This week I have opted to feature a guest post. Though it is not on the topic of Brexit, it does look at another recent phenomenon: the Gilets Jaunes.
I am deeply grateful to the renowned Paris based, UK journalist, John Lichfield, (formerly senior journalist with UK Independent) for allowing me to reproduce here the text of the talk he gave at our most recent BEERG Network Meeting in Brussels. It is about the Gilets Jaunes and what this movement means in a wider political context. I think it worthwhile sharing his insights as widely as possible.”
The talk was part of a discussion session entitled: Breaking Bad: Thoughts on Social Media, Gilets Jaunes and Unstructured Protest Movements:
Speaking on Thursday January 31st 2019, John Lichfield said:
I’m here to explain the Gilets Jaunes. It might be easier to explain black holes. I’ll do my best. But there is no simple explanation of the Gilets Jaunes, no monolithic, single-minded movement, no leadership structure, no single, accepted programme of demands. That’s what makes them fascinating. And baffling. And worrying. I will give you a brief narrative of the story so far. Then I will offer some clues on how to understand the movement. And what may happen next.
Are the Gilets Jaunes just another example of the French being French? Is it all Macron’s fault? Or Putin’s fault? Or is it an internet phenomenon – Facebook populism – which could have happened anywhere? What are the similarities with other populist movements in the social media age, Brexit, Maga-Trump, Five Star? Is it a movement remotely piloted by the far right? Or far left? Who is responsible for the violence? What does it all tell us about the fragility of democratic institutions, and all institutions, in an age when the old channels of authority and opinion-forming have broken down? Political parties, trades unions, newspapers, TV and radio news, even the Church.
FIRST, A BRIEF NARRATIVE:
The Gilets Jaunes movement began as long ago as May. A very intelligent, young businesswoman of French west Indian origin, Priscillia Ludosky, 31, placed a petition on line complaining about the high cost of petrol and diesel in France. Reaction; practically nothing. I have interviewed her. She is an intelligent, calm, moderate person, who has now fallen out with some of the more radical figures who have since taken over the movement.
She – a young, black woman with dreadlocks, a woman who runs her own cosmetics business from home – is an unlikely pioneer for a populist movement, which is sometimes accused of being racist and far right (as parts of it undoubtedly are). She is, still active, but I sense, losing influence and also motivation. She sums up better than anyone the complexity and oddity of the Gilets Jaunes.
In October, she was contacted by a lorry driver Eric Drouet, 33, who teamed up with her promote her original petition. Drouet is a car fanatic, a petrol head, but also someone with extremist political tendencies. He is now, many weeks later, probably the most influential figure in the movement. There is genuine muddle in France about whether he should be seen as far right or far left. I think he’s far right. I may be wrong. This is the not the same as saying the whole movement is far right, which it’s not.
Anyway, his original motivation may well have been his car obsession rather than politics– more Top Gear than Das Kapital or Mein Kampf. By the time he intervened, petrol prices were spiking because of a rise in world oil prices. There had been no new increase in carbon taxes since January, but one was due in the New Year. Priscillia Ludoskys’s original petition now exploded on line, attracting hundreds of thousands of signatures. It was Drouet who thought of idea of nationwide protest on 17 November. Someone else had the brilliant PR idea of dressing everyone up in the yellow vests which French motorists have by law to carry in their cars.
At same time, another woman Jacline Mouraud, a hypnotherapist from Brittany, placed a video blog on Facebook on 19 October in which she pointed out– inter alia – what a large proportion of the pump fuel price in France goes on tax (60 % as has long been the case.) This video was rapidly seen 6.2 million times. Another early figure was FlyRider – Maxim Nicolle – a blogger of conspiracy theories which are anti-globalist, anti-elite, anti- European. He has connections with the far right but nothing very formal. He looks like any young man on the street: red hair and beard, baseball hat always worn backwards. He is a |French nationalist of sorts, an anti-globalist but very global in his looks. A paradox. In both appearance and views, he could be a Trump supporter.
So, petrol prices were important in touching off the movement. But they rapidly set alight other grievances, some concrete, some more existential. A lack of public services, high taxes, a new tax on some pensions, the fact that Macron had partially abolished a tax on wealth. One must not underestimate the importance of a decision last July to reduce the two-lane speed limit in France from 90kph to 80khp.
This aroused a long-simmering belief in peripheral France that rural areas and outer suburbs are somehow subsidising the insolent success of the cities. Speeding fines, in this view, are just another way of taxing “ploucs” or “pecnos” – yokels or rednecks. Also fed a belief in lower and middle France that they are taxed unfairly in favour of rich. Both are factually untrue. If anything, the rich subsidise the state services of poor and lower middle and the metropolitan areas subsidise Peripheral France.
But it IS that true that energy and life and local sources of wealth have been sucked out of large swathes of France in recent decades – as they have in parts of the UK or US. All adds up to an existential conviction that peripheral France is not only being left behind but mocked and cheated by those who are forging ahead. I believe that this resentment, an existential sense of being slighted, or ignored or despised or abandoned or humiliated, explains the yellow vest movement more than any particular grievance.
The first day of action on 17 November mobilised 284,000 people across France., This figure has never been reached since. It was impressive but fell well below numbers which have turned out for other social protests in last 20 years. Its significance was that it did not just take place in cities but also in small towns and on almost every local roundabout. Like the Tour de France it was a national event which came down your way. This created a sense of camaraderie. It also gave people a uniform. People who had previously felt powerless, felt abruptly powerful because they could hold up cars and trucks at a roundabout. People who had been invisible became highly visible in their high viz vests.
Here is our second paradox. The Gilets Jaunes are an internet spawned and driven movement. They could not have existed 20 years or maybe even 10 years ago, before the triumph of Facebook. But their attraction is that they are also something tangible, physical, a social club as well a social movement – something that brought people together. The movement was created, and brought to a white heat pitch of anger, by the halls of facing mirrors of “anger groups” on line. But it was also successful because it gave people a sense that they could escape from the isolation of their terminals or smart phones and come together and do things.
Anyway, 17 November was mostly peaceful. There was little violence, except a few scuffles with Police in Paris and with motorists on blocked roundabouts. The police and government stood back and allowed the protests to happen, even though the Gilets Jaunes deliberately defied the usual rules of seeking advance permissions for gatherings etc. Police stopped a small crowd led by Eric Drouet from reaching the Elysee Palace. Otherwise GJ’s were allowed to wander around Paris at will, blocking traffic on Place de la Concorde for hours for instance. It is important to remember this when GJs and others allege that Macron has tried to “suppress” the movement. The rural roundabout blockades/social clubs were also allowed to continue for days undisturbed, severely reducing deliveries to shops etc. Police and government did nothing at first, waiting for the movement to peter out.
On 24 November, Act 2 of the movement, another Saturday, there was some violence in Paris. Police responded robustly to being attacked by a militant fringe of GJ’s on Champs Elysees. There were some serious injuries among protesters from police weapons. This was treated on GJ sites as deliberate police violence and repression, stoking tempers for the next weekend…
On 1 Dec, Act 3, I was out on streets of Paris from early morning. I happen to live near the Arc de Triomphe. I was in middle of a street battle when I walked out of my building at 9am. This was the day the movement shifted to something more militant, more violent, out of control of its peaceful majority. Whether this was spontaneous or planned is open to question. It was certainly encouraged by the extreme anti-police and anti-Macron rhetoric on GJ sites.
There was a large minority of GJs that day – not just hard left- and right-wing militants but rural/provincial disaffected men and women in their 20, 30s and 40s who attacked police from early morning and tried to break through the police lines that were searching demonstrators before they could enter the Champs Elysees. They were pushed back by police. More and more GJs arrived. The police were outnumbered. The Arc de Triomphe was tagged with graffiti and vandalised. At various points, police were pelted with acid, pant, iron bolts, stones, bottles. There was nothing spontaneous about that. Buildings around the Etoile were set briefly alight. Things seemed to calm then a mob went down the Avenue Kleber overturning and burning cars and smashing bank and shop and restaurant windows. I got in trouble for writing this was an insurrection, not a protest. But that’s what it felt like.
Then a further mob arrived from the multiracial inner suburbs– no demands, no political agenda, just scenting easy pickings. They smashed and looted shops all over Paris. Some of the shops and restaurants are still closed, two months later. From what I saw that day, police behaved with great restraint overall but were overwhelmed. Since then their tactics have become more aggressive, and more pro-active in stamping out any signs of violence. Their so-called defensive weapons – rubber bullets and stun grenades – have become a serious problem which the government has been too slow to recognise.
Before the next Saturday – Act 4 on December 8 – there were dark reports that this would indeed be an insurrection, using live weapons and explosives. Macron, shaken, visited the Elysée nuclear bunker the day before to make sure there was somewhere he could take refuge. In the event, 8 December was again a horrible, violent day – not just in Paris but in several cities. But it was not the feared revolution. The violence this time was mostly provoked by militia of the hard right and hard left. Some “ordinary” GJ’s waded in. Police were more aggressive in their response. But it was not the prelude to civil war that some had feared.
Since then there have been seven further Acts or Saturday protests or putsches, some more violent than others, some better supported than others. Violence has switched from Paris for the most part to provincial cities, especially Toulouse, Bordeaux, Caen, Rouen. Rennes. Regional variations in the movement are interesting. Alsace has barely been involved. The North and east generally have been relatively calm. Lille, for instance. Marseilles likewise. The areas of France which are traditionally strong for the far right have mobilised the least. Areas which are usually left-leaning – the southwest, Brittany – have been very militant for the Gilets Jaunes. So, another paradox, if you believe that this is largely a far-right movement….
Now, two months on, the roundabout rebellion is almost over. Support in rural areas is slackening. In Early December the count of yellow vests on car dashboards in my part of Normandy was 40%. It’ s now 14%.
But support for the Saturdays Only putsches in cities, which fell away around Christmas, has recovered again. There were 84,000 on the streets of France two weekends running after the New Year and down to 69,000 last weekend.
Is this just the French being the French? No. This movement is very French – but it’s also very un-French.
French… because it’s true that protest goes to the street in France more rapidly than in almost any other democratic country. That’s a tradition that goes back to 1789 but there were street rebellions in France throughout the 19th century up to the Commune in 1870 and then again in the 1930s, the poujadistes in the early 1950s, the Algerie Francause movement in the late 1950s/early 1960s and of course 1968. There is a default position in France that protest/ political/social demands will not be taken seriously without street demos and demos will not be taken seriously without a dose of violence.
In my 22 years in France, I’ve seen more or less violent demos by farmers, fishermen, wine producers, truckdrivers, students, kids in the banlieues, sixth formers, chefs and even police officers. So, it is understandable/ predictable that a movement like the Gilets Jaunes, which started with petitions on the internet, would go rapidly from the virtual to the physical and then to the very physical.
But there is also something very un-French about the Gilets Jaunes movement, which resembles nothing I have seen in my 22 years in France.
Un- French… first of all, because it has broken all the usual unspoken and spoken rules of French manifestations and protests. They are usually choreographed within certain limits, with agreed venues and routes and marshals. Riots happen but they are predictable riots. The Gilets Jaunes refused from the beginning to be bound by any of these rules, though this – interestingly – is now changing. As a result, the movement, supposedly peaceful, rapidly allowed its own violent fringe as well as opportunist militia of hard right and hard left to take over.
The protests have been the most violent for 50 years or more – arguably even more violent and has certainly been going on longer than May 1968. And the violence is not limited to the Saturdays Only putsch in French cities. There have been scores of arson and other attacks on Macron- supporting MP’s offices. There have been attacks on motorways toll booths, newspapers, radio stations, a starred restaurant whose boss criticised the Gilets Jaunes, town halls, prefectures and other public buildings. The words terrorism has not been used – yet – but…. Imagine if the Yellow Vest movement, ethnically almost but not exclusively white, had been mostly brown or black. The word terrorism would have been for sure. You have to go back to Algerie Francaise and the OAS in the early 1960s to see such domestic political violence.
The responsibility of police? French police are rarely gentle. There have been scores of incidents of police brutality and misuse of their defensive weapons, flash balls and stun grenades. But, in all cases, this has been reaction or over-reaction to initial violence from the GJs and allies. There has been NO systematic attempt to repress protest as some GJ media and Russian media sites would have you believe. Any peaceful demonstration, including many illegal ones, have been left alone unless blocking traffic etc. But there is now a case for removing the rubber bullets and stun grenades – no longer used by other EU countries – before they cause a very grave incident indeed. Seventeen eyes and four hands have been lost so far. That is quite enough – whoever is initially responsible for the violence.
I’d say that the movement is also UNFRENCH – or at least atypical – because it has not come from the usual or expected sources of protest – unions, farmers, students, the multi-racial banlieues – but from a section of French society that is usually invisible, permanently grumpy but little engaged in politics. I mean rural, non-farming France. I means small town France., I mean outer suburban France. I mean many people who have not voted for years as well as many who have voted hard right or hard left and many who have recently voted centre right or centre left (but those twin pillars of French democracy have now virtually ceased to exist).
GJ’s do include people right at the bottom of society, the unemployed, the marginalised but more typically they are people who are above the bottom but think they should be doing better. People with jobs; artisans; small business people; technicians and people at lower-level of caring professionals. This mixture of supporters explains in part the heterogenous character and demands of the movement, which in traditional terms points both left and right, to higher welfare payments and pensions but also to lower taxes, to less state and more state at the same time. Both pougadiste and workerist. There is no coherent ideology, even a refusal of ideology.
Some see this as a camouflage for a movement whose heart beats on the far right. Certainly, the two leading figures now left in the movement both young men in their early 30s have a record of support for far right, conspiracy politics. But at surface level at least many of the usual far right hot topics – migration, Islam, abortion, gay marriage, Europe – are not the first things that you hear on the lips of GJ.s. In many respects, the different programmes they have tried to draw up – including a new one in a gathering of Gilets Jaunes delegates from all over country in Commercy in Meuse last weekend – are heavily influenced by hard left. Anti-Semitism and violence were specifically condemned.
There is something else. In 22 years in France I think I have learned to recognise different social types. I know FN supporters when I see them. I know hard left supporters. There are people of both tribes in GJs. But also, many people who you would never expect to see in either of those camps. Many women especially.
What are the sources of grievance and how justified are they? Here it is difficult to prise apart French and un-French elements.
The words you do hear most often are “mepris” and “ras le bol”. Mepris – means contempt. Gilets Jaunes are convinced or have been convinced – that the little or middling people like them are held in contempt by the trendy, rich, globally oriented people of successful metropolitan France. That’s why, I think, Macron has sparked such anger and hatred. Not so much for what he has done in last 20 months but for what he represents and some of the things he has said. He typifies the kind of person that GJ’s didn’t like even before they were GJs or before there was Macron. The rich, clever, self-replicating people from the governing classes who’ve been to the finishing schools of governing elite and think they know everything.
I think the real reason why this grates so much is rarely expressed by Gilets Jaunes themselves but explains, if you like, the submerged, unrecognised frustration/anger of the movement. France may be an egalitarian country, but it is no longer a country of social mobility. That has got worse, not because of anything any recent French government has done, let alone Macron. He arguably recognised the problem and is trying to fix it – maybe clumsily.
Fact is that the collapse of a range of middling jobs, not just in France – banks clerks, secretaries, junior administrative, assistants – has removed several rungs from the ladder of advancement, especially for clever rural and outer suburban kids who don’t have skills or connections to make it in the high tech or financial service or luxury goods industries which are booming. Beyond that, there is a sense of local sources of pride and employment having vanished. There is a sense that the high living cost in cities has driven people into unlovely outer suburbs where services are poor and the cost of transport, especially road transport, is exploding.
These things, I think, explain some of the anger. They are rarely articulated by GJ’s themselves who prefer the kind of simple but dotty explanations they find on their Facebook “anger” sites. IE Politicians are living a high life at the expense of taxpayers. Brigitte Macron has a salary of Euros 550,000. Actual salary: zero.
And so, to the second word or phrase you hear. “Ras le Bol” – means sick to the teeth. It conveys a sense of having been pushed to the breaking point. In my experience, French people almost always have a sense of ras le bol about something or other. But the white-hot anger of the GJ movement is something new and different. Can only be explained I think by the silos of facing mirrors of social media sites, which fill head with exaggerated real grievances blended with utter bullshit. France has been sold to the UN, Alsace has been given back to Germany.
This bullshit is always accompanied by a message telling you that the mainstream media is lying. Thus, suspicion of mainstream media, already high, is cranked up to the point where journalists have become targets for GJ violence. Strangely, France now has more sources of mainstream media than ever before. Four 24 hours news channel for instance.
This has however helped to undermine the primacy and trust the nightly news on TF1 or France 2. Since all tend to present the Gilets Jaunes in same way – not rejecting them, but not accepting their exaggerations, contradictions and outright lies. This reinforces their conspiracy obsession, a feeling that the media is controlled, and journos are collaborators. None of this is a purely French phenomenon. It matches much of what has happened to radicalise opinion in the US and the UK and elsewhere.
France is more vulnerable because traditional party structure has disappeared; the Catholic church has virtually ceased to be an influence for order in rural France; trades unions are weak and divided and seen as workplace political parties rather than trades unions in the sense know elsewhere.
Finally, the Movement is UNFRENCH in another way. It rapidly moved from a protest movement with very specific demands – on fuel taxes, and cost of living 80 kph limit– to a revolutionary movement, a kind of Saturdays only putsch, which seeks to bring down the Republican institutions and French representative democracy.
The view in much foreign media is that these are anti-Macron protests and they are. But they go way beyond him and call for the sluicing out of the entre political class left and right, even hard left and hard right, to be replaced by a bottom up direct democracy of permanent popular decisions by referenda. Thus, we have a revolution which did not just start on the internet and Facebook but wants to use the internet to impose a new form of government (and yet is at same time anti-Globalist, anti-Facebook and nostalgic for a simpler, more traditional kind of France). Yet another paradox.
This is rather French because the French love abstraction and ideology. The GJ ideology is to say they have no ideology and adopt a cult-like belief in the possibility of a permanent on-line government by the people – while no two groups of GJ’s can agree anything between themselves.
This is rejection of mainstream politics is by no means exclusively French. There is a similarity between the Gilets Jaunes and the pro-Brexit blue collar and rural vote in Britain and the Maga pro Trump vote in the US rust belt and flyover states. Also, with the Five Star movement in Italy.
But there are also national differences between these part-nationalist movements against globalism. Unlike Brexiteers, Gilets Jaunes are not obsessed by migration and Europe. Unlike, the Trump supporters, Gilets Jaunes speak little of cultural divisions. Gays, guns and God hardly figure. Unlike, the five-star movement, the GJ’s do not come from the bobo-disaffected urban ex-left
The movement is splitting. Some have decided to enter the mainstream political system to try to reform it or destroy it from the inside. One moderate GJ list already declared for the European elections in May. Another more right-wing list is in preparation. Paradoxically, this is likely to help Macron. He has already recovered from his shock – both personally and in the polls.
He has made concessions. He has started a Great National debate which is going well and taken some of the wind out of GJ sails. But government is divided on whether to take the findings of the debate seriously and act upon them. Or just say that’s what we thought and go ahead with Macron’s reform, programme as planned. If go that way, there could be another explosion in summer.
Others GJ’s are furious and still believe they can somehow bring down the French state, by demonstrations each Saturdays. This militant end of the movement seeks to use police violence to stoke anger and reignite a flagging movement. And there is a danger that a grave incident will tip the fading crisis into more tragic calamitous territory.
The movement has many French characteristics, but it is wrong to see it as wholly or even mostly a French phenomenon. There are obvious comparisons with US, Britain, Italy. Evident that Russia has been trying to exploit the unrest. Evident that there is far right influence.
But it is wrong to see the Gilets Jaunes movement as having been manipulated from the beginning. There are genuine grievances, even if misunderstood and exaggerated by the GJ’s themselves. There is a bewilderment at a more complex world that seems to be leaving large tranches of France behind. Ingrid Vavasseur, leader of the Gilets Jaunes list for the European elections says: “The most important single issue – That we should feel recognised and valued.”
What scares me is not the fact of the GJ movement – not the fact of the anger – but the fact of the fury, the white-hot fury. We speak a great deal about radicalisation, especially of young Muslims etc. But what explains the radicalisation of home carers and garage mechanics in small towns who don’t understands the basics of how their own country’s political and tax system works but know they’re out of the loop, left behind. They have been persuaded that they are being cheated, conspired against.
This is partly explained by lack of trusted guides such as political parties, media, church, unions – to shape public opinion. But the white-hot anger can only be explained by the facing mirrors, the multiplier effect, the compound or viral effect of social media. Thus, the Gilets Jaunes is a French crisis but also part of a wider, existential crisis for all 21st century economies and democracies.
Very many thanks again to John for allowing us to reproduce his excellent talk here.