A year of insurgency: How Yellow Vests left ‘indelible mark’ on French politics

November 17 marks the first anniversary of France’s Yellow Vest movement, a potent, unconventional insurgency that has been widely caricatured and misunderstood, and is set to leave a lasting imprint on French society and politics.

When Emmanuel Macron toured the battlegrounds of the Great War in early November 2018, part of celebrations marking 100 years since the armistice that ended the conflict, a string of unusual incidents cast a pall over the French president’s memorial pilgrimage. Dignified and carefully choreographed, such commemorations are a hallmark of France’s quasi-monarchical presidency, a chance for the head of state to embody the nation and its proud history. But in towns and villages that once lined the western front, the solemnity was punctured by a series of tense encounters with disgruntled members of the public. 

“Can you not hear the anguish gathering across France?” asked an irate pensioner in the town of Verdun, the site of the greatest and deadliest battle in French military history. “Try to feel it, in Paris, the anger that is mounting everywhere,” he added, with a warning: “You will feel it on November 17.”

The prophesied date would mark the beginning of one of the most potent and contagious protest movements in recent French history – an unconventional insurgency that caught Parisian elites sleeping, rattling the government, baffling commentators, and eventually inspiring copy-cat protests around the world.

Donning the now-famous fluorescent waistcoats that are mandatory in French cars, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) staged 52 consecutive weeks of protests against economic hardship, mounting inequality and a discredited political establishment. They manned roundabouts across the country night and day, took to the streets on every Saturday since November 17, and at their peak in December even stormed the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris, amid scenes of chaos not witnessed since May '68.

Twelve months on, the number of Yellow Vests out on the streets is starkly diminished, and Macron can claim to have largely seen off the most formidable challenge of his presidency. But the movement has nonetheless left an indelible mark on France, forcing the government into billions of euros of tax breaks, sending a clear warning to the country’s self-styled “Jupiterian” president, and putting neglected swathes of the country back on the map.

“There is no doubt there will be a before-and-after the Yellow Vests,” said Frédéric Gonthier, a political scientist at the Pacte research centre and the School of Political Studies in Grenoble. Describing the movement as a “watershed in French politics”, Gonthier said one of its principal legacies was “to have put France's invisible and inaudible working classes back at the heart of public debate".

Mapping the protests

Perhaps more than other social movements, mapping the Yellow Vests proved to be a challenge for analysts and government officials alike. Loosely linked by a network of dozens of Facebook pages, the movement appeared largely shapeless, leaderless and with no clear ideological bent. Mirroring efforts at other institutes, Gonthier and his colleague Tristan Guerra, a doctoral candidate in Grenoble, relied on interviews and nearly 5,000 online questionnaires to establish an identikit of the typical Yellow Vest.

“The picture that emerged was that of a movement made up largely of workers and former workers in a situation of financial insecurity, with relatively few unemployed,” said Gonthier. Yellow Vests were present across France, but strongest in small towns and rural areas. They came from all walks of life, but liberal professions were underrepresented, while small business owners and employees, craftspeople and care workers formed the bulk of the movement. About two thirds of respondents earned less than the average wage, and a slightly higher percentage registered as having a “deficit of cultural resources and social links”. This in turn “conditioned the way they defined themselves, and helped distance them from traditional social movements", Gonthier added.

Another defining feature was the high proportion of women, who made up roughly half the Yellow Vests, whereas social movements traditionally tend to be male-dominated. Gonthier said this reflected the significant mobilisation of women in care work, “most notably hospital workers from a public health sector that is plunging deeper into crisis". They included a high number of single mothers who couldn’t go out and protest, or were scared away by the police’s heavy-handed response, but who supported the movement online. Guerra added: “We came across many cases of women in financial difficulty, employed in the health sector, who gradually dropped out of the protests because they became too dangerous.”

‘Women are the first victims of poverty’

Oriane, a 25-year-old social worker who declined to give her full name, said she joined the movement on the third Saturday of protesting – and hasn’t missed one since. She’s been to protests in Paris and her native Toulouse, seeing the Yellow Vests as a natural continuation of her struggle for women’s rights. Early on in the movement, Oriane and her friend Cherifa, a resident of the Palais de la Femme charity in Paris, set up the first women’s Yellow Vest page on Facebook. Many more have been added since. 

“Women are the first victims of poverty and this is why I’m a woman Yellow Vest,” she told FRANCE 24. Like many in the movement, Oriane was moved to protest by “the government’s unfair policies and Macron’s contempt for small folk like us”. France’s “president of the rich” was out of touch with the country, she said, citing his long list of derogatory comments, such as telling an unemployed man he need only “cross the street” to find a job, complaining about the “crazy money” France spends on welfare, and urging pensioners to “complain less” about their shrinking allowances.

Media caricatures

The trigger for the Yellow Vest uprising was an unpopular fuel tax, ostensibly designed to finance France’s transition to a green economy (though it soon became apparent that its proceeds would mostly be used to plug a budget deficit widened by the government’s tax cuts for the wealthy). The levy infuriated motorists in rural and suburban areas starved of public transport and other services, where households are heavily reliant on their cars. This original association with motor vehicles, cemented by the symbol of the high-visibility vests, allowed some commentators in well-connected Paris to dismiss the protesters as recalcitrant, selfish motorists unconcerned by climate change. 

Long before the first serious studies had been published, many in the media had rushed to draw conclusions about the movement, often disparaging ones that suggested the Yellow Vests were infiltrated and controlled by far-right activists. Critics pointed to the fact that the movement appeared strongest in neglected areas where Marine Le Pen gained her highest scores in the 2017 presidential election.

“The media tried to criminalise us, calling us homophobes, racists and anti-Semites,” said Oriane, noting that no Yellow Vest had ever had a go at her for being a lesbian, nor at her friend Charifa for being Muslim. “Many of the news organisations that I once trusted treated us with contempt. They took a long time to understand us, and by snubbing us they widened the gulf between the elites and the people.”

Days ahead of the one-year anniversary, France’s National Audiovisual Institute (INA) published a report on the media’s coverage of the movement. It noted that broadcasters had been slow to wake up to the challenge, and had then afforded mass coverage to the violent clashes with police while neglecting the economic issues that underpinned the protests.

Guerra said it was no surprise the media took time to adapt to the terrain and its sociology, since “the geography of the movement was very different from that of the news organisations,” which are traditionally concentrated in Paris and the big cities. “When new social movements emerge the media are often at a loss, drawing hasty comparisons with the past before identifying the movement’s specificities,” added Gonthier. “In this case some news outlets had a biased view, and the CSA [France’s media watchdog] had to step in to call for more balanced coverage, particularly of the clashes.”

Non-partisan, but not apolitical

In some cases, the Yellow Vests’ relative inexperience of politics contributed to generating misconceptions -- as with their use of the term “apolitical” to stress their rejection of traditional party politics. As studies revealed, most participants were first-time protesters with no political or union affiliation. “More than half said they didn’t believe in the traditional left-right divide,” said Guerra. “But theirs is a rejection of partisan politics, not of politics itself, since a movement like theirs is inherently political.”

One of the Yellow Vests’ most interesting traits is their attempt to reclaim politics by wresting it from the control of “experts”, said Gonthier, noting that this effort "is expressed in terms of an awakening to politics and rampant injustice”. Essentially, “they see themselves as a community of workers who produce the real wealth of the country; a wealth that is confiscated by the elites, the politicians who sow division within their ranks,” he added. This in turn explains why they have always rejected leaders and political representatives, who are seen as a factor of division. 

“The Yellow Vests are often criticised for a supposed lack of organisation, but this is not true,” Gonthier explained. “The movement is highly organised, though not in a vertical way. Debates are organised by assemblies that work in small groups and reach decisions by consensus. Organising things horizontally is more difficult than vertically, but they have succeeded. Manning roundabouts around the clock, keeping the peace and avoid topics of discord – all of this requires significant organisational skills.”

‘I haven’t read Marx, but I experience class war every day’

Oriane said the horizontal and collective decision-making of the Yellow Vests was “in the best tradition of the Suffragettes and the Paris Commune”. But for an avowed left-winger like her, the lack of support for the movement from established left-wing parties was a huge disappointment – and further evidence of the divide between political elites and the people.

“The left should know a thing or two about class warfare, and yet they did not support us,” she lamented. “I haven’t read Marx, but I experience class war in the street and on my body every single day.”

The Yellow Vests’ rejection of party politics is not the only reason for the lack of convergence with left-wing parties from France’s splintered opposition. For starters, the movement’s sociology is very different from that of overtly left-wing protest movements like Occupy, Indignados, or the recent Nuit Debout, in which jobless youths with university degrees played a prominent part. Another key factor is the absence of an anti-capitalist ideology shared across the Yellow Vest movement.

“They share some references with the left, such as their pleas for greater solidarity and their rejection of injustice and inequality. But crucially, the Yellow Vests do not reject the market economy or capitalism. They want to live better, like the middle classes,” said Gonthier. “Their ideal is the independent worker who lives off his work. In their mind, depending on social benefits is humiliating,” added Guerra. “For the Yellow Vests, benefits should be conditional. They reject a welfare state that squanders the wealth they produce. All these things put them at odds with much of the left. In fact, they offer more fertile ground for the radical right.”

Who’s the racist?

In terms of its material objectives, the movement was only partially successful. It forced the government into a series of crisis measures to prop up purchasing power, for instance by raising minimum pensions. But this helped sap support for the movement. So did Macron’s Great National Debate, called in response to the protests, which the ubiquitous president soon turned into a town-hall road-show offering him unrivalled media coverage – while the Yellow Vests were kept at bay. 

Electorally speaking, the protest movement proved to be a flop: Yellow Vest lists in European elections were a nightmare to set up and promptly got hammered. But it would be wrong to assume the movement hasn’t left a deep imprint on political life. 

“In terms of symbolic objectives, and the ability to dictate the agenda, the Yellow Vests clearly had a huge impact on French politics,” said Gonthier, suggesting that many of their key demands – such as the reinstatement of a wealth tax, scrapped by Macron, and giving citizens the power to trigger referendums – will continue to dominate the political debate.

In many ways, the agenda put forward by the movement is healthier than the noxious debates fostered by political parties and the media, Guerra argued.

“The Yellow Vests have put the focus back on democracy and the economy, at a time when the debate is saturated with cultural and identity politics,” he explained. Indeed, while both the far right and the government obsess over immigration and the Muslim veil, such topics have been largely shunned by the Yellow Vests, precisely because of their divisive nature. “Of course it is perfectly possible to hear some Yellow Vests voice racist remarks, but no more so than the rest of the French public,” he added. 

Fraternity of the oppressed

For Oriane, the movement’s future success will depend on its ability to converge with other struggles carried by the downtrodden in France and abroad. She said the pauperisation of many Parisians priced out of the French capital had helped them sympathise with the plight of Yellow Vests in rural areas, while the experience of police repression had brought the protest movement closer to the immigrant-rich population of the most deprived suburbs of France. 

Over the past year, dozens of protesters, journalists and bystanders have suffered serious injuries – including gouged eyes and hands ripped off – as a result of the rubber bullets and stun grenades used by French riot police. The government’s steadfast refusal to question the police tactics, with Macron at one point saying “there is no such thing as police violence”, has infuriated the Yellow Vests and further radicalised the movement.

“The repression has helped us identify with the banlieues [suburbs], which have suffered from police violence for so long,” added Oriane, who also credited the weekly Yellow Vest protests with allowing her to “fraternise” with rural folk, including “people who come from the political right”, and understand their concerns.

According to Gonthier, there is no guarantee the Yellow Vests will play a key part in an upcoming national strike called by public-sector workers, “because of their profound distrust of trade unions, who are seen as defending specific class interests”. On the other hand, their newfound political awareness may well result in continued activism and a greater involvement in community life and politics. “What used to be experienced as private shame is now shared collectively, hence the movement’s emphasis on solidarity and dignity,” he added. “This may well carry lasting political implications that will take months or years to become apparent.”