Reinvesting in politics and citizenship: the experience of the yellow vests

The fight for social and economic justice has inspired the yellow vests, pictured here at a demonstration in Paris on 5 January 2019. (Christophe Leung)

Saturday, 1 December 2018, Paris. The morning is just getting started and already the chic Champs-Élysées district is filled with the deafening sound of grenades. Fires have been set and makeshift barricades erected. This is not your typical demonstration in Paris. Something new is happening.

Since mid-November, citizens wearing yellow high visibility vests have gathered in the streets every Saturday, and at the edges of their towns during the week. What began as a protest against an increase in fuel taxes has expanded to include other grievances. After several weeks of action, including demonstrations, roadblocks and occupations of roundabouts, they show no signs of stopping. Though no one could have predicted the onset or extent of this movement, many knew that at some point “things were going to blow”; that the “anger and inequality were too great.”

Virgil, a student at the Toulouse Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), became a street medic, providing first aid to those injured during the demonstrations. As he explains: “I was shocked by the level of police violence. There were definitely some people provoking the police, but the police are supposed to be professionals and maintain order. They’re not supposed to lose their temper. I saw people isolated from the group who were beaten with batons and shot with rubber bullets.”

Artean Kantari (a pseudonym), a “yellow vest from the very beginning,” began gathering demonstrators in the Paris region – first on a Facebook page, then at roundabouts. At 37, he works eight months a year at holiday centres and is unemployed for four months. He finishes every month in the red and has to live with his father while waiting for professional retraining.

“The ‘yellow vests,’ that doesn’t mean anything. We’re all just people who have trouble making ends meet,” he says.

Poverty has increased in many parts of France, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. “People have to understand that poverty has gone up, that 5 to 8.8 million people are earning between 50 and 60 per cent of median income,” says François Boulo, a lawyer by profession, who has become the spokesperson for the yellow vests of Rouen, in northern France.

The yellow vests are “self-employed, craftspeople, part-time workers, unemployed, single mothers, full-time employees and labourers. They cover the entire spectrum of those living under very precarious conditions to the lower middle class,” Raphaël Challier, a doctor of sociology at University of Paris 8, told Equal Times. Challier studies the political involvement of the working classes of eastern France and has been closely following the yellow vest movement on the ground.

The people who gather around burn barrels (most of which have since been removed by the police) at roundabouts are “overwhelmingly poor and working class, with very similar backgrounds, while executives are few and far in between. Young people with diplomas are fleeing [the region] due to lack of employment,” he says.

But where “forms of political mobilisation of the poor and working classes were very limited in the region, with the exception of supporters of the [far-right] Front National and the far-left, the strong class mobilisation of the yellow vests has drawn a striking contrast. These are people from outside the political arena who’ve decided to get involved,” he says. Indeed very few in the movement have served on a city or town council, and many often do not vote in elections.

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This movement represents the arrival of a new demographic on the political scene. “They’re coming together and starting to realise that THEY are politics – that they can impact policy from outside of the institutions,” says Virgil. According to sociologist Michalis Lianos, despite their diverse backgrounds, their “consciousness of legitimacy” has brought them together and inspired them to act. Until recently, “they learned to shoulder their burdens without complaining. And now this is no longer possible. It’s a significant source of their indignation –being forced to ask other people for something when they’ve always done everything possible to get by without asking anything of anyone else.”

A political crash course at the roundabouts

Politics at the roundabouts is learned on the go. The atmosphere is warm despite the difficulties participants face in their daily lives and come together to share with one another. At the roundabouts of Val d’Oise, in the Paris region, around 120 people comprising the “young, old, employed, unemployed and disabled” have come together over the last several weeks. “Well, I haven’t found the love of my life,” Artean jokes, “but there’s now a group of 30 to 40 of us who meet on a weekly basis.”

In Rouen, lawyer François Boulo was also looking for something new. “People in my community have fallen into a political coma. They voted for Fillon or Macron – they enjoy their comforts without examining their lives,” he says. Arriving at a roundabout, he admits that “in the beginning, there was a certain amount of discord at the debates. But that’s subsided now. People have learned to listen and be more accepting of one another.” When he was given the opportunity to speak, he expected “that being a lawyer, I’d get a tomato or two thrown at me.” But he was ultimately appointed as the group’s spokesperson, invested by written mandate to represent them in the media, but not to negotiate on their behalf.

The debates organised at these intersections, reminiscent of the 2016 Nuit Debout movement, have given a voice to the voiceless. “For the people who gather at the roundabouts, this is their only form of political activity,” says Challier.

This activity also entails several informal discussions aimed at “building a consensus. The most divisive ideas are put aside,” he continues. “There’s no anti-immigrant discourse nor is there any total anti-capitalist discourse.”

Nathalie Coutinet, economist at University of Paris 13 and member of the collectiveEconomistes Atterrés (“alarmed economists”), was approached by the yellow vests to participate in a series of debates. Without joining the movement and taking care not to be associated with any extremist elements, she and her collective decided to “supply analyses, answer questions which are often very technical, and provide new ideas without ever imposing them,” she says.

The yellow vests have also established gestures of mutual aid and solidarity with one another as well as with other citizens. People help each other to find housing and share their cars. The roundabouts have become “laboratories in which we’re reinventing the public domain and the citizen,” says Boulo.

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The demands being made

These “laboratories” have produced a common set of demands. The call for more justice in taxation has become central among these, particularly following the government’s decision to eliminate the solidarity tax on wealth (ISF) and replace it with the tax on real estate (IFI), resulting in a tax loss of €3-5 billion, or its decision to impose a flat tax of 30 per cent on financial investment income.

“The government is increasing proportional taxes (VAT, social security contribution, tobacco tax, gasoline tax) while decreasing the progressive taxes that ensure that the very rich pay more while the very poor pay less. The yellow vests are feeling the effects of this tax injustice, reinforced by a tax system that benefits the largest companies and tax evasion by the highest earners,” explains Coutinet.

In addition to the reinstatement of the ISF, the yellow vests are demanding higher wages and pensions. These demands are often in line with those of the unions, who initially kept their distance from the movement. “In the beginning, the CGT [General Confederation of Labour] didn’t want to get involved in any potential anti-tax or anti-immigrant sentiment. Over time, we’ve observed an evolution towards demands that are increasingly similar to our own,” says Fabrice Angei, confederal secretary of the CGT.

The CGT also launched, for the first time in three months, a call for a joint strike with representatives of the yellow vests, for 5 February. Nearly 160 rallies were held throughout France, ‘yellow vests’ and ‘red vests’ (the colour of the union) protesting together.

“We’re not trying to hitch ourselves in an opportunistic fashion to the yellow vest movement, but their demands now directly overlap with ours,” explains Angei. According to the CGT, the yellow vests and the unions are currently cooperating at a local level in about 30 cities.

Some of the yellow vests have placed at the top of their list of demands the adoption of thecitizens’ initiative referendum (RIC), a tool allowing petitioners to gather 700,000 signatures to submit a draft law to be debated in parliament and then submitted to a direct vote by the French people. For some, this represents a way of creating a more direct democracy and making their voices heard without intermediaries.

Little by little, the movement is learning how to structure itself in order to make its demands heard. But this is already starting to take different forms. In late January in Commercy, a commune in the very rural Meuse department in north-eastern France, the yellow vests created an “assembly of assemblies” which brought together representatives of 75 roundabout groups to discuss and install a “democratic model of coordination on local and regional levels.”

While some have decided to create a list for the European elections scheduled to take place in May 2019, many feel that it’s still too early to enter politics, or reject the idea of having leaders and representatives. Others, such as Artean, speak of a “risk of radicalisation and insurrection.” One thing seems certain: the yellow vests’ determination to make their movement last. According to Challier, “their challenge is now to consolidate their space and maintain their social bonds – or as they say at the roundabouts, to “hold down the shed!”

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