“The danger,” Yanis warned, “is that the constant stream of information becomes its own type of ignorance. It’s very easy to forget the human need to educate oneself, and to forge one’s own opinion. What we need is for speech and debate to free themselves everywhere, that they fill every part of daily life, that everyone express themselves, respectfully of course.”
What Yanis was recalling was his own initial reaction to the eruption of France’s Yellow Vest revolt in late November 2018. “At the beginning, there was this fear,” he continued. “The movement had been covered in media as a ploy of the far right and the fascist movement. I hesitated to go at first just because of that. But I finally decided that it was all the more important to go if that was actually the case, in order to not abandon the battle to them.”
When people in his hometown of Montceau-les-Mines, in central France, began to organize town meetings at the beginning of December, Yanis decided to go and scope things out. Yanis was amazed to see that more than 1,000 attended the earliest assemblies in late November and early December. People were thinking and talking about politics in ways they had never done before. For too long, democratic life was little more than the habitual cycle of elections, with citizenship reduced to the occasional vote.
The assemblies continued on a weekly basis. “I realized that something was growing,” Yannis remembers. People were organizing themselves and staying in contact, occupying critical road junctions and protesting. Now, almost two months later, on January 26, Yanis found himself making the roughly 200-mile trip to a village just outside of Commercy, a town in a rural, working-class region in eastern France. Currently unemployed after several stints working in cafeterias in local public schools, the 22-year-old Yanis had been selected by his town’s local committee to attend the inaugural “Assembly of Assemblies” of France’s nascent Yellow Vest movement.
As he would no doubt attest, before this historic convention in Commercy, the Yellow Vests had fallen victim to a familiar trap. Like many other spontaneous and largely leaderless mass movements, the Yellow Vests have been defined and labeled by others.
At first, they were taken to be a manifestation of the inchoate and inarticulate rage of the French middle class. This anger, which had long provided fertile ground for the likes of Marine Le Pen, finally boiled over into street violence and open revolt when Emmanuel Macron’s government announced tax increases on gasoline. Macron had already made a name for himself by pushing through unpopular reforms in the name of “necessity.” Was this just another occasion of the French being unable to take the bitter medicine, this time in order to reduce carbon-fuel emissions?
The dismissal of the Yellow Vests was made all the more easy because some of the worst elements in French society have tried to capitalize on the climate of disenchantment and anger. Some Yellow Vest social-media groups have contained unmistakable echoes of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic conspiracies. Likewise, bands of skinheads have infiltrated some street marches, attacking most recently a group of left-wing activists in Paris during the January 26 day of protest. All of this has given credence to smug talking heads—no doubt with an eye on their checkbooks—who wish to sign the entire movement off as yet another worrisome sign of France’s slide into right-wing populism.
To any honest observer, however, the Yellow Vests’ dynamism and staying power, now going on their 13th weekend of protests at the time of writing, suggested that something deeper was happening. Weekend after weekend, the marches continued and the occupations of roundabouts in rural and suburban areas stood their ground. General assemblies organized on a weekly basis in every corner of France continued to attract people who for years had stood on the sidelines of political life. Teachers and students started to organize and unions began discussing strikes—culminating in a round of work stoppages set to begin on February 5, bringing together Yellow Vests, several unions, and left-wing parties, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise.
France’s battered social movements, fatigued after many retreats before Macron’s steamroller of reforms, started to show new signs of life. Polls in late January still showed that a majority of the population continue to support the movement, even after Macron canceled the planned tax increases and granted other concessions in December, before launching a highly choreographed “national debate,” consisting of staged town-hall meetings and the pro forma taking of grievances in localities, as a means to regain legitimacy. Over the weekend of February 2-3, speculation even began to mount as to a possible national referendum to be held in May, the structure and outlines of which remain vague.
Whatever or whoever they were, the Yellow Vests had clearly managed to give voice to a general feeling of anger and political disenchantment. More and more people were coming to the conclusion that a distant and arrogant elite was to blame. This elite had overseen the steady erosion of public services, from hospitals and schools to public transportation, stewarding rising inequality while abstaining from paying taxes, and stood by as working- and middle-class job security gave way to the precarious fluidity of the contemporary labor market. What’s more, people were realizing that something should be done about all of this. And this was a reflex that could not be dismissed as the machinations of a few fascist gangs or Internet trolls—or, even worse, abandoned to them.
If you have to pick your battles, then the most enduring revolt of Macron’s presidency and the first that successfully brought his forced march of pro-business reforms to a halt was a fight not to be missed. A political space had opened up and many concerned citizens, including thousands of activists, workers, and teachers, mobilized to fill it. Just what were the real contours of this “peripheral France,” whose anger and resentment against elites has boiled over in weeks of protests and occupations? What would it take to bring under the same banner not only the struggling white working and middle classes, but also France’s perennially abandoned immigrant communities, who for decades have borne the brunt of austerity, exclusion, and police repression? Does a healthy democracy require more than top-down parties and bureaucratized unions? How can we confront climate change in a just way? Might a broad and horizontal movement, organized around participatory democracy on the local level, finally breathe energy into a public life that for too long has been abandoned to professionals?
These were the questions that made for two days of lively debate and democratic experimentation among the roughly 300 delegates at Commercy on January 26-27. Representing more than 75 Yellow Vest groups from every corner of the country, the assembly marked a significant departure in the history of a movement that had up to this point been characterized by its centrifugal structure.
“Twenty-six billionaires possess as much wealth as half of humanity; this is unacceptable. Share wealth and not misery!” The declaration that emerged is simply a product of democratic common sense. With a vociferous denunciation of inequality and police violence, calls for the restoration of free public services, a radical response to climate change that targets the greatest polluters in society, and a celebration of the cultural differences in France and among the movement, the declaration cuts against the common narrative about the Yellow Vests.
That the group of people at Commercy did in part reflect the many fractures in French society makes the text all the more significant. Sabrina, a schoolteacher from a historically immigrant neighborhood in northeast Paris, has long been an activist in groups opposing police violence and fighting for immigrant rights. She was at Commercy representing her neighborhood’s Yellow Vest group, which holds weekly meetings in Paris’s Belleville Park. By a bizarre twist of fate, she found herself and her delegation carpooling from the Paris area with a middle-aged man who has supported Marine Le Pen in the past. Unemployed for nearly 10 years, he lives in a lower-middle-class suburb west of Paris, surviving with his 13-year-old daughter on unemployment checks and infrequent part-time jobs, including yearly trips to southern France to work during wine-harvest season.
Sabrina no doubt expected that she would come into contact with people whom she would normally never encounter. “This is the first time the cities are going to the countryside,” one delegate rejoiced during the introductory remarks on January 26. “For me, this is actually the chance to see other people from throughout France,” Sabrina told me. And if the last two months of nationwide protests had given birth to a nationwide grassroots political energy not seen in years, then this was a turning point not to be missed. There are red lines, of course, and that energy needed to take a positive form. Make no mistake, Sabrina maintains, “there needs to be a clear anti-fascist, anti-racist line in the movement. The next step is to include people from our neighborhoods and to get them implicated. This will also require the Yellow Vests to hear their demands and to learn about their problems.”
To be sure, I saw no odd encounters at Commercy, and it could be that certain people chose to leave their past political affiliations at the door. Nor were the delegates brought together by the rigorous niceties of academic radicalism. Rather, what prevailed was the common, innate sense of justice that most people unsurprisingly possess. Christophe, who works at a construction company in Nantes, described his own experience as “years of bitterness, years of seeing political elites destroy working people’s lives. Little by little, we’ve seen our social protections dismantled and our salaries dwindle. I came to the point where I said, ‘stop.’”
Nothing was more absurd, delegate after delegate told me, than the common refrain according to which the Yellow Vests were ignorant of the scale of the environmental crisis and of the need to make drastic reforms. Rather, people abhorred the gasoline tax because it was seen as a backhanded measure to make up for a hole in government revenues following an estate-tax cut for France’s wealthiest. Aurélia, also from Nantes, thinks that we should see the Yellow Vests as “the first social and environmental revolt in France. By taxing car gasoline, the state taxes people who have no other choice. These are people who have no access to public transportation. This is the first revolt of the energy-precarious.”
Torya and Adel know first-hand the ravages being inflicted on French public services. Torya works for the French national railroad company (SNCF) and participated in the fight against Macron’s SNCF reforms in the spring of 2018, which slashed union benefits for rail workers and paved the way for the full privatization of the French rail network. “I joined the Yellow Vests to protest against the hypocrisy of the government,” she said. “If the gasoline tax were really an environmentalist measure, the government would not be in the process of closing down 9,000 kilometers of train lines, but would be investing in renovating train lines, buying more cars, and hiring more workers.”
Adel, her co-delegate, knows what the future holds for workers in a deregulated transportation system. Unlike Torya, he works for one of the already privatized rail subcontractors and has seen his working conditions degrade considerably since his last job as a conductor in the Paris metro system. It is Adel’s job to regulate traffic coming in and out of stations. But he now finds himself covering two or sometimes three different roles, with bosses extending their workers to the limit. He was once even sanctioned with five days of unpaid leave when he refused to follow orders from a superior, which would have forced Adel to rush train traffic to a point he deemed extremely dangerous. It would be hard to put the changes being enacted in better form: “Before, it was the worker on the job, who knew the machinery, that had the final say, and the manager listened. Today, it’s the opposite.”
Torya sees the grassroots structure of the Yellow Vests as a much-needed supplement to the often cautious and incremental French unions that lost the fight over the SNCF reforms last spring. “When I first saw the Yellow Vest movement back in November,” she said, “and realized that everyday people were taking things into their own hand, from the ground up, I saw that there was an opportunity. People were again demanding things that we were calling for back in March and April.”
Many of the protesters have for the first time in their lives been on the receiving end of a state armed to the teeth, with no reluctance to use force as it sees fit. Under the pretext of defending public order, police have preemptively detained and strip-searched protesters simply for wearing a pair of swim-goggles at a protest (a common defense against tear gas). But legal trickery as a mean to dissuade protesters pales in comparison with the raw force being deployed on the streets of French cities: exploding tear-gas canisters, which cause numerous injuries; rubber bullets that have destroyed eyes and genitals and disabled limbs; the up-close and personal truncheon.
A new anti-rioting law has been widely condemned by free-speech and civil-liberties organizations, who see the measure as yet another sign of the government’s intolerance of opposition. In a telling example of doublespeak, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner claims that the law will ensure that people can protest and publicly express their opinions “in full security.” But the list of measures that have been proposed paints a far darker picture: the creation of a new crime for masking one’s face at a protest, and authorization given to police prefectures allowing them to forbid certain people from attending protests, punishable by prison time or a fine. The anti-rioting law was denounced by organizations such as Amnesty International, and one centrist deputy—not a committed anti-Macronist—put it best when he warned his parliamentary colleagues of its Vichy-like resonances.
If the proposed law is a reminder of the commonalities between Macron and his “illiberal” counterparts in eastern and southern Europe, for a large portion of the French population, the idea of a repressive and hostile state is not new. For the problem of police violence to truly cease being a taboo, the debate cannot only be restricted to the occasional protest in city centers and the no-doubt disproportionate level of police impunity. Groups opposing police violence, such as the Comité Adama, named for a black man killed by police in 2016, have participated in Yellow Vest marches for just that reason: to bring the daily repression exerted on France’s immigrant communities out from the shadows where it has been relegated for years by the gatekeepers of respectable opinion. Adel, whose father moved to France from Algeria in 1969, grew up in the isolated suburbs north of Paris. “The things I could tell you,” he said. “It was worse than going through customs and immigration. For us, police violence is part of everyday life. Every time we in the banlieues have protested or revolted, we’ve been stigmatized, abandoned, and have faced even more police repression. ‘They’re just riffraff,’ the French say. Whenever something happens in our neighborhoods, they ignore us.”
A wave of cathartic frustration—the product of decades of economic reaction, police violence, and elite disdain—has coalesced in a spontaneous, decentralized grassroots mass movement bringing together many people who have never participated in political life. Groups and ideas are combining in ways that seemed unlikely a few months ago. Some are seeking to accentuate the chaos, using it as a chance to spread conspiracies and lies. This is not new. Many more are demanding more democracy everywhere: before the state, at work, at school, and in their hometowns. Those who are fighting and organizing to ensure that this movement truly represents all of France are model citizens, engaged in the hard, painstaking work of building a genuine democratic majority.