Above photo: Gilets Jaunes protest on the steps of the Montmartre, Paris. Olivier Ortelpa / Flickr.
The politics of the Gilets Jaunes are often misunderstood or overlooked, yet the movement should be a point of reference for struggles across Europe.
The revolt of the Gilets Jaunes has been interpreted and analyzed many times in many, sometimes completely opposing, ways. It has been largely viewed, by the right, especially, and most of the dominant media, as a quasi-fascist movement, a form of uncontrollable collective delinquency, in a word: a threat to democracy and existing institutions.
But even among those who were generally sympathetic to social movements, including many activists on the left, reservations about completely new forms of political action and wariness about individuals who do not quite fit in politically have remained very strong, sometimes even leading them to refuse to support what they consider “impure,” “confused” or “unreliable” struggles. That the Gilet Jaunes inspires such reactions shows the extent to which the movement has surprised, embarrassed, puzzled, and even worried people. The Gilet Jaunes, in other words, is a movement that has shaken up the pre-established schemas and the criteria of a well-established “political sociology.”
The main factor that triggered protests, the “carbon tax” on fuel, led some to think the Gilets Jaunes were virulent anti-environmentalists defending the right of drivers to pollute the planet. One thing is certain: this popular revolt is a political event that is significant considering how long it has lasted, how widely it has been supported by the population, how much it has provoked and continues to provoke effects both political and social.
But above all, it is the unique features of this revolt that mark a turning point in social and political history. First, its spontaneous outbreak over social media and its dynamic of self-organization. Second, its sociologically diverse composition of unorganized individuals who often had no prior experience of collective mobilization and who come from a wide range of backgrounds in society — salaried professionals, retirees, unemployed, small business owners — not to mention the massive presence of women. Third, its original forms of action: no longer the traditional union demonstration on the “grand boulevards” of Paris, but instead the occupation of “roundabouts” everywhere in France, and, every Saturday, demonstrations, sometimes violent, in the symbolic bastions of wealth like the Champs Élysées in Paris or the commercial centers of other major cities across the country.
Much discussion has been focused on how to define the movement of the Gilets Jaunes: riot, insurrection, jacquerie? There has been no shortage of lexical suggestions. The main feature of the revolt is probably the breakthrough of voices from below into a public sphere that has silenced them for so long, people of little means usually excluded from any representation, who are ordinarily the objects rather than the subjects of political decisions and economic and financial processes. Yet its most essential feature is that this popular revolt has successfully found new ways to directly and uncompromisingly confront the global neoliberal logic.
What is striking, indeed, is the acute awareness and lucidity of these actors who have not forgotten a thing from the past and who have recognized the continuity running back from Macron to the policies of Sarkozy and Hollande before him. From the outset, very consistently, they have perfectly understood that this logic essentially increases social and territorial inequalities, notably by cutting taxes for the wealthiest while at the same time slashing the social aid and public services on which the poorest rely to survive. It is indisputably Macron’s acceleration of the neoliberal agenda, made intolerable by his provocative statements and contemptuous attitude, that provoked the revolt.
The main outcome of this revolt has been the constitution of a new collective subject who refuses to disassociate the fight for social justice, the struggle for the environment and the search for new practical forms of democracy.
To understand this demand for unity, we must look at the characteristics of the revolt. They are of two kinds. First, although some specialists in political science only want to see it as a supplementary “symptom” of the crisis of representative democracy, we must rather see it more positively as an active, sharp and radical critique of existing political institutions, or instituted politics, with its oligarchical professionalization. Second, rather than looking for traces of past movements in France — hunger riots in the Ancien Régime, sans-culottes, boulangisme, etc. — we do better to focus on the formations of new radical subjectivities resulting from the popular components who had until then been “invisibilized” by their geographic situation, their variety of socioeconomic status, their distance from the political, media and economic system.
These new subjectivities are inseparable from the instituent practices that, precisely, have characterized the movement of the Gilets Jaunes. The revolt has challenged, in a practical way, the methods, modes of organization and classic discourses of social contestation. Many commentators have recognized in this traits of weakness and factors of powerlessness.This critique of the instituted is but the other side of its instituent character, that is, of the invention of new forms of action and organization, which supports Laurent Jeanpierre’s hypothesis, in his essay on the revolt of the roundabouts, that this revolt marks the beginning of a new cycle of social contestation.
Three United Refusals
The revolt of the Gilets Jaunes has brutally and directly called into question instituted politics and representation, and it has done so with three simultaneous refusals.
First, the refusal of existing organizations. The movement took off independently from unions and political parties. Moreover, it is a movement that has explicitly refused to adhere to the tradition of the social and popular movements that came out of the worker and socialist — in the largest sense of the word — movements such as they have developed since the 19th century. This, by the way, is why the movement unsettled and disoriented many political and union leaders who did not know what to do with this kind of atypical and “unsanctioned” revolt.
One particularly striking aspect of the movement derives from the fact that the question of capital-labor relations has not been directly presented in the demands, and even the question of unemployment and worsening work conditions has not been central, contrary to numerous other social movements in recent years. The revolt’s target was not “capitalism,” but rather fiscal and social injustice, perceived as what is primarily responsible for making it difficult to live off low incomes. The demands were logically no longer directed at “employers” but at Macron, the state and the “oligarchy,” all unceremoniously mixed together.
Second, the refusal to play the game of elections or the game of delegating “spokespersons.” The revolt refused from the outset to operate within the framework of “representative democracy.” Not only were political parties not invited to participate in the movement, any support of a party was denounced as a “recuperation” or “attempt to co-opt” the movement. As a result, whether they wanted to or not, political parties on the left and on the right kept their distance from the revolt, relegated to the role of spectators in the confrontation between the Gilets Jaunes and the State. The far-left and far-right activists who became invested in the movement most often did so wearing a yellow vest themselves, never openly reclaiming an organization or an ideology.
Third, the refusal of the instituted representation of society that dominant discourses spread and promote. In effect, it was not just the parties, unions and representative institutions which were rejected, but more broadly, the political and media discourses that were supposed to “represent” society. Political discourse, notably, was judged to be too distant and too abstract, that is, too indifferent to “real life,” and thus incapable of signifying the concrete, lived conditions of “people from below.” This refusal of political alienation and objection to “fancy words that mean nothing” were not merely negative.
The Gilets Jaunes sought out a way to articulate a collective voice that could speak out about why it is hard to make a living, social suffering and the social and economic dead-ends that millions of people have run into. By mobilizing the historic memory of the French Revolution, emblems and signifiers like the national flag, the national anthem (la Marseillaise) and phrases like “the People” have greatly helped folks articulate these issues. This collective voice in this way linked daily experiences with the reminder of a founding historical event that people relate to more than the dishonest “blah blah” of politicians.
The Instituting, or Instituent, Practices of the Gilets Jaunes
The revolt has been a chance to build a new political discourse, and has thus been very upsetting for those who believe themselves to be the “legitimate representatives” of society: politicians, journalists, union activists, etc. Contrary to what has been said, the collective speaking out has not been “apolitical.” On the contrary, it was “apartisan” and “apartidaire,” or anti-party, choosing instead to build a new political discourse out of experiences that were everyday, personal and local.
The collective subject of this speech was not a class or professional body or already-constituted and recognized group, but a mass of individuals who self-identified as a visible and recognizable group by the wearing of a vest that every motorist has in their car and by the fact that they formed a community of experiences, of similarities with their own lives and those of their loved ones, children, parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors. The principle of the refusal of instituted representation — which might be expressed as “no one has the right to speak for us” — leads to a political voice that refuses mediation to better be able to speak about the daily lives of millions of poor or modest people.
And this expression of direct speech comes with non-negotiable values. These are voices that demand more social justice and more equality — without mediation, without spokespersons, without specific targets. That, among other things, is what makes this revolt different from “classic” social movements organized against a decision that affects a particular professional category, a law that targets an aspect of social life or a specific political economic measure and that, at best, but it is becoming more and more rare, leads to a “negotiation.”
The voices of the Gilets Jaunes are not merely calling for the “end of austerity” or defending this or that threatened public service or fighting against this or that retirement reform. The remarkable fact is that from the hike in fuel prices, seen as totally unjust by everyone obliged to take their car to go to work, the entire system of inequalities in society was challenged, and then very quickly, the whole political system that legitimizes, maintains and makes worse that system of inequalities.
The political demand for equality and social justice is twofold: universal and local. It manifests in two types of practices. The first type is the recurring demonstrations every Saturday, which sometimes turned into riots in Paris at the very core of the power centers and right in the middle of the capital’s chic neighborhoods. Equality for all is proclaimed and the social injustice affecting everyone is denounced.
The second type is the occupation of roundabouts, which themselves are so many footholds and anchors in the local. In the cabins and shacks that folks built on the otherwise anonymous places that are roundabouts, people discuss different ways of continuing the fight, demands, lists, priorities. A new democratic logic of local assembly is implemented, what Laurent Jeanpierre calls the “repoliticization of the local,” which he links to the movement of squares and the ZAD struggles. The local occupation of roundabouts was both dispersed over the entire territory and interconnected by social networks that made it possible to establish a national list of demands and to choose to concentrate the mobilization in different regional cities last spring according to a “rotating centralization” principle.
Countless Facebook pages helped overcome the local repression that tore down the cabins and ended the occupation of the roundabouts. But the most surprising and perhaps most promising thing is the federative logic that led to the organizing of several “assembly of assemblies” held in different places each time, such as Commercy, Saint-Nazaire, Montceau-les-Mines.
A Challenge and a Beginning
An entirely new and improbable uprising that broke all the usual rules of social conflict, the movement of the Gilets Jaunes has shown the existence of a tremendous potential for revolt against rising inequalities linked to the neoliberal system. This potential is explosive, despite the fact that it is often masked when social anger is captured by the neofascist identity politics of the extreme right in what is now the dominant trend. Two aspects of this potential for revolt deserve extra attention.
As we witness, apparently at least, the twilight of the traditional organizations that came out of historical socialism and unionism and seem so far incapable of reinventing themselves, we are seeing the emergence of new massive and powerful forms of struggle for equality and social justice whose actors refuse to let themselves be dispossessed by vertical and bureaucratic organizations or charismatic leaders, quite contrary to the “populist reason” theorized rather imprudently by Ernesto Laclau to better support the anti-democratic logic of political representation.
In this respect, the new fact is that the practical search for a self-organized movement is no longer the prerogative of precarious, often highly educated youth, such as the zadistes of Notre Dame des Landes, the French entertainment industry’s intermittent workers or the Nuit debout facilitators; rather, it belongs to people from very diverse social categories, many of whom, because deprived of a voice, were assumed to be deprived of political skills.
Of course, there is a practical difficulty, and it constitutes the greatest challenge that these movements must overcome: how can these inventive forms of radical democracy be politically effective and durable without renouncing core principles? To put the question another way, the originality of the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes has been its formation of a “we” through a visible, common sign and through virtual collectivities of exchange on Facebook, but will the federative logic that began to be put into place be able to develop and after the pandemic, thus allowing for the institution of a national movement while also maintaining its local, decentralized and democratic features? The practical response appeared during the movement’s “assemblies of assemblies.”
The call from the Gilets Jaunes of Commercy — a small town in northern France — to “create the assembly of the assemblies, the Commune of Communes,” brought together delegates from several hundred local popular assemblies to collectively reflect on the question of facilitating a decentralized movement and to draw up an initial outline of a federation of popular committees, linking direct democracy, ecology and demands for equality. What will come of this federative dynamic?
The second aspect to keep in mind is the way this movement has confronted and even thwarted neoliberal ecology, which is set to become over the next years and decades one of the central axes of neoliberalism. By “neoliberal ecology” we mean to designate all the discourse and policy that consists in imputing responsibility for the climate crisis to individual behavior in general and that of members of the popular classes in particular while also, in practice, establishing fiscal incentives and disincentives whose overall effect is increasing inequalities.
Neoliberal governance of the climate crisis means basically blaming every individual as an individual, whatever their social class or effective level of responsibility in the economic and social system. This makes it possible to place the burden of the pseudo “ecological transition of capitalism” on the majority of the population, notably the poorest among them, clearing the organization of capitalist production and exchanges as well as the consumption of the rich classes from any responsibility.
In this sense, the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes is one of the first mobilizations to articulate the question of equality and climate, social justice and climate justice. It is no doubt also its primary lesson for the global left.
Pierre Dardot is a philosopher and specialist in Hegel and Marx. His latest books — co-authored with Christian Laval — include Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century (Bloomsbury, 2014), The New Way Of The World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso Books, 2017) and Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy (Verso Books, 2019).
Christian Laval is Professor of Sociology at the Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. His latest books — co-authored with Pierre Dardot — include Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century (Bloomsbury, 2014), The New Way Of The World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso Books, 2017) and Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy (Verso Books, 2019).