Since two weeks ago, France has been living in the age of the yellow vests, and the commentaries are already numerous. A flash in the pan or a tidal wave? A new revolt? A new jacquerie? What is your feeling?
Five years ago, nearly every day, November 23rd, you asked me about the red caps movement1. I then attracted your attention to the fact that “all movements of protest or revolt of a certain magnitude that we witness today arise on the margin or outside of parties and unions, which are evidently no longer capable of embodying or relaying the aspirations of the people.” This was my conclusion: “One watchword: red caps everywhere!” Well, here we are: the yellow vests are the red caps everywhere. After years and years of humiliation, pauperization, social and cultural exclusion, it’s quite simply the people of France who are retaking the stage. And who are taking action with a rage and a determination (already two dead and 800 wounded, more than in Mai 68!) that speaks volumes.
Even if the popular classes and lower middle classes are its driving element – which gives the movement an extraordinary class dimension – the yellow vests come from different milieus, they reunite the young and the old, the peasants and the business leaders, salaried workers, laborers, and managers. Women as much as men (I’m thinking about these septuagenarian retirees who don’t hesitate, despite the cold, to sleep in their car so that protests can be held night and day). People who care for neither the right nor the left, and who, for the most part, have never even been involved in politics, but who fight on the basis of what they have in common: the feeling of being treated as second class citizens by the media caste, of being considered as compliant and exploitable by the predatory oligarchy of the rich and powerful, of never being consulted, but always tricked, of being the“scapegoat yokels”2 (François Bousquet) of the lower France, this “peripheral France” that is doubtlessly the most French thing in France, but has been abandoned to its fate, to be victims of unemployment, reduced income, precariousness, relocations, immigration, who after years of patience and suffering, finally said: “That’s enough!” That’s what the yellow vests movement is. Honor to it, honor to them!
What strikes you the most, in this movement?
Two things. The first, the most important, is the spontaneous character of the movement, as it’s what frightens the public powers the most, which finds itself without spokesmen, but also the parties and the unions, who discover with stupor that nearly a million men and women can mobilize and spark a movement of solidarity we’ve rarely seen (70 to 80% support in opinion polls) without even thinking to appeal to them. The yellow vests, a consummate example of popular self-organization. No leaders big or small, nor Caesars nor tribunes, solely the people. Populism in the pure state. Not the populism of parties or movements that claim this label, but what Vincent Coussedière called the “populism of the people.” Frondeurs3, sans-culottes, communards, whatever label one wants to place on them doesn’t matter. The people of the yellow vests didn’t entrust anyone the duty to speak in its place, it has imposed itself as a historical subject, and for that too, it must be endorsed and supported.
The other point that strikes me is the incredible discourse of hate directed against the yellow vests by the carriers of the dominant ideology, the sad alliance of little marquises in power, ridiculous pretentious people, and financial markets. “Beaufs4”, “morons”, “old fashioned” are the words that recur the most often (to say nothing of “brown shirts!”). Read the letters to the editor in Le Monde, listen to the moral left – the kerosene left – and the well bred right. Until now, they’ve held the reins, but not anymore. They lash out in the most obscene manner to express their haughtiness and class contempt, but also their panicked fear of seeing themselves dismissed by the “lower people” soon. Since the tremendous demonstrations in Paris, they no longer have the heart to reply to those who complain about the price of gas because they haven’t bought an electric car (the modern version of “let them eat cake!”). When the people spills into the streets of the capital, they raise the drawbridges! If they openly express their hate of this popular France – the France of Johnny5, the France that “smokes cigarettes and drives diesels”, – of this France that is not mixed enough, and too French anyhow, of the people that Macron has described in turn as illiterates and slackers who want “to make trouble”, in short, as insignificant people, they know that their days are numbered.
We clearly see how the movement began, but we can’t see how it will end very clearly, supposing, firstly, that it must end. Can the elements that united for this revolt transcribe themselves in a more political manner?
The problem doesn’t present itself in these terms. We are in front of a tidal wave that is not about to falter, because it is the objective result of a historical situation which is, itself, called to endure. The question of fuel is evidently only the drop of water that made the vase overflow ,or rather the drop of gas that made the canister explode. Instantly the real slogan was “Macron resign!” In the short term, the government will use all the habitual maneuvers: reprimand, defame, discredit, divide, and wait for it to unravel. Maybe it will unravel, but the causes will always be there. With the yellow vests, France already finds itself in a pre-insurrectionary state. If they radicalize further, it will be even better. If not, the warning will have been serious. It will be worth repeating. In Italy, the Five Start Movement, also born from a “day of rage” itself, is currently in power. In France, the definitive blast will happen in less than ten years.
1) Le mouvement des bonnets rouges, a protest movement centered in Brittany against a highway transport tax, which adopted the red cap as its symbol in reference to the 1675 revolt of the papier timbré against taxes imposed by Louis XIV to finance the war against the Dutch
2) Les “ploucs émissaires”, a play on words referring to the French for scapegoats, “boucs émissaires”, and yokels, “ploucs”.
3) Frondeurs refers to the rebels who rose against the increased powers of the king in a series of revolts from 1648 to 1653. The term originates from the word “fronde” meaning sling, in reference to the slings used by Parisian rioters to smash the windows of Cardinal Mazarin’s palace.
4) Beauf is a French colloquialism for a chauvinistic, unrefined, and unintelligent man with strong uninformed opinions, popularized by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Cabu, who created a character of that name, derived from a contraction of the French for brother in law, “beau-frère”.
5) Johnny Hallyday, French rock and roll star.
Interviewer: Nicolas Gauthier
Translator: Eugene Monsalvat