Gilets Jaunes aim to rebuild democracy from below

  • May 2, 2019

Movement & Mobilization

The second “Assembly of Assemblies” of the Yellow Vests showed both the importance and challenges of organizing a nation-wide direct democratic resistance movement.

This text was originally published in French by Lundi Matin.

Translation by Joshua Richeson

Early last month, between April 5-7, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) organized a second “Assembly of Assemblies” in Saint-Nazaire, following the first such meeting in Commercy back in January. The following article is a partial report-back on these meetings, offering an enthusiastic, albeit ambivalent, assessment. When “limits” and “disappointments” are mentioned, the author considers them despite everything as being part of a long process: “democracy must be conceived as a painful learning process”.

However, according to echoes reaching us from other sources, it would seem to be the forms of democracy themselves that are at least in part responsible for making those few days painful: obsession with voting, exacerbated formalism, massive presence of veteran activists, etc.

While we think it is vital for the Gilets Jaunes movement to be able to organize nationally beyond virtual channels (Facebook, Telegram, etc.), it seems to us a bit sad that this process, in many ways, insists on using the same democratic practices that we are already familiar with: representatives — elected — who vote on texts and get bogged down in conflicts that no one understands.

Why not simply take advantage of moments like these to talk about different local situations, forge a sharper perspective on the state of the movement and its different parts, and even, perhaps, coordinate a few pertinent actions?

— Lundi Matin


Late January, the initiative of the folks in Commercy, a small town lost in the heart of eastern France, laid out the basis for organizing the Gilets Jaunes. The idea? Bring together representatives of groups from all over France, and try out a new type of a coordination with the idea of proposing a horizontal structure for the movement and putting direct democracy into practice. A wild gamble and a response to skeptics.

Two months later in Saint-Nazaire for the second opus of the Assembly of Assemblies, the roundabouts seem to have subscribed to the idea: nearly 250 delegations made the trip to speak on behalf of their groups in the debates. A success for the Saint-Nazaire organizers, but also a logistical challenge. The doors of potential venues closed one by one in Saint-Nazaire and across the region. No matter. In response to the hard blows inflicted on the organization, the organizers have hit back with wild inspiration. Why not do it in the Maison du Peuple (the “People’s House”), where popular assemblies have been held every night for months? Why not destroy the ground floor of the old sub-prefecture? Knock down the walls and hope that that will be enough.

The local organizers know it — the symbol is powerful. The People’s House has already colonized yellow imaginations pretty much everywhere in France. There’s something dreamy about occupying an old seat of power (a sub-prefecture) on a whim and transforming it into a place of life and organization. And then this last snub: use it to host an assembly of assemblies, making it the capital of yellow dissent for a weekend. One power chases another.

The context has changed. Two months have passed since Commercy, and along the way, that determination so common at the start of a struggle has had to learn to come to terms first with fatigue, then with doubts. The litany of “establishment journalists” and the banality of judicial and police violence continue to undermine the struggle. For those who refuse to give up the fight, Saint-Nazaire bears the vague promise of a new manoeuvre, a new front.

“It’s going to be complicated”

Given the delegates’ impatience, the local organizers are cautious. The magnitude of the task is immense, and the three days of discussion will not be enough. Plenary sessions alternate with thematic working groups. Under the large tents and kiosks that line the building, the crowd divides and subdivides until it reaches a reasonable size. In a hurry, the most motivated among them push through the beating rain to move from one group to another.

It is a well-designed formula, leading otherwise strangers to relax and get to know one another. A new feature of this second meeting is that groups were able to propose their own topics for discussion: “Municipalism” for Commercy, “Charter for the Gilets Jaunes” put forward by Montpellier or “People’s House” from Saint-Nazaire, etc.

These small discussion groups place the emphasis on lived experience. The violence of the repression is countered with the relief of finding out one is not alone. Everyone narrates their actions, astonishing the person sitting next to them with their audacity or creativity. Block the economy, recreate local ties, produce for all, take back the roundabouts, imagine a different way to organize life, target certain businesses, pressure the authorities, develop popular education, fight against bad housing, attack the symbols of the catastrophe: everyone is pushing their emergency, hoping to win support.

Voting at the Assembly of Assemblies in Saint Nazaire. Photo via Lundi.am

Local experiences are mixed up in a huge melting pot of revolt and desire, pages are covered in ink, meetings are planned. Folks learn about actions they previously had no clue about: blocked Airbus factories in the southwest; tollbooths occupied and opened-up for several weeks on end; weekly alternative “citizen markets” featuring local, often organic, goods and services; etc. As one miffed delegate put it: “How did I not know? It’s weird that nobody talked about it. Shit.”

The idea of a large platform for information is brought up again, in order to no longer depend on anyone. Of the 70 accreditations granted, a good portion of the red media badges adorn yellow vests: many Facebook Page editors, autonomous media crews and independent journalists and documentary teams are present. Criticism has turned into action: people telling their own stories, taking back control of their words, freeing themselves from all delegation.

“We’re going to experiment”

It is in these smaller group that the pulse of the movement can be taken. More so than in Commercy, determination is on display and there is nobody left who doubts the process. Four months of struggle have gone by and have transformed even the most recalcitrant. There is nothing left to do but get organized. Get organized to believe again.

The idea of a more thorough coordination is discussed at great length. The idea that wins support: remobilize then act, attack simultaneously pretty much everywhere. The calendar promises its share of opportunities: April 20, May 1, European elections, not to mention the G7 in Biarritz late August and the 2020 municipal elections.

But when all the delegates gather in the plenary assembly, the atmosphere is different. Here, they are experimenting with the most complex, utopian aspects of direct democracy, and in Saint-Nazaire there are a lot more people present than in Commercy — maybe too many. The first cracks start to show in the assembly. The folks with the microphone try to be reassuring despite the time that flies by at full speed. Managing to agree on enough points to put out a call by Sunday evening appears complicated, but nobody wants to give up on it.

The first draft of a joint text is finally submitted to the assembly on Sunday around noon. Disappointing. A certain number of agreements from the working groups seem to have been left out. Some decry a scam, others commiserate in frustration. In fact, the text itself is intended to be minimal to get enough votes to pass, even if that means disappointing the more ambitious delegates.

Other texts — more restricted and thematic, but also more concrete — are proposed simultaneously and more easily validated by vote. European elections, repression and the annulment of sentences, citizen assemblies and convergence with environmental struggles are each entitled to their own text. For the first time in three days, the rain stops — the sun gives smokers hope again.

“Not everything will be perfect”

Although the afternoon is well underway, the dream of a call from Saint-Nazaire still seems far off. Choices are made to keep the hope alive: a limited number of amendments are granted. Do political prisoners need to be discussed? What about amnesty or annulment of sentences? A last-minute amendment is adopted without really any debate: the objective of exit from capitalism. The text is adopted by a very large majority.

Once more, the delegates’ voices can be heard echoing in the main hall, “We are here, we are here…” But this time is different. Hundreds of sub-prefecture squatters vibrate with yellow fever. The call is not perfect, but the symbol is there, honor is saved and the joy is palpable.

The consensus, however, only lasts as long the chant. The last-minute amendment on capitalism does not go down well: “a disgusting stab in the back,” according to one delegate. Poorly chosen words, too connoted, too divisive, not sufficiently representative of the Gilets Jaunes in their diversity. Others castigate the assembly for not formally putting concrete directions and strategic proposals into writing. In vain. The text has been voted upon, it is final. But the memory of the consensus in Commercy fades away.

This weekend of April 5-7 was historic, but for those who placed their hope in it, it served above all as a reminder: democracy must be conceived as a painful learning process. This is what the Saint-Nazaire team recalls a few days later in a message addressed to participants:

Just like in Commercy, we can make these three days into something foundational, especially in the lessons to be learned, in the mistakes not to make again. This real democracy that we’re building and inventing happens in real time, in all its complexity, and over time, in all its lengthiness — not in the quickness of the time of those we’re fighting against. We only have four months of experience but what a long way we’ve come in such a short time!

Despite the disappointments, the plan is set for another assembly early June. Two groups have already offered to host and animate a third opus that promises to be decisive.

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Lundi Matin is a radical and libertarian left-wing political magazine that has appeared every Monday on the internet since 2014 and on paper since 2017.

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