Last weekend, 50,000 people flooded the streets of France for the first protest of 2019 organized by the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes. This protest is a continuation of a national movement for economic justice that has shaken the country since November. While mainstream French and international media have largely characterized the yellow vests as violent troublemakers, many people throughout France see the movement as a long-needed popular uprising against a deeply unjust political and economic system.
Videos on social media depict these protesters in a different light: giving hugs and handshakes to police officers on New Year’s Eve, turning demonstrations into parties, and dancing cheek-to-cheek as the police forcibly evict a protest camp. These scenes paint a different picture of the yellow vests as a largely nonviolent grassroots movement.
As with many decentralized and less structured movements, the yellow vest movement has attracted a diverse cross-section of French society, from the far-left to the far-right and from high school students to pensioners. While the movement has unleashed a tidal wave of discontent and anger throughout France, it also has the potential to re-invent French politics as a participatory process, putting ordinary citizens back in control.
Before growing into a wider movement with multiple demands, the yellow vest protests were first sparked into action in November when the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced a tax hike on fuel. Although Macron justified the tax as an environmental necessity, his environmental credentials have long been debunked. Critics were quick to point out that Macron’s move would disproportionately hurt the rural poor, while his other reforms slash taxes for the rich. People in small towns and villages have seen significant curtailing of public transport over the past few decades, and the car has become a central part of life. Coupled with stagnant wages, welfare cuts and higher taxes, a fuel tax increase just felt like one too many burdens to carry.
“The yellow vests are people who are demonstrating for the first time, people who don’t vote anymore,” said Paris-based organizer Tina de Sansonetti. “They struggle, feel excluded both politically and economically, invisible to the governing elite. They fight for equality, social justice and dignity.”
While the tax increase may have been the trigger, the movement is building on the mobilizations that labor unions and opposition parties have led since the beginning of the Macron presidency in 2017. Many of Macron’s reforms were met with mass protests, alienating large parts of French society that are now either actively joining the movement or supporting from the sidelines.
Pensioners, hit particularly hard by a tax increase in October 2017, are one such group. High-schoolers are another. They fought against an obscure law that may reduce access to public universities. Meanwhile, labor unions have struggled with the privatization of the state-owned rail operator, and large swaths of the workforce have objected to a reform making it easier to hire and fire employees without the increased welfare benefits Macron had previously promised.
To make matters worse, almost all French citizens have been affected by a sweeping tax reform that has much in common with Donald Trump’s tax cut for corporations and the very wealthy. These reforms, when taken alongside Macron’s verbal attacks on the working class, have earned the president — a former investment banker — the nickname of “president of the rich.”
This is why the yellow vest movement cannot be viewed as a spontaneous phenomenon. Instead, it is the result of years of protest, frustration and mobilization. When the first call went out on Facebook to block roads on Nov. 17, it brought out over 280,000 protesters from all walks of life. Over time, these protests have morphed into a genuine movement, while still remaining decentralized — something that’s rather unprecedented for France, where protests and direct actions are almost exclusively led by labor unions and political parties.
“This is what is unique about our movement,” de Sansonetti said. “[We’re seeing] a horizontality we haven’t experienced before in France.”
While many online groups are coordinating local actions — principally on Facebook — no central decision-making structure has emerged, nor are there any formal spokespeople. The movement has rejected any affiliation to political parties or labor unions, and activists react forcefully to any group that tries to speak on their behalf or use the movement for political gains.
This undoubtedly presents challenges. Anyone who is wearing a yellow vest is seen as representing the movement, and their actions — from looting, violence, to sexist or bigoted slogans — can distort the movement’s core message and demands. When such events surface, many activists are quick to condemn them on social media, but this has typically failed to reach the mainstream media and broader public.
Despite these issues, a clear political line has emerged — one with a set of demands primarily focusing on economic justice. This includes establishing a more progressive income tax and making large corporations like Google, Amazon and Carrefour pay their fair share of taxes, while supporting small businesses. But many demands also call for an end to the continuous gutting of public services: ending the closure of bus and train lines, schools, maternity wards, post offices, and re-nationalizing recently privatized public services like gas and electricity.
Other demands center on wider social issues, like smaller classrooms from pre-K to high school, support for mental healthcare and ecological measures. And while some demands fall on the right side of the political spectrum — such as “immigrants must learn French and French history” and “rejected asylum-seekers must be sent home” — a major survey by Le Monde found that the movement’s demands are generally in line with what the far left proposed during the 2017 presidential elections. It is remarkable, then, that the movement managed to remain so independent from political parties, both in practice and in the public eye.
“I’m in awe of the yellow vests,” said Etienne Lascaux, a movement supporter from Bordeaux who has not joined any actions but agrees with the movement’s demands. “The movement brought together a part of the population that was silent. They are not particularly active citizens, many don’t vote. But they came together at the roundabouts — across religions, across generations — with incredible popular support.” Despite getting stuck at one of the blockaded roundabouts, Lascaux described the outpouring of public support and horn-honking as “like the World Cup.”
At the tactical level, the yellow vests are facing challenges specific to any decentralized movement. Like others before them, the yellow vests have been over-reliant on high-stakes tactics of occupation, road blockades and street demonstrations. These are inherently difficult to sustain — not to mention that they are both time and energy intensive. They also require participants to put their bodies on the line, which — much like the occasional violence — turns away many potential participants.
That being said, the yellow vests are starting to focus more on symbolic targets in line with the movement’s grievances. Whereas before they might have simply disrupted traffic to make their presence known, they are now doing things like occupying highway toll stations to let motorists through without paying. Such an action is a direct hit on the widely-decried privatization of French public infrastructure and highways in particular. In other cases, the yellow vests have blocked access to shops from large chains like Auchan and Carrefour, which have decimated the country’s family-owned businesses. While this type of targeted and symbolic action exposes those corporations’ role in increasing inequality, it often fails to gain national attention and can alienate potential supporters.
In order to sustain pressure on the government and activate its still large numbers of supporters, the yellow vests will have to further diversify their tactics. Low-commitment actions would provide avenues for supporters to get involved in meaningful ways without having to sacrifice much. There are many such options — from boycotts of tax-dodging corporations to the beating pots and pans as a sign of support for the movement. But the best options are typically the result of an intentional search for what will appeal most to the wider public.
The need for more diverse tactics is particularly important given the fact that the movement’s political gains have been fairly minor, although these signal the potential for further victories. On Dec. 4, after just three weeks of protests, the government announced that it would suspend the fuel tax increase. Then, in the face of more public outrage, it cancelled the tax altogether the following day. When the protests continued, Macron announced an increased minimum wage, reduced taxes on pensioners and other measures to support the working class. Many criticized these announcements as disingenuous, claiming that Macron was only trying to appease the movement rather than address the root causes of popular dissatisfaction.
In some ways, these measures backfired, bringing new groups like school teachers into the movement. According to de Sansonetti, “That’s when the movement realized the government wasn’t going to address our core grievances, and that we needed to find ways to engage directly with political institutions.”
This realization led to the emergence of what has since become the single most vocal and consistent demand of the movement: a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum. The RIC, as it is known, is a direct democracy mechanism that would make a referendum mandatory in France if a petition reaches a certain number of signatures. It is seen as a way for average citizens to regain some control over the political process and take back French democracy from a political elite widely seen as corrupt, unresponsive and unaccountable. Citizens would be able to bring forward issues ignored by their representatives and force the parliament to address them, or even require the government to repeal unpopular reforms.
The RIC is more than a simple political demand; it shows the yellow vest movement’s ability to evolve in pragmatic and creative ways. What is perhaps most unique about the French movement is its participatory nature, placing it well in line with the Occupy movement in the United States and the Indignados in Spain. For the yellow vests, each action — whether a street demonstration, road blockade or occupation — becomes an opportunity for citizens to mingle, exchange, discuss ideas and re-imagine the kind of society and politics they wish to create. Actions are planned collaboratively and decisions are made in local assemblies. The yellow vests are not just advocating for direct democracy, they are living it.
In December, the yellow vests of Commercy, a town of 6,000 people in northeastern France, called on the yellow vests to build local assemblies everywhere and to join forces in a “national union of all local popular committees.” On Sunday, the Toulouse assembly, like others around the country, voted to take part in the national union. The assembly also voted to join a day of action, on Jan. 13, to paralyze the entire French economy by blocking trucks.
Whatever happens on Jan. 13 and in the following weeks, the movement has already had a major impact on French society and politics. Similar to how the Occupy movement triggered a national conversation on inequality and financial excesses in the United States, the French gilets jaunes are forcing the country to reckon with the impact that government austerity has had on the working class. They are forcing France’s political elite to acknowledge huge swaths of the population that they have long ignored. And they are re-imagining what French democracy could look like: more egalitarian and participatory.
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