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YELLOW VESTS

OPINION: Why France’s ‘yellow vest’ protesters are so angry

Many of the 'yellow vest' protests that took place across France on Saturday descended into violence. But why exactly are the gilets jaunes so angry? Academic Claude Poissenot explores the subject in an article for The Conversation.

OPINION: Why France’s 'yellow vest' protesters are so angry
Photo: AFP
France’s gilets jaunes protests of December 1 were marked not only by their anger and violence, but also by the variety of those taking part.
 
The violence of the protests – named after the 'yellow vests' worn by those on the streets – is partly the work of extremist, anarchist groups pursuing illusory political goals.
 
Others involved are casseurs or 'wreckers', who’ve inserted themselves in the movement to fight the police and loot stores for the appeal of doing damage and the lure of personal profit.
 
But it seems that some of the gilets jaunes themselves wanted to fight. Above all, they are expressing their anger out loud.
 
The protesters consider themselves as 'the people'. Their motives – which include falling purchasing power and rising taxes – are often coupled with frustrations about the gap between the French government and its citizens.
 
READ ALSO:

ANALYSIS: The savage violence in Paris was not a protest, it was an insurrectionPhoto: AFP

This theme has come out in the choice of sites targeted in the violence – the Elysée presidential palace, administrative buildings, banks and luxury shops.
 
Many of those protesting feel neglected, oppressed and dominated.
 
For the most part they’re employed, but their incomes often don’t meet their needs despite the exhaustion they feel from their work.
 
The simple promise of being able to live off one’s income is no longer being kept. It’s no longer possible for somebody to lead their life as they please, or to make their own choices.
 
How can the ideal of autonomy be achieved if the riches of society aren’t shared out more widely?
 
These are the sentiments felt by couples who say they “can’t get by” despite having two jobs, or young workers who still live with their parents because their income is insufficient or too unstable for them to move out.
 
The anger on display in the protests stems from this impossible equation. And since the collective notion of social class has disappeared in France, this anger is now being experienced on a personal level.
 
Difficult living conditions are now more a matter of personal experience than a condition of class.
 
Photo: AFP
 
The anger from within
 
Religion has long sought to control anger by placing it among the deadly sins. Yet, as French society has become more secular, religion is no longer working to hold anger back.
 
French society is also made up of people who think of themselves as autonomous. Today’s important relationship is with one’s self – there is a value placed on authenticity, on personal development, or on listening to your own body.
 
As the distance from those who govern us increases, it’s become convenient to listen to ourselves and our emotions much more. The success of emoticons in messaging apps and texts are a clear sign of this, and personal feelings are now guiding our lives in thousands of different ways.
 
In this context, anger is understandable because it’s experienced as a moment of internal connection or clarity.
 
I am even more myself because I am angry – because I’m as close as possible to the inner fire that animates and illuminates me. The pronoun “I” actually fuels this anger. It’s a form of self-expression, like a work of art is for an artist.
 
At the barricades, or on animated conversations on Facebook, people have the opportunity to meet others with whom they can share and multiply anger that has only been experienced personally until now.
 
Fuelling more anger
 
Political parties and trade unions also once controlled and channeled this anger. Now, they no longer can. They’ve been accused of trying to use the gilets jaunes movement or even trying to subvert a point of view that’s deeply personal.
 
Those in power are confronted with groups of people acting individually, some of whose self-esteem is centred around their anger.
 
As the old saying goes, la colère est mauvaise conseillère or 'anger is a bad counsellor'. New perspectives and alternative ways forward are urgently needed.
 
What are protesters planning for Paris on Saturday?
Photo: AFP
 
There are few tangible signs that the anger of the gilets jaunes is being taken seriously, and this is perceived as a sign of contempt – not for the organisation, since there is none, but for each person wearing a yellow vest. That will further fuel their anger.
 
In the face of many individual experiences that have sparked such anger, it’s necessary to explore and develop rational arguments. At the same time, we can’t forget how each person wearing a yellow vest experiences his or her own situation. It won’t be possible to achieve the first without the second.
 
Learning to be oneself
 
When the anger subsides, France must learn lessons from the unprecedented gilets jaunes movement. The crisis of representation is deeply affecting the way people are defining themselves politically.
 
In an appeal published on December 1 in the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, a group calling itself the gilets jaunes libres called for regular referendums on large social issues and proportional representation at the next parliamentary elections.
 
This is not surprising. Other ways of moving forward need to be explored, including establishing representative groups drawn at random from lists of voters – a process known as sortition.
 
From the point of view of citizens, work is needed to be done to better understand the place of the individual within contemporary society. Everyone has a claim to construct their life in the way they want to – and this is an essential source of liberation.
 
We are fortunate to live in a society that opens up so many opportunities for us all – one that’s a long way away from the rigid social restrictions of the past.
 
But this freedom cannot be without limits. It involves participating in the community and caring for others.
 
How can France bring together individuals who think they are autonomous but who have to live in a world of finite resources?
 
It is this dizzying question that we must answer, each and every one of us.
 
Claude Poissenot is a university lecturer and researcher at IUT Nancy-Charlemagne and the University of Lorraine.
 

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Is France’s ‘yellow vest’ movement really on its way back?

Nearly two years since 'yellow-vest' protesters flooded the streets, the signature gilets jaunes have become a rare sight in France. With a comeback announced on September 12th, what is left of the movement that shook France?

Is France's 'yellow vest' movement really on its way back?
Yellow vest protests in Paris in 2019. Photo: AFP

When Priscillia Ludosky put on a yellow vest for the first time and headed out to the Champs Elysées to protest, she had no idea that nearly 300,000 people would do the same.

It was November 17th, 2018, the first 'yellow vest' protest in the capital and the birth of a mass-movement so large that its vows to overthrow French President Emmanuel Macron’s government seemed, for a moment, credible. 

Nearly two years later, Macron is still president – and aiming for reelection – while the ‘yellow vest’ movement has all but disappeared from the public eye.

“It’s been a long time since I wore the yellow vest,” Priscillia Ludosky, founder and leading figure of the movement, told The Local.

She had not left the movement, but said she was less active than she had been.

“I'm less on-the-ground than I used to. The pandemic put the brakes on most things,” she said.

Despite France's rising coronavirus rates, the 'yellow vests' have declared a comeback protest on September 12th, promising to “never give up”.

 

But with the protests before lockdown gathering only a fraction of the numbers they once rallied, how much is there really left of the 'yellow vests'?

“The movement is much smaller, much less active, and much more divided than it was at the outset,” historian Sylvain Boulouque told The Local.

Boulouque has followed the movement from the beginning and has written the book Mensonges en gilet jaune (Lies in yellow vests), about the role social media and fake news played in fuelling the 'yellow vests' anger.

When the ‘yellow vests’ first spiralled into a national mass-movement, their rallying cry “Macron demission !” (Macron resign) was the one ringing the loudest, and it was also one of the few demands that all of the ‘yellow vests’ could unite behind.

“The movement spans all the way from the extreme-left to the extreme-right. There is no unity on the fundamental political questions,” Boulouque said.

The more time passed, the more the movement's internal divisions became clear. Today, Boulouque said, there was “a little bit of everything” left, and just keeping track of the movement had become a challenge.

“It’s so local that the demographic changes from town to town and week to week,” he said.

Among the extreme right-wing were a number of conspiracy theory believers, he said, including anti-mask activists who opposed the French government's new rules on masks.

Pro- and anti-masks was just the newest fault line dividing the 'yellow vests', Boulouque said.

“The pandemic will split them rather than reunite them,” he said.

‘Covid proved our points’

Seizing on the pandemic to re-mobilise the masses is what the still-active 'yellow vests' hope to do on September 12th.

Leading 'yellow vest' figure Jérôme Rodrigues. Photo: AFP

Jérôme Rodrigues, another ‘yellow vest’ leading figure, told Slate that the pandemic was their “best ally”.

“Covid proved our points about the degrading of the health system and the limits of the capitalist system,” Rodrigues said.

When the French government imposed a nationwide, strict lockdown in March, it was to save the hospitals in hard-hit areas such as Paris from the mounting pressure of a rapidly increasing patient flow. 

The lockdown, which lasted over two months, had a crippling impact on the economy and saw the government spend billions on emergency help schemes to prevent chain bankruptcies and mass layoffs. 

Despite the government's efforts to kickstart the economy, France’s unemployment rate is set to increase by 10 percent by the end of the year. Young people will be the worst affected, according to France’s national institute for statistics, Insee. Rodrigues predicted that the looming downturn would reaffirm people's faith in the 'yellow vest' movement.

“With the coming crisis, people who were doing well financially and who have never had a hard time are going to fall flat on their faces,” Rodrigues said.

'Yellow vest' leading figure Priscillia Ludosky has been participating in protests against police violence and in support of France's hospital sector the past months. Photo: AFP

'Sensationalist media'

Rodrigues became a symbol of the ‘yellow vests’ after he was hit in the eye by what he claimed to be an LBD rubber bullet fired by police (the police refute his accusation, but the authority overseeing the police has launched an investigation into the matter). 

Blinded in one eye, Rodrigues incorporated one of the most jarring features of the protests: their increasingly violent character. The recurring scenes of violence that dominated the protests contributed to the ‘yellow vests’ hogging headlines for months – not just in France, but across the world. 

Images of burning cars, police armed with rubber-bullet guns, violent fist-fights and black-clad protesters smashing ATMs with baseball bats shocked the world. 

But the violence also dominated the media coverage of the protests, which meant what the protesters were saying got less attention.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

To Ludosky, this was a big problem.

“The media won’t cover anything unless it’s sensationalist,” she said. 

Ludosky authored the online petition that became the catalyst for the ‘yellow vest’ protests. In it, she wrote that the government’s proposed carbon tax was both falsely branded a green policy and was harmful to the many people who depended on their cars to get around every day.

The document went viral and gathered more than one million signatures, and the fluorescent yellow vest that all vehicles in France must be equipped with became the symbol of the masses revolting against the elites.

Ludosky said her main point was lost in the coverage. She was not an angry car-enthusiast defending her right to drive, she was saying that the tax was unfair and would impact the most on the poorest.

“The longer we protested, the more they tried to tell everyone that we don't know what we want. That we were only out there to break things,” she said.

The early days of the movement saw hundreds of 'roundabout protests' in the French provinces. Photo: AFP

'They are there'

The violence also discouraged many of the 'yellow vests' who had little experience with protesting and were shocked by the use of force on both sides.

Danielle Tartakowsky, a professor at the Paris 8 University who specialises in social movements in contemporary France, said it was important to distinguish between the ‘yellow vest’ who still turned up to protests in Paris – often young, keen and ready to go head to head with police – and the ‘yellow vests’ mobilising in less urban areas.

“In the countryside the ‘yellow vest’ movement is the same as it was at the outset,” she said.

In her new book, On est là ! (We’re here), a main ‘yellow vest’ rallying cry, she concludes just that; the movement had changed, but the ‘yellow vests’ were still present.

“That does not mean that they are ready to rally in the same ways, but it would be dangerous and delusional to say that they have disappeared,” she said.

Tartakowsky said that, while the 'yellow vests' successes could seem limited from the outside, they had pushed through important change indirectly by showing that it was possible to force through change.

“Even if they did not win on all points they showed that it was possible to win something, to make the government backpedal,” she said, referring to the carbon tax.

The camp

When the protests started, the roundabout became the main stage for the protesters who did not travel to Paris to make their discontent heard and seen in the capital. 

From June 2019 until March 2020, just before the pandemic hit with full force, Séverine spent most of her free time on a local roundabout where she and some 30 other ‘yellow vests’ had set up a camp.

A teacher in Amiens, a city a couple of hours north of Paris, Séverine was an early believer that the ‘yellow vests’ would be the movement that finally could radically change a system she saw as unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable.

“I passed all my evenings, all my weekends at the camp,” she said.

The camp was a microcosm of the world they hoped to create.

“We cooked together, discussed, we really had some great moments there together,” she said.

They were all kinds of people at the camp; a waiter, a metro driver, a nursery teacher, a few retirees. An Indian student who just needed somewhere to crash for free. 

“It was a very open environment,” Séverine said.

But the problems soon surfaced. The camp, like the movement, swore to a leaderless management style where no one had a final say.

“It was a mess. Obviously, we didn’t manage to make any decisions,” Séverine said.

Violence at protests became a major problem. Photo: AFP

'People are exhausted'

They split themselves into two groups. Oddly enough, the division had little to do with politics.

“It was not about left or right. We actually agreed on the fundamental issues. It was more about strong personalities and people simply not getting along,” she said.

The atmosphere soured. They argued more, discussed less. They went from 30, to 20, to about 10. Then, after the local election in March, just before the pandemic made social distancing the norm, the mayor told them to clear the camp. 

Critics have long said the ‘yellow vests’ lack of leadership was their major, perhaps the decisive, default. How could they push for change when they had no idea what they wanted?

Despite having become so disillusioned with the movement that she no longer knew if she wanted to call herself a ‘yellow vest’ at all, Séverine was not sure this was their main problem. 

“Demonstrating every weekend is tiring. It requires a significant commitment. I think people are exhausted,” she said.

'I was fed up'

In the months that followed the movement’s heyday in early 2019, the protests followed the same pattern as Séverine's camp.

They were increasingly sparse in numbers and the atmosphere increasingly tense and bitter.

“You're walking in a state of complete stress, afraid that someone is aiming at you. You don't hear the messages anymore,” Séverine said.

Five people have lost a hand in the protests. Twenty-five were blinded in an eye. According to government numbers, 2,500 protesters were hurt in the protests by the end of 2019, along with 1,800 police officers.

“No one could imagine that a movement could last this long without losing momentum,” Ludosky said.

“Keeping on going cost a lot to the people who got involved. It's money, time, people lost limbs, couples separated.”

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: French police are not all thugs – they are being placed in an impossible situation

Like many others, she was put off by the violence. In the end, she left her yellow vest in her car.

“I was fed up,” she said. “Every time I wore it I worried about the police controlling me.”

She was not sure if she still believed in the movement.

“It’s complicated. The presidential elections are coming up soon, crying out for Macron’s resignation doesn’t make sense anymore.”

“But the 12th will be the moment to go out on the streets. Not necessarily in Paris, but we need to show something.”

 

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