Happy Birthday, Gilets Jaunes

Today marks one year since yellow-vested protesters first occupied roundabouts and intersections across France. The movement has given a voice to parts of society that usually go ignored — and the newfound spirit of revolt is continuing to shake Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Gilets jaunes protesters chant against President Macron at the Fontaine des Innocents during the second day of protests to mark the first anniversary of the movement, on November 17, 2019 in Paris, France. (Kiran Ridley / Getty Images)

There was general surprise, back on November 17 last year, when more than three hundred thousand protesters wearing yellow vests seized hold of roads and roundabouts around France. At first, what galvanized them was a single demand — opposition to a planned fuel tax hike. Yet this was just the first day of a spectacular outpouring of popular anger which gripped France over several months. Just weeks into the protests, President Emmanuel Macron scrapped the planned tax rise that had first triggered the revolt. Yet the movement’s determination only intensified, as it developed a wider platform of demands. It forcefully brought questions of fiscal, social, and environmental justice onto the political and media agenda, while also insisting on the need for strengthened popular participation in democratic life itself.

Given this movement’s surprising origins — outside the traditional party or labor movement structures — much ink has been spilled trying to define the gilets jaunes’ real nature. These sharp debates involved not only journalists or social scientists but also the activists involved. Indeed, this free-form movement evaded traditional forms of representation and never allowed itself to be recuperated by the opposition parties — whether on the left or the right. Yet precisely given the strengthening of a liberal/far-right binary in France’s electoral politics — with successes for both Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Emmanuel Macron in May’s European elections — over time the gilets jaunes have gradually faded from the headlines.

This does not mean the movement is over — indeed, this weekend marks a special “53rd act” to mark its first anniversary. The anger that drove the movement’s initial emergence has not gone away — indeed, it may even be sharpening, along with the inequalities that the movement has so powerfully denounced. Just as the gilets jaunes’ own demands widened from the issue of fuel tax to embrace other issues of social and climate justice, in recent months we have also seen this spirit of revolt spreading out across ever more varied parts of the population. Still protesting and still developing its structures, the gilets jaunes movement is still working now to put politics back in the people’s hands.

Unsatisfied Demands

The mobilizations across France on the November 16–17 “anniversary weekend” were called in order to show that the movement is still alive, insisting that its revolt will rise again. This “acte anniversaire,” of undeniable symbolic importance, will also help us judge the movement’s ongoing vivacity. The ambition of gilets jaunes from around France, for this weekend, was to make their return to Paris’s famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Not only the supreme emblem of luxury in France — and of the inequalities between the rich and poor so ceaselessly denounced by the movement — this thoroughfare was in the last year the theater of the most spectacular scenes of popular revolt and repression that France has seen for decades.

The protesters have every reason still to be angry — and to attack inequalities that have not abated. Indeed, from the outset their movement has enjoyed historically high levels of public support. Polls in November 2018 indicated 80 percent of French people backed the protesters, and despite the meager tax-related concessions announced by Macron last December, into spring 2019 the movement maintained 50 to 60 percent popular support.

Despite the president’s bid to respond to the gilets jaunes by calling a state-organized “great debate,” in which he staged meetings around France, the government did anything but listen to the movement. Far from reestablish the tax on large fortunes as the gilets jaunes had demanded, the government instead pushed ahead with tax changes which benefit only the wealthiest, from CICE (tax relief for businesses, gifting them €20 billion a year) to the rebate of the “exit tax” previously applied to those taking their money out of France.

This also makes up part of a wider context in which social spending is being further cut and the government plans to privatize many public companies, notwithstanding the good health they are in. These range from the Paris airports authority to the state gambling monopoly and the ENGIE energy group — but so, too, a public hospital which is now to be privatized, in a historic first for France.

Indeed, if the protests expressed the anger of people not usually heard in French public life, making their impact through spectacular actions, their effect on institutional politics has been only indirect. Macron dismissed the gilets jaunes’ call for Citizen-Initiative Referendums (RIC), and he has shown no intention of deviating from the neoliberal agenda which the gilets jaunes themselves did much to bring into relief. Rather, ever since the creation of Macron’s vehicle a few months before the 2017 French presidential election — a managerialist project uniting the establishment center-left and center-right — it has continued to veer to the right.

This was clearly visible in May’s European elections. After siphoning off the center-left electorate in the 2017 presidential contest, the president and his minions have worked consistently to seduce the Republicans’ traditional right-wing, neoliberal, and conservative electorate. Some voters for the centrist “left,” in particular young, urban, highly educated professionals, have turned back to the Greens and the Socialist Party. Yet the opposition parties who hoped to reap the fruits of the gilets jaunes revolt have not managed to do so: while it came first in the European elections, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National only scored what surveys had predicted already before the movement began, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise slumped to just 6.3 percent support.

Everything suggests that the president’s party is happy to plow on in this direction: its focus on putting questions of immigration, the veil, and Islamist terrorism at the center of debate is clearly aimed at continuing to drain off the right-wing and far-right electorate. With remarkable cunning, last month Macron managed to pass his unemployment insurance bill under the media radar, as he instead foregrounded a National Assembly debate on migration. Imitating the hard and far right, the liberal president talks of quotas on the foreign workforce, limiting the number of asylum seekers and cutting services for them, mounting a fight against “excessive” use of state medical aid, and toughening expulsions measures.

Macron showed no embarrassment in presenting all this as part of the “great debate,” which he had launched as a supposed sop to the gilets jaunes movement. In truth, this debate was nothing but a campaign for the president himself, disregarding the rules of impartiality and transparency that would normally govern this kind of public debate in France. In reality, migration was an utterly marginal question on the protests at roundabouts across France, and polls show that it is not one of the public’s main concerns. But with this Macron manipulated the gilets jaunes in order to bid for the electorate of his main rival — the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

With the government proving willfully deaf to the movement’s real demands, replacing them with its own preferred themes of debate, over recent months most gilets jaunes did end up going back home. Indeed, they had good reason to do so. The natural loss of steam owing to the movement’s sheer longevity may not have been enough to discourage activists. But there was something else to pick up the slack — namely, the spectacular violence of the police and judicial repression deployed against them.

There were two deaths, while twenty-four people lost one or both eyes, five had a hand torn off, and several thousand others were wounded. Add to this the more than twelve thousand arrests and three thousand convictions — with over one thousand jailed. That’s not to mention the less visible but nonetheless dogged repression of the roundabouts and DIY meeting spaces around France, green shoots of debate and democracy repeatedly cleared out by the armed wing of the state.

Never has a contemporary social movement in France faced such violent repression. But there were other attacks, too. In particular, the media’s persistence in stigmatizing the movement — denounced, in turn, as homophobic, racist, antisemitic, fascistic, or violent — sought to “finish the job” of breaking the gilets jaunes.

Yellow in the Air

By summer 2019 the number of gilets jaunes taking to the streets across France every Saturday had fallen into the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. But this doesn’t mean the movement is ancient history.

This firstly owes to the fact that the movement continues to build its structures. If in an initial phase of mobilization the absence of a defined, coordinated organization may have been an advantage for the gilets jaunes — making their movement difficult to grasp, but also hard to recuperate and control — the limits of this fluidity very soon made themselves felt. In December 2018 part of the movement thus began a process of organization from below, responding to the appeal of a roundabout protest in the small town of Commercy. This process was built on a network of gilets jaunes assemblies, which gradually extended across the whole of mainland France. Several “assemblies of assemblies” were then organized, bringing together delegations from each of the roundabouts that identified with this approach. The presence — and influence — of left-wing activists was palpable here.

The fourth of these assemblies of gilets jaunes assemblies took place in Montpellier on November 2–3. At least six hundred people took part in two days of debate and collective work, ending in a plenary meeting that voted on the various appeals resulting from the working groups. After the debate, two appeals were voted through and then sent to local assemblies for ratification: one was a call to the general population to blockade France on November 16­–17, on the movement’s anniversary, while the other called for the generalization and radicalization of the social mobilization against Macron’s pension reform, adding to the calls many trade unions have made for a series of actions starting on December 5. The plenary also backed a call to “dedicate” the anniversary to all revolts for social justice, climate justice, and democracy around the world.

The gilets jaunes also have a continued presence in public debate, with many of the media “figures” (if not “leaders”) that emerged during the movement still making their mark. In late October several renowned gilets jaunes including Priscillia Ludosky (the only black person among the gilets jaunes’ leaders — she began the petition, signed by over a million people, at the movement’s origin) and Jérôme Rodrigues (a plumber, and one of the protesters blinded in one eye) sent a letter to President Macron asking for a meeting before November 16. They wanted to discuss the downward spiral in policing and the application of the law, and to hand the president the manifesto for the “real debate” (as opposed to his own “great debate”).

This latter is an online tool for participatory democracy and has allowed the gilets jaunes to establish a platform of demands. Following a consultation process involving more than forty-five thousand people, this platform is made up of the most-voted fifty-nine proposals (among over twenty-five thousand). These activists’ request for a meeting with Macron remained a dead letter, but the figures behind it have now launched a new project to establish a federation among the gilets jaunes, a “citizens’ lobby” at both the local and national scales.

This is not the only such initiative. Another prominent one is that promoted by François Boulo, a young lawyer who is the spokesman for several roundabouts in Rouen. He is currently touring TV studios to present “The Yellow Line,” a short manifesto he has published in order to “restore the movement’s image among the general citizenry.” He has also launched another, similarly named tool for participatory democracy, with the aim to establish structures for the movement from the local to the national levels, share information and resources, promote mutual aid, and drive popular education. The aim is to provide tools of direct democracy which will allow the development of Citizen-Initiative Referendums. The platform claims some twenty-seven thousand participants. Another “star” of the gilets jaunes — Maxime Nicolle, alias “Fly Rider” — has launched himself into a career in journalism with new independent radical-left media outlet Quartier Général.

In short, movement “figures” haven’t said their last word. While the movement continues to reject the idea that it can be represented by leaders — instead foregrounding horizontalism and direct participation — it is doubtless developing greater structure. The roundabouts and DIY meeting spaces have mostly been cleared out, but the anniversary weekend could well see the gilets jaunes winning back ground.

Moreover, we should not underestimate the movement’s main strength — citizens’ rediscovery of the collective, of the political, and the return of debate. Thousands of hitherto isolated people have been able to speak for themselves and engage in mutual aid and solidarity. Over the last year, the roundabouts and DIY shelters have been real laboratories of popular education and democracy, allowing the rediscovery of a forgotten value of the French republican motto — the principle of fraternité, retying the social bond. In short, over the last year the gilets jaunes have reinvented politics — in what is likely to be an enduring way.

Indeed, the final reason the gilets jaunes aren’t about to disappear is that popular discontent is continuing to simmer. This should be no surprise. A recent study by statistics agency Insee shows that inequalities are on the rise in France in 2019, with 14.7 percent of the population now hit by poverty — 9.3 million people, half a million up on last year. The study shows that the rise in inequality especially owes to the sharp increase in types of income like shareholders’ dividends (up around 60 percent) — mainly profiting the very wealthiest households. The introduction of a flat tax (one not staggered by income) has strengthened this redistribution of income toward the richest, to big business and private investment funds.

But there’s also data showing the strength of feeling this situation inspires. Another recent study showed that 76 percent of French people think the gilets jaunes protests could take off again, for the population’s concerns have not changed — or been answered. Moreover, most of those polled agreed that the movement had played a positive role in increasing the purchasing power of the poorest and in strengthening democracy and debate. In other words, the ferment of social revolt is still with us.

Coming General Strike

Since November 17, 2018, hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed a political awakening. Most of them had never demonstrated before — but now, they understood that they were not alone, and concretely felt the power they had when they acted collectively. Most of these people did, indeed, end up going home. But they would not get to sleep again so easily, especially after being so brutally confronted with state violence.

This was, indeed, no flash in the pan. Like popular revolts around the world, France’s long “yellow” movement expresses a popular anger and a deep political crisis characteristic of the present historical period. This social crisis is set to last, for it has to do not only with worsening austerity and inequality but also with climate crisis and the crisis of democracy linked to the hollowing out of popular sovereignty. These three dimensions, closely bound to the current neoliberal phase of global capitalism, have been at the core of the gilets jaunes movement, just as they are at the heart of the popular revolts — whatever their specificities — from Chile to Ecuador, Haiti, Barcelona, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt.

The question, then, is less whether France will catch fire again, but rather of when and how. There have already been major signs of popular discontent in recent months, from the strikes in France’s emergency rooms to the unprecedentedly large firefighters’ strike, the rise of a more confrontational ecologist movement, the mobilizations against education reforms, and the recent rail stoppages. From hospital staff to service users, from women fighting sexist violence to young people resisting the destruction of their and the planet’s future, it seems that people wearing many different colored gilets are starting to mix together.

There is, however, also a coming point of intersection that can join together many different fronts. In opposition to the government’s planned assault on the pension system, several trade union and youth organizations have called a general strike to begin on December 5, which is to be open-ended in certain sectors. Workers on the Paris metro, railworkers, truck drivers, and airport staff have already announced that they will walk out — and the gilets jaunes have declared that they will be out protesting, too, in mass numbers. It seems Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future may join in as well.

This is also an important date for the parties of the French left, however weakened and introspective they are following their debacle in May’s European elections. Indeed, the various formations have begun talks with a view to next March’s municipal contests. Some of these parties have tried to draw lessons from the gilets jaunes movement, announcing that they will throw themselves behind local municipal campaigns rather than try and imagine uniting the Left behind a single individual. However, it remains to be seen whether the gilets jaunes themselves will want to follow down the path of traditional institutional representation.

After a year of social conflict, the government has announced that the Interior Ministry’s budget is due to go up 4 percent next year, having already risen 3.4 percent this year. And even while Macron’s “pensions reform” will decimate the pensions of the majority, the government has announced that the policemen’s pension system will be unaffected. Unable to build a popular majority behind its project of neoliberal reforms, the authorities have no solutions other than to deploy a constant show of excessive force. Harshening the terms of democracy, such moves are only intensifying the climate of social conflict in France. So happy birthday, gilets jaunes. It’s time to take out our gas masks once again.