What the Yellow Vests Have in Common with Occupy

Inside the mass protests that are rocking France.

Cole StanglerFebruary 12, 2019

Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) demonstrators march in Caen, France, on Nov. 18, 2018, as part of a nationwide protest against the rising cost of living and skyrocketing fuel prices. (Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — In Belleville Park, a small, steep pub­lic gar­den with panoram­ic views of the city, about 40 sup­port­ers of the gilets jaunes (Yel­low Vest) move­ment have gath­ered on a chilly Jan­u­ary night for what’s billed as a neigh­bor­hood pop­u­lar assem­bly.” It’s the third such meet-up to dis­cuss what res­i­dents of this his­tor­i­cal­ly work­ing-class quar­ter can do to sup­port the wave of demonstrations.

“I want to keep pissing off the politicians,” Jean Robert, a 71-year-old retiree, tells the group assembled in Belleville Park. “Whatever we can do to keep putting pressure on them.”

It’s a wide-open ques­tion, much like the future of the Yel­low Vest revolt. Online anger over a planned dou­bling of the fuel tax, to about 25 cents a gal­lon, spilled into the streets in Novem­ber 2018. The move­ment took its sym­bol from the cloth­ing item required of French motorists since 2008. Root­ed in rur­al areas and out­er sub­urbs, the demon­stra­tions quick­ly spread, thanks in no small part to social media. They soon came to rep­re­sent deep­er frus­tra­tions with the ris­ing cost of liv­ing. Far from anti-envi­ron­men­tal, the move­ment sim­ply called on the wealthy to pick up the tab for France’s tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels.

After weeks of traf­fic block­ades, dis­rup­tive march­es and occa­sion­al­ly vio­lent clash­es with the police, in Decem­ber 2018 the Yel­low Vests won a series of con­ces­sions from Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron: the can­cel­la­tion of the fuel tax increase, the scrap­ping of a sep­a­rate tax hike on pen­sions passed the pre­vi­ous year, and the expan­sion of a state sub­sidy for low-wage work­ers that could amount to a month­ly pay bump of rough­ly $115. Nev­er­the­less, the protests persist.

I want to keep piss­ing off the politi­cians,” Jean Robert, a 71-year-old retiree, tells the group assem­bled in Belleville Park. What­ev­er we can do to keep putting pres­sure on them.”

The Yel­low Vest move­ment is remark­ably grass­roots, orga­nized inde­pen­dent­ly of polit­i­cal par­ties and unions, and vary­ing sub­stan­tial­ly by loca­tion. Pro­test­ers’ calls to tax the rich and to raise wages have earned sup­port from the French Left.

But the Yel­low Vests have also won sym­pa­thy from the country’s far right. The ever-cal­cu­lat­ing Marine Le Pen of the new­ly renamed Nation­al Ral­ly par­ty (for­mer­ly the Nation­al Front) has paid it lip ser­vice, and a small share of demon­stra­tors appear to share her warped diag­no­sis of French society’s ills — call­ing, for instance, on France to exit the Unit­ed Nations’ Glob­al Com­pact for Migra­tion, which they see as a Tro­jan horse for mass immi­gra­tion from Africa and the Mid­dle East.

All that seems far removed from this meet­ing, though, whose par­tic­i­pants are a snap­shot of Belleville itself, long inhab­it­ed by immi­grants and their descen­dants, espe­cial­ly from North Africa. Atten­dees are young and old, white and brown, lead­ing a free­wheel­ing two-hour dis­cus­sion rem­i­nis­cent of the Occu­py move­ment. It’s both excit­ing and messy: Some­one sug­gests block­ing a major food and pro­duce mar­ket; anoth­er says the move­ment should focus on eco­nom­ic issues; some­one else says res­i­dents should focus on hous­ing spec­u­la­tion and spray graf­fi­ti on the offices of real estate agen­cies. Anoth­er speak­er tells every­one how much fun he had demon­strat­ing in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods.

Yann Le Bihan, a 48-year-old school admin­is­tra­tor, takes the floor and men­tions a mod­est decline in pub­lic sup­port. While a YouGov study from late Novem­ber 2018 found 70 per­cent of the coun­try backed the Yel­low Vests, a more recent ver­sion of the poll showed 62 per­cent approval.

The most impor­tant thing you can do is talk to your friends and acquain­tances when you hear mis­in­for­ma­tion about the Yel­low Vests,” says Le Bihan. But we also need to work our­selves on our com­mu­ni­ca­tion, on our talk­ing points.”

Not every­one agrees. This is much big­ger than talk­ing points or pub­lic rela­tions,” Amparo, a 62-year-old school­teacher who declines to give her last name, says to applause. We’re in the fight of our lives! … Opin­ion polls go up and down, the stock mar­ket goes up and down, but so what? We’re fight­ing for our lives.”

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary ambi­tions notwith­stand­ing, sev­er­al press­ing issues loom over the move­ment today. First, there’s the ques­tion of the Cit­i­zens’ Ref­er­en­dum Ini­tia­tive, known as the RIC. The most promi­nent ver­sion of the pro­pos­al would allow French cit­i­zens to intro­duce and autho­rize leg­is­la­tion, to nul­li­fy laws, to revoke leg­is­la­tors and to amend the con­sti­tu­tion — all by ref­er­en­dum. Some Yel­low Vests con­sid­er it the movement’s sin­gle most impor­tant demand, though oth­ers seem more sus­pi­cious. It’s a super-rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­pos­al,” bel­lowed one enthu­si­as­tic activist at the Belleville meet­ing — though he was the only one to men­tion it.

Then, there is the so-called great nation­al debate. Instead of tak­ing up the RIC, the French gov­ern­ment has respond­ed to the protests with a series of dis­cus­sions — online and in per­son — designed to address what it views as the country’s deepseat­ed polit­i­cal malaise. They focus on four key themes: tax­es and pub­lic spend­ing, pub­lic ser­vices, the fos­sil-fuel tran­si­tion and democ­ra­cy and cit­i­zen­ship,” which includes immi­gra­tion. Most Yel­low Vests view the entire endeav­or as a sham, a des­per­ate effort from author­i­ties to redi­rect pop­u­lar frus­tra­tions into an insti­tu­tion­al­ized dead end. Ulti­mate­ly, the movement’s future could hinge on its capac­i­ty to set forth a coher­ent alternative.

For its part, the group in Belleville has com­mit­ted to more imme­di­ate plans. By the end of the meet­ing, they’ve set a gath­er­ing point for the weekend’s protest in Paris. And they’ve vowed to find a bet­ter loca­tion to keep hold­ing their pop­u­lar assem­blies” over the win­ter — prefer­ably indoors. 

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
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