<em>Gilets jaunes</em>: the French insurrection one year on

Long-read

Gilets jaunes: the French insurrection one year on

How a fuel-tax protest turned into a full-blown revolt against the elites.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Staff writer

One year ago, 288,000 protesters took to the streets in over 2,000 locations across France. Dressed in their unmistakable hi-vis jackets, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) blockaded highways and petrol stations, occupied roundabouts and toll booths, and marched through town centres. The protests were initially sparked by a hike in fuel tax but they quickly came to embody a wider resentment towards the status quo. This weekend will be the yellow vests’ acte 53 – the 53rd consecutive week of protest to mark the anniversary of the movement.

Just a year-and-a-half after the election of President Macron, which was hailed by liberals across the West as a turning point against the populist wave of 2016, the yellow-vest movement staged what would become the most significant revolt in France since les événements of May 1968. The French working classes, who had for so long been marginalised economically, politically and culturally, were finally making their voices heard.

A proposed hike in fuel tax was the spark that lit the fuse. Priscilla Ludovsky, an entrepreneur who sells cosmetics online, started a Change.org petition back in May calling for fuel prices to be lowered. Initially, it only had a small amount of traction. But it was picked up by local radio and in a local newspaper article, which went viral on Facebook. By October the petition had gained over 800,000 signatures. Truck drivers Eric Drouet and Bruno Lefevre created a Facebook event calling for people to block roads on 17 November. But this only gives a tiny glimpse of what was happening online – all kinds of viral videos, petitions and Facebook groups were springing up. Though some figures, like Drouet, emerged as unofficial spokespeople, suddenly finding themselves invited on to TV debates with politicians, the movement began without leaders and has remained leaderless to this day.

Peripheral France

The causes of the yellow-vest revolt go far deeper than the fuel tax. Nevertheless, the tax is a useful prism through which to understand the movement, and, in particular, the chasm between the elites who make decisions and the people on the receiving end of them.

On a purely technocratic basis, the fuel tax makes sense. The French government is committed to meeting its international obligations to reduce CO2 emissions. The fuel-price hike would be used to finance renewable-energy projects and would discourage the use of diesel and petrol cars.

But then the actual politics kick in. The fuel-tax hike was implemented at a time when the price of diesel had already risen by 23 per cent in a single year. While only 13 per cent of people in Paris drive cars, people who live outside the major cities rely heavily on their cars and they were being hammered by the policy. A carbon tax that disproportionately affected the working class was only ever going to add insult to injury. As one oft-repeated yellow-vest slogan goes: ‘The government talks about the end of the world. We are talking about the end of the month.’

Another source of irritation was the government’s decision to cut the speed limit on rural roads from 90km/h to 80km/h (around 50mph) in early January. Perhaps a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but again, this was experienced by many people as a needless imposition from an aloof and indifferent elite. Many saw it as an excuse to make money out of speeding tickets. In response, the yellow vests managed to take nearly 60 per cent of the country’s speed cameras out of operation, usually by covering them in tape, painting them black, or smashing them up.

These measures came against a broader backdrop of widening regional inequality. More than 10 years ago, geographer Christophe Guilluy foresaw a backlash to these developments when he came up with the concept of ‘peripheral France’. This described the France of post-industrial towns, urban sprawl, villages and suburbs that have been left behind – or actively excluded – from the modern globalised economy.

Police clash with the yellow vests near the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, on 8 December 2018.
Police clash with the yellow vests near the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, on 8 December 2018.

As Guilluy points out in Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, Periphery and the Future of France, ‘peripheral France’ actually encompasses the majority of citizens – around 60 per cent of the population according to Eurostat figures. Despite this, government policy for the past four decades has consistently favoured larger metropolitan areas. Because the lion’s share of state funding for transport, health and education goes to the cities, people are having to drive further and further afield to access basic services. Between 2000 and 2010, 75 per cent of growth occurred in France’s metropolitan areas, and the GDP of these areas is now 50 per cent higher than the rest of the country. Across the West, working-class people are living further and further away from where their country’s wealth is being generated.

According to Guilluy, the French working class has effectively been decommissioned. Its members are surplus to requirements in the globalised economy. The prospects for peripheral France are gloomy. People who live in these areas suffer high rates of unemployment and many who are employed live precariously. A gilet jaune could be earning anything between 1,000 and 2,000 euros per month. He or she could be unemployed or even middle class. But as Guilluy explained to spiked: ‘[The gilet jaunes] know that even if they have a job today, they could lose it tomorrow and they won’t find anything else.’ Meanwhile, admission to the big cities to find work has become nigh-on impossible as housing costs soar beyond reach. Over recent years, these regional disparities have started to express themselves through new political divides. The story of Paris vs the France of the yellow vests is also true of London vs Brexit Britain, or Milan vs the rest of populist Italy.

A revolt of the ignored

As the French working class has been economically marginalised, it has been sidelined from politics, too. The denial of democracy has forced people to find new and innovative – sometimes insurrectional – ways of making their voices heard.

The most blatant attempt by the elites to deny democracy came after the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. Just before the vote, leading pollster Roland Cayrol noted the ‘clear division between a well-off, confident France and an anxious, struggling France’, with blue and lower-grade white-collar workers, the self-employed and farmers firmly in the No camp. In the end, 55 per cent of the French electorate voted No. But the political class in France and in the EU all agreed that the message from the No vote was insufficiently clear, and just a few years later the rejected constitution was simply repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty and signed into law.

The French are, of course, famous for protesting and going on strike. But this noisy engagement disguises the way the French political system militates against democracy. The French presidency is one of the most powerful offices in the democratic world. This makes France, in effect, a ‘republican monarchy’. Parliament, on the other hand, is toothless. It was rendered even more so by reforms in 2001 that changed the electoral calendar to align parliamentary elections with presidential ones. Although the reforms shortened the presidential term, they also entailed the removal of midterm elections that could put an electoral check on presidents. For historian Robert Tombs, the monarchical nature of the presidency makes it prone to political failure:

Policies are frequently decided by the president without significant consultation, then, in the absence of an effective legislative body to channel criticism within the system, are instead abandoned in the face of public outcry, including strikes and resistance in the streets.

The political parties must also take responsibility for failing to give voice to the concerns of working-class people. Nearly three-quarters of French people think that politicians are ‘corrupt’ and 87 per cent feel that governments (of the left and the right) take no interest in ‘people like them’. Consequently, the centre parties have been reduced to rumps. In the 2015 regional elections, the centre-right Republicans, the centre-left Socialist Party, the Left Front and the Greens were voted for by just 18 per cent of the working-class electorate.

The French working class has been economically marginalised, and sidelined from politics

Working-class voters had been slowly drifting away from the Socialists since the 1980s, when Francois Mittérand’s government quickly abandoned its planned socialist reforms in order to embrace European integration. By the time of the 2017 presidential election, just five years after its first presidential victory in decades, the Socialist Party had slumped to just 6.36 per cent of the first-round vote.

The 2017 election was supposed to be a watershed moment. France had rejected populism and had instead embraced a new centrist politics. Emmanuel Macron was held up as a liberalising reformer, an adept technocrat and a popular anti-populist. The former Rothschild banker was to be the saviour of France and of the EU. The Economist, the bible of liberal centrists, celebrated his election victory by depicting him as a modern-day Jesus: literally walking on water.

But beneath the headlines, disenchantment with the political class was clear. Some 10million people expressed their anger by voting for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (re-named National Rally in 2018). According to IPSOS polling, the only socioeconomic category to back Le Pen over Macron was blue-collar workers. Among voters who said they found it ‘very difficult’ to cope financially at their current income level, 69 per cent voted for Le Pen.

Though many voters might have relished giving the establishment a bloody nose, clearly Le Pen’s unpalatable politics was not a price worth paying. Abstentionism was perhaps a more acceptable outlet for voters’ frustrations. In the second round of the presidential election, there was a record three million votes blancs (expressing a preference for neither candidate). The legislative elections that followed had the lowest turnout in the history of the Fifth Republic.

It took the emergence of the gilets jaunes to galvanise members of forgotten France. Around the time of the first yellow-vest protests, just 25 per cent of French voters said they approved of President Macron. In contrast, 73 per cent told pollsters they supported the gilets jaunes.

Experiments in democracy

Despite having no leader and no official manifesto, the gilets jaunes have coalesced around popular demands for better living conditions and for a greater say in political life. Democratic reform is high on the agenda. Many protesters have the letters ‘RIC’ scrawled on their jackets or on placards, which stand for référendum d’initiative citoyenne (citizens’ initiative referendum). They are calling for a referendum to be triggered on any proposal that can gather 700,000 signatures or more. They argue that this would allow the public to veto laws, withdraw from treaties and amend the constitution.

Of course, the problem with referendums alone is that the political class can simply ignore or frustrate any results it dislikes, as happened in France in 2005 and as has been the story of Brexit since 2016. Real, lasting change needs real representation. Attempts to set up formal political parties have, however, been unsuccessful. Ingrid Levasseur, a care worker, set up a gilets-jaunes party in January, based around the referendum demand to contest the EU elections. Early polls put the party at 13 per cent – just behind Macron’s La Republique En Marche and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National or National Rally. But just three weeks later, Levasseur quit. Lots of gilets jaunes were angry at what they saw as a use of the movement for personal political gain. Another prominent campaigner, Jacline Mouraud – who became famous for a viral video attacking Macron – also set up a party in January, Les Émergents, to contest the local elections in 2020. But by April, a number of members resigned from the party, not wanting to be part of a ‘cult of personality’.

 Emmanuel Macron addresses supporters after winning the French Presidential Election, at The Louvre, 7 May 2017.
Emmanuel Macron addresses supporters after winning the French Presidential Election, at The Louvre, 7 May 2017.

Others have experimented with other forms of direct democracy. In Commercy, a small north-eastern town which has faced two decades of industrial collapse, a group of yellow vests have started their own citizens’ popular assembly. They constructed a wooden hut in the town square – nicknamed the Chalet of Solidarity – to hold meetings and to organise (though it has since been demolished by the mayor). From these regular meetings they have elected delegates to attend national assemblies, meeting with other delegates involved with similar initiatives across France. Some 600 yellow-vest delegates from 200 groups gathered in Montpellier earlier this month to discuss plans for the big anniversary on 17 November.

The revenge of the elites

Almost as soon as the first yellow vests emerged, members of the liberal establishment felt the need to denounce them. President Macron was quick to decry the protests as ‘shameful’. Ministers immediately briefed the press that the yellow vests had links to the far right. Macron’s strongest rebuke was made in his New Year’s message, which he used to brand the yellow vests a ‘hate-filled crowd’, who attack ‘elected representatives, the forces of law and order, journalists, Jews, foreigners, homosexuals’.

The centre-left daily Libération noted that following the first weekend of protests, commentators were divided between those who saw the protesters as representing the ‘just anger of the people’, and those who saw them as a ‘band of polluting oafs, addicted to their cars, who need to be dealt with by the police’. One prominent Brussels correspondent tweeted that the yellow vests were simply a ‘movement of hicks’.

The script could have almost been written in advance. The dismissal of working-class grievances or any challenge to the status quo as ‘fascist’ or ‘racist’ has become a tragic feature of politics common to almost all Western nations. Much of the same hysteria that followed the Brexit vote appeared in France in reaction to the yellow vests. The gilets jaunes are, in class terms, the French equivalent of the ‘deplorables’ or ‘gammon’. Only in France, the elite backlash took a violent turn.

There have, of course, been many acts of violence from yellow-vest protesters. The third weekend, for instance, was one of the most violent, as protests in Paris turned into full-blown riots. In Paris, the Arc de Triomphe was vandalised, daubed with graffiti. A bust of Napoleon was smashed. Over 100 cars were set on fire. In early January, protesters broke into a government ministry with a forklift truck. On many weekends, the day began peacefully as protesters from the provinces marched up and down the Champs Élysées. But by the early evening, a different crowd had joined the fray, often among them some black-bloc agitators, some donning a yellow vest, others not.

Nevertheless, the violence from the police has been extraordinary and out of all proportion. Between November 2018 and June 2019, according to figures compiled and verified by independent journalist David Dufresne and Médiapart, 860 protesters were injured by the police – 315 suffered head injuries; 24 lost the use of an eye; and five had hands torn off. Among these victims are not only protesters but also journalists and medics. Police have been filmed beating elderly and disabled people, as well as using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters. The main source of injuries has been ‘Flashball’ rubber bullets. This non-lethal weapon has been banned in every EU country except France.

The supposedly ‘liberal’ Macron has also presided over a wider climate of authoritarianism in response to the gilets jaunes. In January, French MPs passed draconian measures to ban unauthorised protests. In March, prime minister Édouard Philippe even instituted a blanket ban on protest in some of the areas most hit by vandalism, including the Champs Élysées, as well as certain parts of Bordeaux, Toulouse and Nice. Faced with running the gauntlet of tear gas, rubber bullets and possible arrest, protesting became less and less attractive as the months passed, leading to an ever-dwindling turnout.

The search for solidarity

The gilets jaunes have won some important victories, even if the establishment has won the war overall. The fuel-tax hike was put on hold, and, just three weeks into the protests, President Macron unveiled a €10 billion package of wage increases and tax cuts for low earners and pensioners. Companies were also encouraged to give out Christmas bonuses, which would be tax free up to 1,000€.

But perhaps the most important consequences have been less tangible. The hi-vis jackets became the defining symbol of a movement that made a very simple but important statement: ‘We exist.’ Those who had been long forgotten could be ignored no more. The fact that these yellow jackets are owned by all French drivers – it is a legal requirement to carry one in your car in case you break down at night – made it easy for people to identify themselves with the movement. And it did something else, too: it fostered a new and necessary solidarity in an otherwise atomised society. Long may the revolt continue.

Fraser Myers is a staff writer at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Pictures by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

Skeptic 1972

16th November 2019 at 6:43 am

Same in Israel.

Tel Aviv is “enlightened” and “democratic”, and constantly worried about the rural, inferior savages from the “periphery” voting the wrong way and “taking over the country”. Important journalists actually called for a military coup to “save” the country from the “wrong” election results recently.

Israel is a tiny country, and the “periphery” means living 15 – or sometimes even 50 – miles away from Tel Aviv, the center of the universe. The elite have no idea how absurd they look.

Quentin Vole

15th November 2019 at 7:48 pm

I’ve never understood the British media’s tendency to fawn over Macron (The Economist is by no means the only example, but perhaps the worst). He got 24% of the vote in the first round and in the second round 34% of voters thought Marine Le Pen would make a better president. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, one would think.

Gareth Edward KING

15th November 2019 at 7:45 pm

The French situation sounds very familiar to that here in Spain. The metrópoli v. the rural hinterland is oft repeated throughout the country: the main axis of economic development is Madrid-Zaragoza-Barcelona. To the west and NW of Madrid towards Portugal we’re talking serious de-population with the money needed for a theoretical re-location to Barcelona from Extremadura being equivalent to that money required to leave Spain in order to go and live in the USA! Spain being the fourth biggest economy in the Euro-zone (big deal) it would appear that severe regional differences are part-and-parcel of being in the EU in terms of a supply-demand chain with Germany. The rest of the country can go to hell in a hand cart! There needs to be a ‘Spexit’ so that regional differences are seriously addressed.

jan mozelewski

15th November 2019 at 7:08 pm

This article covers most things I see pretty accurately. (Pity the BBC and other woke media cannot do the same.) The tax over here is eye-watering. It stifles everything. Bureaucracy is probably the major industry….and totally turgid and inefficient to boot. Corruption by local mayors (effectively the local president) compounds problems in provincial towns.
Transport options in the countryside are virtually nil. You have to have a car, Cars are expensive here….clapped out Renaults with 15 years and nearly 200k on the clock go for thousands of euros …when in the UK they would probably be scrapped. Every year we come over and buy a second hand car in the UK …one with a high mileage but good marque and spec. We get it for a third of what we would pay in France. (because France is tacitly allowed to operate a protectionist economy) So upgrading cars is expensive. We also have the double standards of a gov that pays lip service to environmental concerns….but is operating systems which mean people are having to do lots of meaningless journeys, Want to register a new business? Nothing fancy, just a self-employed affair. In the UK you make a phone call and its done. Here? make a rendez-vous in bloody Caen. A 150km round trip.And they have this wheeze that when you get there they tell you you need some document they didn’t include originally. Can you post it? Nope. A another trip. We tried to register a car once. (Never again.) We had to fill in copious forms and then…get this….we had to drive to Caen so we could PUT IT IN A POST BOX IN THE FOYER!!!!!! And naturally,, even though we asked the woman on the desk to check they had everything they needed….and having to include a signed blank cheque….we were summoned back again to put something else in the box in the f-ing foyer. The bureaucrats …..keeping their jobs by creating a nightmare.
We pay extra tax for having a septic tank. We also have to pay every year towards the department which inspects them. Large swathes of france have no proper drainage. The nearest to us is 8km away. Yet we are taxed because of our supposed environmental impact. I could write a book.

Rural france…even reasonable sized towns near mainline statons and motorways….is in a terrible mess. Far away from the nonsense sold to people in lifestyle magazines. Most villages outside tourist trap destinations have no facilities whatsoever. People are living hand to mouth. I foresaw trouble before the gilets jaunes happened. Certain commentators in Paris laughed it off. After the first weekend I remember one young ‘influencer’ on twitter asking if ‘the beggars’ had gone back to their hovels yet’.I doubt she’d ever done a day’s work in her life.
Sounds all too familiar doesn’t it?
Trouble is simmering here. The big difference is France is saddled with the German Euro as a currency. (Remember all those clever elite types who ridiculed the sensible proletariat in the UK who didn’t want it? Said we were all backward and what could possibly go wrong?? Well, France is the answer to that.)

Mike Ellwood

16th November 2019 at 7:34 pm

Thanks for this. Very interesting.

Some UK people I know in the south of France took 6 months to get a UK car registered over there. What they tell me backs up totally what you said about buying cars over there, so much so that when they wanted a LH-drive 2nd car, they managed to find one (online) that they could buy over here. It was worth it to make the journey over here and then drive it back. It will probably take them another 6 months to get that one registered as well.

Some aspects of life over there are probably better than over here, but it’s no paradise. It’s a pity. I like France, and the French, and I think they deserve better.

Jim Lawrie

17th November 2019 at 12:07 am

Everything you say chimes with years of visits to people around 30 kms north of Nice, where not having a car is like being under house arrest. Walking is not an option if you want to live.

The price of everything is extortionate and fixed.

One guy I know has an arrangement with the mayor whereby the police do not question his 15 years with the same unregistered UK car, which magics itself back to Britain once a year for an MOT.

Another guy I know who retired from London to Normandy after 40 years as a double glazing installer is now inundated with work over there because of three things ;
1. Quality of workmanship.
2. Cash in hand Labour.
3. The price of French windows and doors, made to measure in the UK, delivered to France.

Marvin Jones

15th November 2019 at 4:28 pm

OH! if only if we had the Cajones of the French yellow vests? then every MP in Parliament would have voted for Brexit on WTO terms.

Forlorn Dream

15th November 2019 at 1:24 pm

I have very little sympathy for the French. They chose to elect a soy boy shill for global investment banking and a lacky of Merkel. What did they think would happen?

Bella Donna

15th November 2019 at 10:45 am

I can see what’s going on here the so called elites want to take our power away from us, our vote is now worthless our voices silenced. I see the future and its every bit as bad as Orwell’s supposedly fictional book!

Forlorn Dream

15th November 2019 at 6:18 pm

Bella, our votes have always been worthless and always will be until we have proportional representation but this will never happen. No government would change the system that put it in power.
Proportional representation would be very easy to implement too. Political parties campaign in an election and for every say 80,000 votes that party wins they get one seat in the Commons. The party with the most MPs can then form a government.
This system would be true democracy but it would also wipe out the wealthy elite control so again, it’ll never happen.

Jim Lawrie

17th November 2019 at 12:20 am

Might I add Forlorn that we know the order of candidates from a party in advance of the election.

Stephen J

15th November 2019 at 9:32 am

The elites do this repeatedly, Macron should be happy that they haven’t adopted red mob caps, because that did not end well at all for them.

jan mozelewski

15th November 2019 at 7:12 pm

They scared the hell out of him though. They very nearly got to the Elysee Palace. Whatever was shown in the UK of the riots here is a tiny fraction of what took place. And the numbers that get repeated were those of the government and a small percentage of actual participation.

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