Three months on from its birth, the Yellow Vest movement continues to build support and make gains, argues Susan Ram
It is now three months since the movement of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) first erupted on streets, roundabouts, and motorway tollbooths across France, on Saturday 17 November, 2018. The quarter-year mark offers a useful opportunity to assess what the movement has achieved thus far, explore its current standing, and also look ahead to future possibilities. Stocktaking also involves consideration of how the French state is mobilising to crush the Yellow Vests, a blood-soaked process in which civil liberties and core features of the rule of law are being thrown to the wind.
The ability of the Yellow Vest movement to mobilise tens of thousands of protestors, week after week, in bitter winter conditions and throughout the Christmas/new year holiday period, is by any reckoning an extraordinary achievement. Intense, heartfelt defiance appears an emblematic feature of the Yellow Vests: a slow-burning fury, powerful enough to sustain repeated action on the streets, the sacrifice of weekend rest, and exposure to batons, tear gas, water cannon, and lacerating, often crippling injury inflicted by explosive devices illegal elsewhere in Europe.
The sheer doggedness of the Yellow Vests and their refusal to yield in the face of horrific state repression helps explain another achievement of the movement: its retention of very high levels of public support. A YouGov poll published on February 7 found 77 per cent of the sample judging the movement ‘justifiable’, a rise of three percentage points over the figure for January. 64 per cent of those polled declared themselves supporters of the movement, again an increase (+2) over the previous month’s figure.
This high degree of popular support is significant, given constant efforts by the government and mainstream media to characterise the movement as one of ‘violence’ and wanton hooliganism. The authenticity of the Yellow Vests as a grassroots movement, a convergence of multiple popular streams into a force battling austerity, poverty wages, disappearing public services and over-weaning, arrogant government in the service of the super-rich, is something that speaks to the experience of millions of ordinary French citizens.
The solidity of this mass base has been reinforced by the democratic structures and processes the movement has thrown up, and the demands which have arisen through them. Three months on, the Yellow Vests have moved debate far beyond the modest calls for tax relief that characterised the opening phase of the movement. Across multiple social media sites, and in popular assemblies (held on Sundays or weekday evenings), the Yellow Vests have opened up a space for real democratic discussion – an opportunity which has been seized with relish and creative force. Economic demands – for tax reform, a rise in the minimum wage, increased wages all round – jostle with ideas about how the country should be governed, how the views of ordinary citizens should figure in decision-making, how those currently in power (detested figures, without exception) might be displaced.
Running parallel to this process, the ‘great national debate’ unfurled by French President Emmanuel Macron in January appears pure pantomime. From an agenda imposed from on high to media-saturated gatherings of mayors, where the President appears as if in a puff of smoke to play ringmaster while monopolising the microphone, there is a tragi-comic quality to the fakery.
Towards convergence of struggle: general strike
A further achievement of the Yellow Vest movement has been its ability to reach out to other sections, whether trade unionists, students or environmental campaigners. While willingness to join forces has been evident since the start, particularly in urban centres with powerful traditions of trade union and student mobilisation (such as Bordeaux and Toulouse), this tendency is becoming more pronounced and generalised.
A huge step forward in this direction was taken on February 5, when the Yellow Vests threw their weight behind a general strike called by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and other union confederations of the Left. In this first weekday (Tuesday) mobilisation of a movement thus far given to Saturday protest, an estimated 300,000 people downed tools to take to the streets, block economic targets, set up barricades at motorway tolls and generally disrupt ‘business as usual’.
In a day painted in red as well as yellow, tens of thousands of trade unionists, many of them in the emblematic red vests of the CGT, joined forces with Yellow Vest activists in towns and cities across the land. University and high school students also boycotted classes to take to the streets.
The city of Toulouse, in south-west France, provides a useful snapshot of this process of convergence. Over the past three months, Toulouse has consistently been at the frontline of Yellow Vest action; on two successive Saturdays in January its mobilisations topped 10,000, making it the biggest centre of revolt anywhere in France. The city’s radical traditions, including the refuge it offered Spanish leftists and anarchists fleeing fascism in 1939 and its prominent role in the events of May 1968, have contributed to a robust tradition of support for the left and feistiness towards power. The trade union movement continues to draw on its strong roots, and a large student population spread across four university campuses and numerous lycées (high schools) adds to the city’s liveliness and readiness for revolt.
Yellow Vests in Toulouse were among the first in France to begin building links with the trade union movement. From Act III (December 1, 2018) onwards, Saturday mobilisations in Toulouse have seen the convergence of struggle enacted in a strikingly visual way: the merging, at around 3pm, of two distinct columns as Yellow Vests and Red Vests march towards each other, salute and fold in effortlessly.
Since December, too, Yellow Vest mobilisations in Toulouse have included activists from the radical, anti-capitalist left: La France Insoumise (LFI), the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Parti Communist Français (PCF). Climate activists have also added their weight to the movement. Attempts by the far right to penetrate Yellow Vest marches and assemblies have been firmly seen off.
This strategic thinking paid off handsomely on February 5, declared ‘Black Tuesday’ by Toulousain Yellow and Red Vests. The day began with tollbooth blockades which successfully blocked heavy vehicle movements and brought the motorway system to a halt for several hours. Meanwhile, students were out in force, blocking access to certain campuses, distributing leaflets, and staging general assemblies. Sections of the working class, including refuse collectors, transport workers and civil servants, struck from work, freeing themselves to join the 12,000-strong march which processed through the city during the afternoon.
Looking ahead: building the movement in a context of intensifying repression
The brutality of the French state response to the Yellow Vest citizens’ uprising has shaken large sections of public opinion while triggering alarm bells among jurists, defenders of civil liberties and international human rights organisations. Efforts to ban or rein in security force use of ostensibly ‘non-lethal’ high velocity weapons (including stun grenades which explode on touch and ‘flashball’ launchers which propel rubber projectiles at intense velocity into flesh and eye socket) have been rebuffed. As a result, the grisly tally of injured, maimed and blinded protestors (and, in some cases, passers-by) continues to rise. On February 9 in Paris, a 30-year-old Gilet Jaune taking photos of protests outside the National Assembly (the French parliament) had his hand blown off by a delayed reaction grenade containing 25 gm of TNT. In January, Jérôme Fernandes, a much respected pacifist spokesperson for the movement, was blinded in his right eye following a targeted attack.
Building the Yellow Vest movement under such conditions presents real challenges. On the one hand, the heroic resistance of wounded leaders like Fernandes (who got himself back on the streets as soon as his health would allow), is intensifying anger and stiffening resolve: protestors have taken to wearing a head bandage stained blood red over the right eye in a show of solidarity and defiance. On the other hand, the weekly enactment of horror on the streets by a ghoulish medley of gendarmes, riot squads and ‘anti-criminality’ brigades undoubtedly works to keep some would-be demonstrators away.
New legislation currently being rushed through what passes for a constitutional process in Macron’s France threatens to reinforce this tendency. On February 5 – the day of the Yellow Vests’ first generalised strike action – the lower house of parliament passed what has been labelled the ‘Loi anticasseurs’: the law against property-damaging protestors. Developed by Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on the basis of ideas dreamed up by the political right, this proposes to outlaw certain practices, including the wearing of face coverings (including gas masks) at demonstrations. But its writ will run much further than this, in effect placing judicial power in the hands of Préfets (prefects), the representatives of the state and government in a department or region. Under article 2, prefects will gain the power to ban specific individuals from a demonstration, in effect stripping them of basic democratic rights without so much as a whiff of due process.
This baring of fangs by the French state, this ready relinquishment of the trappings of liberal democracy and the rule of law, speaks to the strength, endurance and mobilising power of the Yellow Vests. After just three months of weekly defiance and contestation on the streets, this movement has succeeded in exposing state ruthlessness in defence of naked class interests vividly, shockingly and in a way which relates to the experience of millions of ordinary French citizens. Building on what has already been achieved will require clear strategic thinking, alliance-building and intensified unity of action with other progressive sections, whether organised workers or marginalised communities trapped in the wasteland of big city banlieues (high-rise sink estates). The approaching summer will reveal the extent to which the Yellow Vests can grasp the mettle.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.