Do The Yellow Vests Reflect The Broken Dreams of The French?

Published May 6th, 2019 - 12:28 GMT
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A Yellow Vest protester sits in front of police (AFP/FILE edited by Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

The Yellow Vests protests have gone on for six months, and in that time, they’ve become a permanent fixture in French politics. Those donning yellow vests, or gilets jaunes as they’re known in French, have blocked off busy roundabouts, trashed luxury cars and stores, battled with police every week and forced concessions from the government.


They persist in mobilizing, and even though they’ve captured the media’s attention when a particularly large riot or fire breaks out, the movement remains woefully mis-covered and misunderstood.

... the movement remains woefully mis-covered and misunderstood.

Most major international media outlets cover the Yellow Vest movement with short videos depicting tear gas volleys between rioters and cops, chants or smoke plumes near the Arc de Triomphe.

The coverage is less about politics than it is a pure spectacle: images to be consumed as political entertainment rather than something serious and spawned by widely held grievances from France’s working and middle class.

Actually parsing through videos of smoke and haze to understand the political makeup and demands of the movement is a difficult task. Asking why the protests have gone on so long—since Nov 2018, is futile when consulting news outlets favoring the spectacle over the politics.

In the process of mis-covering the ongoing protests, outlets have decontextualized the Yellow Vest movement from its roots in opposing technocratic rule by elites perceived to be far-removed from the realities of the policies they push on the populations they govern.

In the process of mis-covering the ongoing protests, outlets have decontextualized the Yellow Vest movement from its roots in opposing technocratic rule by elites perceived to be far-removed from the realities of the policies they push on the populations they govern.

By decontextualized the spectacle from the politics, the internal revolt of France has gone on largely under the radar.

The movement is yet another sign that many people, in and out of France, feel alienated from their politicians and sense they cannot control their economic or political destinies. But this message has been mostly missed by many media outlets.


Obfuscating the Revolt of the Yellow Vests 

On May 1, droves of protesters wearing yellow vests marched and held signs through all of France. Yellow vests inter-mingled with labor and climate activists in marches in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Marseille, Grenoble and Strasbourg among other cities.

But all media eyes were on Paris, where protesters violently clashed with police.


(Snapshot from google search of “Yellow Vests” dated May 1-2, 2019)

Powerful images of people in black masks and Yellow Vests standing amid tear gas emerged, and circulated widely.


Protesters in Paris during May Day protests in 2019 (AFP/FILE)


May Day protests (AFP/FILE)

Media outlets sent journalists to wade through the plumes of smoke and masses of rioters, providing real-time commentary on the action happening in front of them. The BBC panned over entire blocks of Paris with elevated cameras with an analyst describing the violence. TIME posted a quick one-minute clip of Yellow Vests running from storming riot cops and anti-fascist rioters throwing stones at idle vans.

The New York Times covered the protests by framing it in terms of its violence: “Violence Flares at May Day Rally in Paris, and Police Arrest About 200.” CNN highlighted the “face off” between police and protesters, making sure to include ‘tear gas’ in its headline covering the events.

With descriptions of spectacular violence crowding out most of these videos and articles, there is little room left to explain the economic and grievances fueling them in the first place.

A few sentences from a protester discussing low wages are interrupted by a clash on a Parisian street. Islands of ‘explainer’ articles on the Yellow Vest movement rest as hyperlinks, embedded inside an article focused on the violence.

International media coverage of May Day protests mirrors the press the Yellow Vests have generally received since their emergence in Nov 2018.

The overwhelming impression given is that the protests are spontaneous and violent and that the participants are impossible to reason with and appear driven by the desire to watch Paris burn. France appears in perpetual chaos with no obvious answer as to why that is.

The overwhelming impression given is that the protests are spontaneous and violent and that the participants are impossible to reason with and appear driven by the desire to watch Paris burn. France appears in perpetual chaos with no obvious answer as to why that is.

Nevermind the fact that members of the Yellow Vest movement organize meetings with local politicians to articulate specific policy demands, engage in a variety of protest strategies across the country and started largely with workers from towns across France who rely on their cars to commute to work, and were thus disproportionately hit by a tax hike on fuel.

“Instead of taking activists seriously and discussing their demands for greater equality, thereby informing the public about what is actually at stake, the media construct an enormous spectacle out of ‘violence’ in order to present the movement as savage, irrational, and intent on destroying the very foundations of society,” Gabriel Rockhill, an Associate Professor of philosophy at Villanova University who also helps run the university’s Critical Theory Workshop in Paris, told Al Bawaba.

“Moreover, the production of this spectacle of violence also serves as cover for the greatest purveyor of violence in France today: the capitalist state and its repressive apparatus.”

“Moreover, the production of this spectacle of violence also serves as cover for the greatest purveyor of violence in France today: the capitalist state and its repressive apparatus.”

Through the haze of media coverage of the Yellow Vests, let’s take a moment to political substance of the movement in order to contextualize the political situation in France today.
 

Understanding the Politics Behind the Yellow Vests 

Yellow vest protesters on May 4, 2019 (MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP)

On Jan 1, 2018, France instituted a tax hike on fuel intended to reduce the country’s overall carbon emissions.

Across the country, it was met by outrage and was particularly reviled by French workers who relied on their cars to commute, and were thus faced with a huge spike in their cost of living. Millions felt strained before the tax hike, due to consistently stagnant wages, slowly losing labor rights previously enjoyed thanks to an explosion of temporary work contracts, cuts to the welfare state and tax breaks for France’s mega-wealthy. 

For them, the fuel tax was the last straw, and on Nov 17, 2018, a mass demonstration was organized with workers donning Yellow Vests. Tens of thousands showed up around the country, blocking off roads, roundabouts, historic sites and some clashed with police. Since then, many have regularly come out every Saturday to protest.

The movement is functionally leaderless but that does not mean it is incomprehensible.

The movement is functionally leaderless but that does not mean it is incomprehensible.

Those who make up the movement have been made similarly vulnerable to recent French policies instituted by successive governments, and appear to demand overlapping sets of actions that secure their economic well-being.

“This is a movement in favor of greater socioeconomic equality and against the elite technocracy characteristic of neoliberal states like France,” Gabriel Rockhill explained.

He understands the movement as one borne from material necessity, as the living conditions for French workers slowly deteriorate save a few elites in the country, the need to resist this trend grows. “It is therefore in the best interest of the overwhelming majority of the population, who are constantly being pummeled by the capitalist endeavor to increase profit margins by any means necessary.”

“We haven’t had a pay rise in ten years, it’s just disgusting,” said Lydie Bailly, a health worker from the town of Vierzon, who put on a Yellow Vest to protest after being disillusioned with French president Emmanuel Macron.

“We’re not even scraping by, it’s just not possible anymore.”

Many Yellow Vest protesters hail from outside Paris, and think too much economic and political power have been accrued in Paris and other metropoles, while the rural population suffers silently.

Ironically, many major international media outlets have replicated the government’s detached over-emphasis on Paris by choosing to disproportionately report on and shoot videos of unrest in Paris, despite the fact that the Yellow Vest movement spans across much of the country.
 
Because the group is amorphous, those supporting antisemitic and Islamophobic views have attempted to co-opt the momentum of the Yellow Vest movement, but this has so far not been successful. 

A sign that the movement stands for more than just cutting the fuel tax is that it has carried on for months in spite of Macron’s effort to appease the Yellow Vests. In Dec 2018, just a few weeks after the demonstrations began, Macron scrapped the tax, hoping it would calm the hundreds of thousands of indignant French blocking off streets and access to businesses.

Protesters continued marching and causing unrest, perhaps more emboldened than ever after realizing France’s government was willing to cede to their demands. 

Joshua Clover, a Professor of English at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis), explains that the Yellow Vests is 21st century France’s version of a bread riot. “The technical name is 'price-setting,' and historically it helps define a riot, most famously the bread riots that typified the medieval and early modern period in Europe. Over and over it features a demand that the price of the good in question be lowered so people can survive, and persistently features the blockage of transport to assert power over the marketplace.”

A Yellow Vest protester near a riot police line on May 1, 2019 (AFP/FILE)

“The Gilets Jaunes movement is a modern bread riot,” he adds, referring to the fact that fuel is so crucial to the everyday lives of French people. And with contemporary bread riots like the ones that have happened in the Middle East and North Africa, they start with bread but often seek to oust the corrupt or dysfunctional political elements that gave way to the rise of bread.

“The Gilets Jaunes movement is a modern bread riot”

In most cases, the price of a critical good like bread or transportation is a convenient way to judge the effectiveness, or legitimacy, of a state. If its cost rises too much, droves of people will invariably demand the fall of the regime that raised it or could not keep the price down. For both bread and transport, the demand for it to be affordable relates to broader structural demands for states to facilitate the livelihoods of the people.

In France, it appears many, who already felt Macron did not represent their interests, could not trust his government to enact policies on their behalf. 

A reason why this discontent exploded onto the streets of France, French political commentator Christophe Assens thinks, is that people no longer trust the official political means available in France, like elections or meetings. “Some citizens feel excluded in society due to professional downgrading, the remoteness of cities, an accident of life or any other circumstance. These are the ‘invisible of the Republic:’ all these ordinary people whose institutions are no longer able to satisfy the need for social recognition,” he says.

“They feel that the political, media and economic elites have abandoned them and are no longer able to decide for them because they do not share the same daily concerns! From this observation follows an unprecedented crisis of confidence for representative democracy..."

“They feel that the political, media and economic elites have abandoned them and are no longer able to decide for them because they do not share the same daily concerns! From this observation follows an unprecedented crisis of confidence for representative democracy...The need for emancipation is real for a large part of the population, far beyond the yellow vests. To reach it, it is not a question of stigmatizing one social category against another, or of erecting new regulatory barriers to normalize everyday life,” Christophe Assens he adds.

The Yellow Vests movement echoes the kind of all-encompassing alienation expressed in the 2009 Occupy Wall Street protests, where a disparate array of demands were bound together by an underlying call for individuals to regain power which was lost to abstract, corporate forces.

In France, many are unwilling to accept his promises at reform, because he personally embodies the kind of technocratic, corporatist elite protesters are calling to remove from government.


French President Emmanuel Macron (AFP/FILE)

Their primary concern is to see people like Macron out of power.

“Macron out” and “Macron démissionner,” or ‘Macron resign’ are popular chants among Yellow Vest demonstrators. Macron recognized this in his promise to be “more human, more humanist,” and announced that he would abolish the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), an elite institution that trains the country’s civil servants, but is often derided as an incubator for the wealthy and an educational avenue they use to maintain their powerful status.

France’s police have remained as hard-lined as ever against the Yellow Vests, in spite of Macron’s pledge to be more humanist and to “put the human at the heart of our project.” 

As of press time, over 2,000 have been injured in altercations mostly with the police,  and 11 people have reportedly been killed. In addition, 23 have lost their eyesight in one or both eyes.

As of press time, over 2,000 have been injured in altercations mostly with the police,  and 11 people have reportedly been killed. In addition, 23 have lost their eyesight in one or both eyes. In some cases, police have shot tear gas and nonlethal ammunition at the heads of protesters. Jerome Rodrigues, one of the movement’s most recognizable protesters, was reportedly shot in his right eye by police with a projectile, partially blinding him forever.

“In other countries, this would immediately call into question the legitimacy of the state, which would be recognized as authoritarian and repressive,” Rockhill observed.


A protester falls on the ground in front of riot police (AFP/FILE)

Joshua Clover of UC Davis told Al Bawaba that the Yellow Vest movement also stands against a new type of antidemocratic politics called Green Nationalism, where tight border controls, nationalistic fervor and concern for the environment are combined into singular policy doctrines.

The “climate collapse—which will indeed send innumerable climate refugees in motion across the planet — has already put increased pressure on borders, which is to say, on nationalist appeals that already exist, Trump, Macron, etc. that may not make themselves explicitly about ecology, yet, but are nonetheless inseparable from [the] climate crisis.”

Clover further argued that as climate change accelerates and refugees from unlivable regions flow to places like Europe and the U.S., the link between so-called ‘green’ policies and nationalism will become more clear. 

For Macron’s, his government’s ‘Green Nationalist’ tendencies appear to be restricting immigration controls and demolishing de facto asylum seeker camps while shouldering the country’s working and middle class with the costs of the country’s shift towards a more ecologically sustainable economy. 

In the face of media distortions and a relentless police crackdown, 1,400 prominent French actors, writers and artists signed an open letter in support of the Yellow Vests, which also concisely lays out what they think the movement truly stands for.

In the letter, jokingly titled “Yellow vests: we are not fooled” the writers understand the movement to be one that, “calls for essential things: a more direct democracy, greater social and fiscal justice, radical measures against the state of ecological emergency. What they ask for, they ask for it for all.Yellow vests are us. We, artists, technicians, auteurs, all these professions of culture, precarious or not, are absolutely concerned by this historic mobilization.”

“And we proclaim it here: We are not fooled!” the letter continues.

“We can see the strings worn out to discredit the yellow vests, described as anti-ecologists, extremists, racists, thugs ... The maneuver does not take, this story does not stick to reality even if mainstream media and spokespeople from the government would have us believe it. Like this violence they highlight every Saturday. Yet the most alarming violence is not there.”

The letter concludes with a rallying cry to France’s more-educated population: “Let us use our power, that of words, speech, music, image, thought, art, to invent a new narrative and support those who struggle in the streets. Nothing is written. Let's draw a better world.”


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