By France Grenaudier-Klijn

For the past four weeks, the Gilets jaunes – meaning ‘yellow vests’ – protests have dominated the French socio-political landscape and monopolised the media. This, even though active participants in the movement number less than 17% of the population. What started as a fit of temper at the announcement of a green fuel tax, has rapidly brought to the surface a much more profound discontent, carrying in its wake questions of social justice, fiscal inequality, public representation, citizenry, and democracy.

While unexpected, it did not come entirely unannounced. Early signs included the suppression of a housing allowance scheme (APL) enjoyed by students and disadvantaged individuals, followed a few months later by the slashing of the wealth tax (ISF), in an attempt to encourage French millionaires and entrepreneurs tempted to relocate overseas to stay or return home and contribute to economic growth.

Both measures concerned a small portion of French citizens: 10% in the first instance and slightly over 2% in the second. Yet, their symbolic impact has been seriously underestimated by Emmanuel Macron’s government. Perceived as a sign of contempt towards the more financially modest, and as a means of allowing rich people to become even richer, these resolutions foreshadowed the ‘emotional’ quality of the movement.

Then came a series of measures specifically targeting motorists: on July 1, 2018, a reduction in the speed limit on secondary roads, complete with speed cameras and fines. Then an increase in the cost of toll roads (motorways). Next came a rise in pump prices. Finally, like the proverbial cherry on a cake, the infamous green fuel tax.

As those measures piled up, so did recriminations, mostly online[1]. In May, Priscilla Ludovsky started a petition for lowering pump prices; by the of November it had accumulated over one million signatures. On 10 October, encouraged by Ludosky’s initiative, two truck drivers, Éric Drouet and Bruno Lefevre, called for a national blockade of roads and roundabouts to denounce a rise in fuel prices. On 18 October, Jacline Mouraud angrily addressed Macron online with the words “But what are you doing with all the dough?”[2] By November, it counted over 6 million views. On 24 October, Ghislain Coutard, a maintenance engineer, invited people to wear their hi-viz vests [3] as a sign of support for Drouet’s initiative. His video rapidly accumulated 5 million views. On 17 November, close to 300,000 people across 2,000[4] spots blocked roads, toll-booths, and vehicles. A movement was born, complete with a name and a (highly visible) symbol.[5]

However, attempting to define it proves challenging. It has no leaders, no concerted representatives, no banners, no catchphrases, and may not even qualify as a fully democratic movement. Its success, and ability to bring together people from all walks of life, although with a majority from the working and lower middle classes, has to do with a heteroclite collection of aspirations, simultaneously concrete (more buying power and less taxes), and idealistic (more fiscal justice, less social inequality, fairer institutional representation).

It is a call for respect, fairness and dignity, testifying to social suffering and to the negative impact of globalisation. It is impromptu, spontaneous and organic, but also irrational, uninformed, and biased. It promotes solidarity and togetherness, as much as it fosters anger, rage, violence, and hatred. It rejects the government, dismisses the opposition, dispenses with unions, and circumvents (to some extent) the media. It advocates direct democracy and seeks new forms of citizenry, but endorses abstention and promotes mistrust and generalised defiance. It calls for Macron to resign, yet is anxiously waiting for the presidential voice to be heard. It is naïve, utopian, idealistic, legitimate, and touching, but also narrow-minded, paranoid, egocentric, incoherent, and aggressive.

Given its diversity and protean nature, this movement repudiates traditional political discourses and methods. Political parties and unions stood by, witnessing ordinary people gathering up online and initiating what many of them had called for, unsuccessfully, in the first months of the Macron presidency. As a result, all have tried, more or less fruitfully, to piggy-back the Gilets jaunes, their eyes also firmly set on the upcoming European elections.[6]

If this movement is a slap in the face of all traditional political actors, those parties on the Left, as well as the workers unions, clearly emerge as the biggest ‘losers’. That said, La République en marche, the ruling party, will not come out of this unscathed. Courtesy of Emmanuel Macron’s deliberately vertical, ‘Jupiterian’ mode of governance, and systematic dismissal of all intermediary bodies, its members are disconnected, inaudible and utterly ineffectual at extinguishing the crisis. To their defence, the deeply aggressive rhetoric of some Gilets jaunes, complete with occupations of private residence, tagging, as well as verbal and physical threats, has not been particularly conducive to constructive dialogue.  As for the conservative Les Républicains, whose leader, Laurent Wauquiez, briefly traded his red parka for a yellow vest, there are no bad opportunities, including an irrational call for a referendum on energy transition and taxes.

Fringe parties, for whom such disavowal of traditional politics is not necessarily bad news, have found themselves on more comfortable grounds. On the Far Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise and Benoît Hamon’s Génération.s have taken up some of the movement’s calls for Macron to resign and for the Assembly to be dissolved.

Parties on the Far Right – Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France – have also been milking the crisis for all its worth. But here, the job has been easier. To start with, despite the professed apolitical nature of the movement, many protestors already belong to these parties. This may explain why, to the great relief of the French government, disaffected youth of immigrant backgrounds living in the suburbs have not rallied the Gilets jaunes.

Secondly, the ease and speed with which rumours, fake news, and propaganda can be spread and relayed on social media platforms, has also played in their favour, and one should not underestimate the impact of populist propaganda tools such as alt-right Breitbart or Steve Bannon’s The Movement[7] on the Gilets jaunes’ revendications.

Lastly, a global context of right-wing populism in Europe and the world also contributes to the visibility of Far-Right ideology in a movement intent on denouncing an elite seen as working consistently against the people and their interest.

The men and women who have been marching on the Champs-Elysées and occupying the roads and roundabouts of France these past few weeks are fed-up with being ignored, abandoned and humiliated. The symbol they have chosen for themselves, the yellow vest, epitomises their aspiration for visibility and respect. One can be certain that Emmanuel Macron and his government have seen and heard them. How far they and the Gilets jaunes themselves will come together to bridge the gap between a privileged few concerned with “the end of the world” and ordinary citizens worried about “the end of the month”[8] is the challenge now facing them, and indeed French society as a whole.

Footnotes: 

[1] Over 30 million people in France, out of a population of 67 million, have an active Facebook account.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHWI_Ghp-Wk

[3] Since 2008, it is compulsory for all motorists and motorcyclists to have a yellow vizzy vest in their vehicle in case of emergency.

[4] Latest figures are: 287 510 demonstrators across 2 034 sites all over France. L’Express 3516, 21-27 November 2018, p. 8.

[5] For a good summary of the movement up to 9 December 2018, see Adrien Sénécat in Le Monde: https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2018/12/10/les-gilets-jaunes-recit-d-un-mouvement-hors-norme-ne-sur-facebook_5395359_4355770.html

[6] The Gilets jaunes themselves keep their distances, and remain deeply mistrustful. On the many Facebook groups – 257 at last count, aggregating some 3 million members – motions have been put in place to vote and elect representatives. Candidates are specifically told that they must neither belong to an existing political party nor be union members. See Le Monde, op cit. and also Charlotte Chabas: https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2018/12/10/gilets-jaunes-on-est-une-vague-comment-peut-on-structurer-un-raz-de-maree_5395192_3224.html

[7] A populist outfit designed to promote economic nationalism and to unite right-wing populist parties and governments in Europe, launched by Steve Bannon in Brussels in July 2018. See France24: https://www.france24.com/fr/20180815-extreme-droite-europe-bannon-movement-union-elections-europeennes-le-pen-migrants

[8] The dichotomy ‘end of the world’ (fin du monde) vs ‘end of the month’ (fin du mois) has been picked up by virtually all media commentators, from Libération and L’Obs to Le Monde and Marianne.


France Grenaudier-Klijn is an Associate Professor in French at Massey University. She is an expert in contemporary French popular culture. 

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