By Chloé Meley
November 17th saw the birth of the movement, and the following weeks its triumphant, unimpeded ascent. Altercations between the riot police- the CRS- and the protesters have become more and more violent over the past few weeks, as the movement itself grows larger and more turbulent each Saturday, the day on which yellow vests convene across the country. Cars set on fire, the Arc de Triomphe graffitied, tear gas and projectiles saturating the air, blood, deaths. All across France, the gilets jaunes movement has caused inconveniences primarily through road blockages in some areas, and unrest in others, especially in the capital. These scenes of chaos have circulated around the world, and everyone wonders worriedly: what’s going on in France? The simple answer is, no one knows, least of all the French.
As with every grassroot political movement, there are many forces at play and various dynamics that can be unearthed. So let’s start with a keyword, and build from there. Violence being the keyword in question; one that has arisen as a central component of the movement, both as a cause and as an effect. The violence is multifaceted, and its multiple, interacting levels each need to be considered.
First of all, there’s the obvious, surface-level iteration of violence, the one that is present at the riots themselves and that takes the form of disobedience and crackdown on disobedience. It is a violence that is seen to be wielded by two opposing, irreconcilable sides, in two different but equally unjustifiable manners. On the side of the protesters, it’s a violence that is rooted in self-righteousness and deep-seated frustration. For the CRS, it is a power move disguised as an act of duty. On both sides, it’s violence that is fostered by adrenaline and rage, one that is directed at individuals who, in this precise moment, embody what you hate the most. It’s a violence that wants to exert power, assert dominance. The malevolent state that needs to be brought down, the unruly civilians that need to be tamed.
But it’s also a violence that is inscribed within the context of a power imbalance; as protesters throw rocks and damage public as well as private property, the CRS have the means -and also the right, bestowed upon them by the state- to do much more damage. And they have. Flash-Balls and tear gas have badly wounded several of the protesters.
It is very clear, violence is the atrocious effect of the protests. Asymmetrical, unspeakable violence. But what about violence as a cause? It’s important to regard protesters’ anger as something that needs to be understood before it can be condemned, as something that stems from the yellow vests’ perception of a more insidious, sustained form of violence, which has been exerted against them long before the start of the movement. They are not throwing rocks for the sake of it, but because they don’t see an alternative. They are struggling; battling against structural coercion, against the chronic economic insecurity in which they were thrown into and have not yet found a way out of. Precarity and unemployment are massive, pervasive issues in France, and are their own form of violence, as the state-sponsored destruction of livelihoods engineered by financial and political elites and facilitated by globalisation forces.
But instead of empathy, contempt has been a popular pick in the Rolodex of confused reactions. Looking down upon and sneering at the protesters is an easy way out, one that has been taken by the media, or by non-protesters; some of which have decided to take the moral high ground by establishing a comparison with the complete lack of action taken to protest climate change. This reasoning not only is obnoxious, but also classist in nature and ignorant of the day-to-day concerns of so many French people. Rising fuel taxes might not concern urban dwellers and more well-off sections of the populations, but for millions of working-class people, budgets are tight and purchasing power is ever declining. Climate change is a distant, amorphous threat. Not being able to afford petrol is a much more tangible one.
However, the identified targets have not been as clear-cut as the grievances themselves; the yellow vests are not affiliated with one political party nor inscribed within one clear political frame. Their political identity is a patchwork, assembled from a medley of several ideas that have been historically associated with traditional factions, which themselves have lost their significance in the contemporary French political landscape. As the left and the right become ever more hazy, irrelevant concepts in the context of France’s politics, the protesters themselves reflect this kind of identity crisis by not being able to identify one single culpable entity. As such, “who’s the target?” is still a mostly unanswered question.
The protesters have widely disparaged Macron and what they perceive to be the puppet masters; an alienating, metropolitan, out-of-touch financial and political elite working behind the scenes. But some of them have also identified less obvious perpetrators. For some yellow vests, which are mostly made up of the white, rural working-class, agents of their group’s decline have been immigrants. Fear of demographic overhaul and cultural genocide have led them to this conclusion, and to the perpetration of other forms of violence. Racist, xenophobic, and homophobic slurs have been reported, and physical attacks also occurred, leading to a wave of outrage that was however mostly contained within social media, and barely addressed by conventional media channels. A woman was notably forced to remove her veil, while another had to endure a stream of racist insults hurled at her. If this is to be seen as fringe factions within the movement- unreflective of yellow vests’ motives and demands- it’s important to acknowledge the fact that the people who committed these acts still felt welcome within the movement, and maybe even bolstered by it.
In this context, it’s then also crucial to consider the way in which what is perceived as appropriate protesting behaviour and state response are both deeply racialised in France, and how all of this would have been different if only a different demographic had started the protests. Death threats directed at the president, property damage, graffiti on one of Paris’ most emblematic monuments. What if all of this had been done by the black and brown young men who live in the banlieue, the poverty-stricken, structurally subjugated suburbs lying on the outskirts of France’s big cities? It would have been framed as an attack on democracy, on the Republic, an act of terrorism, even. And police response would surely have been far more brutal.
Many other questions remain unanswered. What will be the long-term ramifications? Along what lines is the fight between a nebulous idea of the people and a nebulous idea of the elites fought? What does this whole thing mean for the already unpopular Macron, whose presidency is still young and yet already deeply unstable? Will the yellow vests movement be as culturally-defining as the May 1968 protests? Are the divides within the French political fabric ever going to be resolved? If so, how?
But the most important, pressing question is the following: how can protesters’ demands be met? Because beyond any amateur political analyses and attempts at labeling all the ins and outs of a movement with a single buzzword, there is the very simple reality of alienated, disgruntled citizens. And before we start the work of unpacking, it would be wise to try to listen first.