Interview with Ethan Earle about the Gilets jaunes and French democracy

Ethan Earle: First off, I want to say that today is July 14, Bastille Day, the French national holiday celebrating the storming of the Bastille, which was a medieval armory, fortress and political prison representing royal authority and power in the center of Paris. The takeover of the Bastille by ordinary French women and men represented a massive turning point in the French Revolution, and, while Bastille Day is now typically celebrated with Europe’s largest military parade and other accoutrements of crude nationalism and reactionary state power, the Place de la Bastille remains a major popular square, a meeting point for ordinary people from all over Paris and beyond, as well as a common site of protest and political demonstration.

Given the turbulence in French politics right now, and particularly this matter of the Gilets Jaunes and broader citizens’ initiatives of recent years, I think it’s a really appropriate day to be having this conversation.

Axel Ruppert: What is the current situation of the Gilets Jaunes and what challenges are they facing?

EE: The Gilets Jaunes are often referred to as a movement—or casually thought of as a movement—which I believe creates conceptual confusion in how we assess where “they” are at today.

Movements are typically built through the interplay between spontaneity and organization, the dialectic movement between the two to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg. The Gilets Jaunes moment arose outside of organizational structures and largely in opposition to them. While organizing structures did emerge from within the Gilets Jaunes protests, none could ever claim to represent the Yellow Vests as a whole and, consequently, there were very few concrete demands which could be said to really represent the collective voice of protest.

Rather than a movement, I would argue that the Gilets Jaunes represent a broad and largely spontaneous uprising of the working classes against status quo politics and status quo power in the country. These yellow vests carried by all motorists in France served as a brilliant unifying visual symbol but also belied the fact that, underneath the vests could be found the breadth of anger and aspirations of whole swaths of the French working class, ranging from revolutionary to reformist to reactionary, from visionary to very detailed to fairly vacuous… as one would expect of any spontaneous uprising born out of something as heterogeneous and politically fragmented as the French working class is today.

Having made this argument, let me return to, and problematize, your question. When speaking of the Gilets Jaunes, there is no real “they” that can be identified as a coherent body in any way that is more specific than how we would address the challenges that, “they”, the politically disaffected or discontented working classes, are facing. And unfortunately, broadly speaking, the conditions of the French working class are every bit as bad, and as unsettled, as they were in the period immediately leading up to the uprising.

In terms of the current situation of the Gilets Jaunes—those folks out there wearing yellow vests—well, there has been no big uptick since spring of last year. There still are people who go out to roundabouts, and there are different political initiatives that have been born out of the uprising—again, some of them revolutionary, some of them reformist, some of them reactionary. Certainly, some of the citizens’ lists in the recent Municipal elections were infused with the spirit of the Yellow Vests, and in Bordeaux the New Anti-Capitalist Party was successful in getting elected to city council a former Gilets Jaunes leader and symbol who lost his hand in the extreme police repression led by Macron’s government. But if we make the mistake of viewing the Yellow Vests as a coherent movement, we’ll inevitably be disappointed by that movement’s “output” or “current situation”.

All of that might sound a bit depressing and pessimistic, but I actually have a very positive view of the impact of the Yellow Vests, in spite of all this heterogeneity and fragmentation. I’ll address this more in response to your follow-up questions, but I’ll just say here that I view the uprising as a crystallization of citizens’ protests, begun during the Nuit Debout protests in 2016, and since then further consolidated in the form of protests against hospital cuts, against a proposed pension reform, and most recently against police violence and discrimination against Black people. This isn’t to say that all of these are the same—and certainly not that all of the various protestors would agree with each other—but I do believe that the Yellow Vest uprising deeply marked this period as one in which all sorts of ordinary people can stand up—and will continue to stand up—to be heard by a political class that has grown all too comfortable with itself, all too deaf to the cries of the many people for whom France’s political and economic system is no longer working.

AR: How do you assess the citizens’ assemblies initiated by President Macron?

EE: One direct result of the Gilets Jaunes uprising is the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate, which was convened by President Macron as an outcome of the “Great Debate” he held, also in response principally to the Yellow Vest uprising. This Citizens’ Convention brought together 150 members from French society, drawn by lot and given the task to propose measures to reduce national carbon emissions by 40%. The Convention presented a first draft of its proposals to the government by video-conference in mid-April, and a formal list of 149 proposals on the 21st of June.

The proposed measures are very broad, relating to questions of transportation, housing, consumption, production, work, the food sector, and so on. Specific examples range from railway investment and the introduction of an aviation tax to the inclusion of the Paris Agreement climate objectives in the Canada-EU trade agreement known as CETA.

Some of the proposals, as well as the language used, have a tendency to slide into the sustainable development-speak of international institutions that was already shown to be inadequate before the Covid crisis, and there is not a whole lot that is “new” as such, but the fact of this coming from a citizens’ convention IS new, at least in France, and as a whole the proposals do show a lot of promise and, if implemented, would radically change France’s relationship not just to climate change but to capitalism.

Of course, the phrase “if implemented” hangs over the rest of what I’ve just said like a sword of Damocles. Particularly given the “green wave” that supposedly washed over France in its recent municipal elections, I do believe that Macron’s République en Marche party, which remains dominant in parliament, will enact some of the proposals made. However, and also considering a recent cabinet reshuffle in which Macron signaled his intentions to campaign to the right ahead of 2022 presidential elections, we should not expect to see the implementation of changes that fundamentally challenge the dominant role of the market and large capital in French society.

This is necessarily limited, but it is where we find ourselves, not just in France but elsewhere in the world, if not in thrall to neoliberal political projects like Macron’s then to even more reactionary one like those of Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte and so on. Within this global context of retreat and defensive positioning, I really think both the fact of the citizens’ convention and also its recommendations should be commended. After all, it echoed a long demand of various left movements, and it’s clear that without the Gilets Jaunes uprising it never would have come to pass.

AR: Have the Gilets Jaunes left any mark on the recent municipal elections?

EE: This is a hard question to answer, both because we’re still so close to those elections, which took place just two weeks ago, and also for the reasons I’ve already detailed about the amorphous and heterogeneous nature of the Gilets Jaunes. I’ve already mentioned election of the city councilor in Bordeaux. And in the 2020 municipal elections, there were more than 400 citizens’ lists, 66 of which were able to win, and which were variously inflecting, implicitly or explicitly, by the Gilets Jaunes citizens’ uprising that preceded them. These citizens’ lists employed all sorts of different democratic innovation, picking candidates at random, or through local assemblies, or in some cases advancing lists that did not include specific candidates. Of the winning 66, in some of the smaller towns they actually went it alone, but more common, particularly in larger towns and even modest cities like Chambéry and Poitiers, they fused with traditional parties between first and second voting rounds.

Taking a step back, we know from sociological studies that the majority of folks who self-identified as GJs abstained from voting in both 2017 and 2019. And we know that the majority of French people abstained from voting in the recent municipal elections for the first time on record. It’s hard to separate correlation from causation this early, so take those facts for what you will, but from my perspective they are clearly related. We also know that among Yellow Vest voters, a narrow plurality has generally preferred left-wing candidates, represented in 2017 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but that nearly as many have also voted for the far-right Le Pen and her Rassemblement National.

In last month’s municipal elections, Mélenchon’s France Insoumise generally ran in coalitions or declined to participate in elections. Its impact was thus fairly limited, though it was one of the various parties taking part in the impressive Printemps Marseillais that took power after twenty-some years of right-wing governance in France’s second-biggest city. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National focused on consolidating its existing mayoralties and winning the southern city of Perpignan. It was successful in this regard, taking a city of more than 100 000 for only the second time, but its fairly narrow strategy ensured that it would not burst more fully into the national spotlight.

What we did see, apart from the citizens’ lists already mentioned, were major victories for broad left coalitions led by Green Party or in some cases Socialist candidates. And while the extent to which the Greens have transformative political intentions is still to be seen—and perhaps doubted—there is no doubt that their position as relative outsiders to France’s stultified political system will have helped them win over at least some of the many GJ sympathizers who wish to reject politics as usual. That said, I would still maintain that the biggest mark left by the Yellow Vest uprising on these elections is the deepening trend of abstentionism, of French voters who feel completely left out of the electoral political process.

And while I believe in the importance of voting, and always urge folks to get involved in the voting process, I will close by channeling the original spirits of Bastille Day and saying that the ballot box is perhaps not where the Yellow Vests’ greatest mark is meant to be left.

I view them—and more broadly the citizens’ protests and conventions and movements and uprisings of this most recent period—as a condemnation of the system as it stands today. They stand outside of this system, which for too long has not listened to them, which has silenced and minimized and distorted and coopted their many cries for change, and they continue to assert their existence, their collective identity in all its diversity, and the legitimacy of their demands.

A new locus of protest has clearly emerged in France in these past years—bringing together Nuit Debout and the Gilets Jaunes, hospital and health care workers, pensioners and trade unionists, climate justice activists, Black Lives Matter activists. This locus has the attention of Macron, and of all of the political establishment, in a way that more traditional political movements of the left have really struggled to do in recent decades. This is not a victory, but it is a new opening to fight the battles for justice and equality that are being demanded. The Bastille is not yet again under siege, but more than any time in recent memory, ordinary French women and men have it in their sights. 

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