16 November 2019 marked the one-year anniversary of the gilets jaunes movement. Here, Cyril Ernst shares his reflections on the state of the movement, the participants that shaped its politics, and the lessons learned for the future.
For the one-year anniversary of the beginning of their movement, thousands of ‘yellow vests’, or ‘Gilets Jaunes’ in French, gathered in Paris and other French cities last Saturday. Over the past few months, they have managed to create a space where the French governmental regime has been discussed and challenged. Unsurprisingly, the ruling class and its media love to hate them. Seemingly, the only acceptable way of mentioning the Gilets Jaunes in the mainstream media is to talk about the ‘grotesque’, ‘absurd’ violence and the supposed lack of education of the protesters, who were called ‘the hateful crowd’ by President Macron during his New Year’s speech.
Last Saturday was no exception, with the media giving the protestors almost no voice – outside the actual streets and roundabouts they occupy – and instead only focusing on the violence. However, the police violence is passed over in silence – in the square where I spent a large part of the demonstration, one protestor was shot with a police projectile and lost an eye as a result. All this while he was simply chatting with friends. An independent journalist had his face injured by a TNT grenade despite his protection mask.
This repression is nothing new and has been normalised. From November 2018 to June 2019, two people died as a result of police violence, 25 have lost an eye, five lost a hand and 316 were wounded in the head. In early March 2019, 13,905 potentially deadly rubber bullets had been shot in total. Despite these tactics of terror, along with the fact that more than 10,000 people were held in custody and 3,000 were found guilty of crimes, the protestors are still standing.
Going to these protests – almost all of which are considered ‘illegal’ – means accepting significant risks. It’s no wonder that fewer gilets jaunes are turning out, gathering ‘only’ a few thousand across France for their one-year anniversary action. Sparked by a new tax on fuel in November 2018, the yellow vests initially enjoyed the support of the more advanced neoliberal editorialists. They were quick to apologise to their audience however, when they realised that they were not the deregulation protesters they first fantasised about. Indeed, the snowball quickly incorporated a range of grievances generated by a government whose policies are popularly hated, but supported by 98% of the French bosses, according to a recent opinion poll. Regional and national flags, yellow vests sometimes marked with people’s personal message to Mr Macron, Gaulish costumes and black blocks would cohabit in protest while often chanting ‘anti, anti-capitalist!’ The regime could never have anticipated this strange mix.
A significant proportion of gilets jaunes don’t identify with the left or the right and they often don’t vote. The typical gilet jaune lives in suburban or rural areas, is precarious and doesn’t have much formal education. For nearly half of them, it is the first time they have been involved in a social movement. Moreover, women play an important role. Often, they are left to struggle and told to shut up. Not this time. During public debates, protests and on the occupied roundabouts, one could hear various ideas and opinions. The need for more money to live a decent life and have access to leisure opportunities, as well as the denunciation of social inequalities and fiscal injustice have been common to all the protests.
These claims naturally led to more institutional demands and conceptual thinking. That’s how the RIC (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) made its way into the main gilet jaune political proposals as a framework for the direct democracy required to address the issues. The RIC is a way of governing where people would create and remove laws, remove elected people when needed, change the constitution, approve treaties – all by referendums. Suddenly, capitalism, institutions or globalization found themselves assessed, discussed and challenged, and what is worse – it was being done by people who are not allowed to speak up – turning the Gilets Jaunes movement into something even more dangerous than a mere riot.
Too diverse to create a political party and too clever to put their hands into honey traps like the so-called ‘national debate’ prompted by the government, they were problematic to the powerful. Extremely popular – and apparently still backed by a majority in France at the moment I’m writing – the gilets jaunes gathered several times in Paris to get rid of Mr Macron, who arrogantly declared publicly ‘qu’ils viennent me chercher’ (‘they can come get me’). In December 2018, the former banker was protected by thousands of policemen and special forces in Paris and around his Élysée palace, where a helicopter was ready to take off and help him flee in case of emergency. After months and months of direct action, protests, blockades, rallies and leafleting, in the makeshift wooden cabins near the roundabouts and motorway tolls of Lorraine (a post-industrial region in the east of France) some gilets jaunes are exhausted.
Their fight may have reached a tactical dead-end: they won’t win in the streets, at least not this time. However, the longevity of the movement has been stunning. They have learned a lot and from scratch by taking part in what is the most intense social movement in decades. In the struggle thousands have also regained pride and a sense of solidarity, which they felt had been taken away from them.
Though the Gilets Jaunes may be at a dead-end, the crisis of the French state is not going away, and we can hope that the advance of a new social movement (like the Nuit Debout movement in 2016) could offer the possibility for gilets jaunes to coordinate with the urban educated workers. This month, a student immolated himself in Lyon in front of the public administration for students, explaining on a written note that precarity and poverty made his life unbearable. A vast wave of strikes has been going on in hospitals for 8 months now, with the same being seen with teachers and Parisian transport workers earlier this year. The regime is now looking to bite chunks off the retirement system. Its supreme arrogance and relentless application of a Thatcherite agenda is a powerful catalyst for any future social movement. An important strike has been announced by the unions on 5 December. The same unions which were noticeably absent during the Gilets Jaunes movement will receive the support of what remains of them. Too late perhaps, or will it light the fire again?