for self-emancipation.

Until now, in France, the main alternative to neoliberalism was conservative, nationalist and post-fascist populism. Today, the Yellow Vests sketch a different exit, based on social equality and horizontal democracy. They are experiencing new forms of agency and new practices of collective deliberation that involve ordinary people with their intelligence and creativity but also their naivety and prejudices. A sign of this ambiguity is when they pretend to be an “antipolitical” movement, a statement with multiple and contradictory meanings. A self-organized movement deprived of any tradition and historical memory learns from its experience and its own mistakes; it does not accept lessons from outside and has its own times of apprenticeship. Unfortunately, I am not sure they have much time.