Yellow-Vest Diaries

Rona Lorimer

Photo by Philippe Alcoy

French drivers don the fluorescent yellow vests in the event of breakdown or accident. There’s been a massive breakdown and French streets are filled with millions of yellow vests. Rona Lorimer takes us there.

Act I

Everyone says the gilets jaunes appeared as if “from nowhere.” In the weeks preceding, I barely heard anything about it, only brief murmurings of the “movement of the seventeenth.” The initial roundabout blockades were called in response to a hike in fuel taxes—dressed up as a solution to the environmental crisis—imposed by President Emmanuel Macron. These blockades were, weirdly, sparked by a petition, launched online by a young self-employed woman, Priscillia Ludosky. In the video accompanying the petition she explains that she is a working-class mother from Seine-et-Marne and spends 320 euros a month on gas. Sixty percent of that is taxes. She demands that real, substantial ecological solutions are put in place: that either the fuel tax is cut, or that people are permitted to work from home or in “co-working” environments, to avoid having to travel to large metropolitan centers. She’s arguing against the idea that these taxes, borne by the poorest, have anything to do with so-called “ecological transition.”

It was not expected to be a movement that would gain much ground. However, the first day of action, November 17, saw nearly three hundred thousand people in over two thousand different places in France blocking roundabouts and péages (toll stations on the freeway), dressed in gilets jaunes, or yellow vests (every French driver is required to carry one of these hi-vis garments in their car in case of accident or breakdown). Traffic was slowed down and one driver, in a panic about not being able to get through a roundabout quickly enough, ran over a sixty-year-old gilet jaune protester. One criticism leveled against the protest—which defined itself as distinct from, and possibly against, trade union organizing—was that it took place on a Saturday and therefore did not aspire to a strike or blockade of any major segment of the working, weekday economy, as union struggle might have. Another criticism was that the blockades were only partial in some places, which made for traffic jams but no major disruption. There were anecdotal dribs and drabs about who was involved, about people being very police-friendly on the picket, about its citoyen (citizen) character—lots of French flags and anti-migrant discourse. A toll station near Bordeaux was straight up burned down.

“It was, by all accounts, the craziest thing anyone had ever seen.”

However, what was interesting about the seventeenth in terms of its strategy was that it had a wildcat character: it was not authorized by the police, and did not make any attempt to be. This goes for all the developments in November and December: for every action, people have organized themselves without unions and without police authorization—every protest has been officially “illegal.” The online and print review lundimatin (lundi.am) was in an unusually good position to appreciate the burgeoning movement, because of its longstanding conviction that anti-capitalist action doesn’t need to begin in the employment relation itself. That is, action doesn’t have to start with a strike or a withdrawal of labor, but may begin instead from a popular blockade of a port, a roadway, or a logistics hub. In what may be described as a speculative gesture that echoes these positions, the night before the first mobilization, lundimatin posted the chapter “Bloquons tout!” (Block everything!) from the Invisible Committee’s 2014 text To Our Friends on their site. In its enthusiasm for the blockades of ports and logistic hubs that took place in France and Oakland around 2010, this chapter contends that power “no longer resides in the institutions of this world.” Though “revolutionaries” are attracted to occupying symbolic places of power, what they find there are “empty places, empty of power, and furnished without any taste.” Power is now concentrated in the infrastructure of this world, having shifted from “places” to “streams,” from presidential palaces to “high voltage lines, freeways, supermarkets,” or even roundabouts and toll roads. Power is hidden, and yet banal: “No one sees it because everyone has it in plain sight.” It’s hard to know whether this distinction repackages, in spurious terms, a simpler opposition between “real” and “symbolic” power. After all, aren’t workplaces, when under occupation or strike, just places along a stream, especially if they concern large infrastructure such as Amazon or Geodis (a major French logistics company)? It would seem that all “streams” (i.e., logistics hubs) become “places,” as one can only block them at particular points anyway. Is a roundabout a stream or a place, or both? What about a toll station? Do roundabouts really have no symbolic dimension? And in the event that one fails to entirely block the traffic, is the effect symbolic or real or…? Still, one catches the drift. The events taking place since November 17 in France are the most significant test of the idea that anti-capitalist action doesn’t have to begin with left workplace organizing. The already mythologized image of the gilets mirrors the idea of power as a stream: coming into plain sight from “nowhere” on the traditional Left, dispersed, infrastructural. And yet, from a purely strategic point of view, road blockades are not new to the French left, having been a very important tactic in recent history. During the week of May 19, 2016, for example, as part of a quasi-general strike that took place during the social movement against François Hollande’s work law, oil refineries were shut down by workers; this tactic, coupled with road blockades by non-workers in the west of France, ensured that in Paris, 60 percent of petrol stations had no gasoil (diesel).

It was unexpected and curious that the November 17 mobilisation continued through Sunday, and then Monday, and then through the following week, considering that it had initially announced itself as a protest that would still allow people to go to work. Paradoxically, this approach permitted people to get involved without recourse to a strike, albeit at no real cost to the economy.

On Thursday night of that week, driving with a brilliant poet through the roads surrounding Le Blanc, a rural area in central France, we saw roundabout occupations where gilets jaunes had made bonfires and banners. They blocked part of the traffic: that is, they’d stop one of every few cars and have a chat. Cars hooted in solidarity. Behind the gilets jaunes, a banner itemized Macron’s tax increases and public service cuts. The movement’s single issue had broadened out to include other austerity measures and was no longer about the gas tax alone. Tobacco, as the banner showed, had risen almost as much as fuel, while pensions had been cut 11 percent. In Le Blanc, the regional and local train lines will soon be closed down, and over the summer the maternity ward was shuttered without warning. Nurses and doctors occupied it in protest. These measures suggest the “desertification” of the countryside, which makes people much more dependent on their cars. This emptying out of rural areas results partly from Macron’s cuts to departmental budgets, meaning that the departments of France (roughly analogous to states in the US), which have historically been decentralized and independent, will be increasingly reliant on centralized, metropolitan (that is, Parisian) power.

ACT II

Throughout the week following November 17, the organized Left, bystanders, and the media continued to be anxious about the movement, which was presented as “leaderless,” “horizontal,” “non-party political,” and finally: “apolitical.” Nantes Révoltée, a left-insurrectionist Facebook page, was one of the only left-wing public platforms to display any interest in the new movement. Quick to get in the game (way back on November 6) they explained the importance of investing the coming protests with an anti-capitalist bent. Meanwhile, the organized left and the trade unions either ignored or resented the movement. Embarrassed by its anti-tax, populist, and anti-ecological character, they refused to join. Anti-ecological discourse, particularly when it involves the automobile, has previously fallen under the remit of the extreme right in France, and there were fears that this movement had a “Poujadiste” character. (Pierre Poujade was the leader of a rural, right-wing, anti-tax movement in France in the 1950s.) Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) was quick to try and claim the movement, imputing to it a thoroughly nationalist, anti-global, and Euroskeptic character. Even further to the right, Frank Buhler, a former Front National member excluded from the party for being “too racist,” vocally supported the protests. The parliamentary leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon (that opportunist rat) ran after the movement, trying to hitch it to his chauvinist party France Insoumise. Leaderless and branded as apolitical, the gilets jaunes were ripe for the picking, at least at the level of representation. On November 21, workers unionized with the CGT showed their partial or critical solidarity with the gilets jaunes by wearing fluorescent red vests (gilets rouges) at a picket at the Paprec factory in the northern suburbs of Paris. The paper recycling plant treats its workers appallingly in the name of environmentalism, prompting the comparison with Macron’s ecological program.

On Saturday the twenty-fourth in Paris, the gilets jaunes took everyone by surprise. A feminist #MeToo march, planned long in advance, set out from Opéra; the demonstration was not at all policed because the police were, instead, defending the Champs Elysées from the gilets. A riot on the Champs Elysées: traffic lights are torn down, a Givenchy store is looted, it goes on for hours and the police fail to control it.

Everyone I know is extremely surprised. We have fierce conversations that night, freaking out but a little excited, and also slightly fearful. The main question, someone says, is who is involved and what they represent. But: underneath who is involved and how they identify themselves is the real “material character” of the thing—the material is not the totality of all the opinions of who is involved or how they identify themselves, it is oil, and prices, and the car, and all the places the car takes you to, like work, and the people dependent on the car. That’s its class content, and its class content exceeds its capacity to articulate itself. Of course there are fascists making explicit recuperations, but surely not everyone involved is a fascist? Unless anti-racist groups insert themselves into the struggle, this is how it’ll be. It’s a broadly anti-austerity struggle, though. This is both urgent, and a responsibility. Some people are saying that the demonstrators are petit bourgeois because they have cars. Let’s throw that moralism out the window immediately. But…how do we position ourselves next to these people, when we have no idea who they are, and when it appears that some of them have called the cops on migrants from their pickets? The Left seems ditheringly concerned with its own identity as the Left. We have to go there and make an anti-racist presence. We have to make it anti-racist. And if their riot is a right-wing riot and not a left-wing riot? Someone else says: but there is no right- or left-wing riot, there are riots, it’s a form. But the form of this thing, it’s outside the Left, someone replies. But that mirrors the discourse on suburban or inner-city riots after police murders: when the white or Trotskyist part of The Left says that they are somehow outside of politics, those riots are “social,” and unconscious, they are outside of what can be permitted at x, y, or z point in The Left or in history. Of course, the riot, it’s not just a form; its form is a content, there are many things in the riot and many people, and many gestures, and some of them break with the police, and the law, and private property. In this respect, the riot is a radical form. But of course there are left-wing riots and right-wing riots. What about the putsch in the sixties?

Demonstration and blocking on 25/09/2017 in Donges. / Loïc Venance / AFP

It’s hard not to be excited, however, about the sheer form and force of it, its aesthetic power. But there are doubts and worries. What is clear is that with a huge thing like this, one has to be there, one has to fight against the fascists from the inside. This cannot be ignored. The potential of this movement is unclear at this point. Squinting at the roundabout through the media smog, we see yellow. The Guardian published an interview with four people from Saturday the twenty-fourth, three of whom described themselves as right wing or center right. Given the heterogeneity of the movement, the only thing we really know after Saturday is what form it took in the streets: there were a lot of people everywhere who were “up for it”—not for negotiating with the government over the fuel tax and austerity, but for rioting. And we know what their targets were: cops, police headquarters, and toll stations. Speculations about its political “content” (i.e., the people involved in it and what links them) remain merely anecdotal: “I saw two fascist pickets” or “I saw no fascist pickets.”

What The Guardian’s interview makes clear is that, in attempting to grasp the whole (impossible!), the press must bring out the remarks of a few individuals, or else focus disproportionately on what is visible (a banner, a slogan, an identifiable group within a crowd). This is all the press can grasp. There is a difference in the way the press treats largely white crowds as opposed to racialized ones. In the London Riots of 2011, for example, the crowd, as represented by the racist papers, was an under-conscious mass, without any cognizance or reflexivity. The rioters were described by the Daily Mail as “feral” animals and were not interviewed. Unlike minority or suburban rioters, these new political subjects, the gilets jaunes, are allowed to know themselves (even if it’s hard to know, from the outside) —who they are, what their class is, what they “want,” their essence and their being. Here a white, “apolitical” subject is attributed total cognizance, and in fact the individual consciousnesses of a few come to shape the whole.

ACT III

On Saturday, December 1, numerous groups, including Comité Adama, PEM (Platform for Militant Inquiry), AFA (Antifa Paris Banlieue), CLAQ (Committee of Queer Liberation and Autonomy), and the Intergares (a union of train drivers who were on strike for three months last year against the privatization of the French rail system), marched out in a bloc from St. Lazare train station to ensure there was an explicitly anti-fascist, working class, and queer left presence at the gilets jaunes’ actions that day. Comité Adama, a group working against police violence and murders in the predominantly black and Arab banlieues, was formed after police killed Adama Traoré in Beaumont-sur-Oise in 2016. The bloc’s tactics echoed the skirmishes over the cortège de tête (head of the march) that occurred that same year during the movement against the labor law. The most confrontational or radical elements of the march would attempt to get to the front—the place where the unions are usually gathered—to ensure that the police could not suppress the demonstration, and that more than just union struggle was represented. Arriving at Place de la Madeleine, east of the Champs Elysées, it became impossible for the anti-fascist bloc to stay together amid the jumble of smaller groups of gilets jaunes: this is because the day’s gathering didn’t consist of a single march from point A to point B, so there was no cortège de tête to speak of. The fascists were apparently the first to make themselves visible in small groups early in the morning, and confrontations between them and anti-fascists had begun by 10 a.m.

The riot raged from morning till night. The most insurrectional elements were mainly on the west side of the Champs, between Trocadero, Avenue Foch, and the Place Victor Hugo. These are the some of the most bourgeois districts of Paris. They also contain all the symbols of governmental power, and protests are never authorized there. The most forceful elements on the streets were the gilets jaunes—affiliated neither with the small fascist cadres nor with the Parisian left bloc—who had come to Paris from other regions, and who destroyed entire neighborhoods of the capital. Let’s be more specific, though, and avoid simplistic accounts that pit the provinces against the cosmopolis: they destroyed bourgeois neighborhoods, the kinds of neighborhoods popular with tourists.

“The main question, someone says, is who is involved and what they represent.”

It was, by all accounts, the craziest thing anyone had ever seen. There have been hurried comparisons to the 1848 July revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune. Those insurrections, however, unfolded in the quartiers populaires of Paris, the working-class neighborhoods in the north and northeast. Saturday, December 1 didn’t look like a “protest” or “demonstration”; but rather like an insurrection in the vein of Delacroix or Flaubert. Anything that could be dislodged and picked up was thrown. Gilets jaunes, unmasked and bare-handed, fought police and were gassed, tore down cast-iron fences, ripped the wood from benches and burned it, and flipped and torched cars. Buildings caught fire. Bourgeois women cried classist insults from upstairs windows: “Go back to your homes!” To which the gilets jaunes women responded: “We’re hungry. We’re coming back next weekend!” The same insult—go back home!—was screamed with racist inflection at black men in the left bloc, who responded by singing “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, which originated in the French revolution.* Everyone wanted to storm the Elysée Palace, the home of the French president, by way of the most celebrated avenue of Paris, the Champs Elysées. They managed to get as far as the Arc de Triomphe (under it, on top of it) and to push the riot police off the enormous Place de l’Étoile.

An image of the graffitied Arc de Triomphe goes some way toward showing the political confusion of the gilets jaunes, left and right. Scrawled on the bottom in all caps: “PAS DE GUERRE ENTRE LES PEUPLES PAS DE PAIX ENTRE LES CLASSES” (“NO WAR WITHIN THE PEOPLE, NO PEACE BETWEEN THE CLASSES”). Just below the arch, nationalists protected the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, consecrated after World War I. Next to this, someone had written: (“LES GILETS JAUNES TRIOMPHERONT” “GILETS JAUNES WILL TRIUMPH”), a seemingly banal phrase but one with a distinctly far-right cast. People described walking for hours in districts where all the street lights and cameras had been smashed out, and where there were hardly any police. A police gun was stolen from a cop car, and by the end of the day, a police sniper had been installed on top of a building on the Champs Elysées, aiming into the crowd. Marine Le Pen tweeted to her “dear gilets jaunes,” advising the “real gilets jaunes” to leave the Place de l’Étoile to let police forces mop up the violent elements.

Not all gilets jaunes come to Paris on Saturdays, since this is a nationwide struggle, both provincial and metropolitan. Above all, not all gilets jaunes can afford to come to Paris, as might be obvious in the context of a movement that began by protesting the high cost of transportation. In the provinces and industrial outskirts of urban centers on weekdays, the blockade is paramount, whereas in the cities on Saturdays, the focus is on symbolic and political targets. A comment from a friend of mine:

The current insurgency seems to be at some level an insurgency of the employed. It’s people with shit jobs who are coming out, people with access to salary-related state pensions, people who know how to build walls quickly in front of government buildings, people who “have cars,” etc., etc. It would be ridiculous to then declare flatly, as if it were simply a matter of winching the old pejoratives into place, that the movement is “petty bourgeois.”

In Nantes, gilets jaunes took over the runway of the airport on Saturday, December 1 and blocked flights. In Marseille, where people have been fighting for months against the gentrification of the popular Place de La Plaine, there was a burning barricade on La Canebière, and an eighty-year-old woman was killed by a tear gas canister shot through her window as she was closing her shutters. Even in a village of three thousand inhabitants, Le Pouzin in Ardèche, there was intense combat with police all day long to protect a roundabout that the police wanted to clear. In Le Puy-en-Velay, a small town in the middle of France, the police headquarters was attacked and set on fire. In Narbonne, they burned a toll station; a video shows a flaming car floating into it, carried on a forklift.

A Chorus: The Casseur and the Gilet Jaune

There is a rhythm to the movement, which swings between the week and the Saturday, between the provinces and Paris, the roundabout and the spectacular damage to metropolitan property in fashionable districts. Following the December 1 insurrection, the week in Paris felt relatively calm— strange to look out of my window in Château Rouge and see nothing, and then look at my computer and see everything: the national news, the fast-flying lundi.am and Anglophone commentaries. From my perspective, it still feels impossible to draw any conclusions; I don’t have the energy here to offer summaries, critique, or praise of the various conclusions coming out.

What was exceptional about December 1, aside from the question of this new form of movement (still a question), was the force, and the anger, and the violence—which was not a question but just a fact. The next day, Sunday: outrage from all politicians about “violence.” But from the inside of this riot, the strategic and moral questions around extreme property damage are not posed in anything resembling the way they are posed in, for example, a demonstration organized by the official Left. This violence—let’s call it property damage—and the violence in response to and against police, just is. This violence doesn’t seem to feel the need to justify itself in the face of public opinion or in the eyes of “the rest of the march,” in the way that a black bloc may be required to justify itself to the “peaceful elements” of a demonstration. In the 2016 movement against the labor law, the black bloc took the head of the march and encouraged a culture of masking up, to protect against tear gas and surveillance. Here, people are often unmasked (apart from gas masks), and they film each other openly. Jail sentences, which will undoubtedly continue to come down on many, are far off or simply unimagined.

Photo by Remi Moons

Many in the French commentariat have tried, as they typically do, to insist on the presence of outside infiltrators, or casseurs (literally “breakers”), and on the importance of distinguishing the black bloc from the “real” gilets jaunes. But this strategy doesn’t seem to be working. On Monday, December 3, a man called Abdel, a chauffeur, called in to the television show RMC:

I can’t afford to buy presents for my son at Christmas….You [the government] have stolen from me, you’ve screwed me, I’m not afraid of you, Monsieur Macron doesn’t understand. I was there on Saturday and I smashed things. I’m not black bloc, I’m gilet jaune. Do you know what the gilets jaunes are saying? Listen up, it’s real, they’re going to come up armed….You don’t scare me, we know who’s breaking things, I’m gilet jaune, not black bloc….You don’t scare me, I repeat, I’m coming up, I’m going to break stuff….I’m talking to the government, I’m talking to the people [on the news] who say it’s not gilets jaunes breaking things. We’re angry….I make 1,300 a month. I have a message for Monsieur Bourdin [the RMC host], I demand your pay slip, and we’ll compare it with mine.

As the week wore on, it became clear how true this estimation of the social composition of the movement was. According to figures published on Thursday, December 6, of the 412 people arrested the previous Saturday (a record number), only sixteen were previously known to the police. Moreover, arrestees have overwhelmingly been accepting “comparution immediat” (rapid sentencing, where you are tried in jail), which does not advantage them in the slightest. This puts to rest the myth of the professional black bloc, peopled with seasoned agitators. For weeks, everyone has been chewing over who is involved in the gilets jaunes movement; from the sentencing data, we can begin to draw some conclusions. For one, not a single arrestee was from Paris. Second, arrestees worked predominantly in non-unionized sectors of the economy—as artisans (craftsmen), drivers, lay workers. The judges are giving harsher sentences than even the public prosecutor advised.

Police Violence, Lycéens, and General Strikes

The next question, on Sunday, December 2, was: where are the lycéens (high school students)? French lycéens are notoriously and uniquely militant. True to form, many blockaded their high schools starting on Monday, December 3. Videos came out of lycéens in Aubervilliers chasing away cop cars. The lycéen movement, which has reacted fiercely against Macron’s attempts to make university inaccessible to working-class people, has a distinctly anti-police character. The injuries inflicted on protesters by police, as well as the tragic death of the elderly woman in Marseille, have only reinforced this tangible rage (véritable colère). Blockades by lycéens were set upon by police using the combined force of matraques (batons), grenades, tear gas, and “flashballs” (a “nonlethal” handheld weapon that has the stopping power of a .38 caliber handgun, and that fires various kinds of ammunition, most commonly a 44 mm rubber bullet). A dozen lycéens were hurt by flashballs, and three are in a serious condition. A girl’s jaw was torn off in Grenoble, while in Meaux a young man bled profusely from his penis after being hit in the testicles. On Thursday alone, 280 schools were disrupted, forty-five of which were fully blocked, and seven hundred lycéens were arrested by the police nationwide. A video went viral of 153 lycéens arrested at Mantes-la-Jolie who were made to kneel on the floor with their hands on their heads for four hours after participating in a lycée blockade. Students had armed themselves with baseball bats to protect against police. Cars burned. On Friday, four hundred high schools were disrupted and eighty blocked.

In the week after December 1, the gilets jaunes uprising was clearly no longer about fuel-tax hikes alone. “Macron démission!” (Macron resign!) became the uniting slogan, resounding from the mouths of public-sector workers, high school and university students, and gilets themselves. In Paris, in response to Saturday’s insurrection, groups such as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Comité Adama, PEM, and CLAQ organized general assemblies in St. Denis, north of Paris, and Place de la République, in the city center. In several consecutive assemblies filled with lycéens, gilets jaunes, striking workers, and aspiring-to-strike workers, attendees reiterated how imperative it was that unions and left-wing movements get involved. Many argued that there should be a general strike to block the country economically and prevent the extreme right from recuperating the movement in a future electoral victory. Aside from the fact that the people in these assemblies saw many important things at stake that they themselves wanted to fight for, not being involved because of the presence of fascists was not an option. The only way to combat those fascists was from the inside. A few lost-looking gilets who had come to Paris from Bordeaux and Poitiers wandered onto the stage, saying that they didn’t mind the presence of anti-migrant fascist gilets at their roundabouts, since politics was not discussed. This caused chaos, they were hurried off, and the assembly was terminated soon after. The inter-union alliance, extremely slow to react, released a communiqué on Thursday that did not in any way respond to the demands of the union base: they did not call for any immediate action, and nor did they condemn police violence. The base is fuming.

“Jail sentences, which will undoubtedly continue to come down on many, are far off or simply unimagined.”

On Monday, ambulance workers blocked the Champs Elysées, were confronted by the police and gassed, and then burnt one of their own ambulances. Students at a general assembly at the Sorbonne University Paris 1 campus in Tolbiac voted overwhelmingly to block their university indefinitely beginning Wednesday, in response to a fee hike for foreign students. While some of these students wanted to form a coalition with the gilets jaunes, others were hesitant because of its populist elements, given that the students’ struggle involves solidarity with migrant/foreign students. Others saw no problem with the two struggles continuing alongside each other. No definitive position was decided upon. Classes at Paris 8, another university, were cancelled after a popular vote from students and lecturers.

This convergence of movements did not come out of nowhere. For the union rank and file, the mobilization is a continuation of the 2016 movement against the labor law and the 2017 strikes by train drivers. Postal workers have been on strike for eight months without pay. Librarians at the Sorbonne have been on strike for a week. At one of the general assemblies in St. Denis on Thursday, we heard from Geodis workers about possible strikes in the logistics sector. At the same assembly, Assa Traoré (brother of Adama Traoré) and the brother of Gaye Camara, another young black man murdered by cops, explained their decision to join the gilets jaunes: the quartiers populaires, they said, are those most subjected to austerity, unemployment, and police violence. Seeing this as a moment of possible solidarity between struggles, Camara’s brother said that police violence is now “coming for” people involved in the anti-state struggle; this police violence, he explained, was developed in the “laboratories” of the banlieues, and before them, the colonies.

Speaking of which, I haven’t yet mentioned La Réunion, the Indian Ocean island that is a department of France, where a curfew was imposed on November 24 following looting, insurrection, and port blockades there. The Minister of the Outre-mer (overseas provinces), Annick Girardin, announced a number of concessions to try to ease the rioting, including free health care and salary increases. But this failed to appease the réunionnaises, who said they thought it was “nice” of her, but responded with more rioting. Most of the better paid, public functionary positions in La Réunion are held by metropolitan French citizens. In order to become a schoolteacher, for example, one has to pass through the French system, in France. On Monday, the port and the airport were shut down by blockades, and dock workers were refusing to go back to work.

ACT IV

Friday, December 7 brought with it news of new police measures adopted to ensure the protection of the bourgeois Paris neighborhoods ravaged the previous weekend. Public benches would be taken away, drains removed, holes filled in, walls erected, Paris’s mobile phantasmagoria gone. Can one throw a hole? I still don’t know why they filled the holes. Eight thousand police arrived in Paris, alongside a dozen blue hexagonal blindés (tanks). Across the whole of France, eighty-nine thousand officers were deployed.

By 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, 425 preventative arrests had already been made. News circulated that Julien Coupat, acquitted last year in the Tarnac railway sabotage case, was arrested for having a yellow vest in his car—an ironic turn of events, given that drivers are legally required to keep one at hand. His arrest should be understood as a political move by the French state to put the violence of the movement down to extreme-left and extreme-right elements, who they say are manipulating the gilets jaunes. This mirrors the rather unconvincing attempts by the Minister of the Interior and the media to split the casseurs off from the “real gilets jaunes,” stripping the movement of its insurrectionary character by ascribing the violence to a few minority elements rather than a great, whirling mass that nobody has quite managed to identify yet. This attempt continues to fail. On a live TV program on Saturday, three female gilets jaunes were interviewed about the property damage and looting. Each woman replied, deadpan, “Franchement, je comprends” (frankly, I understand), one after the other.

We arrived at St. Lazare station at about 10:30 a.m. to find that the left bloc (Comité Adama, PEM, CLAQ, and others) had been more or less kettled. In the absence of any planned demonstration or route, comrades in the left bloc had gathered to ensure an anti-fascist presence in the streets and a safe route to the Champs. But the march was dotted with fascists, and also hounded by cops, so reaching the Champs was impossible. Lucky not to be in the kettle, we walked around the surrounding area, finding groups of gilets jaunes from Normandy and Brittany smoking, who wanted to walk to the Champs Elysées. There were police checkpoints at the ends of the long avenues leading there, and the cops were demanding identity documents, confiscating gas masks, swimming goggles, and spray cans. But the gilets were determined, muscular, and rowdy, and they approached the checkpoints in large groups that couldn’t be fully controlled. Like the left bloc, they were convinced of their right to be there, or indeed of not having the need for one. Two heavily armed BAC (plainclothes) police walked through the crowd, parting it like a hot knife through butter, and everyone booed them. One who looked like Vin Diesel took out his flashball rifle and waved it slowly. We doubled back and went in search of something else, hearing an older woman: “It’s boring down there, we came to demonstrate after all.” A younger man, smiling, stamped his foot in playful response, singing: “We came here to fuck shit up!” We found our something else towards Rue de Rivoli, where police and the still-kettled left bloc had moved a little further south. A tank hid like a cockroach, camouflaged between blue Gendarmerie vehicles. A man held a placard: “Rothschild démission,” a reference to Macron, who once worked for the Rothschild bank. My friend told me about another sign she’d seen the week before that roughly translates to “Macron, a Nazi salute up your ass.” Both signs exemplify the anti-Semitic and conspiracy-theory elements that the movement is flirting with. Ugly.

Closer to Rivoli, a helicopter was taking photos of a group of about thirty gilets. Nearby at Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries, there was a growing confrontation between protesters and police who were standing behind a large protective grill. Big vast boulevard, cold sunshine, and people were smoking and chanting: “Money, bastard, the people will have your skin!” When there were enough people, we set off back towards the Champs. A joyful group of black teenagers, dressed in stylish, satiny sportswear and balaclavas, jumped excitedly in front of a news anchor. We were eating clementines, and I bumped into the anthropologist David Graeber, who was wearing hiking boots but was otherwise dressed in rather intellectual-looking clothes. He accompanied us for a while, and although he didn’t have a gas mask or goggles, he was very cool about the gas.

Photo by Remi Moons

Music played from big speakers carried in a backpack—trap, Princess Nokia, and Parisian rap from the nineties and 2000s. People danced on the Avenue de Friedland in front of a burning barricade made from hoarding, paving stones, and some olive trees taken from a closed restaurant. Then no trees, someone took them away: “the trees didn’t do anything.” There was constant gas, but the wind blew it west. A muscular bloc of about forty people wearing motorcycle jackets and carrying a pirate flag arrive ominously. There are pied-noir flags, too. It’s totally chelou (creepy, weird), and then it becomes clear, as a riotous group of Parisian and banlieue antifascists charge them, that it’s the fafs (fash) and they are pushed out down a side street, come back, are pressed up against a wall as everyone chants “Paris is Antifa! Paris is Antifa!” The ambulances come in and everyone lets them through. The fascists are completely defoncés (fucked up). Tear gas and flashballs going again. Doubling back down Avenue de Friedland, we saw paysans (countryfolk) with banners and people tagging walls next to a statue of Balzac: “Macron, you won’t make it past Christmas!” A worrying-looking person with a long blade in hand flits past.

The next avenue is blocked by police too, but is empty of the crowd. Back on the Avenue de Friedland, next to the statue, the gilets are prising massive chipboard panels off a Tunisair storefront. The glass windows they are supposed to protect fall down in great sheets, and the crowd pulls back as they do. A Range Rover, one of the only remaining cars on the street—any driver with any sense would have, after last week’s fracas, parked their car elsewhere—is stocked full of kindling, turned over, and set alight. Black toxic smoke envelopes a tree, and two trunks catch fire. In light of Macron’s so-called “ecological measures,” to save cars you may have to burn cars, just as to save trees you may have to burn trees. It’s at least fifteen minutes before the firemen can get in. The Porsche next to the Range Rover is on fire now, all its windows open. A police charge splits the crowd. Bystanders, angry and high on the fumes, explode down the smaller side streets, flipping every car in sight. A Monoprix supermarket is being looted and people are handing out alcohol. Another supermarket, Franprix, is looted as well. Everyone claps. We move fast until we arrive at the St. Augustin area, where, on an avenue leading up to the Champs, the same scene is playing out.

At Opéra, people want to storm the Apple store. Instead, they seize corrugated iron hoarding from a nearby construction site while a bourgeois man films them from the second floor. Everyone gives him the finger and then a bottle soars up and smashes his window. He retreats inside, then crawls back on all fours, still filming, hiding behind his cast-iron balcony. The crowd pulls down traffic lights, makes barricades, and smashes up corporate targets of the sort familiar to the anti-globalization movement: McDonalds, Starbucks. It moves too rapidly to look for more legible contemporary targets, be they streams or places. At the junction of Strasbourg St. Denis and Grands Boulevards, a shop is being looted and people declare a target: Hôtel de Ville—the city hall of Paris that was occupied during the Paris Commune. Everything looted, everything barricaded, by people masked and unmasked, and not a single cop since Opéra. Of note: a fifty-something silver fox (male), unmasked, ungloved, and looking like an accountant, dragging planters full of flowers into the street. Burning barricades at the Centre Pompidou. The Hôtel de Ville blew up in tear gas canisters, which ricocheted off a Haussmanian block and we tumbled down the little streets of the Marais district. It’s the first time the manif sauvage (wildcat demonstration, rampage) has encountered tourists, who scurry into charcuterie bars as waitresses calmly lock doors. Oysters in crates on the side of the streets, twelve euros for two, but no one takes them. Later that night, Place de la République, further to the east, was briefly occupied, then charged by the police. The whole of Rue du Faubourg de Temple was looted, except for the most bohemian-bourgeois cafés, which had been forewarned.

The next morning, the mainstream media, the police, and the government applauded the forces of order for restoring “calm.” The mayor of Paris, however, said that the devastation in Paris was far worse than it had been on December 1. To collect some thoughts from conversations I had that day, many gilets wanted to take the Champs Elysées, since it’s a symbol of huge importance to them. As a result, the police and press focused their attention there. Some gilets made it onto the Champs, only to be deprived of their equipment (masks and goggles); they were then trapped for hours and repeatedly gassed. In Paris alone, one thousand people were arrested. This obsessive focus on taking the Champs made the unrest that day easier to contain. The police, however, did some of the rioters’ work for them, blockading the economy by shutting down affluent areas. While some made advances against the police through the effective use of barricades, the “riot” (its rowdier elements) scattered throughout the east of Paris, out of view of the journalists whose eyes were trained on the Champs. The effect of this devastation beyond a loss of profit, however, evidently relies on the press for its capacity to shock, and therefore these elements have had very little effect so far. Other parts of the country, which saw fewer police because so many had been deployed in Paris, were even worse hit: in Bordeaux, for example, the Apple store was looted and not a single MacBook, iPhone, or Apple watch was left untaken.

Roundabout Hopping: Some Interviews

On Monday, December 10, I set off in a car with four other people to do an informal inquiry into the gilets jaunes roundabout occupations near Paris. We went to a roundabout near Senlis, which has been occupied since before the first mobilization on November 17. When we got there, trucks and cars were making several loops around the roundabout, hooting and honking in solidarity. The roundabout is strategically located between an Amazon warehouse under construction and the entrances to two toll roads, one that leads to Paris and another that goes all the way to Belgium. The inhabitants of the roundabout block the toll station and let drivers through for free. The private company that owns the toll roads loses upwards of sixty euros for every truck let through. French taxpayers financed the building of the highways in France back in the day, but the maintenance was subsequently outsourced. The occupiers are on good terms with the local police, and comply if asked not to block the toll station. When they do block it, they have about two hundred gilets jaunes there.

We split up to talk to different people. The first person I talk to is Pierre (names have been changed), an ex-military man turned IT worker, who tells me immediately that although their roundabout occupation comprises people of all political persuasions, their movement is apolitical and they don’t talk about politics. He tells me he is right wing, and tries to provoke me about “political correctness.” He’s wearing sunglasses though it’s cold, damp, and not at all sunny in the middle of this industrial flatland surrounded by silver-birch woods. As he comes to trust me more he alternates between his sunglasses and a pair of rectangular reading glasses.

“You don’t scare me, we know who’s breaking things, I’m gilet jaune, not black bloc…”

He shows me the camp in a very ex-military way, as if he were a quartermaster taking me on a tour of his barracks. They have constructed cabins using pallets, and inside one of them is a cast-iron stove so that people can sleep there while they protect the roundabout. But they don’t sleep much because of constant hooting and honking throughout the night. Well organized, it looks a lot like the occupied ZAD near Nantes. Signs up on the wall list what they need. On the table, signs of what they have: food, coffee, wine. Women and men sleep in the night. Single parents bring their children, who are looked after collectively. The age range is very mixed—I’d say from early twenties to mid-seventies—but most seem to be in their fifties or retired.

The other people I came with speak to everyone they can, including far-left ecologists, ex-cop Front National members who babble about the “great replacement,” and lesbian trade unionists. Pierre has been involved in demonstrations before, against gay marriage, and his politics are Euroskeptic and anti-globalist. He explains that France’s decision to join the global economy in the 1970s required taking on a huge national debt that will never be paid off. The interest on the debt is paid for by taxes, he says, which should instead be used for the social security system. He doesn’t want Macron to quit; instead, he wants him, and all the French presidents of the past forty years, to be arrested by the army and made to stand trial for high treason against the French people. (Except Chirac, who’s no good to anyone nowadays, gone completely off the deep end). If Macron were to resign, he says, he would just be replaced by another “marionette.” He spends a lot of time explaining why he uses this imagery, even though I show him I understand that he’s talking about structural as opposed to symbolic power. I’m biting my tongue and hoping he doesn’t start talking about lizards;, but he doesn’t, nor does he get on to borders and migrants.

We talk about the police, who Pierre likes a lot because he’s ex-military. He has a laugh with them at every protest and doesn’t care how much they gas him. He can handle it anyway: he has a mask filled with white vinegar. He hates the “casse” (breaking stuff): those people, he says, are not real gilets jaunes, but black kids from the banlieue. I mention that the casseurs are wearing gilets jaunes, that a very small proportion of those arrested were previously known to police, and that in such a heterogenous movement, how can one really decide who is a “real” gilet anyway? He puts his sunglasses back on, spends a few minutes making sure I eat some spareribs, some chicken with mustard, and some bread—because if you’re here to visit, I don’t care who you are, even if you’re a journalist from Libération (the French equivalent of The Guardian, though a bit further left), you’re with us.

Pierre was there on Saturday, at the riot in Paris. How do the gilets jaunes who don’t have much money, and are not from the capital, come up? With great pleasure he explains that they use the privatized coaches that Macron set up before he became president. We compare notes. He lived a completely different day on Saturday than the one I described. They set off early in three cars—two full of heavy guys (the bait), and one with a straight couple in it and all of the group’s masks and goggles (the foil). They used walkie-talkies in case of a police search. They entered Paris through Porte Maillot and went around the south side of the Champs, and made it in easily. They occupied the Place de l’Étoile until they were gassed and partially dispersed. A kind of self-professed Übermensch, Pierre tells me that they went down the Avenue Marceau (leaving the women behind, of course; it’s dangerous). He and his friends advanced toward the Champs with the help of barricades. Here his definition of the casse becomes clearer: there was a car, one of the only cars left on the street, a diplomatic car, and it was already smashed up, so of course we burnt it on the barricade. And construction materials? If they’re there, they’re fair game. People were so angry about the gas that they descended onto the side streets, smashing the windows of cars, releasing their emergency brakes, and hauling them up, alarms wailing, to be burned. But people are stupid about the casse, he explains; they were burning plumbers’ vans, and those have gas canisters in them! Pierre also thinks it’s okay to smash banks because of global capital and finance, but not shops. Unless they don’t pay French taxes. The point is to take the Elysée, and to protect the statue of the Unknown Soldier that was vandalized by left-wingers last week. A tragedy has five acts, he tells me; we try to analyze this together but don’t get far.

Encampment at roundabout in Donges

Everyone else has been sitting around the campfire all this time talking to a very sweet fisherman who knows the names of every single living and extinct bird, and who was radicalized by his working-class mother, who gave him paysan novels to read (George Sand, Émile Zola, etc.). We are living through Zola’s Germinale. We talk about the blockade of the Porte de Rungis, the logistics depot through which all of the food for Paris passes, scheduled for that night, which he didn’t know about but which interests him because in the 1980s he used to deliver vegetables in the seventeenth arrondissement, when he had a fancy girlfriend who lived in the eighteenth.

They have hosted hitchhikers this weekend, and some alter-globalizationists from Paris came to visit too (“Worse than you guys!” says Pierre). They are open to discussion with outsiders and with each other. The roundabout, despite its several withered fascists, is not at all exclusively white, and there are regular truck drivers who come by and have coffee or a stronger drink, depending on the hour.

This reminds me of when I hitchhiked from Grenoble to Lyon in 2017. I was picked up by a Belgian truck driver who told me about the good old days on the job. You had a destination and an arrival time, he said, but you could meander anywhere you liked along the way, as long as you didn’t arrive late. Truck drivers met each other for wild parties well off their routes. Now truck stops have closed, and drivers sleep alone in gas stations. They also have GPS tracking on their vehicles. As I climbed up the vertical steps to the cabin, his boss was already calling to see why he’d stopped. They are not allowed to make unscheduled stops, to prevent them from selling off their load. He also explained that he’d heard of people making stops to steal large pieces of farm machinery that they would sell in other countries. Those people messed up everything for everyone, he said. His company was based in Romania and had workers from all over the EU, but each worker was paid according to the minimum wage in their country of origin, so they all earned different amounts. It must be nice to have a place like the Senlis roundabout, where some of the sociality of the job is restored.

We set off to Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a little further away, although we wanted to go to Creil, where lycéens had been blocking their high school since that morning; there was a fire and they had occupied a bridge in a standoff with police. At Pont-Sainte-Maxence, the roundabout is outside the town, in the same kind of industrial zone as the roundabout in Senlis, but less strategically located. It’s next to a McDonalds, and a LeClerc supermarket, which the gilets have no interest in blocking. As with the Senlis roundabout, here the gilets have a good relationship with the local police, and have even cleared a path through the center of the roundabout for the cops to pass through. It’s only a daytime picket. They stop cars briefly, have a chat, and hand out cakes, slowing traffic slightly. When we arrive a man dressed as Santa Claus is screaming at some teenagers who are swerving around the roundabout in a small car, a dog hanging out one window, a passenger out of another. The gilets run after them, ready for a fight. Father Christmas gives us some candy and tells us the kids are fucking migrants, fucking “racaille” (scum, a word famously used by former President Sarkozy). You are racaille, we say, you are giving Macron the finger. Our joke, a rather flimsy response to their racism, falls a little flat. I’m quite sure they provoked the incident by being extremely racist to the teenagers, who are now reeling around the LeClerc parking lot in their car like two extras in a Cronenberg adaptation of a Ballard novel. One gilet makes another racist comment toward one of their own, a gilet of Vietnamese origin: “There’s no point wearing the vest, man. You’re already yellow.” We haven’t even parked yet.

We park and immediately get roped into an argument with two very boring men who want to abolish all taxes because they are petit bourgeois and don’t believe they need the social security system. As for the national train service, the SNCF, which depends on taxes: why should this guy have to pay for the trains the racaille ride on when he has a car of his own? Subject the industry to market competition, they say. The train drivers on strike? Fuck them, have you ever worked ninety hours a week, young lady? I tell him I haven’t, and look down sadly at my hands. He repaired fridges in big supermarkets and then started his own business. I tell him about what happened in the UK, where I’m from, after the 2008 financial crash—about cuts to the public sector and the National Health Service. He listens, but his position is ideological, unshiftable. I ask him if he thinks our opinions are different because he owns property and I don’t. Yes, he laughs. Unlike at Senlis where you can stay a few hours and really discuss things and listen to each other – even with my ex-soldier, Pierre!– the roundabout is a soapbox, not a place of exchange. Also the music they are playing sucks and we’re really cold. Gender dynamics? A man painting a Nelson Mandela quote onto a sign tells me that women don’t come here because they don’t feel safe, and because it’s cold. I am still mystified by this!

We return and watch Macron give a speech on TV in response to the gilets jaunes crisis. He flirts with the question of national identity and describes a “wounded” French subject, penetrated by outside influence. “We must confront migration.” He promises an “economic and social state of emergency,” whatever that means, and an increase in the minimum wage of one hundred euros per month. It’s clear that this increase will be funded by reducing unemployment benefits and cutting tax credits. He talks a lot about violence. Underlying this violence, he says, is a need to be ‘loved’, and a need to be recognized as a French subject. Then he picks out a few such subjects who he presents as unable to enact violence, such as women and disabled people. It’s a terrifying speech, actually, and the editing is really weird, the camera keeps cutting in and out—his crazed eyes, his crazed hands.

In the discussion afterwards on TV, a flurry of feeble commentariat pretend not to understand class or austerity, ruffling their hands and their papers—left, right, left, right. Even Mélenchon’s response to Macron is like a series of well researched, beautiful dabs, knocking his nationalist bluff out of the window. After that they interviewed some gilets jaunes — they mis-judge them as much as they did the three blasé women earlier in the week. Will you leave the roundabouts now that Macron has raised the minimum wage? No way, responds a gardener in some very strange glasses. “Listen: no. He’s only responded to one of our many demands. We want an end to homelessness and many other things. Our struggle is also for unemployed people who have no access to the minimum wage. Our first demand was that he quit. So we’re staying put.”

The next day I see an article in the Parisien: our friends in Senlis have decided to continue their occupation.

—Paris, December 12, 2018

* “La Marseillaise” was written in 1792 and sung by the Republican army fighting the Royalists during the French Revolution. This martial, bloody song remained revolutionary throughout the nineteenth century and the Paris Commune, but in the twentieth century it was progressively claimed as a nationalist anthem by the right. While the right may try to use this song to enshrine a unified (white) French national identity, “La Marseillaise” can equally be sung as an act of defiance, as it was in this case. It was also sung during a riot on February 17, 2017 (after a black man named Théo from the banlieue was raped by a police officer using a baton) by a crowd of predominantly nonwhite residents of Bobigny. In the words of rapper Kalash Criminel: Tout ce que j’ai retenu de la Marseillaise / C’est aux armes citoyens (All that I remember of “La Marseillaise” / Is the citizens’ weapons).