A Vest That Fits All

Zacharias Zoubir

The best and the worst can wear the yellow vest. But the future of the movement—and much else besides—will be decided in the streets, and not by the discourse of the befuddled left.

During the weeks leading up to the first day of action for the “yellow vests movement” (mouvement des gilets jaunes), on November 17, there was little talk about it among my comrades on the anti-authoritarian left, even though we are usually clued in to such incipient mobilizations. A petition against the increase in fuel taxes announced by French president Emmanuel Macron had already gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures. Truck driver Éric Drouet’s Facebook event for a national day of road blockades to oppose the tax increase had also circulated widely. Still, in early November, there was little mention of any “yellow vests” in the news feeds, mailing lists, and chat groups I frequent, which are usually abuzz with discussion whenever a strike or demonstration is in the air. Needless to say, we were taken by surprise as hundreds of thousands of people went out to block roads on November 17.

Precisely because the yellow vests came from nowhere, or at least from a place far from the watchwords and pieties of the left, some radicals remained suspicious, even hostile to the turn of events. Resistance to taxes does not fit easily into the radical left’s grammar of demands, and if it does not fit, then it must be affixed with some other political label: populist, right wing, fascist, etc. Had not some yellow vests uttered racist or sexist slurs? Had not others called the cops on undocumented migrants? Was this not a broad, conservative coalition of proletarians cooperating with the middle class, and with capitalists large and small?

Many anti-authoritarian radicals were forced to reconsider their initial judgments when La Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, was hit by major anti-cop riots that lasted several days, as yellow-vested Réunionnais barricaded the streets of the island, protesting the tax hikes and demanding a life beyond precariousness, low wages, and expensive imported goods. The island economy was almost completely shut down as its sugar factories, fuel depot, commercial port, airport, and supermarkets were blocked. Back in the French mainland, by November 20 blockades were now extending to oil refineries, depots, and ports. Four days later, thousands demonstrated around the country as rioting spread to posh areas around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The sitting government and bourgeois newspapers tried desperately to hold the far-right or fascists responsible for the riots, but participants largely resisted such political identifications. It is true that eight “official spokespeople” for the yellow vests, some with more or less formal links to the right, were elected, but they were immediately rejected by the broad mass of the movement. The eight were invited to Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s palace on the thirtieth, but only two actually showed up, one of whom could not state his name due to all the threats he had received from other yellow vests.

“…invoking an imagined national community is a way to avoid the game of parliamentary politics, with its constant internal divisions and competitions.”

Then, on December 1, an improvised, fluorescent war machine, armed to the teeth with anything that could be found at home or picked up along the Champs Elysées—including road signs and the medium-sized metallic balls used for the game of pétanque —besieged the Arc de Triomphe and surrounding boulevards, forcing riot cops to retreat and making most French black bloc actions look like a quiet game of chess in comparison. Yellow vests looted the shopping districts of the eighth and ninth arrondissements, posh neighborhoods in the center of Paris, popping champagne bottles in front of the wrecked facades of banks. Despite at least one efficient antifa intervention, some participants’ French flags and Celtic crosses swam up out of the mayhem to offer proof, for naysayers, of the intrinsic right-wing or fascist character of it all. In the following days, the hearing rooms of the Parisian courts were filled with hundreds of yellow vests, arrested during riots and processed with summary trials. Many of the convicted protesters turned out to be precarious or low-wage workers who had never been to a Parisian demonstration before.

Even though the main yellow vest gatherings on the eighth, fifteenth and twenty-second of December proved less fierce, energetic blockades and strikes took place during the first two weeks of the month, especially in the high schools of poorer areas all over the country. High schools students were protesting Macron’s reform of the education system, including severe teaching staff cuts, increased specialization and personalization of the baccalaureate, and new selection criteria for university enrollment. On December 6 in Mantes-la-Jolie, a mostly proletarian and racialized area west of Paris with a history of riots against police killings, protesting high school students were rounded up by police and forced to kneel in the mud for several hours, with their hands behind their heads. The cop who filmed and tweeted the scene probably did not expect that kneeling position to be taken up by yellow vests all over the country, signifying their solidarity with the high school students.

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While many in the radical left have kept their distance from the yellow vests—whether to repudiate or just to copy them—people outside left networks were often more in tune from the start. The first to give me some insight into the yellow vests was a Moroccan friend of mine. Whenever I bring up French politics, this friend tells me he came to France with only one purpose: wage work for TNT. “I’m here to make money, that’s all.” Faced with rising fuel taxes, however, my friend’s attitude was suddenly different. He sent me a short video on the twenty-fifth of October. It featured Ghislain Coutard, a service engineer from a small commune in the South of France. From his van, with his hand on the wheel, Coutard was urging everyone to hit the streets on November 17 and to keep their mandatory fluorescent yellow safety vests handy. Instead of explicit political references, his short pep talk invoked the massive spontaneous street celebrations of 1998 and 2018, when the French team won the Soccer World Cup. Now was the time to prove that “not only soccer brings us together,” because “the taxes are fucking with us, everything is fucking with us.” My friend commented: “this is not a bad idea.” By the time it reached me, this short video had already gone viral. It is the reason why the yellow vest came to be a symbol of the many blockades, gatherings, demonstrations, and riots to come.

As demographer Hervé Le Bras observed early on, most of the yellow vests who demonstrated and blocked roads and toll bridges on the seventeenth and twenty-fourth of November were inhabitants of sparsely populated rural areas, just like Coutard. These areas, spanning from the Ardennes in the north to the Pays Basque in the south, tend to be abandoned by public services. Here, a car is more than just a vehicle. It is a link to the rest of society. No wonder, then, that those who depend on their diesel-powered cars to get anywhere at all experience rising fuel taxes as rising social exclusion. Protesters seen in Paris covered their vests with slogans expressing the daily hardship of this dependency on the car and, indirectly, vulnerability to global oil-price fluctuations. In their view, the Macron government’s eco-friendly justifications for the tax hike sounds like a bad joke, given that even the cheapest electric car costs about ten times the minimum wage. Faced with these constraints, it should come as no surprise that the yellow vests started as a movement of gas guzzlers.

Le Monde published a preliminary sociological survey of the movement on December 11, estimating that employed workers made up 33 percent of the protesters, with manufacturing workers accounting for a little less than half of that. This is to be expected, given that long-term tendencies, such as deindustrialization and the subsequent rise in unemployment and precarity, not to mention recent labor law reforms, have eroded many of the traditional bonds that once united workers as workers. Union participation, for instance, has declined severely. Many gilets jaunes have gone so far as to reject any union involvement in their demonstrations and gatherings. I have not seen more than a handful of individuals with union stickers on their yellow vests in Paris in the past weeks. That which initially united the yellow vests was a rediscovery of their shared material dependence, not on earning wages, but rather on purchasing gas, which formed the alpha and omega of Coutard’s viral video.

Likewise, movement participants have gestured neither towards the symbols of the twentieth century (the workers’ movements, the résistance to the Nazi occupation) nor those of the nineteenth (the great popular uprisings of 1848 or the Paris Commune). Instead, the gilets jaunes are constantly referring to the French Revolution. “1789” tags can be seen on many walls in the aftermath of gatherings and demonstrations, for which “La Marseillaise,” the national hymn of France since the Revolution, has been the main soundtrack. Yellow vests sing it spontaneously in all kinds of situations, using it equally to call on riot cops to join the protests or to destroy police vans.

In true Jacobin fashion, the yellow vests’ social media posts and demonstration placards regularly describe their actions as part of a broad upheaval against the political class. It is “the people” against “the king” (Macron). In this way, the yellow vests are somehow getting back to the basics—that is, back to what every French citizen learns in school. For them, invoking an imagined national community is a way to avoid the game of parliamentary politics, with its constant internal divisions and competitions. Many yellow vests refuse to claim allegiance to established forms of political management. They identify as average citizens united by their common belonging to the French Republic.

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This kind of political anonymity has marked a clear rupture with the normal course of policed liberal democracy in France. Unheard of people are now making their voices heard everywhere. Not only are the yellow vests claiming their right to political expression, they are occupying and redefining as public space any location that grants some exposure, placing themselves in the spotlight. In France it is now impossible to circulate through small-town roundabouts and the streets of major cities without being confronted by yellow-clad grievances about the high price of fuel, rent and other necessities, as measured against inadequate wages and pensions. For once, vest-clad proletarian women talking about the near impossibility of making ends meet have been seen on prime-time TV. The movement has exceeded Drouet’s and Coutard’s original complaints about the price of fuel. The yellow vest has become the outfit for any kind of autonomous protest “from below” and against the sorry state of the world.

“The yellow vest is ‘one size fits all,’ both socially and politically. As many radicals have pointed out, people of very different class positions can identify with the opposition to certain taxes and the rejection of Macron.”

At first sight, the yellow vests’ non-affiliation with the present political order might seem exciting, and almost irreproachable. That is how one part of French radical scene has received the movement. On their view, we are witnessing an insurrection against degraded living conditions that breaks all the rules of existing unions and parties. This judgment is correct, to a certain extent. The yellow vests have taken up practices usually associated with the narrow milieu of anarchists, such as confronting cops, building barricades, and destroying buildings perceived as symbols of the present order. Sometimes, in cooperation with the radical left, but mostly autonomously, they have organized blockades of roads and toll bridges, as well as an automotive parts-manufacturer and, ingeniously, a tear-gas factory.

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That being said, there are reasons for all kinds of anti-authoritarian revolutionaries to temper their excitement and to get involved in a more critical fashion. As we have seen, the yellow vests movement is grounded in a shared dependence on fuel, in the first instance, and later, a more general shared material insecurity. Such organic and informal bonds are the very foundation of the movement’s political non-affiliation. They allow the yellow vests to express their grievances as consumers, independently of left- or right-wing ideology and irrespective of whether they are workers, small entrepreneurs, or self-employed. So far, however, these bonds have not evolved into solid forms of self-organization, allowing for long-term, coherent communication and cooperation. Most yellow vests’ Facebook pages look more like the shit-posting forums common to left milieus. Everyone is having their say about everything and nothing in never-ending feeds of hastily formulated demands, plans, and objections. At the beginning of December, some comrades in smaller towns tried to create formal gatherings in order to reinforce the emerging modes of collective self-organization and give them clearer form. It is only more recently that broader general assemblies of yellow vests have been held, mostly in the South of France. In most cases, however, both organizers and attendees have used these assemblies to elect representatives rather than to organize themselves. Some yellow vests have even cheered at the sight of local politicians or departmental counselors in attendance at those gatherings.

With this in mind, it is clear we should not assume the yellow vests will remain politically autonomous just because they organize somewhat anonymously and independently. There has been no clear antagonism to capital and the state as such within the movement over the past weeks. Of course, there were numerous blockades and impressive riots, but they were limited in time and space. More importantly, the Yellow Vests have fallen subject to a kind of diagnostic reading by the sitting government. “You don’t like this? Well, we might as well save it for later.” “This was too much? Then we’ll give you some more of that.”

Through their own propensity to formulate grievances and related demands, the yellow vests might even be providing clear guidance to the government on how to calm things down. This was already clear when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a freeze—later changed to a cancellation—of the announced increases in fuel taxes. It became even more apparent in Emmanuel Macron’s official address to the French nation on December 10, in which he proposed solutions to some of the yellow vests’ grievances. Most notably, he promised an increase in the minimum wage. However, as journalist Jean-Michel Dumay notes in the January 2019 issue of Le Monde diplomatique, there will be no such increase. In 2019 earners of the minimum wage will receive just twenty to one hundred euros more per month—which they were due to receive anyway, given other changes in the tax law and the regulation of wage-conditioned bonuses.

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In this dynamic of demand and response lies the paradox of the yellow vests. On the one hand, theirs is a self-organized, autonomous, non-affiliated movement. On the other hand, their privileged interlocutor is the government, whether they call for the withdrawal of planned reforms or Macron’s resignation. The latter option might sound revolutionary, but for now, it certainly is not. The many calls for “Macron démission”—“Macron resign!”—scribbled on vests or shouted in the streets are too often motivated by the will to see a simple change of personnel. Numerous yellow-vest social media posts discuss the need for a smart and strong president subject to more popular control.

In its more intransigent form, the call for an end to the Macron regime is a demand for a more direct democracy based upon regular referendums. The idea is that “the people” ought to be given the means to recall all public players—the president included—and to create or abrogate any law and even amend the Constitution. From what I’ve seen on the streets of Paris since December 1, this call for a Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC) has become one of the major demands of the movement. Yellow vest Facebook pages are full of posters and memes proclaiming the RIC a master demand of sorts—the demand that, if satisfied, will grant yellow vests the power to put forward all other demands.

It might be tempting to oppose this political demand to the social demands for improved material conditions, and to analyze the success of the RIC as a kind of legalist-reformist recuperation of the yellow vests. After all, both the anti-immigration Rassemblement National and the left-leaning France Insoumise parties have quickly embraced the RIC perspective. It would probably be more realistic, however, to describe the RIC as the political form that has spontaneously grown adequate to the diffuse social content of the yellow vests movement. The yellow vest is “one size fits all,” both socially and politically. As many radicals have pointed out, people of very different class positions can identify with the opposition to certain taxes and the rejection of Macron. This broad social coalition might now be growing into a political coalition in which everyone unites in opposition to a vaguely defined “system.”

The problem here is that in most instances, that critique of the “system” does not imply antagonism to the capitalist class but rather a rejection of the political framework that “globalism” is said to have imposed on national communities, with “elites up there” and the “masses down here.” Several comrades observed a progressive decrease of the number of yellow vests in the gatherings of the fifteenth and twenty-second of December, proving that this might become a “social movement” after all—that is, a temporary outburst of struggles overmastered by the withdrawal of planned reforms and by demonstrators becoming literally outnumbered by riot cops and their heavy artillery. Some of the yellow vests still in the streets do not target much else than the Rothschild bank (for which Macron worked) or, in certain cases, the supposedly Jewish reins on political and economic power. Many have seen yellow vests perform the quenelle, antisemite stand-up comedian Dieudonné’s signature arm gesture. The use of this gesture goes hand in hand with the growing importance, both online and on the streets, of some yellow vests’ opposition to immigration, supposedly reinforced by the recent Marrakesh international agreement on the management of refugees.

What such observations call for is not a hasty reduction of the yellow vests to an impure “right wing,” “populist” or insufficiently Marxist mobilization. Instead, they offer us an insight into the current state of things, in which a thorough critique of capital, the state, and nationalism is mostly confined to narrow left-radical milieus. Many of those who have not been nurtured in such spaces are instead led to think of poverty and precariousness as alien and unchangeable—the immigrant, the refugee—and to conceptualize wealth and power in terms of elite bankers or even genealogy: a supposedly homogenous, organized, international community, sometimes branded “Zion.” From such perspectives, redistribution is about giving less to undeserving foreigners and cosmopolitan elites and more to the authentic members of the nation.

“We should not assume the yellow vests will remain politically autonomous just because they organize somewhat anonymously and independently.”

To react, here, with the purity-mania of well-educated revolutionaries, with the fear of being touched and contaminated by the ideas and affects of the vulgar, only further widens the gulf between the small groups of radicals we are and the thousands upon thousands of blockaders, demonstrators, and rioters. Inversely, to react—or rather, not react—with the excuse that such rants about the “system” come from a sound but misdirected popular anger would have the same effect, because it reinforces our position as mere contemplators, unable to influence the course of events.

For the moment, the most promising position is to assume that the yellow vests are neither a monster to vanquish nor a wagon to which we might hitch our favored causes and programs. Most radical organizations have failed to heed this advice and have mostly just done what they always do, except with a yellow vest on, one perhaps upon which they have scrawled the words “anti-racist” or “anti-sexist.” Such focus on the yellow vest per se —what does it mean? of what can it be the symbol?—raises questions that cannot be answered with abstract theory nor high-minded strategy. The thousands of high school kids around the country who, sensing a massive contestation of Macron’s politics, reinforced their own situated antagonism to an ever-more unequal and unjust school system, blocking their schools and taking on the cops, sometimes organizing with teachers, parents or syndicalists, know better how to seize the opportunity. An opportunity not just to gesture towards a shadowy “system,” which is always just the reflection cast by our own powerlessness, but to fight the real effects of bourgeois policies from where we stand, thus offering guidance at a time when the government has some enemies who are not yet our friends.