France’s new revolutionaries? Understanding the Gilets jaunes

Saturday 2 November, 17:3018:45, Auditorium 2Contemporary Controversies

Since November 2018, when the movement first emerged, hundreds of thousands of yellow vests – gilets jaunes – have protested across France: blocking roads and petrol stations, building barricades and marching through towns. These events were spontaneous, organised on social media and unconnected to any political party or trade union.

Although the protests were initially sparked by a planned rise in fuel tax, they soon came to embody a more general anger with President Macron’s rule, particularly over poor living standards and a lack of say in political life. Although turnout has varied, protesters have turned out week in, week out for over six months.

The gilets jaunes have split opinion in France. To some, they are heroic rebels, taking an important stand against the neoliberal, technocratic order. At the peak of the protests, polls showed over 70 per cent of French people supporting the movement. Now this has dipped below half.

Macron has accused the gilets jaunes of being violent thugs, aligned to the far-right, attacking journalists, Jews and homosexuals. Claims like this have been used to smear them and are used as a pretext for a violent state crackdown on the protests. Every weekend, protesters run the gauntlet of tear gas, police batons and ‘flash-ball’ rubber bullets (which have been banned in every other European country). Hundreds have been injured by police violence, scores have lost limbs and even eyes. And yet, surprisingly, this extraordinary situation, of a democratic, European state at war with its own people, has garnered relatively little international attention, let alone condemnation.

What do the gilets jaunes want? Although they share a common anger with the status quo, without an official leader, party or programme, can we pinpoint exactly what the gilets jaunes are for and what success might look like? They have certainly forced Macron’s government to take notice and even make some major concessions: scrapping the fuel tax, hiking the minimum wage well above inflation and scrapping taxes on bonuses for the low paid. But none of this was enough to quell the uprising.

Who are the gilets jaunes and what are their political beliefs? There is a great deal of crossover, geographically and demographically, in the kinds of people who support the gilets jaunes and those who voted for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in the European elections. But does that make the protesters ‘far-right’ or even right-of-centre? Or are the National Rally merely a receptacle for popular and populist anger when other parties defend the status quo? Attempts by the National Rally to explicitly co-opt the gilets jaunes have been met with resistance by the movement. Communists and trade unions have also tried to insert themselves into the movement, with only fleeting success.

What are the deeper causes of this uprising? How have divisions between urban and rural, rich and poor, liberal and traditional come to fuel the protesters’ anger? And how do the yellow vests relate to Brexit Britons and Trump’s ‘deplorables’?