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What Future for the Yellow Vests?

Three Questions to Marc Lazar

INTERVIEW - 12 December 2018

For more than a month now, Yellow Vests have been in the spotlight, undermining the French government and thus forcing it to react. How can we explain this movement, which is not linked to any political party and which apparently brings together people from all sides? How can this movement, which indicates a crisis of confidence in institutions as well as social discontent, evolve? Marc Lazar, contributor on French and European political and institutional issues, shares his analysis.

To what extent does this movement underline a crisis of confidence in French institutions?

The Yellow Vests movement illustrates the deep sentiment of political mistrust that France has been experiencing for decades, and which has undoubtedly increased since Emmanuel Macron's election. Since 2009, the Center of political research at Sciences Po (CEVIPOF) has been conducting an annual political confidence barometer. In light of the events currently taking place, it is worth reviewing the lessons of the 2018 barometer based on a survey conducted in December 2017.

  • 83% of French people have the impression that politicians do not care about them.
  • 68% of French people think that politicians "talk about problems in too abstract a way".
  • 62% of French people believe that "most politicians only care about the rich and powerful".
  • 34% of of French people think "that there is nothing to be proud of in our democratic system".
  • 31 % of French people claim that "politicians do not deserve respect".

Moreover, only 29% of French people have confidence in the National Assembly, 32% in the European Union, 33% in the presidency and 30% in the government. They feel slightly more in touch with all local structures:

  • 53% of them have confidence in the city council and their mayors.
  • 43% of them trust the departmental council.
  • and 41% of French people have faith in the regional council.

This massive distrust in the political class - considered to be out of touch from reality and too distant from the people - and in institutions leads to a mistrust of politics in general, shared by 39% of the French. 25% declare being “disgusted” by politics.

This is a direct result of the country's social situation, for which all leaders are claimed responsible, regardless of their political affiliation. More deeply, all these indicators also stem from profound changes in democracy in France. Society as a whole expresses a decreased interest in organisations, intermediary bodies, trade unions (only 27% of French people have faith in them), political parties (9%) and the media (24%) as well as being disrupted by governance transformations due to increasing Europeanisation. One could highlight the fact that mistrust is also visible within society: only 40% of French people trust people they meet for the first time (compared to 92% who trust their families and people they know personally). We could easily bet that this year's barometer will record even more negative results.

For the Yellow Vests, Emmanuel Macron has become the privileged target, almost the scapegoat [...] they blame him for his authoritarianism, his class contempt, his arrogance.

Not only has Emmanuel Macron failed to restore confidence since coming to power, he has also significantly increased the general sentiment of mistrust within society. His "Jupiterian" understanding of the presidential mandate neglected any form of participatory democracy that he had nevertheless carried out with his “marcheurs” ("walkers") during the electoral campaign and promised to extend if he arrived at the Elysée. This conception, furthermore, encompassed a lesser role of intermediate bodies and gave voice to improperly placed, hurtful and humiliating statements. For the Yellow Vests, Emmanuel Macron has become the privileged target, almost the scapegoat according to René Girard's theory of violence. Indeed, they blame him for his authoritarianism, his class contempt, his arrogance.

By his background, his success, his language, some of his words and gestures he embodies, for the Yellow Vests (who claim to represent the whole people) a two-folded world: elites on the one hand, opposed to “les gens de peu (“people of little”) to employ the term used by the French sociologist Pierre Sansot.Those two worlds appear to be separated by a gap that seems impossible to fill.

It has often been heard that the Yellow Vests movement has similarities with the 5-star movement that came to power in Italy, notably regarding its program and the use of social networks. Does the comparison seem relevant in your opinion?

This comparison does not appear relevant to me. It is, of course, true that the Yellow Vests use social networks (but they also occupy public spaces, particularly streets and roundabouts). They also demand direct and immediate democracy, which implies taking urgent decisions. They believe that problems are not as complicated as they seem and require simple and straightforward solutions. Therefore any form of mediation or representation is, for them, not considered desirable and efficient. The 5-star Movement does use social networks but it has no territorial anchorage in Italian cities or villages. It has a platform, emblematically called "Rousseau", and it also advocates direct democracy to the extent that one of its leaders, Davide Casaleggio (who is theson of one of the Movement's two historical leaders) declared last July that in the future "Parliament will be useless". However, the difference between the Yellow Vests and the 5-star Movement, is that although the latter is identified as a "movement", it is a nonetheless a real political party that was founded in 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo. It is simultaneously a left-wing party (with many classic social measures for the poorest), a right-wing party (concerning migrants and immigrants) and, a party beyond both left and right, with strong ecological inclinations.

However, although the comparison is unfounded, the existence of both the Yellow Vests and the 5-star Movement poses several questions. It reveals a deep social unease in both France and Italy, even if it varies from one country to another, due to unemployment, inequality and the spread of poverty. It demonstrates the strength of anti-political sentiment, which means both a radical rejection of politics and an aspiration for another, more democratic and participatory political system. It also illustrates the power of the Internet, especially of the rise of social networks as platforms of organisation for collective action and renewed relationship between people and politics. Finally, it expresses the rejection, not to say the hatred of the ruling classes by large categories of the population.

The existence of both the Yellow Vests and the 5-star Movement poses several questions. It reveals a deep social unease in both France and Italy, even if it varies from one country to another, due to unemployment, inequality and the spread of poverty.

How do you see the continuation of this movement and the possible political opportunities it may bring? Do you believe a "Yellow Vests list" may emerge during the next European elections?

The Yellow Vests demand President Macron’s resignation but they refuse any political recovery. Some of them listed 42 proposals after an Internet consultation, without it being known whether there is a consensus on them: however, many of them concern politics, and are close to the programme of La France Insoumise. The Yellow Vests castigate the President but hardly recognize themselves in the opposition leaders: Marine Le Pen (who nonetheless has some support, Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Laurent Wauquiez.

Any emerging personality is immediately vilified or even threatened. This represents one of Yellow Vests’ main challenges.

What is certain is that the Yellow Vests enrich the study of populism. Up until now, we have been interested in populist parties, movements or leaders. In short, in the populist political offer. However, the Yellow Vests, who in reality have relatively few troops but are visible and supported by the French, reveal the existence of a real sociological base expressing varied and contradictory expectations, on which populist parties hope to prosper.

We can put forward three possible scenarios:

  • The Yellow Vests follow the spiral of violence, which will be disavowed by other factions of the movement: inexorably, public opinion will turn against those who employ excessive violence.
  • Their movement could also gradually wither, divide, fragment depending on the measures taken by the government, and as its supporters get more weary and tired over time, despite the Yellow Vests repeating "that they will not give up".
  • Finally, the Yellow Vests could eventually succumb to politics. Either by joining the ranks of the parties that court them, the Rassemblement National, La France Insoumise, Les Républicains, Debout la France or François Asselineau's Union populaire républicaine (UPR). Or by giving in to the temptation of running for election, which would definitely divide the movement, unless a charismatic figure suddenly appeared. However, in three weeks, the Yellow Vests have used more leaders than any political party has in decades. Any emerging personality is immediately vilified or even threatened. This represents one of Yellow Vests’ main challenges.

How do you assess Emmanuel Macron’s speech? Will it be enough to appease the French people?

Emmanuel Macron has made social concessions and condemned in the strongest terms those who fuel the violence. The social measures he announced will have a significant financial cost and will weaken Emmanuel Macron on the European scene. These measures clearly mark a defeat for the man who, until now, had repeatedly stated that, unlike his predecessors in the face of similar forms of protest, he would never give in. These same measures were intended to divide the Yellow Vests between "moderate" and "radical" ones and indeed some divergences have appeared among them. 

In addition, Emmanuel Macron, through this speech, has mainly addressed French public opinion, which both supports the movement and condemns its violence. He has both shown himself reaching out to the Yellow Vests and presented himself as the guarantor of public order. He thus intends to turn the French people against the Yellow Vests inclined to pursue the protests, become more radical and through their demonstrations trigger clashes with the police. 

The movement will not stop overnight, but it may weaken. In any case, it will have significant impact in the medium and long term.

However, the first surveys already show a decline in the popularity of the Yellow Vests movement and some support for Emmanuel Macron’s announcements. The movement will not stop overnight, but it may weaken. In any case, it will have significant impact in the medium and long term. Which will, undoubtedly, have a political impact.

 

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