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The Yellow Vests Movement, an Unidentified Political Object

Interpreting a mobilization fueled by accumulated grievances against neoliberal reforms

By Didier Fassin and Anne-Claire Defossez Published 2019

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Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images
A roundabout near Colmar, birthplace of the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty, March 2018.

On November 22, five days into the gilets jaunes protests, with some 2,000 roads and roundabouts barricaded across the country and 280,000 demonstrators having taken to the streets in the major cities, Emmanuel Macron welcomed journalists from Le Monde to the Élysée. It was not to give them his analysis of this extraordinary outburst but to take them on a tour of the presidential palace, where he had undertaken a costly renovation of its sumptuous ballroom. He told them that Brigitte, the First Lady, was supervising the project, and praised her choice of a €300,000 carpet woven at the Royal Manufactory of Aubusson. “We are at a moment in the life of the nation when it is necessary to invest,” he declared, and since the Élysée was the showcase of France, it had to be a priority. For a President who regards the King’s death during the Revolution as a permanent trauma for the French people, and considers it his mission to occupy the vacated space, this disconnect between the preoccupations of the nation and its head of state—the yellow vests were initially supported by 75 percent of the population, according to opinion polls—could be called a Louis XVI moment, comparable to the Bourbon monarch’s laconic diary entry for July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille fell: “Nothing.”

The executive had simply not taken stock of the magnitude of the yellow-vest mobilization, nor of the accumulated grievances that lay behind it. The insurgency was regarded as one more episode of futile protest against its neo-liberal reforms. The experience of Macron’s first two years in office—the repeated failure of massive demonstrations to prevent his revisions of the labor code, overhaul of the state rail operator, and cuts to pensions—led Paris to believe that it could ride out this latest unrest. It deemed trivial the yellow vests’ main complaint: an increase in fuel tax of 6.5 cents per litre for diesel and 2.9 cents for petrol, scheduled for January 1, 2019, and coming on top of similar rises implemented in 2018. The stated purpose of the carbon tax was to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, an ecological gesture intended to dispel the negative impression created by the resignation of Nicolas Hulot, the popular environment minister, who had declared himself frustrated by the government’s lack of political will on green issues.

Truth be told, very few politicians or commentators had anticipated such disturbances, or proved able to interpret them once they became entrenched—despite a burgeoning literature on the subject. How could a leaderless grassroots movement, involving often quite small groups of protesters, monopolize the national news, capture the attention of the wider world, and destabilize a government that had swept to power by a landslide victory in 2017? As Jacques Rancière has suggested, it is as difficult to understand why some people mobilize when confronted with situations they regard as unacceptable, as it is to understand why others in similar or even worse circumstances do not. The gilets jaunes upsurge appears all the more remarkable when one considers that most of its adherents had never participated in a demonstration before and refuse any political or union affiliation. 

Commentators who derided the initial grievance of the gilets jaunes ignored the fact that opposition to the fuel-tax increase had a deeper meaning, rooted in the social transformations of the past decades, which recent measures have merely aggravated. Worsening economic inequality since the 1980s was relatively well tolerated as long as living standards continued to improve for everyone, even if not at the same pace. But since the 2008 financial crisis, the income of the bottom 40 percent of the population has dropped. Pauperization has mainly afflicted those who were already the most disadvantaged, among whom joblessness and under-employment became increasingly rife. At the same time, the cost of housing, energy, insurance, and school meals has risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. These trends have left the lowest segment of the population with a reduced budget to meet all their other needs.

Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstration in Paris, on the Champs-Élysées, December 15, 2018
In parallel, rising rents and house prices, especially in large cities, have forced more and more people on tight incomes to move further away from urban centers, where many of them work. Public transport remains chronically underdeveloped in these hinterlands, so owning a car is essential. The soaring cost of fuel has therefore eaten into household budgets. In rural areas the problem is even more acute. There, the atrophy of public services—from post offices to train stations, hospitals to schools—obliges people to drive into larger towns to access any sort of amenity. Thus, whereas the tax increases had little impact on privileged social layers, since fuel represents only a small proportion of their budgets, they constituted a real financial burden for people living at a distance from the cities. It is estimated that the carbon tax weighs five times more heavily on the bottom decile than on the top, even though the former produces much less pollution than the latter. Besides, the car industry itself was exempted from this environmental levy. On top of these injustices, drivers of diesel cars saw the extra tax hike for their vehicles as being particularly unfair, because the government has encouraged the use of this type of engine for decades, and so it is found today in more than 60 percent of all personal vehicles in France—mostly the older ones owned by lower-income road-users. 

The contemptuous attitude of the elite has reinforced the sense of social relegation among the disregarded classes. The President himself has made multiple disparaging or condescending public interventions of this kind: dismissing his critics as “slackers and cynics”; describing women laid off from a slaughterhouse as “mostly illiterates”; drawing a contrast between “people who succeed and people who are nothing”; deploring that “we are putting crazy amounts of dough into minimum social benefits”; telling a young jobseeker that “I’ll cross the street and I’ll find you something”; and commenting, in reference to the yellow vests, that “we must make those who suffer hardship take responsibility because some behave well but others screw around.” These incendiary statements, which a late act of contrition in his television address of December 10 could not erase from collective memory, probably explain why the January polls showed that 68 percent of the French population find Macron arrogant and that he is the most unpopular French President in the history of the Fifth Republic, with only 23 percent holding a positive opinion of him. As the historian Gérard Noiriel notes, “popular struggles almost always involve the denunciation of the disdain of the powerful, and that of the yellow vests only confirms this rule.” But Macron’s verbal haughtiness is not the only cause of the spectacular collapse in his approval ratings. For the protesters, his deeds, more than his words, manifest his scornful indifference to their condition. 

The first actions of the newly elected President left no doubt about his political orientation. To the applause of business leaders, the former Rothschild banker abolished the solidarity tax on wealth, replacing it with a levy on real estate from which financial assets were exempt, and cut corporation tax as well as employer payroll charges. Conversely, to balance the state’s budget, housing benefit, family allowances, and pensions were all reduced. Not surprisingly, Macron soon earned the sobriquet “President of the rich.” His justification for these policies rested on the hackneyed trickle-down theory, according to which reduced taxes on the wealthy and corporations stimulate investment, create jobs, and eventually prove beneficial to all. But this did not convince the majority of the population, who understood that the man they had elected because he claimed to be neither right nor left was in fact a typical neoliberal. Far from rejuvenating the political world, as he had promised during his campaign, Macron seemed merely to represent the old politics in new garb. This is probably why the yellow vests immediately obtained such an extraordinary measure of public support, despite the disruption they are causing to many people’s daily lives. Although the number of protesters on the streets on any given day has rarely exceeded 100,000, the majority of the population who expressed sympathy with them in the polls should be regarded as -demonstrators by proxy.

But is it even legitimate to call the protests of the yellow vests a movement? Several features of those protests run against this characterization, particularly if one considers how the mobilization developed in the closing weeks of 2018. First, rather than being a coordinated demonstration, it is a spontaneous uprising. Blockades are agreed upon between neighbors and friends. Improvised protests take place at venues chosen at the last minute via social media. Most of the time, no permission is solicited from the authorities, which have been all too ready to declare these rallies illegal and proceed to make arrests among anyone gathered in a group. Second, no leaders or spokespersons emerged from their ranks. Those who put themselves forward to liaise with the authorities or accepted invitations on talk shows were immediately criticized, and sometimes even threatened. Third, no single watchword or program unified the participants. Although certain themes recurred, on tax justice in particular, the most frequent slogans heard were against Macron himself, confirming the general mood of disaffection with the President. 

It is certainly the case that the very form taken by the mobilization renders any analysis of its sociodemographic composition problematic. However, studies have been done in situ at the roundabouts, via social media, and through opinion polls. The observations gleaned so far by journalists and sociologists across the country do suggest some general traits. First, the yellow vests are a very heterogeneous group. Most have no experience of engagement in social movements, organized labor, or political parties. Second, they combine men and women—the latter unusually well represented, at 45 percent of the total—pensioners and workers, craftsmen and tradesmen, nurses and housekeepers, students and unemployed. Most adherents come from the upper-working class or the lower-middle class, drawn together by the shared experience of their income being progressively squeezed by tax hikes and rising expenses. Third, most reside in the distant outskirts of cities, as well as in depopulated rural areas, where there is a painful sense of abandonment by the state. The expression “peripheral France,” so often used to characterize them, should thus be taken in the polysemous sense of those who occupy—or regard themselves as occupying—a political, social, and spatial periphery. In the opinion of sociologist Serge Paugam, the yellow-vest movement represents “the revenge of the invisible” against the “social contempt” of the elites.

So close to the start of the yellow-vest mobilization, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about its meaning and future. The movement has too often been treated as sui generis, when in fact useful comparisons can be drawn with mobilizations that have occurred in Spain, Italy, and Greece over the past decade. There are undoubtedly similarities: anger at diminished purchasing power and at the dysfunction of representative democracy; social and political heterogeneity of the protesters, with a significant role played by precarious workers and newcomers to militancy, especially women; occupation of public spaces and utilization of social media; absence of leaders and formal structures, at least in the early phases of these movements. Two factors might nevertheless singularize the French case: the channeling of people’s rage against the figure of the President, who has become the symbol of an arrogant and authoritarian neoliberalism, and the country’s history of struggles over the social state, which remains part of the collective imaginary.

Whereas these hypotheses will need to be confirmed, what can be said with some confidence is that the gilets jaunes mobilization constitutes an event in the strong sense of the term—that is, a moment which imposes a temporal rupture in the course of things, with a before and an after. No one knows whether this movement will evolve toward a more recognizable form, but it has at least reminded French politicians of the existence of a category that had disappeared from their vocabulary: les classes populaires.

An anthropologist, sociologist, and physician, Didier Fassin has been James D. Wolfensohn Professor in the School of Social Science since 2009. His current work is on the theory of punishment, the politics of life, and the public presence of the social sciences. A sociologist, Anne-Claire Defossez, Visitor in the School since 2015, conducts research on the question of women’s political participation and representation by exploring the trajectory and experience of women formally involved in politics at local and national levels in France. This article is a shortened and revised version of their article “An Improbable Movement? Macron’s France and the Rise of the Gilets Jaunes,” published in the January/February edition of the New Left Review, available here.

Published in The Institute Letter Spring 2019