A Season of Discontent

Three months since the gilets jaunes protesters first blockaded roads around France, the movement has created a crisis in Emmanuel Macron’s presidency — and one that’s due to last.

Clashes between the police and the Yellow Vests at Opera, on December 15, 2018 in Paris, France. Veronique de Viguerie / Getty

Three months since the start of the gilets jaunes movement, everyone can agree that France is going through a decisive moment in its history. Despite the tireless efforts to repress, slander, and belittle the movement — and we have been told that it is on the brink of collapse ever since November — the yellow-vested protesters are still with us.

Every Saturday for fourteen weeks they have taken to the streets of towns around France in their tens of thousands. They have continued to occupy roundabouts and parking lots and to blockade malls, toll stations, and logistics hubs. They have organized assemblies and flooded social media and the press from all sides. And they don’t seem to want to stop there.

From the start there were the incredulous and the skeptical, irritated to see these “hicks” from la France profonde rebel against the rise in the fuel price or hostile to a “petty bourgeois” uprising supposedly directed by the far right. Today, they have been forced to recognize that the gilets jaunes movement has proven much more complex — and surprising — than it had first appeared.

Even three months since the first demonstrations, it is hard to tell exactly what trace this remarkable popular uprising will leave on French history. The neoliberal “center” and the far right will certainly try to take advantage, for their own purposes. But the gilets jaunes have also achieved a great deal already. Highlighting the dangers of Macron’s neoliberal utopia and attracting international attention to the scale of police violence, they have also opened up a historic possibility of change. They have built a popular movement based not on nationalism and a racist agenda on immigration, but new vision of democracy and solidarity.

A Violent Response

The least we can say is that the gilets jaunes have had no favors from Emmanuel Macron and his government. There have, of course, been formal concessions: in December, faced with the size of the movement, the government was forced to give up (for the time being) on its planned fuel tax hike, and indeed announce a clutch of measures designed to calm the storm. And compared to what the numerous social movements in the last ten years of French history have managed to win — i.e., nothing — we might think the gilets jaunes had chalked up a victory.

But it didn’t take protesters long to realize that the measures announced by the government (increasing the minimum wage by €100 a month, albeit to the cost of taxpayers and not employers; tax exemption for overtime; making employers pay an end-of-year bonus to their employees; cancellation of the CSG tax for pensioners who receive less than €2,000 a month) were just sand thrown in their eyes. These “crumbs” from the table fell far short of the movement’s demands for social and fiscal justice, wealth redistribution and a more direct democracy.

At the same time, the gilets jaunes movement has been confronted with a violence that has not been seen in France since at least 1968. Since November around 80,000 policemen, gendarmes, and members of special units have mobilized in order to “keep check of” the demonstrations across France.

Through the course of the protests tens of thousands of tear gas grenades and “flashballs” have been fired at demonstrators. One cannot stress enough how widely, and how abusively, these supposedly “non-lethal” weapons are used by police. The Interior Ministry’s own figures speak for themselves: so far at least ten people have died (one was directly killed by the “forces of order”), 2,100 have been wounded, 8,700 have been arrested, and 1,796 sentenced. And there have been 243 official complaints to the IGPN (police control board). Police violence has also struck at the most vulnerable, as well as street medics, journalists, photographers, and high school students, earning condemnation even from Amnesty International.

Despite these very serious incidents, Macron and his cronies seems to be digging their heels in. Far from questioning the social and economic policies that have stoked this popular anger, the government is betting on casting aspersions on the movement’s credibility, dehumanizing its participants and restoring order by force. The president, the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and members of Macron’s party constantly speak of “hooligans,” “thugs,” and “troublemakers,” presenting the demonstrators as a hateful, xenophobic, and fascistic mob. Castaner’s dogged refusal to acknowledge police violence is stunning. Last month, as he called on French people not to demonstrate, he threatened: “those who demonstrate where the expected hooliganism is going on know that they are themselves complicit in it.”

But perhaps this is the gilets jaunes’ greatest success: for in recent weeks state violence has itself become a separate subject of discussion in French public life. After two months of dismal silence on the police violence against demonstrators, the media — which had up till that point only been interested in the violence perpetrated by “hooligans” — were forced to wake up. It now seems long since the days of the Benalla Affair, in which the public and the media seemed agitated not so much by the fact that Macron bodyguard beat up protesters, unleashing his fury against a man on the ground who had clearly been restrained, as by the fact he did this despite not being a policeman. For the first time, on radio and TV we hear intellectuals refusing to condemn protester violence and trying to explain it in terms of the social and economic violence that public policy has imposed on the population, as well as the forces of order’s own violent strategy. For the first time, the government is not succeeding in instrumentalizing violence to discredit the movement; rather, its own violence is helping to amplify the protesters’ message.

The gilets jaunes’ mobilizations against police violence and in support of its victims have had real effect. Hundreds of witness accounts, photos, and videos of wounded gilets jaunes circulated on social media even when the media were only interested in showing “hooligan” violence. In December, a video showing over a hundred high-schoolers in the Parisian suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie on their knees, hands on their heads, surrounded by police in riot gear, went viral on the gilets jaunes’ social media. The pose these teenagers were forced to adopt was picked up by the gilets jaunes, who made it one of the most photogenic symbols of their own protests. Women involved in the movement have been especially active in marching to denounce police violence. Several mobilizations like the movement’s “Act XII” — in which the procession through Paris was headed by those wounded in earlier weeks — achieved great media success. To break this silence was also to lift the veil on a violence that has been perpetrated for decades against oppositional movements and especially the populations of France’s poor, working-class and minority-ethnic neighborhoods. And it thus opens the way to a convergence between the gilets jaunes’ struggles and those of the urban poor and existing activist circles.

The Authoritarian Slide and Neoliberalism’s Crisis

Indeed, all this makes up part of the wider picture of an authoritarian slide under Macron’s government. This authoritarianism first targets anyone who fights against the powers-that-be. Anyone who has participated in the various “Actes” staged by the gilets jaunes knows it: you can no longer demonstrate in France without risking getting hurt, or worse. The police have even started systematically confiscating the masks, glasses, and serums indispensable for protesters faced with volleys of tear gas. The freedom to demonstrate is itself increasingly under threat, as it has been since the state of emergency was introduced in the wake of the November 2015 terror attacks.

Added to the police violence is the repression through the courts. Even jurists and legal scholars have expressed their growing worries over this turn. And with good reason: for the number of gilets jaunes arrested around the edges of the demonstrations for “preventative” reasons, as well as the number of demonstrators sentenced to jail time — sometimes just for Facebook messages — is truly stunning.

Press outlets have recently revealed that magistrates from the Paris public prosecutors’ office have received fresh instructions for police conduct when gilets jaunes are arrested. These measures involve the systematic creation of records on protesters and the abusive use of custody. The repeated judicial intimidation against certain figures from the movement who have become its symbols in the media — for instance, Eric Drouet, arrested several times in recent months — only aggravate this situation and intensify the popular outrage. Julien Coupat, a famous Situationist activist was detained for almost forty-eight hours because he had a yellow vest in his car (which is in fact compulsory) as well as paint-bombs and a builder’s mask. Meanwhile the 133 investigations opened up by police complaints board IGPN have little chance of leading to convictions.

The “anti-hooligan law” inspired by Castaner and supported by Macron’s LREM party and the conservative right was adopted by a large parliamentary majority upon its first reading on February 5. It promises to aggravate this situation. The law’s supporters say it wants to prevent violent actions on demonstrations and punish whoever commits them. Its authoritarian effects include the bolstering of police prefects’ power over that of judges, the creation of new special records on protesters, the extension of preemptive demonstration bans, the creation of a crime of hiding one’s face, as well as a presumptive offense of participation in a demonstration expected to lead to the damaging of goods or violence against individuals.

Like the “fake news” bill restricting the freedom of the press, the asylum and immigration bill which imposes harsher rules on the most vulnerable, a law designed to keep journalists’ noses out of business secrets, and the incorporation of the state of emergency into ordinary law, this latest text well illustrates Macron’s authoritarian slide. For other examples of this, we could look to such moves as the instructions for hospital staff to report the names of injured gilets jaunes (and even for a crowdfunding site to reveal who had contributed to the expenses of one protester filmed punching a policeman). Or, at a different register, the police raids on the offices of France Insoumise in November and, in more recent weeks, the left-wing news site Mediapart, following its revelations about disgraced Macron aide Alexandre Benalla and his dealings with Putin allies, Mafiosi, and Russian oligarchs. In that case the website’s staff resisted the raid, defending the secrecy of their sources and in turn winning support from other press outlets.

How can we explain this authoritarian shift, and the government’s dogged determination to “hold course” — even if this requires a repression more violent than any other in the history of the Fifth Republic founded some six decades ago? Why such a categorical refusal to take on board the gilets jaunes’ social, fiscal, and democratic demands? Even General de Gaulle, architect of this republic of often-monarchic hues, decided to resign after May ’68 and his disavowal by the French people in the referendum the following year. If Macron holds firm, stubbornly refusing to budge, it is because he in fact embodies neoliberal ideology better than any of his predecessors did.

The philosopher Barbara Stiegler recently reminded us that the “new” bit in the “neoliberalism” that has spread around the world in recent decades is that it is no longer content with laissez faire in the manner of classical liberalism. Rather, it seeks to impose a direction that society must follow; namely, a world led by the global market. The neoliberal utopia likes to imagine a world in which there prevail not brutal and predatory relations in which the biggest devour the smallest, but rather the refereeing of a fair competition in which everyone has equal opportunities to do to the best of their ability and show off their talents. Stiegler tells us that for the neoliberals this condition is the end of history, indeed the ultimate end of the evolution of life itself: an “end-state” that cannot be criticized or discussed. This end-state is the heart of the neoliberal utopia and demands the return of an invasive state which imposes a compulsory agenda on the entire society. The neoliberal state must drive humanity — by will or by force — to adapt to this new and “modern” environment.

This is nothing but a neoliberal “revolution.” Macron in fact outlined this very program during his presidential campaign, with his modestly-titled book Révolution. Here, Macron explained that France was suffering because it had failed to adapt to the “modernity” of the globalized economic order, more specifically because of its political system and institutions that were antiquated and ossified.

Yet today in France as elsewhere the contradictions within neoliberalism — and especially the growing concentration of wealth and the destruction of the environment — are fueling a popular suffering and an anger expressed in the rejection of these policies. This, resistance, in turn, forces the neoliberal powers-that-be to show their authoritarian nature even further. Faced with the popular uprising that has shaken France since the first blockades on November 17, and unable to recognize the fault-lines in its own doctrine, neoliberalism can only govern by violence.

A Great Debate, or a PR Coup?

In his speech on December 10, Macron announced the organization of a “great national debate,” which would allow all citizens to debate essential questions of national interest. On January 13 the president’s office published his “Letter to the French” in which Macron framed the debate around four “great themes”: taxation and public spending, the organization of the state and public services, the ecological transition, and democracy and citizenship.

The famous great debate began on January 16, and was meant to continue until mid-March, in every region of France. Citizens were invited to express their views via an online platform or else by local assemblies organized by mayors. This initiative was, to say the least, an unusual one. The president’s letter said that “no question would be off-limits,” while also stipulating that there would be no review of recent fiscal measures. There could thus be no question of restoring the Solidarity Tax on Wealth abolished by Macron’s government, even though this demand is at the heart of the gilets jaunes movement. Nor could there be any talk of establishing more progressive taxation by challenging the flat tax or the CICE program of tax cuts and exemptions for business. The only matter up for discussion was the reduction of certain taxes and “making savings,” where the gilets jaunes instead wanted investment in public and social services. Right away, it was clear that the terms of the debate would be set by Macron and members of his government, who would lead the discussions and collect the participants’ ideas before drawing the conclusions of all this the following month.

It didn’t take long for the gilets jaunes to understand that they were being ridiculed once more, and they declared in massive numbers that they would not take part in what they called the “great masquerade.” But since the debate was launched the government’s real intention has become ever-clearer. In fact, Macron was determined to turn the great debate into a PR campaign to insist on the neoliberal “end-state” mentioned above. Three months before the European elections, he is monopolizing media attention, with no sense of balance.

Mediapart has shown how the government has done everything it could to prevent the great debate being subject to the impartiality rules that should in principle apply to any public debate of this type, on the local as well as national level. Indeed, normally such a debate ought to be organized by an independent institution, the Commission nationale du débat public (CNDP), whose role it is to frame the debate in accordance with an ethics charter and democratic rules that are meant to guarantee independence, neuturality, transparency, and equal treatment and rights to speak. In the current “great debate” these principles are being trampled on. This does not as yet seemed to have caused any great stir in the ranks of the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel, whose role it is to regulate candidates’ space in the media, or the Commission des comptes de campagne, even though Macron is using public funds (many millions of euros) for what is effectively his own European election campaign.

Instead, state propaganda monopolizes both public and private media. Fine for Macron: even if he is boycotted by the gilets jaunes, who continue to be supported by a majority of the population (over 64 percent according to recent surveys), the president, who had reached fresh lows of popularity in the early stages of the movement, has now picked up six points, reaching a 34 percent rating. While the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National, formerly known as Front National) is still in the lead in voting intentions for this May’s European elections, this historic act of subterfuge is helping Macron regain strength.

Return of the Collective

All that does not mean that the gilets jaunes movement is done for. On the contrary, they have perhaps never had the wind in their sails as much as they do today. The mobilization has continued to aggregate new elements, from high-schoolers to students and social movements in the suburbs of the big cities, while also consolidating its forces over the weeks and months. While at first the relations between the gilets jaunes and trade unions were testy, union members soon came along to the roundabout protests and many unions showed solidarity, often thanks to the initiative and pressure of grassroots, trade-based or territorial structures. On February 2 a first “general strike” combined with a demonstration that united trade unions (the CGT, Solidaires, and some branches of Force ouvrière) with the gilets jaunes. It was a remarkable success, with more than 300,000 participants. The next national general strike uniting the gilets jaunes and the gilets rouges (“red vests”) has been called for March 19.

Far from Macron’s “great masquerade,” the gilets jaunes have instead organized their own great debate. Over recent weeks the movement has created new structures for itself, including a number of assemblies. This all began in December when a group of gilets jaunes in Commercy, a small town in the Meuse (to the East of Paris) launched two appeals for fellow protestors around France to create “citizens’ and popular” assemblies that could draw up “lists of demands.” They then proposed a national meeting that would bring together delegates from around France, in order to share the demands they had raised. As one appeal put it “Together, let’s create the assembly of assemblies, the Commune of communes. This is the sense of History, and our proposal. Long live power to the people, by the people, for the people!” This call was welcomed enthusiastically by many gilets jaunes across France, and hundreds of assemblies were organized in this cause.

The first “assembly of assemblies” was thus held close to Commercy on January 26–27. More than seventy delegations (most represented by a woman and a man) came from around France to explain their local experiences of struggle and their demands. Over these two days, gilets jaunes from cities like Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Dijon, and Rennes, but also la France profonde — the invisible, peripheral France from which the movement started out — created a genuine laboratory of political education and democracy. This is itself part of the movement, complementing the protests in squares, parking lots and roundabouts, and indeed the social media where ideas have now been exchanged for some three months.

An Age of Solidarity

The results of all this once again belie the accusations that have been advanced in media (and by the government) for months, presenting the gilets jaunes as somehow fascistic. The communiqué from the first assembly of assemblies describes the movement as “Neither racist or sexist or homophobic” but instead “proud to stand together, with our differences, to build a society based on solidarity. We are enriched by the diversity of our discussions, as hundreds of assemblies develop and propose their own demands. The[se demands] have to do with real democracy, with social and tax justice, with work conditions, with environmental and climate justice, with the end of discrimination.” Among the gilets jaunes’ demands and strategic proposals we find such measures as the abolition of poverty, the transformation of institutional life (referendums initiated by citizens, a constituent assembly, the end of elected officials’ privileges), ecological transition (to deal with energy precarity and pollution from industry), and equality for those of all nationalities (including for people with disabilities, between men and women, an end to the abandonment of poor districts, rural France, and overseas territories).

These are today among the issues most prominently raised by the movement. Of course, it is not wholly homogenous. The presence of far-right groups and personalities on the Champs Élysées and other protests ought not be denied or minimized, any more than the racist and homophobic acts that have tarnished some mobilizations. And certainly the media have made a big deal of these incidents. Some figures who have proclaimed themselves “leaders” and who have been boosted by the media, such as Benjamin Cauchy and Christophe Lechevallier, have links with Le Pen’s party or other far-right sects. However, their legitimacy is widely challenged within the movement’s ranks, and far-right activists are regularly chased off the demonstrations.

There are also countless opportunist bids to create a “gilets jaunes party.” Jacline Mouraud, a self-proclaimed “apolitical” figure who received great media exposure at the beginning of the movement, launched her own “Les Émergents” current, though she has in fact taken her distance from the gilets jaunes, which she now considers to have been infiltrated by extremists. Patrick Cribout, a gilet jaune from Nice, has presented a draft list for the European elections baptized the “Union Jaune,” an “apolitical and non-trade union” candidacy with a special focus on questions of immigration and sovereignty. A clutch of gilets jaunes led by another figure with great media exposure, Ingrid Levavasseur, have also decided to create a “gilets jaunes list for the European elections, though on closer inspection we find that some of its candidates have links with Macron’s own LREM party, while others like Christophe Chalençon (who made his name in December as he called on the army to seize power) are highly controversial in movement ranks. Others have fed rows by deciding to meet Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Italian Five Star Movement and vice-premier in a government together with the far-right Lega. Unsurprisingly, Levavasseur ultimately announced that she was breaking with this list, instead seeking to set off “on the right foot” again. In fact, it seems that the large majority of gilets jaunes are opposed to the movement operating as a structured force in the European elections, which would also risk playing into the game of polarization (i.e., between “liberals” and “populists”) favored by Macron.

Faced with these complicated initiatives, the movement’s “insurrectionary wing” — whose most famous spokespersons are Eric Drouet and “Fly Rider” — have continued to oppose it taking on any electoral form. These are the most popular figures among the gilets jaunes, also because they prioritize mass mobilization and the weekly “Actes” (mass protests) in Paris and other big cities. Another gilet jaune — François Boulo, a young lawyer from the West of France — has been touring the radio stations and TV panels in recent days. This son of a small business owner, from a social-Gaullist family, Boulot certainly has a “petty bourgeois” profile, but he has gradually become accepted as spokesman for the gilets jaunes rallied in numerous groups in Rouen. He emphasizes the need for alliance with the trade unions, insisting that paralyzing the economy through strikes is the only way for the movement to succeed. He also stresses the need to challenge the European treaties, and especially their budget balance requirements and the functioning of the European Central Bank. He has attacked the tax reforms implemented by Macron and his predecessors, serving only the 1 percent richest French people to the detriment of public services and small businesses. He advocates the reinstatement of the Solidarity Tax on Wealth and the limitation of CICE tax exemptions program to small firms only.

In this varied landscape, it is difficult to say for sure what will become of the movement. But what we do know for certain is that it has had the great merit of accelerating the discrediting of the neoliberal limits on the possible, bringing questions of social and fiscal justice and citizen participation back into public debate. It has brought mass politicization, articulated counterproposals to the president’s own “debate,” and advanced a different conception of democracy as a vehicle for experimentation and shared education. Redefining society’s collective goals from below, this democratic upsurge stands radically opposed to the authoritarian-neoliberal insistence that popular sovereignty should be delegated to leaders and “experts.”

Today we stand faced with the political failure of the European project and the dominant political currents around the world, themselves mostly champions of the neoliberal utopia. In contrast to these latter, the gilets jaunes movement seems to be one of the only popular movements in recent years not to be built around nationalism and a racist agenda on immigration. For that reason alone, it remains an opportunity we must not let slip by — a historic possibility of change.