Photo: Abdulmonam Eassa

“The Gilets Jaunes have blown up the old political categories”

  • December 11, 2018

People & Protest

France’s neoliberal order trembles as the yellow vest revolt shatters established political conventions. The new terrain presents both dangers and opportunities.

All photos by Abdulmonam Eassa

The present order is the disorder of the future.
— Saint-Just (1767–1794)

As I write these words, a veritable earthquake is rippling through French politics and society. Four weeks into its most serious social unrest since the banlieue riots of 2005, large parts of the country continue to be shaken by a groundswell of popular protests, roadblocks and occupations. This past Saturday, the so-called gilets jaunes — a loosely structured movement of angry citizens named after the yellow high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to keep in their cars in case of distress — defied an unprecedented security crackdown to return to the streets of Paris and other French cities in their hundreds of thousands. The protests can only be described as a resounding repudiation of the widely-despised president, Emmanuel Macron, and his neoliberal assault on working-class living standards.

Confronted with a change of tactics by riot police, who now found themselves backed by dozens of armored vehicles and water cannon, the gilets jaunes did not manage to overwhelm security forces as they had during the previous two weekends, when some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of the capital were smashed up in scenes of generalized disorder not witnessed in central Paris since May ’68. Nevertheless, even the mobilization of 89,000 riot police and the arrest of over 1,700 protesters across the nation could not withhold the yellow vests from once again descending upon the main avenues leading up to the Champs Élysées for “Act IV” of their mass rebellion. A police spokesperson noted that, due to the more dispersed nature of the riots, the overall damage from property destruction was much greater and much more widespread than in previous weeks. A number of other French cities also witnessed violent clashes, including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon, Dijon, Nantes and Marseille.

What began four weeks ago as a nationwide response to a widely-disseminated Facebook call by two angry truck drivers to block local roads and highway toll stations in protest against a new “ecological” fuel tax introduced by Macron’s government has now spiraled out into a full-blown popular revolt against the banker president and the wealthy corporate elite he so openly represents. While the yellow vest movement — if it can even be properly defined as such — remains inchoate and contradictory in terms of its social composition and ideological orientation, there is little doubt that it has opened up a major fissure in French politics. The neoliberal center finds itself under siege, and the political establishment appears to be at a loss on how to respond. “We are in a state of insurrection,” Jeanne d’Hauteserre, Mayor of the 8th District of Paris, lamented last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Four weeks in, the uprising also continues to confound mainstream journalists and experts. “The gilets jaunes have blown up the old political categories,” one French media activist told ROAR on Saturday night, after a long day of riots in the capital. “They reject all political leaders, all political parties and any form of political mediation. No one really knows how to confront or deal with this movement — not the media, not the government, nor anyone else. What we are witnessing is unprecedented in French history.” While the outcome of these dramatic developments remains uncertain, it is clear that France is currently living through a rupture of historic proportions, taking the country onto uncharted terrain. For the left, the emerging scenario presents both exciting opportunities, but also a number of significant political risks. How are radical and autonomous social forces to insert themselves into this unfamiliar and uncertain situation without losing sight of the dangers that lie ahead?

A deepening sense of crisis 

For now, only one thing is certain: the explosion of popular outrage and the implosion of the old political categories has left a gaping hole at the heart of French politics. The resultant sense of crisis and confusion is palpable. For several weeks now, all the major news channels have been airing non-stop footage of roadblocks and burning barricades, while the main newspapers have consistently splashed the gilets jaunes onto their front pages. During “Act III” of the uprising on Saturday, December 1, live TV images broadcast to millions of people from the Alps to the Atlantic revealed how police had effectively lost control over large parts of the capital. As tens of thousands of yellow vests stormed the Champs Élysées, other groups went off into the surrounding beaux quartiers, where they burnt luxury cars, built barricades, smashed bank windows, looted luxury stores and defiled public monuments.

Elsewhere in the country, hundreds of roads, roundabouts and toll stations as well as a number of supermarket distribution centers and eleven Total fuel refineries were blocked by yellow vest protesters, while the port of St Nazaire continues to be occupied as well. Fearing a complete loss of control, some government officials have begun to openly call for a state of emergency and the mobilization of the army to quell the popular revolt — or at least to assist over-stretched police forces in the capital. Authorities on Île de la Réunion, a French dependency in the Indian Ocean with a population of around 865,000, recently declared a curfew after protesters there overran local security forces and blocked access to the main port, the airport and the island prefecture.

This past Saturday, December 8, French authorities — determined to reassert control over the street — placed large parts of central Paris on lockdown, blocking roads, shutting metro stations and sending in armored vehicles and water cannon to reinforce police lines. In the morning, an eerie calm descended upon the French capital as thousands of stores and restaurants shuttered their doors and boarded up their window displays in anticipation of renewed violence. By the early afternoon, it became clear that the government’s unprecedented security operation had — unsurprisingly — failed to deter the gilets jaunes, who once again poured into the streets surrounding the Champs Élysées in large numbers, only appearing strengthened in their resolve to confront the cops and reinforced in their conviction that Macron must go.

Given the heavy-handed police repression, which left at least 120 protesters requiring immediate medical assistance, renewed clashes were all but inevitable. In an appropriate irony, the situation got especially heated around the Boulevard Haussmann, named after the reactionary urban planner under Napoleon III who designed Paris’s iconic broad avenues specifically to maintain social order and forestall further popular uprisings in the wake of the revolution of 1848. Police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and copious amounts of teargas to keep the gilets jaunes from accessing the Place de l’Étoile where the Arc de Triomphe stands, but repeated attempts to disperse the protesters faltered as different decentralized groups simply kept reassembling on the main avenues. At night, small-scale skirmishes and isolated incidents of looting continued in the area surrounding the Place de la République.

In recent days, the political crisis has been aggravated by what appears to be a veritable convergence of social struggles. On December 1, ambulance drivers joined the fray, demonstrating in front of the presidential palace with screaming sirens. On Monday, December 3, French students radicalized their ongoing struggle by blocking access to over 200 high schools; the following Thursday an estimated 100,000 of them participated in a nationwide walkout against Macron’s changes to university admission procedures and a rise in administrative fees. Shocking footage of several dozen students being placed in stress positions by riot police for an extended period of time soon went viral and served to further inflame the tensions and anti-police sentiment among the gilets jaunes. Then, last Saturday, thousands of environmentalists at a pre-scheduled climate demonstration in Paris donned yellow vests in solidarity. Meanwhile, the main unions for French farmers, truck drivers and public transport workers have all announced their intention to go on strike.

Further compounding the government’s paralysis in the face of these developments is the widespread support the protesters have received from the public. Polls indicate that over two-thirds of respondents approve of the gilets jaunes, presenting a stark contrast to the abysmal 18 percent approval rate for Macron. Interestingly, despite the concerted campaign of disinformation waged by the government and establishment media, which have consistently sought to drive a wedge between the “real” gilets jaunes and an “extremist fringe” of left-wing and right-wing casseurs, or “hooligans”, the protesters themselves have so far largely refused to be divided along these lines, displaying a relatively high tolerance of targeted property destruction and physical confrontations with the police, providing more militant elements with significant room for maneuver. When several banks were smashed and a number of luxury cars went up in flames on Saturday, the crowd could be heard roaring in approval — and subsequently cheered on firefighters as they put out the flames.

An inchoate and contradictory movement

Given its inherent complexity, the international media have so far largely failed to make sense of the puzzling yellow vest phenomenon, with many reports lapsing into an uncritical regurgitation of the disdaining moralism proffered by the French bourgeoisie. One columnist for The Guardian even wrote that they had “never seen the kind of wanton destruction that surrounded me on some of the smartest streets of Paris on Saturday — such random, hysterical hatred, directed not just towards the riot police but at shrines to the French republic itself such as the Arc de Triomphe.” For good measure, the author added that “an extreme wing of the gilets jaunes has turned towards the nihilist detestation of democratic institutions and symbols of success and wealth.”

On Monday, the unreconstructed soixante-huitard class traitor Daniel Cohn-Bendit decided to chime in as well, condemning the gilets jaunes — true to style as a classical Bourbon reactionary — for their “extreme” and “frightening” violence, while saying nothing of the notorious brutality of the French riot police. Some of the most horrific injuries inflicted by the CRS and the BAC on Saturday included a young woman in Paris who lost an eyeball after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet, and a man in Nantes who lost a hand after he accidentally picked up a stun grenade thinking it was a teargas canister. The gilets jaunes, of course, have yet to deploy armored vehicles, fire any weapons or dismember a policeman. Their “violence”, as Pamela Anderson — of all people! — has so cogently argued, has been almost entirely symbolic.

For all his bourgeois hallucinations, however, it should be clear that Cohn-Bendit’s derision of the gilets jaunes is far from an isolated occurrence; indeed, it neatly reflects the intense contempt in which the French ruling class have historically held the uneducated jacques bonhommes, the insolent frondeurs, the ill-mannered sans-culottes — in short, all the uncultured peasants and lumpen who somehow mustered the conceit to insubordinate the divine authority of the king. The widespread use of the term casseurs is a testament to this, as is the statement by Interior Minister Christophe Castaner last week that “the movement has given birth to a monster.” It was a choice of words that would not have stood out among the litany of dehumanizing abuse the Versaillais once hurled at the communards, before proceeding to indiscriminately massacre over 20,000 working-class Parisians accused of having participated in the revolt of 1871. As the celebrated young French author Édouard Louis astutely put it, the gilets jaunes, just like their predecessors, “represent a sort of Rorschach test for a large part of the bourgeoisie, [forcing] them to express their class contempt and the violence that they usually only express in an indirect way.”

The reality of the matter is that it is not the movement itself, but the neoliberal restructuring of French society that has given birth to a monster — the monster of a resurgent nationalist far-right. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the gilet jaune phenomenon started out on the wrong foot, as an anti-tax protest initiated by a number of people with known anti-immigrant views and prior association with far-right groups. In the first weeks of the roadblocks, the media widely reported a number of disturbing incidents of racist, sexist and homophobic abuse, especially in some of the more peripheral areas of France. It is also undeniable that several ultra-nationalist, monarchist, fascist and neo-Nazi elements have actively participated in the clashes in Paris in recent weeks.

Nevertheless, despite this problematic start and the continued reference to symbols of national unity like the tricolor and the Marseillaise, the yellow vest uprising quickly overflowed the capacity of far-right elements or Le Pen’s Rassemblement National to claim the movement as their own. As the protests spread like a wildfire and spilled over into a generalized popular insurrection against the child-king Macron and his neoliberal stooges, hundreds of thousands of self-declared “apolitical” citizens — most of them first-time protesters with no prior street fighting experience — were drawn into the roadblocks and mass demonstrations. As a result, the social composition and ideological orientation of the movement has become increasingly diverse with every passing act of the revolt, opening up to a greatly expanded constituency between the relatively conservative Act I and the near-insurrectionary Acts III and IV.

The result is that the gilets jaunes, while certainly not representative of the entire French population, can now safely be classified as a popular mass movement. As such, the social composition and ideological orientation of its participants by definition mirrors some of the diversity found within the wider society — which is a different way of saying that the movement contains many of the same contradictions and pre-existing political fault-lines that run through contemporary France at large. If the gilet jaune phenomenon remains confused and difficult to pin down politically, that probably has less to do with any supposed moral failing on the part of the French working class than it has with the thoroughly disorganized and depoliticized nature of the country’s post-democratic late-capitalist society — itself a consequence of four decades of neoliberal restructuring and political decomposition.

Risks and opportunities

But even if we should not condescend the gilets jaunes for the inchoate and contradictory nature of their movement, we can — and certainly should — be wary of the dangers involved in sharing a broader field of contestation with the racist, sexist and homophobic far-right. To some extent, it can be argued that such far-right participation is inevitable in a highly heterogenous mass mobilization like the yellow vests. The challenge for the broader left, then, would not be to denounce such “impurities” from the comfort of its armchairs, but to prevent those far-right elements from establishing a hegemonic position within the movement. Since it does not look like the popular outrage that gave rise to the insurrection will dissipate anytime soon, radical and autonomous social forces have little choice but to actively engage with the movement in an effort to marginalize its racist and nationalist tendencies as much as possible.

Thankfully, the left has plenty of “raw material” to work with in this respect. If there is one thing that unifies the gilets jaunes, it is their shared hatred of President Macron and their collective opposition to his virulent anti-poor policies. As one yellow vest protester explained, “Macron’s first move in office was to slash the wealth tax for the mega-rich while cutting money from poor people’s housing benefits. That is a serious injustice.” Seen from this perspective, the widely despised “ecological” fuel tax is really only an attempt to make up for lost revenue and impose the costs of the climate crisis onto the working class — part and parcel of Macron’s political role as a reverse Robin Hood for the capitalists: stealing from the poor to give to the rich. In an excellent piece for Jacobin, Aurélie Dianara neatly summarizes some of the extreme inequalities at the heart of Macron’s neoliberal project:

Immediately upon reaching office, Macron abolished the Solidarity Wealth Tax (ISF), giving €4 billion to the richest; and has strengthened the Tax Credit for Solidarity and Employment (CICE), a tax cut and exemption program transferring €41 billion a year to French companies, including multinationals. Shortly afterwards, with the 2018 budget bill, Macron established a flat tax that allowed a lowering of taxation on capital, handing another €10 billion to the richest … As if that were not enough, the new “carbon tax” will weigh five times more heavily on the budgets of the middle classes than on that of the upper classes. Yet the government has taken no steps to counterbalance this obviously unequal treatment — for example by giving aid to the families on the most modest budgets.

The challenge for the broader left, then, will be to build on the widespread popular resentment over Macron’s utter disregard for working-class people while trying to steer popular anger in a more explicitly anti-systemic direction, articulating a clear anti-racist discourse and pursuing a broader convergence with striking workers, protesting students and the ever-marginalized banlieues. The good news is that comrades in France have already been making some important advances on several of these fronts, organizing powerful anti-capitalist and anti-racist yellow vest rallies from St. Lazare train station during Acts III and IV, forming militant antifascist brigades to actively remove ultra-nationalist and white supremacist elements from the general demonstrations, and trying to get the wider movement to articulate a more structural critique of capitalism by taking on symbols of state authority and bourgeois excess.

Moreover, in this emerging new phase, radical and autonomous forces will be able to build on the organizational legacies and accumulated experience of a number of important struggles in recent years, including:

  • The struggle against racist police violence in the banlieues, which led to a wave of riots in 2016 and to the subsequent groundwork of the Comité Vérité et Justice pour Adama, a prominent action group founded in response to the unexplained death of 24-year-old Adama Traoré in police custody that year. It was the Comité that called for the formation of an anti-racist bloc alongside the gilets jaunes during Acts III and IV of the uprising.
  • The mass resistance against the Loi Travail in 2016, which involved several months of work stoppages, mass demonstrations, violent clashes and the temporary occupation of the Place de la République by the Nuit Debout movement, in scenes reminiscent of the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the international Occupy movement. Macron was one of the most prominent supporters of the widely despised labor law reform, establishing a direct connection between the resistance to the Loi Travail and the yellow vest uprising.
  • The defense of the ZAD, an autonomous zone in the small western commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes that has been successfully struggling against the construction of an airport in a nearby nature reserve for years, and that earlier this year fended off a violent militarized eviction attempt by the French state following several days of pitched battles with Macron’s riot police. Many Zadistes were present at the St. Lazare yellow vest march on Saturday.
  • The #NousToutes feminist movement, the powerful French equivalent of #MeToo, which has been organizing actions to protest violence against women, including nationwide marches on November 24. In Montpellier, the feminist march was welcomed by the gilets jaunes with a guard of honor.

The emerging areas of confluence between these ongoing social struggles and the mass mobilizations of the gilets jaunes hint at the possibility that the yellow vest uprising, despite starting out as a tax revolt with conservative overtones, may nevertheless be headed in a more progressive direction. One exciting development in this respect is the recent call by the gilets jaunes of Commercy, in northeastern France, to propose the construction of “autonomous local committees, direct democracy, a sovereign general assembly, delegates with a precise mandate, revocable at any time, rotation of responsibilities.” On this basis, local groups would federate “to avoid political recovery, self-proclaimed leaders, or delegates without an imperative mandate from the grassroots.” As local organizer Pierre Bance puts it, “the time of the communes still rings out!”

The most beautiful of all doubts

Still, despite these emerging opportunities and the widespread revolutionary enthusiasm, a number of serious challenges remain. When the mass mobilizations gradually begin to fizzle out in the weeks to come — as they inevitably will, especially with the holidays coming up — popular ressentiment will continue to simmer below the surface all over the country. While some of this popular energy will undoubtedly be channeled into new social movements and grassroots initiatives, the more isolated individual frustrations will mostly fail to find any immediately productive outlet. In the comedown, broader questions will therefore arise about the yellow vests’ political legacy, and opposition leaders on the left and right will continue to jostle with one another to be recognized as the legitimate “heir” of the great revolt.

In this context, the frightening scenario of a Le Pen presidency, reinforced by the momentum of a popular mass mobilization, looms ominously on the horizon. The political fallout of the mass demonstrations in Brazil in 2013 and the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, as well as the pitchfork protests in Italy in 2013, clearly demonstrates that this risk is not to be underestimated. Moreover, as the memory of May ’68 reminds us, we cannot exclude the possibility that, even if radical and progressive forces win the battle in the streets, the right may ultimately win the war at the ballot box. This danger makes it even more important for radical, progressive and autonomous social forces to use the ongoing mass mobilizations to lay down the basic movement infrastructure for a powerful antifascist resistance that can immediately spring into action in the event of an electoral victory for the Rassemblement National.

Despite these considerable dangers, however, it is important not to conflate the underlying causes of a potential Le Pen presidency with the role of the yellow vest uprising as a catalyst for the collapse of the neoliberal center. In the final analysis, the gilets jaunes are but a symptom of the profound legitimation crisis that has beset the political establishment; they may act to hasten its inevitable implosion, but they are hardly responsible for the present disorder. The concerned citizens who now express a fear that the far-right will seek to capitalize on the protests are not necessarily wrong, but they do tend to overlook the fact that Le Pen actually came within a hair of winning the presidency 18 months ago, and had already overtaken Macron in EU parliamentary election polls last month, before the yellow vest roadblocks had even started. In other words, if Le Pen turns out to become the next president of France, that will not be due to the gilet jaune uprising; it will be a result of the bankruptcy of the old way of doing politics after four decades of widening class polarization. In the absence of a credible and inspiring left, the crisis of the neoliberal center was always already pointing towards the right.

At the same time, it is also important to note that the outcome of the present disorder is by no means written in stone. While the ongoing revolt could strengthen Le Pen’s position in the next presidential elections, it may just as well undermine it. After all, the far-right leader currently finds herself in an awkward and increasingly untenable position. On the one hand, her carefully crafted image as an anti-establishment outsider effectively compelled her to throw her weight behind the original anti-tax protests when the first yellow vest roadblocks appeared. On the other hand, however, as these protests rapidly escalated into a much more antagonistic mass mobilization against economic inequality and bourgeois class privilege, involving widespread property destruction and violent clashes with the police, she has also had to defend her credentials as the preferred “law and order” candidate of the traditionalist petite bourgeoisie. The result has been a series of contradictory statements denouncing some elements of the revolt while embracing others. This ambiguity potentially opens a door for the left to capitalize on the widespread anti-establishment sentiment by profiling itself as the only authentic opposition force.

In this light, the more immediate risk for the left would appear to lie in the coming state crackdown on some of the more radical tendencies within the movement. After a strategic reorientation in the wake of its disastrous handling of Acts II and III, the contours of the government’s new approach clearly began to emerge in Macron’s televised address to the nation on Monday night, in which the humiliated president — speaking from behind a gilded desk in the golden room of the Élysée Palace — declared his intent to take into account the grievances of ordinary citizens while simultaneously vowing “zero tolerance” for violent troublemakers. These statements are clearly part of a broader attempt to co-opt the “apolitical masses” within the yellow vest movement while simultaneously cracking down on its “extremist fringes”.

In sum, the situation remains extremely fluid and can still develop in many different directions. Last Saturday, one protester captured the general mood in France with a simple question written on the back of his yellow vest: et maintenant? What happens next is anyone’s guess — but it is now rapidly becoming clear that the centrist political establishment is in the process of imploding. Even if the consequences remain uncertain, perhaps it is precisely in this universal state of confusion that the left must now be looking for answers. For as Bertolt Brecht once put it in his striking poem, In Praise of Doubt*:

… the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent
raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.

* Note: Special thanks to my student, Stanley, who brought this poem to my attention in a brilliant class presentation last week.

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