Romantic images have always seemed to circulate in the imaginations of Americans when they think towards Paris. Not just for the promise of a good meal, or a getaway with a lover, but on noble political struggle. An assurance that the mistreated underclasses can rise up to rid themselves of an aloof king and craft a better world. But looking at the recent ‘Gilets Jaunes’ or ‘Yellow Vest’ protests to the Macron Administration disrupts the fantasy. Not just in terms of violence, such as the 100 people injured in the desecration of the Arc de Triomphe as reported by the New York Times, though that is of some note. What is devastating however is the absence of a coherent idealogical through-line, a clear and consistent set of demands that the romance necessitates. In it’s place is simply a collective rage.
Looking towards the beginnings of these protests reveals the lack of organization. The New York Times reports that the movement can be traced back to a petition calling for a reduction started by cosmetic business owner Priscilla Ludosky that was later given attention by truck driver Eric Drouet who went on to garner a car rally cum protest on Nov. 17. But that just the Times. Meanwhile, CNN reports that the protests originated from motor mechanic Ghislain Coutard, who’s viral video encouraged people to wear the yellow vests mandated by the state for drivers to wear in the event of an accident in protest to the hike in gas taxes, along with identifying other instigators. This isn’t a case of one report being right while the other wrong, rather it highlights the contemporary nature of the yellow vest movement. Rather than emerging from a labor union or political party, the protests have emerged spontaneously across France; emblematic of the role social media played in fueling this zeitgeist of backlash.
The people shrouded by this zeitgeist are cut from a similar cloth. Men and women, mostly from rural areas, who are rich enough to escape the poverty line and subsequently welfare protections yet poor enough to feel the impact the raised fuel taxes have on their bottom line. Without a reliable public transport, these people are reliant on automobiles everyday. “We are really struggling” says Thomas, a gamekeeper, to France 24 “the people on 1,000-1,200 euros; once we pay the bills there is nothing left.”
So in the face of this predicament, the yellow vest movement has taken to streets and with it the movement’s lack of focus, in both tactics and demands, has come into view. Most protestors have been peaceful, with one anonymous women handing out flowers to the police as a sign of her pacifism. “I’m not here to fight” she said to The New York Times “I’m here for justice”. Others have been more violent: torching cars, assaulting officers, vandalizing shops and monuments. Speaking to French 24, Virginia, a nurse, called the violence an unfortunate necessity. “If it had just been us” Virginia said “than we’ve just been tear gassed and gone in twenty minutes and everybody would have forgotten about us.” “It’s hard to say, but the fact that there were vandals meant that we were noticed.”
The demands to lack a coherent through-line beyond an end to the fuel tax and the resignation of President Macron. Some desire the ISF, a solidarity tax on assets in excess of 1,300,000 euros that targeted the wealthy, to be reinstated following its repeal in 2017. Others, such as Clement, a contractor, spoke to France 24 about anxieties regarding a loss of social connections as small businesses are pushed out of the market by larger chains. Elements of fascism have cropped up, with Maxime Nicolle spreading falsehoods such as that Macron is preparing to sign a United Nations agreement to allow 480 million more immigrants into Europe along with other conspiracies regarding globalism and the deep state.
An infographic (shown above) that was uploaded by the France Bleu radio conglomerate, shows an abbreviated list of demands by members of the yellow vest movement. What this reveals is a mixture of genuine concerns coupled with contradictions and conspiratorial thinking. There is a call to respect international treaties and agreements, yet a demand to withdraw from NATO and the EU. A call for a greater state investment in low-income housing and re-nationalization, yet a demand to restrain the income tax burden to only a maximum of 25 percent. All coming packaged with references to right-wing conspiracies such as globalism, a culling of immigration, and a call for a chokehold to be placed on news media and the courts. It’s no wonder that pundits on both sides of the political aisle have used the yellow vest movement as a prop to embellish their rhetoric with comfort. And given how popular the far right has been in France and the rest of Europe this decade, Macron himself faced a challenge in the nationalistic Marine Le Pen the last presidential election, the movement would likely be pushed further to the right if Macron’s administration were to rupture.
Who are the yellow vests? Individually they are men and women, but collectively they embody a rage, an anxious ghost hovering over liberal capitalist democracies. That the forces of capital have excessive dominion over society as communities are disrupted, austerity is implemented, and the divide in wealth grows greater and more concentrated. But rage is just a feeling, it can be channeled in multiple directions. An insistence that there is an elite that are undoing French civilization can easily be contorted to ominously rhyme with the classic forms of French right-wing nationalism, including indigenous anti-semitism. Protest and popular passions are inevitable and important in any society, but they are not always the best place to govern from, especially when the collective rage isn’t channeled in a clear direction. The romance of righteous revolution is alluring, but it hides the fragility of liberal institutions and the hungry right-wing ghouls lying in wait to take power. The governed need to recall this, the governing even more so.