At roadblocks, barricades and on the march, the Gilets Jaunes embody nationwide fury towards Project Macron, reports Susan Ram
A spectre is haunting France, its colour a vivid fluorescent yellow. It stalks motorway tolls, big city roundabouts, national highways and, increasingly, access routes to refineries, ferries and docks. It spills into city centres, shape-shifting from orderly processions to barricade-building and feisty confrontations with riot police. Materialising as if out of nowhere, the Yellow Fury, constituted by the movement of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), confronts French President Emmanuel Macron with his gravest crisis yet.
Still embryonic but evolving fast, this new movement and its symbolic marker – the yellow safety jacket all motorists in France must carry with them and wear in the event of an accident – has taken almost everyone by surprise. The speed of its emergence adds something new to French mobilisation experience.
The provocation was the revelation in early October that the government was planning another hike in taxes on diesel and petrol, effective from January 1, 2019. The announcement followed months of price rises at the pumps, particularly so in the case of diesel, the fuel actively promoted by French governments until 2015, when an abrupt shift of policy took place under François Hollande. Macron’s Budget also signalled further fuel tax increases ahead, presenting these as vital elements of a ‘green’ shift in road transport, in line with his government’s 2017 pledge to work towards a total ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
Almost no one in France seemed ready to buy this line. Quite the reverse: by late October, videos surfacing on social media suggested not only dissatisfaction but also a desire to strike back, and hard. Then, out of the blue, a stroke of genius: the yellow safety vest as a simple, ready-at-hand unifying symbol. It was as if a touchpaper had been lit.
A national day of action, geared to blocking roads and achieving maximum contact with road users, was announced for November 17. That day saw just short of 300,000 people don their high-vis jackets and assemble in 2,034 locations across the land. The anger was palpable; there were injuries and a couple of deaths as a result of heated confrontations between protestors and some motorists who resented being blocked.
Despite government and mainstream media efforts to feast on such incidents, protests continued through the following week, building towards a second day of nationwide protest on November 24. This saw a shift in focus towards city centres, with Gilets Jaunes staging marches in Lyon, Lille, Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseilles and other conurbations.
In Paris, official efforts to prevent some 8,000 demonstrators penetrating the sacred Champs Elysées (just a stroll away from Macron’s Elysée Palace redoubt) were soon seen off. As if in homage to events in the capital fifty years ago, paving stones were uprooted, barricades built with street furniture and anything else at hand, and the battle was locked with the CRS (the French riot police), whose policing took its accustomed form of deploying smoke bombs, tear gas and water cannon.
What do we know thus far about the Gilets Jaunes? How should this new movement be characterised? What sort of people is it mobilising? How do the left and the trade union movement stand in relation to it? Does it have the potential to develop into a sustainable movement of resistance and revolt, one that could bring the whole edifice of Project Macron toppling down?
As the movement began taking shape, there was fear of significant involvement in it by the far right, including the Rassemblement National (RN; the new name thought up for the Front National) and its ally, Debout la France. Leaders of both parties – Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – were certainly quick to get in there and voice support. There has also been evidence of a far right presence among organisers and in certain locations. A key spokesperson, Franck Buhler, is suspected of links to the far right, while a video posted on Facebook showed some Gilets Jaunes at Flixecourt bragging about finding migrants in the back of a lorry and turning them over to the police (they added a hideous call for a ‘giant barbecue’).
While Macron and his interior minister, Christophe Castaner, have sought to use such incidents to smear the entire movement, attempts to turn protests in racist, sexist and homophobic directions seem to be being firmly dealt with. Efforts to reach out to others involved in protest are also evident. During their march through Montpellier on November 24, Gilets Jaunes formed a guard of honour for a parallel protest called by the collective NousToutes against sexism and sexual violence.
If the threat posed by ‘fachos’ (fascists) should not be dismissed, the character of the movement appears multifaceted and fluid. The Gilets Jaunes can be said to constitute a citizen’s uprising, a broad-based coalition whose varied constituents are united by anger and a compelling desire to combat powerlessness and inability to influence events. Something of the mood is being captured by journalists doing their job by actually talking to those taking part.
Bruno Lebourg, 47, demonstrating at Lille with 10 family members on November 24, spoke of his anger at the failure of the rich to contribute their fair share of taxes. Matthieu, 32, a plumber and supporter of the Parti Communiste Français on the march in Marseilles, emphasised the implications of the fuel tax rise for ‘le pouvoir d’achat’ (purchasing power; the cost of living), a phrase of great political resonance in France. In Strasbourg, Manu, a local organiser for the Gilets Jaunes, was furious with the way the media was seeking both to smear and minimise the movement:
'It’s not anything terribly grand, what we’re doing, but at least it’s something. We’re not simply ‘gilets jaunes’, we’re angry citizens, bursting with discontent! Citizens who are sick to death of those who govern us!'
The potential of the movement and its broad-based appeal have been grasped by key figures on the political Left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (LFI), has characterised the Gilets Jaunes as ‘une auto-organisation populaire’ (a popular movement of self-organisation), and has said that fuel tax rises represent an attack on working people which must be resisted. François Ruffin, a deputé (MP) for the LFI who participated in the Champs Elysées protests in Paris on November 24, has deftly counter-posed the hikes in fuel tax with the abolition of the ISF, the French wealth tax, at the start of Macron’s presidency.
By every account, LFI members and sympathisers figure prominently among those demonstrating, and support for the Gilets Jaunes runs high within the organisation; a recent poll found that support for the protesters runs at its highest level (97%) among LFI supporters, against an average for all parties of 77% (significantly, 41% of those supporting Macron's own formation, La République En Marche, said the movement was 'justified').
Within the trade union movement, reaction to the Gilets Jaunes has been more guarded, despite promising local and sectional initiatives. The initial response of the leading union confederation of the Left, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), was an outright refusal to “march either with people of the extreme right or with bosses who, when they speak of taxes being too high, also talk in the same vein about social contributions.” Only a week later, however, came a quite radical change in tenor: on November 20, the CGT called on the government to respond to the “social emergency” underlying the Gilets Jaunes movement.
Part of the explanation is the pressure being exerted on the CGT’s national leadership by initiatives from below, including from the CGT federation representing port and dock workers. On November 22, federation leaders expressed unanimous support for the Gilets Jaunes. As Hervé Caux from the Calais federation put it, “Many of our workers are Gilets Jaunes… The government is shameless: for it to fold, it’s essential we’re together.”
This response has added significance in the context of ongoing strikes in French refineries, including those owned by Total. CGT-affiliated workers in the chemical industry have already issued calls for a mobilisation by infrastructure workers, including those in transport, petroleum, energy, and ports. The transport wing of Force Ouvrière, another of France’s big trade union confederations, has signalled support for the Gilets Jaunes on behalf of long-distance drivers and ambulance workers. At the port of Le Havre, Sandrine Gérard of the local CGT has spoken of a major thrust from November 26, including an effort to bring the port and nearby refineries to a standstill.
Despite the multiple imponderables of the current situation, it’s clear that something very big is taking shape across France. The sociologist Jean-Michel Denis argues that the Gilets Jaunes phenomenon differs from previous spontaneous social-political movements such as Nuit Debout and Les Indigènes, which came together on the basis of a certain shared culture. “We’re now talking in terms of people who haven’t been in the habit of mobilising, or have seen mobilisations lose out. Among the Gilets Jaunes we can see artisans, home care workers, self-employed nurses – all categories of people who don’t work in companies with strong trade unions, people who live in areas where employment is more and more precarious.”
Such a characterisation of the current moment captures both the constraints on the Gilets Jaunes as a mobilising organisation and its potential to draw in new sections, including the most vulnerable and the left behind. A home-made placard snapped by a press photographer at protests in Lille on November 24 embodies the challenge and the hope:
La France en Détresse –
NON à la Macronisation
(France in distress/hopelessness/misery: no to Macronisation, no to Uberisation, no to Amazonisation)
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.