What does it take to spark an uprising? In France last November, the answer—a carbon tax—caused consternation among liberal climate activists. “I don’t understand why any progressive is cheering French protesters who are amassing against a carbon tax,” observed Center for American Progress director Neera Tanden, even as the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement, then in its fourth week, was gearing up for its most dramatic confrontation yet with the French state: a day of violent clashes between police and protesters, notably on Paris’s Champs Elysées, described as the worst the country had seen since May 1968.
Of course, the yellow vests’ revolt was against much more than a carbon tax—or, more specifically, a roughly 10% increase in the TICPE, a sales tax on gasoline and diesel, which has been in place in France since 2013. According to almost every protester I spoke to while reporting on the movement this winter, and many more interviewed by the French press, the fuel-tax hike was the straw that broke the camel’s back (in French, “the drop that made the glass overflow”).
“It started with that [the fuel tax], and then we were scorned and denied as usual, and so from week to week, the demands became much broader,” says Yves Clarisse, a 54-year-old former textile worker who helped form the yellow-vest camp outside of Montceau-les-Mines, a former coal-mining town in central France, on November 17. When I visited the camp one late December afternoon, just after the Christmas holidays, a few dozen gilets jaunes were on hand. Some were feeding shipping pallets onto the bonfire, while others huddled in and around a makeshift wooden cabin. I was quickly invited in for a coffee, as trucks whooshed by on the highway below.
Mainstream coverage of the yellow-vest movement has highlighted the theme of buying power: of costs of living spiraling out of proportion to French workers’ stagnating wages. And this is no doubt part of the equation. But protesters like Clarisse stressed that the discontent wasn’t just about bread-and-butter issues. Growing austerity, in small towns like his, also translated to a sense of abandonment by the French state. With public services such as hospitals, schools, and post offices facing staff cuts if not being shut down altogether, the protesters see state power becoming more and more concentrated in a distant executive, removed from the concerns of working-class people.
No surprise, then, that so much anger has been targeted at President Emmanuel Macron, who styles himself more as a CEO than as a democratic leader. Despite his promise to “make the planet great again,” Macron has advanced a deeply regressive program on climate change. Tax cuts for France’s richest 1 percent (notably the scrapping of the “solidarity tax on wealth,” or ISF) as well as for banks and other corporations haven’t just deprived the state of badly needed revenue for green investment. They’ve also exposed the Macron’s government’s true priorities, of which the highest is attracting foreign investment to France. But even as Uber prepares to open a “flying car lab” in Paris, many working- and lower-middle-class French people are struggling just to fill up the tank to get to work.
When we spoke in late December, Clarisse sketched the outlines of a Green New Deal–like program that would reduce people’s dependence on their cars in sprawling, “peri-urban” areas like his, laying the groundwork for a true green transition and revitalizing popular democracy in the process. “If we moved toward free transit, it would allow a ton of people to get out of the house—whether it’s the elderly, people living alone, people who are out of work—and to express themselves more in life.”
Clarisse—who now looks after his ailing father (a former coal worker) full time and supports La France Insoumise, the left-populist party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon—would also like to see the state provide a living wage to care workers like himself, instead of handing out tens of billions of euros in corporate subsidies in the vague hope that it will create jobs.
Of course, Clarisse is just one gilet jaune, and his demands are not necessarily representative of a movement that counts many supporters of the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front) among its ranks, along with all manner of other people fed up with the status quo. The movement has been punctuated by racist and anti-Semitic incidents, as well as by attacks on journalists. Some of its most visible figureheads have circulated hateful conspiracy theories, including one suggesting that, by signing the recent Marrakesh Pact on migration, Macron had “sold” France to the globalists at the United Nations.
They have in turn been condemned by other prominent gilets jaunes, including Ingrid Levavasseur, the thirty-one-year-old nurse who is now heading up a list of yellow-vest candidates for the European Parliament elections in May. Meanwhile, in Paris and other big cities, black- and immigrant-led organizations seeking justice for victims of police violence have joined forces with the gilets jaunes, who have also been subjected to appalling state repression. The tensions between left- and right-wing gilets jaunes exploded in February in Lyon, during the movement’s “Act XIII,” when anti-fascist and ultra-nationalist protesters confronted each other in a literal street battle before being dispersed by riot police. Watching the video, you can’t tell which side is which.
This incident illustrates, in part, how widespread a protest symbol the gilet jaune has become in France. In covering social movements here since December, I’ve seen the neon vests emblazoned with crudely Sharpied anti-Semitic tropes as well as with the logos of unions and activist groups ranging from bicycle advocates to Kurdish communists. Offshoots have proliferated as well: there were the foulards rouges (red scarves), who rallied in late January in defense of the government, but also the stylos rouges (red pens)—teachers organizing against staff cuts and for better working conditions—and, most recently, the gilets roses (pink vests)—childcare workers fighting labor reforms that would subject them to even more precarious short-term contracts. And this is only a partial list.
What does it all add up to? In a country where, just two years ago, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen won a third of the vote in the decisive second round of the presidential election, it’s hard to imagine a predominantly white, working-class, leaderless mass movement unfolding without any influence from the extreme Right. (It doesn’t help that the movement has been organized almost entirely on Facebook.) But the movement’s most enduring demands have not reflected far-right scapegoating. Their fundamental call has been for greater economic justice and democracy. For socialists to write off such a movement would be as misguided as to overlook its uglier side.
For all its messiness, the yellow-vest movement has succeeded in shaking Macron’s neoliberal government to its core, in a way that none of the strikes and protests in the preceding year-and-a-half did. It has also laid bare the lie that saving the planet means austerity and sacrifice for the many, rather than for the elite few who pollute the most (and who write the policies that lock the rest of us into carbon-intensive lifestyles). At the moment, it looks unlikely that this revolt will translate into the kind of Green New Deal that remains the best hope of transforming the economy on the timeline scientists say is necessary to avert climate catastrophe. But it has marked an important rupture for France, and for Europe more broadly. And that is a necessary start.
[MORE: You can read Colin Kinniburgh’s full report on the gilet jaunes movement — which appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Dissent Magazine — here. ]