The Yellow Vests Have France’s Attention, but What Exactly Are They Saying?

Judah Grunstein, WPR, PARIS:
What to make of the Yellow Vests? For a third week in a row, they continue to dominate the news.Televised scenes of pitched street battles between protesters and police on Saturday raised alarm about an “insurrectional atmosphere” unseen in France since May 1968. Reports suggested that French President Emmanuel Macron might declare a state of emergency in response.

Instead, in his first sign of retreat since taking office in May 2017, Macron agreed yesterday to suspend the planned fuel tax hike that served as the catalyst for the popular mobilizations that have transfixed, if not exactly paralyzed, the country.

Many pixels have been devoted to the movement’s blurry origins, its inchoate and amorphous structure, its lack of leaders and representatives, and its strange combination of demands that range from the issue-specific revolt against the gas tax hike to broad condemnations of social inequality and Macron himself. And yet, for all that, most observers—including, it seems, Macron and the government of his prime minister, Edouard Philippe—continue to grope for answers to basic questions about the Yellow Vests, or Gilets Jaunes, as they are known here.

Who are they? What do they represent? And why are observers here in France so alarmed?

It’s hard to get a sense of who the movement comprises, because it is a social media-based affair and most of the reporting on its supporters is anecdotal. But what seems clear is that the protesters who burned cars, vandalized the Arc de Triomphe, fought riot police and shocked television viewers around the world are not representative of the movement and probably aren’t even part of it. The violence was mostly the work of a hard-core demographic known here as “casseurs,” or breakers, who are to French political protests what hooligans are to soccer stadiums. For them, the violence is central, and whatever protest they join to engage in it is often irrelevant. And if things spiraled so badly out of control, it was in large part because the French security forces’ tactical deployment in anticipation of the violence was ill-conceived and easily bypassed. 

As for the actual Yellow Vests, the admittedly anecdotal reporting suggests a disparate demographic that ranges from mid-level managers and entrepreneurs on one end of the spectrum to low-wage workers on the other. That would seem to correspond to the two income brackets negatively affected by Macron’s tax reforms, namely the upper fifth of the income range—excluding the top centile that benefited enormously—and the bottom quarter. But as Art Goldhammer points out, the impact at the lower end is negligible, leading him to conclude, “To me, these graphs suggest 1) that the movement may not be as widespread as it appears, and 2) that economic motives alone cannot account for the ferocity of the protest.”

What then accounts for this sudden ferocity, and what is it expressing? To begin with, there is clearly some economic content to the upwelling of popular discontent. The tax burden required to fund France’s social welfare model has become heavier over the years, and wages have not kept pace. That’s a cautionary tale to both those on the left, who defend the model, and those on the right who advocate for neoliberal structural reforms to reinvigorate the economy. Macron campaigned on a platform of “flexicurity” that sought to harmonize the two competing poles of the debate. Since taking office, however, he has been accused of governing only from the right, front-loading his labor market reforms, the flexibility for employers, while putting expanded unemployment benefits, or security for workers, on the back burner. But the nature of the European Union’s budgetary guidelines and the demands of competing in a globalized economy make the kind of balancing act he promised a tall order with all but the most stoic of populations, and no one would describe the French as stoic.

If the Yellow Vests organize themselves spontaneously to engage in direct democracy, it is in part because they feel there is no one left to represent them.

There is also political content to the Yellow Vest movement, despite the fact that its members have kept the established political parties at a distance. In fact, that refusal to be appropriated by or affiliated with the parties is itself an expression of political opposition. It is most clearly an opposition to Macron, who has become the personal target of much of the movement’s sloganeering. But it is also an opposition to the political class writ large, an expression of disenfranchisement. 

Part of that disenfranchisement stems from the challenges of managing a wealthy but moderately sized economy embedded within a massive trade bloc and a globalized economy. The loss of sovereignty to the EU and the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries have been fueling the rise of the far right and far left in France and across Europe since the global financial crisis. 

That has been exacerbated in France by two developments: the implosion of the established political parties in 2017, which cleared the way for Macron’s victory as a dark horse presidential contender and was subsequently sealed into place by the massive parliamentary majority won by his movement-turned-party; and the demise of France’s organized labor movement as a credible counterbalance to executive power. If the Yellow Vests organize themselves spontaneously to engage in direct democracy, it is in part because they feel there is no one left to represent them. As Goldhammer put it in an email correspondence on the subject, there is no communication “in either direction owing to the absence of recognized intermediaries.” In France’s currently barren political landscape, if the Yellow Vests didn’t exist, they’d have to be invented.

Finally, there is a social content to the Yellow Vests’ popular revolt, a feeling of neglect and exclusion that both feeds and is fed by the sense of political disenfranchisement. The most attention-grabbing protests took place in Paris, but the real misery they express is being felt most acutely in the exurbs and rural regions across the country. This is not only where inhabitants are most dependent on their cars for transportation. It is also where the French state and many institutions representative of French society have progressively disengaged over the past decade. This neglect is most visible in small villages, where post offices have closed, doctors and health care disappeared, and government funding dried up. But it is felt across wide swaths of the country, where opportunity for social and economic advancement has receded and no one in the urban enclaves of affluence bothered to notice.

To be sure, these are sparsely populated parts of the country, especially compared to the urban centers. I suspect Goldhammer is correct when he says the movement might not be as widespread as it seems. To put things further in perspective, as shocking as the scenes of violence Saturday were, the protests were invisible to most Parisians who weren’t watching their TVs that day. 

Why, then, are they causing such alarm? Why did they cause Macron, who has stared down the unions twice already over previous reform packages, to blink? Perhaps it is precisely because the Yellow Vests are not channeled by France’s recognized intermediaries, which makes them less disciplined, less predictable and less tameable than what France’s political class is accustomed to. If the Yellow Vests are dangerous, it is less for what they are than for what they reveal: an unrepresented constituency in a representative democracy. They’re the tip of an iceberg that has gone unnoticed until now, and no one is sure exactly what remains to be discovered under the water’s surface.

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