Which way off the roundabout

Ethan Earle

Where the yellow vests are heading next

Quick! Are there other lives? – Sleep in wealth

is impossible. Wealth has always been public property.

~Arthur Rimbaud

It has been a quiet few months for the gilets jaunes, until recently omnipresent in their fluorescent yellow, roadside emergency vests, protesting on roundabouts throughout France and television sets around the world. After shaking the foundations of the French political establishment as much as any protest movement of the past generation – each Saturday upon the next, long after Very Serious commentators had predicted them to pack up and return to wherever they came from – through the summer the yellow vest protests did grow notably fewer and further between.

Blame it on those famous French vacations, which sweep into their vacuum even those for whom les vacances are not much of a holiday at all. Or blame it on the European elections of 26 May, which sucked air out of the streets and cast aspersions on the limitations of the gilets jaunes’ “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” style of politics. Or else blame it on the record-breaking heatwaves that saw temperatures rise well above 40 °C (104 °F) across the country through June and July.

But seasons change. Vacations have ended, summer is giving way to fall, and the underlying conditions driving the most significant social uprising since sometime between 2010 and 1968 have not changed one bit. As of now, it appears the yellow vests will be back soon, in one form or another, occupying roundabouts and at least a sliver of terrain in the heads of France’s status quo politicians.

Now on the cusp of their second act, whatever it may be, we ask ourselves: What have we learned so far about these people in their yellow vests? What do they want, and which way are they heading?

They don’t want Macron… but how about Le Pen?

The gilets jaunes protests began on 17 November 2018 in response to an announced government plan to raise fuel taxes, pitched to the public partially as an environmental measure. The size and intensity of the first protest – planned on social media in a decentralized manner and including hundreds of thousands of people across France – shocked the nation, as did the violent police repression ordered by President Emmanuel Macron in response.

Almost from the start, the protests were wildly broad and sometimes contradictory, making it hard to locate the yellow vests on a traditional left-right political axis. The factor that did unite the protests was a widespread unhappiness with social conditions, combined with a visceral rejection of the government and its brash young President.

Across available polling, a mere single-digit number of gilets jaunes participants report voting for Macron in the 2017 national election. Two years later, in the recent 26 May EU elections, yellow vest vote totals for Macron’s La Republique En Marche party remained miniscule.

Elsewhere in the elections, each of two gilets jaunes lists garnered less than 0,5%, with a majority of participants either abstaining or casting blank ballots, while those who did vote preferred Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National party (recently re-branded as Rassemblement National). While this result can be explained partially by a left electoral landscape fractured into multiple lists and unable to impose itself on the public stage, the results were undeniably disturbing.

A report titled “Ideological divisions in the ‘yellow vest’ movement”, prepared by the Quantité Critique research collective and published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brussels office in May 2019, closed by arguing that the “yellow vests’ ability to remain united and resist the lure of the Le Pen vote will undoubtedly be tested in these [EU] elections”. At first glance, this test would appear have been failed.

Does this mean that the yellow vests uprising, which, after all began as a protest against a carbon tax, is actually right wing, or is taking a right turn off the roundabout?

Try getting to know them

Between “Ideological divisions” and a second study conducted by Quantité Critique, released in June 2019 and instructively titled “The core of the yellow vest movement rejects the far right”, we are provided among the most comprehensive surveys to date in our attempts to get to know more about the gilets jaunes.

The first thing to note is that labourers and employed workers make up two-thirds of yellow vest participants surveyed, while nearly three-quarters could be considered the working class. Even more clarifying, 90% participants report at times having trouble making ends meet, while 62.7% report having trouble making ends meet every single month.

While many commentators have casually described the gilets jaunes as a rural phenomenon, Quantité Critique points to findings that only 36% of participants live in rural areas, with the majority actually residing in cities or, particularly, in towns located on the peripheries of larger cities. Indeed, as the report concludes, the gilets jaunes are not principally “left-behind rural dwellers but a mobilization of disadvantaged citizens from all over the country”.

This singular fact, of being a member of the working poor or near-poor, describes the yellow vests much more than any other.

Another crucial characteristic of gilets jaunes participants is their resistance to ideological labels. Around 70% either claim to be neither left- nor right-wing, or decline even to respond to this question. Meanwhile, only 15% claim to be of the left, 12% of the right, and just over 3% of the centre.

An examination of two issue areas on which gilets jaunes are often assessed to hold right-wing positions yields further interesting results. Immigration barely features in ranked issues of importance, nor does it appear in publicity materials or public debates associated with the movement. Meanwhile, more than 82% of surveyed participants at least somewhat agree that “if things carry on the way they are, we will soon be experiencing a major environmental catastrophe”.

The report rather concludes that “demands remain resolutely geared towards fair taxation, the redistribution of wealth through public services, and the democratisation of institutions by means of citizens’ initiative referendums. If anything, these are left-wing demands.”

So, non-ideological, voting for the far right, making left-wing protest demands… what to make of it all?

It’s… complicated

It is common to assume that social movements should be issues-based, and to judge them on their progress as relates to discrete issues. What do they actually want?, and, Yeah, but what did they actually do?, serve as common refrains of dismissal. This tendency is all the more pronounced in an age in which non-profit advocacy and issues-based NGOs remain ascendant amidst a generalized decline of popular mass organizations.

In their seminal work, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward make a compelling argument for a different reading of social movements. The authors point to a long history of poor people’s movements that, on the basis of a generalized sentiment that no other recourse is available, manifest as more diffuse acts of defiance against an entire existing system. More than movements as we are often conditioned to think of them, these are generalized uprisings of whole groups of people who are no longer willing to let their particular complaints be filed away into cabinets and left to gather dust.

The gilets jaunes uprising is, more than anything else, a movement of France’s working classes, signalling its rejection of business as usual, in all the ideological messiness this entails. It is thus understandable, particularly given the broader rightward shift in politics, not just in France but across the globe, that this messiness includes people who consider themselves of the right. It also includes people who voted for the right because they view Le Pen as the de facto voice of opposition in the country, which is a notion that Le Pen as well as Macron worked hard to set up, and which the weakness of the left has helped solidify.

This is the real truth that drives a deeper understanding of the yellow vests in the current moment. They reject the current state of affairs in France, and in the absence of what they perceive to be a credible progressive alternative, some will turn to any voice that speaks against the status quo. But take note that the majority of gilets jaunes participants either cast blank votes or abstained from voting entirely in each of the past two major elections. This was the real majoritarian message of the movement: that the whole politics of the country no longer works for them. In this sense, the ongoing role of the yellow vests in the current conjuncture is still on the roundabout, its direction still undecided.

Which way off the roundabout

The most important contribution of Piven and Cloward is not only their observation about poor people’s movements, but their subsequent argument that this form of protest may actually be the most effective for an entire group of people that has been shut out of the political process.

The French working classes were squeezed thin by the right-wing Republican government of Nicolas Sarkozy, then stabbed in the back by the so-called Socialist Party government of François Hollande. Now a President who campaigned on a message of change but acts much more like his predecessors, pushing the same policies that hurt these same people, is telling them they need to pay more to have this damage inflicted upon them. What else is one to do in response to such a demand? If only the left had something to say about this…

Well, in fact, in 2017 a broad group of the left did come together around Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise and finished within two points of besting Le Pen and advancing to contest Macron in the run-off election. However, this already fragile and beleaguered left front was crippled by its defeat. Since then, the possibility of a common project has been made impossible by a combination of infighting, miscalculations of leadership, structural defects and sheer fatigue. In its fractured and incoherent form, the broader left today finds itself eclipsed by the twinned dark stars of Macron and Le Pen.

The next closest source of light in the 2019 election came not from the traditional left but from green party Europe Écologie Les Verts, which captured 13,5% of the vote. Initial speculation that The Greens might try to build a new left front have thus far not materialized, with the party instead inclining toward a more centrist politics based around market reform. However, this remains unclear, as does the future political course of the many recently politicized people who voted for The Greens to do everything needed to reverse our current climate crisis.

For the French left, the goal must be to reassemble itself in such a way that it is capable of listening and subsequently responding to the best spirits – while still categorically rejecting the worst inclinations – contained within the tangled mass that is the yellow vests. A renewed French left would recognize the need to work together between its different tendencies to create a third political pole that can attract people based on a clear program focused on raising income and wealth equality and addressing climate change and other social issues by making big businesses and wealthy elites shoulder the majority of the costs.

For the gilets jaunes, it is likely that the autumn will see some form of renewed activity. And as for the harder, winter months? I remember well the role of winter in breaking up the Occupy Wall Street encampments, which, like the yellow vests, were staggering under the twinned weights of heavy police repression and their own ideological heterogeneity. But I also believe that the current renewal of the US left – from Black Lives Matter to Bernie Sanders to the Democratic Socialists of America – would not have been possible without the openings created by Occupy Wall Street.

Likewise, the gilets jaunes have spoken, creating new openings in political discourse for those who are willing to hear them. And their voice will rise again, in one form or another, in all its incoherence, wisdom and immediacy. Which way off the roundabout – whether it will be to the left or right, to somewhere better or back from where they came – will be decided by the concrete political projects that are constructed to reflect, include and serve the working people of France.

Ethan Earle is a Paris-based political consultant, former program manager at RLS-NYC, and director of A Season in Hell.

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