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A Few Things We Know About the 'Gilets Jaunes' Movement

A Few Things We Know About the 'Gilets Jaunes' Movement
 Olivier Duhamel
Former President of FNSP (Sciences Po)

The unprecedented social movement known as the "gilets jaunes" (yellow vests) remains difficult to fully grasp. Let us start by discarding a few analogies sometimes referred to, which, far from helping us analyze the movement, rather tend to blur our understanding of it. When faced with the unexpected, we are often tempted to refer to past events. The 1953 Poujadisme movement led by shopkeepers and craftsmen? Apart from the anti-tax dimension, there are few common points, shopkeepers will tell you. The 2013 "Bonnets Rouges" movement against a new tax on truck-transport? Apart from the contestation of an ecological tax, the latter didn’t have much to do with our current case, as it was regionally limited to Brittany and was led by trade unions and employers. What about "Nuit Debout", the youth-led 2016 movement that organized nightly gatherings? Apart from both movements rejecting the system, the "gilets jaunes" are quite far off from the static and extended meetings of intellectuals lato sensu dreaming of a better world. So let us leave behind these approximate comparisons and look instead for possible answers to three questions: How? Who? For what? 


The movement’s originality lies in its birth, its grassroots progression and the power of digital technologies. Two or three factors sparked the unrest. A petition on, demanding a reduction in fuel prices, launched in Savigny-le-Temple (in the Seine-et-Marne department) at the end of May by Priscillia Ludosky, an online cosmetics saleswoman. The call by a truck driver from Seine-et-Marne, Éric Drouet, to demonstrate on 17 November against the increase in fuel taxes. His wife showed him an article in the local newspaper République de Seine-et-Marne on Priscillia's petition. He called her and they decided to join forces: she invited him to sign the petition, he to demonstrate on the 17th. An outraged post on Facebook on 18 October written by Jacline Mouraud, from the Ploërmel region (in the Morbihan department in Brittany) added a spark of irreverence to the whole affair. The newspaper Le Parisien wrote about these initiatives on 21 October. The other media followed its lead. The petition - and thus the call to protest on Saturday 17 November - took off: 750,000 signatures at the beginning of November. The movement was launched.

Several groups, most often at the departmental level, were created on social media to orchestrate the presence of nearly 300,000 demonstrators on 17 November.

A petition on the Internet, a call on Facebook… the movement’s digital DNA can hardly be questioned. Not to mention that its unorganized event was also organized thanks to digital technologies! Indeed, several groups, most often at the departmental level, were created on social media to orchestrate the presence of nearly 300,000 demonstrators on 17 November. Traditional media also contributed to this mobilization. 24-hour news channels, and especially the TV channel BFM, played a particularly significant role as they narrated the upcoming event throughout the week that preceded it.

A yellow jacket: what a great find to produce images. A digital uplifting: what amazingly innovative material to make up a series. Viewers guaranteed. Commentators, from the right, from the left, from nowhere, babble about or celebrate the movement’s "freshness", the "new form of participatory democracy" or even the "awakening of the people" it embodies. On Saturday 17 at dawn, special editions announced the day before were reporting the protest in real time - something unseen before in France’s history for a social movement. 


A group of individuals who do not fit into the ordinary categories used by political observers and commentators. They come both from the left and from the right. They are both apolitical and ultra (three kinds of ultra: ultra-right, ultra-left and ultra-violent, who take advantage of the opportunity to break whatever can be broken).
But above all, they are "people" as the media say, or even "the people", to use the words of the far-left party La France Insoumise. Among them are many women. Motorists who cannot do without their cars to go to work - but not only. Employees, self-employed, retired people, who earn little more and often less than the median wage, i.e. €1,772 net of tax per month. 
This is the "central people", declares Marine Le Pen, taking up an expression used by Jean-Luc Mélenchon during his presidential campaign meeting on the Cannebière high street in Marseille on 9 April 2017, in one of the lyrical declamations only he can deliver: "There you are, the central people, that which aspires to live from its work, from its inventions, from its poems, from its love of others". In truth, the notion of "central people" goes back a long way in French history, since it was already used in...1903, by a committee of Bonapartists who called themselves "Appel au peuple central" (literally, "call to the central people") .
A group of individuals, certainly not rich, yet not entirely poor, who feel forgotten by the Republic and who, according to polls, are supported by two thirds, if not three quarters, of the French people. How could anyone be against them?
Most are - or feel like they are - the negation of something. Non-voters, non-demonstrators (until now), non-union members (no centralized trade union officially supports the movement), non-politicized, non-represented.

For what? 

What can we make of this diversity of angry outbursts? One option would be to sketch out a timeline.

  • Phase 1. Rejection of increases in diesel and gasoline prices. No to the increase in fuel taxes.
  • Phase 2. Extension of the protest. Protesters’ discourse generally seems to reflect more of a revolt than specific claims. "I'm tired of being powerless. What future will my child have?" wrote a protestor on his vest."The elites talk about the end of the world when we’re talking about the end of the month", proclaims another.
  • Phase 3. Proliferation and radicalization of requests. No to taxes. No to the decline in purchasing power. No to elected representatives. No to the Assembly: yes to its dissolution. No to Macron: yes to his resignation.
  • Phase 4. On 26 November, eight citizens - half spokespersons, half messengers - represented the "gilets jaunes" to discuss with the government and so-called "official communicators", in almost Macronian jargon.

Two claims are particularly emphasized. The first: a rise in purchasing power, through the increase of the minimum wage and/or a reduction in taxes. The second: "the creation of a Citizens Assembly to put forward demands that would then be submitted to referendum".

In other words, a classic social claim, and a radical demand aligned with the mindset of proponents of a Sixth Republic.

A yellow jacket: what a great find to produce images. A digital uplifting: what amazingly innovative material to make up a series. Viewers guaranteed.

The first could be, at least partly, satisfied, which is what the French President of the Republic should have done in his speech on Tuesday, 27 November. The second could only be achieved by a revolution, which is hoped for by some, and feared by others. Yet - and I say this in full awareness of the risk that any forecast implies, and despite the increasing madness on all sides - a revolution doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.

Yet the absence of a revolution doesn’t necessarily entail the movement’s extinction. It is worth remembering that Macron created a new kind of political movement, LREM (La République En Marche), in just a few months and out of nothing... We should thus consider the following hypothesis, which is neither the most probable, nor completely impossible. What if we were witnessing the live gestation of a political movement - with the European elections as a catalyst - that will introduce a new political leader? While La France Insoumise and Rassemblement National (Marine Le Pen’s far-right party) neither seem willing nor able to aggregate or even add up their voters, the ‘gilet jaunes’ would probably not share their reticence... If this social movement were to become political and transcend or combine extremes across traditional boundaries, it would profoundly shake up our political system, which is already significantly overwhelmed.

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