Once upon a time, the defining boast of the gilets jaunes was that they defied all definition.
They were of neither the Left nor the Right. They came from drive-through parts of France – small towns and outer suburbs – which had previously shown little interest in national politics, let alone revolution.
They were anti taxation and pro public spending. They wanted better services and a higher standard of living. They had no leaders and rejected all career politicians.
They wanted to rip down representative democracy and replace it with popular government via the internet. They included artisans and small entrepreneurs as well as workers, pensioners and the unemployed.
All this is now changing – not that you’d know it from reading even the French press. The gilets jaunes, approaching their 20th consecutive Saturday of protest, are mutating slowly into something like a traditional movement of the French Left.
Their core supporters are still angry men and women from peripheral France. Their new allies include the careerist hard Left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the bourgeois anti-globalist Left of the Attac movement and the urban, violent, anti-capitalist anarcho-Left of the Black Blocs.
The shift explains, in part, the resurgence of violence in Paris on 16 March, when militant gilets jaunes and anarcho-leftists laid waste to shop and restaurant fronts and news kiosks on the Champs Elysées. Although that was an embarrassment for President Macron, this leftward drift may ultimately be to his advantage.
Popular admiration for the gilets, once over 70%, depended on their ambiguity. Everyone could see what they chose to see in the movement. The further to the Left that the yellow jackets travel, the more they are likely to forfeit the still substantial sympathy of a wide section of the French people.
The original rural/outer suburban movement is far from dead, but the movement has undoubtedly withered in its provincial heartlands. In rural Calvados, one of the seedbeds of the gilets jaunes, there are now only a scattering of high-viz vests displayed on car dash-boards. Public support has shrunk to 24%, though another 29% expresses “sympathy”.
As the movement retreats – 282,000 turned out for the first Saturday putsch on 17 November; 40,500 last weekend – there is an evident change of social profile among the protesters in Paris and other large towns. Watching the faces and fashion of the 5,000 people who marched, mostly peacefully, through Paris last Saturday, it was plain that some of them were ‘authentic’ provincial gilets jaunes. There were also young, urban leftists and veteran, middle-class activists against globalism and capitalism. They were joined by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the hard-Left Socialist party breakaway, La France Insoumise, and by two well-known French Trotskyist leaders, Olivier Besancenot and Phillippe Poutou.
A section of the Paris crowd chanted “Anti, anti-capitalisme. Ah, ooh.” This is the war-cry of the French Trotskyist Left. It has become as common at yellow jacket protests as their own anthem: “Emmanuel Macron, oh tête de con…” (which I will not translate).
In Montpellier last Saturday, there were mock-violent cat-and-mouse battles with police until late in the evening. The TV footage suggested that most of those responsible were university students in their early 20s. Many did not bother to wear yellow jackets.
The dramatis personae of the Saturday protests has also changed in a more alarming way. In the first truly violent demonstrations on 1 and 8 December, much of the mayhem came from a militant fringe, from struggling, hard-scrabble towns in Normandy and northern France.
They were joined by urban militia of the urban ultra-Left (the so-called Black Blocs) but also by urban guerrillas of the nationalist and racist ultra-Right. Anarchist and royalist flags flew within a few metres of one another on the day that the Arc de Triomphe was tagged and vandalised on 1 December.
The two urban guerrilla armies love to detest one another. During subsequent Saturday putsches, there were battles-within-battles between ultra-leftists and ultra-rightists. A piece of footage from Lyon in early February showed 100 or so leftists brawling with 100 or so rightists, both sides wearing black ski outfits and yellow jackets.
The ultra-Left ‘won’ on that occasion and seems to have triumphed overall. Judging from what I’ve seen, the ultra-Right guerrilla groups have vanished from the Saturday protests since late February.
The destruction wreaked in Paris on 16 March – I was on the Champs Elysées that day – was largely the work of the Black Bloc ultra-Left from France, with reinforcements from Germany, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland. They were enthusiastically joined by militant, ‘authentic’ gilets jaunes who had converged to mark the four month anniversary of the movement.
Abel Mestre, the Le Monde journalist who reports on extremist movements in France, is one of the few people to have examined this leftward drift. He reported earlier this month that Black Blocs – a method and an attitude rather than an organised network – have infiltrated and trained the more violent groups of yellow jackets.
There is no formal “coordination”, he reported, but there are “exchanges on self-defence”, including advice on how to “manufacture reinforced banners” from pick handles and tough textiles to use as weapons and shields against police lines.
Another journalist who has commented on the mutation of the yellow jackets is Nicolas Lévine, of the unorthodox, conservative magazine Causeur. “The liberal-libertarian system is even stronger than you might have imagined,” he wrote earlier this month. “It is in the midst of swallowing up the gilets jaunes. Today it’s obvious. What began as a political insurrection is transforming into a banal social movement.”
Lévine suggests, implausibly, that this is part of an establishment plot. According to him, Emmanuel Macron and the Black Blocs have somehow allied to destroy or denature a movement that once genuinely represented an uprising of the “people” against the orthodoxy of a pro-European, anti-conservative elite.
“This brutality (of the Black Blocs) is tolerated by the powers that be,” he wrote. “These ultra-lefties, eternal useful idiots of the capitalist system, only truly scare the readers of Madame Figaro magazine.”
This is silly. It does, however, contain a grain of truth.
Others accuse the President of using excessive violence to “suppress” protest. This is also misleading. Some of the non-lethal weapons used by French riot police are dangerous and should be withdrawn, but I know of no example of the police using them against a peaceful protest.
If anything, it is the alleged violence of the riot police – exaggerated and mythified by yellow jackets sites on the internet – which has driven the remaining protestors towards the Left. A French internal security source told me: “The controversy over the use of rubber bullets and stun grenades is embarrassing to Marine Le Pen and the French far Right. They want to support and enlist the gilets jaunes but many of their members are strongly for law-and-order and pro-police.”
“The gilets jaunes movement is certainly losing active strength in provincial France and those who remain are disappointed with the lack of support they’ve received from Le Pen on the police violence issue. That partly explains their new tolerance for the Left, which has campaigned strongly against this alleged police brutality.”
The politics of the yellow jackets were always difficult to pin down. Some of the original supporters of the movement that I interviewed in November said they had not voted in any election for years. Many others, according to opinion polls, voted for Madame Le Pen.
Several of the officially leaderless movement’s early “personalities” were conspiracy-obsessives with far-Right links or tendencies. There has been entryism by the ultra-nationalist Right as well as the anti-capitalist Left. There have been well-reported outbreaks of antisemitism. There has, however, been little sign of anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment.
In the early days it was made clear that “professional politicians” were unwelcome. “That is beginning to change,” the security source said. “The remaining gilets jaunes, whatever their original politics, are more willing to ally with the hard Left. And the Left is also more willing to ally with the gilet jaunes. At first many of the urban leftists dismissed the movement as a bunch of fascists and ploucs (yokels).”
One of Mélenchon’s allies, and potential rivals, the Left-wing politician, journalist and film-maker Francois Ruffin has been especially active in claiming the gilets as a popular movement of the Left. His new film J’veux du soleil (give me sunshine) will open in cinemas throughout France early next month. The film is a political road movie in which Ruffin visits and glorifies gilets jaunes groups across the country.
How far this “gauchisation” will go is unclear. The group’s demands still vary from one collection to the next and still include a form of government-by-online-referendum. Other demands, such as large increases in the minimum wage, welfare, payments and pensions, have always been Left-leaning.
Much depends on Macron’s next move. He is under pressure from some of his own more Left-leaning allies and advisers to give new tax concessions or pension increases to the less well-off.
In the medium term, as the article in Causeur suggests, the leftward drift will probably help him. The French hard Left may want, like the original gilets jaunes, to “destroy the system” but they are a familiar and permanent part of the country’s political landscape. Unlike the “Mark 1” gilets, they do not pose an unfathomable, new existential threat to top-down politics-as-usual.
Alliance with the hard Left undermines the yellow jackets’ claim to be something different and uncategorisable. It signals, instead, their slow, violent retreat as a force in French politics.
To read more of John Lichfield’s reporting on the gilets jaunes, click here