The Yellow Vest Movement explained to my non-french friends

So, for those of you who have been living under a rock the last two months, there’s a social movement in France which manages to organize actions and protests for the last nine weeks (yes including the weekends between Christmas and the first of January). They’re easy to spot since they wear the yellow vest that everyone is supposed to have in their car.

Disclosure and acknowledgments

I’ll try to explain what I see and understand of this movement from where I am. I do not have a definitive opinion about them, and I do not think anyone can have one, even among the Yellow Vest protesters. I also have to add that I cannot goes in those extremely violent protests, I’m not stable enough in my feelings to be able to go there. I also acknowledge that this movement changes and that a big chunk of people who are now involved in the movement were not in the beginning, and that a lot of skepticism and criticism made toward the movement are not necessarily valid anymore. I’m not a social scientist and I also have some bias toward mob mentality and howling with the hounds phenomenon. I’m genuinely terrorized by crowds, but I’lll try to keep that at bay. So, enough with disclosure and let’s start.

Context (little bits of)

The political left (yes, including the France Insoumise (FI) movement around JL. Mélenchon) is in dismay. What left of it have exploded after the mandate of F. Hollande. The Parti Socialiste (PS) is clinically dead, leaving a lots of space for the FI. But even then, they have a hard time to make proposals that appeal to people. The big unions have found themselves inefficient at a national level. Their tactics of ordered protesting and trying to sit at the table of the government have been proved inefficient since labor laws have still been passed, independently of weekly protests last year. During the last presidential elections (there’s archive of what I think of it in the #DrunkDebate and #WTFrance hashtags), we ended up having 10 millions people voting for Marine Le Pen in the second turn (7.6 millions in the first turn). For the record, JM. Le Pen who also achieve to pass to the second turn of the 2002 French presidential elections, had 5 millions of vote in the second turn,and 4.8 in the first one (you can probably add the 600k voter for B. Mégret, he was a fork of Front National) (yes, half of what his daughter would do fifteen years later). And we have Macron because we didn’t want Le Pen,not because people agreed with his electoral promises, which were quite shallow, but, after all, they’re electoral promises. For the record, French registered voters is 47 millions of people. Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Mai 1968, a huge social movement gathering workers and students which would lead, some years later, to the resignation of Gal. De Gaulle from his position of republic’s president. It was a movement in which most, if not all, of our current political “elite” started their career. It has been fantasized to the point that most unions where hoping for another May 68 to happen, so they just set-up protests to fight labor reform laws, instead of launching a global strike and factory occupations as the students did last year. Since he’s been elected, E. Macron did push a hardcore neo-liberal agenda. For instance, he removed the ISF (tax on fortunes, instated by F. Mitterand in 1989). He also stopped the funding of social securities by collective earning to replace it with a state controlled taxes – the CSG – that everyone would pay (which have a huge impact on jobless and retired people). And the list goes on. During 2016 (yar of the election year), another movement started, Nuit Debout, which gathered a lot of people to talk about politics. The biggest thing which came out of it is a development of the FI, but – a bit like Occupy – the movement would show to people that they should politicize themselves. Last year, a big student movement started in May in reaction to the ParcourSup debacle and a new law which would instantiate a selection at the entry of University. Universities – and some highschool – have been occupied, but the movement lost momentum with the summer break. So, this is bits of contexts. It is a complex one, we, French, love our protests. If you want to get a bigger understanding, you need to study French history since the fifteens, when big suburbans area have been converted in concrete blocks to host the working class. Or when coal mines and most of the steel industry moved out of France in the 90’s.

Who are the yellow vest ?

In reaction to a speed limit change on roads, and to a new tax on gas, a movement started on Facebook calling to block the country by going on roundabouts and block the roads there. This movement has spread through Facebook. At first, medias defined it has a “periurban” movement, a movement from the countryside of France, the “lower france” to quote M. Raffarin, former prime minister. But I think that it’s partial, a bias due to the fact that most – if not all – national medias are based in Paris and do not really get out of Paris in densely populated area. It’s been worse since their funding is going down, losing local correspondent and replacing them by columnist, creating a divide between those who reads the press and those whose medias speaks about. My understanding of where the yellow vest come from is, in part, due to two sources. First this good article wrote by cartographers and sociologists, which show that it is, in fact, the middle class, leaving in suburbs or big urban centers, not people leaving in the country. The second source is my personal experience of those suburbs, since I grew up there. Most suburbians areas in France are build around two class of population. The middle class who cannot afford to live in the center, and then lives in residential area that we call dormitory city. Middle managers, engineers, leaving in cheap houses massively built, office workers needing a car to do anything, because the commute system is not designed for that. Teenagers who drive drunk home because they don’t want to end up in their family house at 11pm because there’s no way back home, and no place to party nearby. The other one are the big projects, build in the sixties to house migrant workers. And that the state will stop worrying about. I suggest you to read about SONACOTRA to understand what’s been happening in the projects since the 80’s. So, you basically have two kind of people living in suburbans area. The one who can afford one or two car, and have no other practical solutions because everything is closing around them (from post office to hospital). And the one who can’t, leaving in old building, the lower class, mostly non white people. What defines the yellow vest is, at its core, their link to cars. The protests started in reaction to a speed limit reduction, which was perceived as yet another caprice of a government which is perceived has an urban elite which do not care about anything except their bank accounts. Those protesters depends on their car and, a lot of them – if not most – are in a precarious situation. If they can’t pay the gas of their car,they can’t go to work, so they’re going to lose their jobs, which will lead to difficulty to pay back the house mortgage, etc … This particular form of precariousness is called energetic precariousness. They’re not the lower class, the lower class leaves in projects and cannot afford a car, so they use public transportations to work, when they have a job at all. They’re the one who, taxes after taxes, are paying more for less. Their earning taxes rises while the level of public services goes down, creating a feeling of unfairness among them. More than the National Front votes (sorry, Rassemblement national nowadays, RN), I think that what defines them is the abstention.

Politics of the yellow vests

I do think that, despite the fact that 30 % of the population votes for the RN, most of the yellow vests are not fascists thugs. They’re the one left out by Nuits Debout, by the union, by the government and they think they only got themselves and their Facebook friends to rely on. It is a class which have been depoliticized, because they were taught that politics are only about elections, and they’re now finding ways to do politics outside of the big political organs. It is a resilient movement, quite effective at resisting political entrism and recuperation. Yes, there is RN voters among them, and yes, at least when they were building barricades on the Champs Élysées, fascists thugs from GUD of Action Française (or, well, royalists) were presents in high number. But nine weeks later, I think that most of them are gone. Yes there are racism, sexism and islamophobia in this movement. But not more than what leaders of the France Insoumise do. Or not more than what LREM (Macron’s political apparatus) does. Those issues are present in all classes of French society, and at all levels. I’m not saying that they should get a free pass, but maybe if we were tackling those ideas in our own court yards, then the Yellow Vest would have less racism, sexism and islamophobia behavior. And, well, there’s women march among them, in non-mixity. Not perfect it still is a mostly white movement, but it’s better than anything I’ve seen in big unions led protests. And they have some specific issues toward single mums. The Justice pour Adama Traoré collective, a suburb movement, fighting against racism and cop violence, called to join the Yellow Vest at the start of December. They supported, and sometimes joined, the climate march. Students have also joined the movement, bringing their concern about the bac reforms to the already long list of demands. So, after nine weeks, what are their demands ? They’ve published a list of forty demands, some of them are listed on Le Média, I will not details them one by one, you can read them (or translates them). There is some ugly ones, especially toward migrants. But that’s not worse than what I read in the France Insoumise agenda (it does not makes it acceptable, I’m giving you context), but there’s some interesting in how they want to regulate incomes of elected officials for instance, or re-instantiate the mutual benefits for social security of retirement plans
One of the key issue is the RIC (Referendum d’Initiative Citoyenne / Citizen initiated Referendum). It’s kind of a petition, the idea is for people to start by themselves a vote on ideas, not to wait for national inquiries. It’s one of the key item in the France Insoumise agenda, and they try to get a law on it, and it sparked a lot of controversy since A. Corbière, elected representative of the FI at the National Assembly, said that the RIC could be used to question the marriage for everyone law. The thing is, most of the French population is in favor of this (around 62%), so the only purpose of this question is to debate of something that’s already been debate, to promote conservative views. But this is not an issue specific to the Yellow Vest, as you can see, we have our own brown-red elected representative.

Medias and the yellow vest

Yellow Vest so not like the mainstream press. I won’t say it’s well deserved, but that was expectable. A non negligible part of national medias only spoke of the degradations made during the protests. Or present people as official spokesperson while there is no such thing. Yes, some right wings thugs have been depicted as spokesperson by some medias, and they were not disavowed immediately by the Yellow vest, which has been used to classify them all as RN supporters, using the classic trope of workers disappointed by politics voting RN by despite. However, I think that, in a quest of selling advertisements and clicks, there’s a trend around riot-porn in most of national medias, showing only pictures of electrical scooters burning or of barricades. Focusing on the violence of the protests instead of the reasons of the protests (that is not something new though). I also perceive some contempt from the intelligentsia of columnists toward the Yellow Vest. Especially because they’re not the public of those medias. When a leftist writes an oped for Valeur Actuelles, in the hope to appeal to the Yellow Vest which might read this Christian conservative weekly magazine, it shows that those same medias or politicians do not understand the Yellow Vest. Valeurs Actuelles, is read by the bourgeoisie, not by the Yellow Vest. Middle-class voters, like a lot of people, get their news from either the TV, or from Facebook. Not by those newspaper tailored for the upper class. There is also an expectation on the way to express yourself from the news outlets, which will display people who don’t use the correct code as being uneducated, violent, hostile or closed to negociations. For all those reason, there is a defiance toward the press by the Yellow Vest, feeded by confusionism and a little bit of conspiracy theories, some spread by elected representatives. I’ll modulate a bit this, because it’s all about nuance. The local press is covering the Yellow Vest and, being local, they’re kinda better welcome. There’s also some press outlets – the one perceived as not owned by the government – such as mediapart, which are covering the Yellow Vest in a less biased way (and well, they do cover also the Benalla stories, but that’s for another topics). Last but not least, most of the TV news journals, or even some of the news only channel such as BFM – are quiet on the police violence, not speaking about it at all, focusing on the degradations, damaging even more the already bad relationship between Yellow Vest and the press in general.

Cops and the Yellow Vest

The movement started rather peacefully, locking roundabouts and tollgates. For a good part of 2018, they tried to establish a dialogue with the government which just ignored them, not even feigning to speak with them. So starting on November, they planned protests every Saturday, with the intent of messing with the government, starting by building barricades on the Champs Élysées. And yes, protests on the Champs Élysées is a symbol of right wings extremists (and unauthorized cops protests). The first ones started wildly, with first fights between cops and Yellow Vest (and, at the time, a lot of fascists on the barricades) as soon as 11:00 AM, before first coffee break. You’ll see a lot of devastation on the avenue, but it is mostly due because to some public works on the avenue, something related to bike lanes. The protesters were met by a lot of cops violence. Water canon were used, but also LBD and stun grenades. There was basically no reactions from the government. Since the the situation got worse. But some of the Yellow Vests have found interesting way of scaring the governments. One of them implies declaring false protests, or protests on a different place than the one they actually wants togo. They usually try to targets what they perceived as place of power, meaning that, in Paris they’re protesting on unusual path (mostly in the west and rich part of Paris, instead of te classic République – Nation – Bastille triangle). They do not hesitate to take on cops. Sometimes using what they found on the street, such as heavy machinery to push back the cops. As a result cops are now loose, they use and kills people, including bystanders who just happened to live in a street where protests were taking part. Or by humiliating teenagers during a police raid in a school, which will fuel their anger, and have them join the YellowVest. DavDuff is keeping tabs on mutilations by cops on his website, and Libération published a stunning infography on the 82 mutilations caused by cops (yes, that’s roughly 10 per week, so 2 per days). And that’s only mutilation, it does not take into account everyone who’s only been beat up by cops. And it does not include Benalla’s related stuff. SInce reporters are now clearly shot on sight by cops, the coverage of the movement did change, and I really think that the defiance between the yellow vest and the French press is changing.

What of it ?

I do think Yellow Vest is important, because, first, it’s a movement coming form a class of people that used to be quiet and misrepresented (or they perceiv they are misrepresented). Yes, there is issue in this movement, including sexism, homophobia and racism. However, I’ll nuance that by the fact that most of those issues are present in classic left wing protests. And we need to come to term that a third of French population votes for the RN. I do think the government is scared, they’re incapable of reacting to this kind of movement and the usual tactics they used have failed, or made things worse for them by fueling the outrage and the being despised feeling and resent they have toward the people in power. Yellow Vest is different of what we used to have here in France. It is far from perfect, but it brings the political debate in the street, where it belongs.