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How the gilets jaunes went up in flames The anti-ideological movement has managed to kill itself off

(Photo d ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP/Getty Images)

June 13, 2019   5 mins

So farewell then, gilets jaunes. Few people in France or abroad are prepared to say so but I pronounce the yellow jacket movement to be dead. Or at least brain-dead.

The unconventional, anti-elite mass movement which sprang up last October in peripheral or ‘drive through’ France has ceased to exist in its original form. It no longer represents a danger to the French establishment. It no longer has the support of the provincial masses.

The weekly demonstrations persist, or dribble on, reaching Act XXX, or a 30th consecutive Saturday of protest, last weekend. Nationwide turn-out has fallen to 10,000 or less, according to government figures, compared to the 280,000 people who took part in Act I, the first “weekend putsch” on 17 November.

Seven months after it began, the movement is maintained on life support by a hard core of provincial obsessives and ideological mercenaries from the urban Left, some peaceful, others extremely violent.

What remains of the rebellion is still locally disruptive, such as last weekend in Montpellier where 200 to 300 yellow vests and their anti-fa and anarcho-Left Black Bloc allies fought with police. Tempers were stoked up by a false rumour, spread by word of mouth and by social media, that two protesters, including an elderly woman, had been killed by police plastic bullets.

It is clear, however, that the original, broad-based, ill-defined, leaderless, small town and outer suburban gilets jaunes movement has collapsed – partly because it insisted on being leaderless and ill-defined.

The root causes of the rebellion remain. The fracture between a thriving, metropolitan France and a left-behind suburban and rural France persists. A widespread sense of dislocation from, or disgust with, political-as-usual endures. President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity percentage has recovered slightly but not beyond 40% (by the most generous estimate).

Arguably, the yellow vest movement has been a success: President Macron has made substantial concessions, including €17bn in tax cuts for the less well off, higher pensions and abandoned carbon taxes on petrol and diesel.

But this wasn’t enough. The gilets jaunes saw themselves as a revolution, not a social protest. They believed that they could bring down representative democracy, not just petrol-pump prices. In truth they never had the numbers to overturn Macron, let alone the French state.

“For me, it’s over. We tried but we failed,” said JosĂ©, a gilets jaunes activist in Normandy whom I first interviewed in November. “Our idea was to do things differently, to be non-political, non-ideological and let people control their own lives and their own taxes, with as much grass-roots decision making as possible. But politics and personalities got in the way.”

I should add that, according to other local yellow vests, JosĂ© was one of the personalities who “got in the way”.

The profile of those taking part began to change three months ago, as I reported in UnHerd. The early protesters were a mixture of Right, Left and apolitical, working and lower-middle class, small businessmen and workers, young, middle-aged and the old, the rational and the conspiracy-obsessed. From March, the demographics of the Saturday protests became younger, more metropolitan and more overtly left-wing.

There are other signs of the implosion of the gilets jaunes. In November and December four out of ten cars in provincial France displayed the fluorescent hi-vis waist-coasts that symbolise the movement. In recent journeys across Normandy and Brittany I counted one in 100 yellow-badged cars, at most.

In the European elections last month, two gilets jaunes lists of candidates attracted 0.5% and 0.05% of the vote. Many of their number opposed the lists as a “sell out” to electoral politics. Nonetheless, the voting figures mocked gilets jaunes claims to represent “the people”.

Other parties which supported them – Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon’s hard-Left La France Insoumise and various small anti-EU parties – received an electoral drubbing. Even Marine Le Pen’s 23.3%, just ahead of Macron’s party list on 22.4%, was a relatively poor performance after seven months of anti-government protests.

All the same, the election results provided a telling scan of the fracture between metropolitan and non-metropolitan France. In Paris and the 20 or so other thriving French cities, Macron’s “Renaissance” list topped the poll, whereas in middling and small towns, the far right scored around 26% and Macron’s list polled 21%.

Christophe Boutin, a politics professor at Caen University who has studied the movement, says that support has been eroded by Macron’s concessions; by violence on both sides; by the drift towards leftism; by boredom; by family pressure; and by shortage of money to attend protests.

Fundamentally, though, he says, the movement has been unable to provide a convincing explanation of how it could achieve its goals: the resignation of Macron; the clearing out of all career politicians; the creation of a system of direct democracy by decision-making on the internet.

Overwhelming electoral support or great violence would have been needed to achieve such aims. The movement commanded neither but never faced up to this fact.

Many of the original peaceful gilets jaunes were driven out of the movement by the rise of low-level terrorism. There was a point last December when the gilets jaunes movement seemed to be teetering towards insurrection, even civil war. The violent protests in Paris on 1 December and 8 December were led mostly by an extremist fringe of provincial gilets jaunes. The piggy-back activities of the black bloc guerrillas came later.

There was also much yellow vest violence away from the Saturday protests – attacks on politicians’ homes and political headquarters, attacks on newspaper kiosks, the burning of a restaurant, arson at motorway toll booths, and the smashing of thousands of radar speed traps (leading to a sharp increase in road deaths early this year).

Some, no doubt, were discouraged from attending the Saturday protests by the fear of “police violence”. But I was in the middle of the crowds in Paris on three of the worst days of violence and on each occasion the violence was started by the protesters. If anything, on those days, the police were too passive and lost control.

There have been cases of police over-reaction and brutality. According to government figures, 2,448 protesters and 1,797 police have been injured since the rebellion began. More than a score of demonstrators have lost eyes or hands.

But to speak of systematic repression, after 30 weeks of protest, is absurd. In my experience, no peaceful yellow vest march or demo has ever been suppressed.

Foreign commentators like to project their own obsessions onto the gilets jaunes. Some see them as a nationalist-populist rebellion against a liberal elite, comparable to the Brexit movement in the UK or the Maga and pro-Trump movement in the United States.

American Trump supporters and British Brexit supporters would have been startled to see large groups of Yellow Vests, even in the early days, marching along chanting the hard-left anthem “anti, anti-capitalisme. Ah, ooh.”

People on the Left in other countries, including Britain, like to see the gilets jaunes as a popular left-wing protest against the heartless liberalism of Macron. The movement always had its left-wing tendencies and has now become overtly leftist in approach. But non-French leftists would have found, especially in the early days, many gilets jaunes who were virulently anti-Left, anti-semitic, racist or misogynist.

Here is the great difference with Britain or the United States. The gilets jaunes surfed on many similar sources of anger but they had no Trump or Farage to focus attention on core issues, like migration or Brexit.

Their most important mistakes – a refusal to accept leaders and spell out clear and answerable demands – are central to the ethos of the movement. Arguably, the yellow vests were defeated by themselves, not by Macron and certainly not by alleged police or state violence as some sympathisers, allege.

What now?

The movement will stutter on for a while. Some speak of a summer truce – this is France after all – and a new revolution in the autumn. Some speak darkly of a lurch towards “direct action” or violence. Other gilets jaunes spokespeople are focused on the local and municipal elections next year as a platform – finally – to allow the movement to enter and influence mainstream politics.

Something like the gilets jaunes may eventually be resurrected. They will probably take a different, less threatening, more traditional and possibly more effective form. Any attempt to impose realistic goals or choose leaders will inevitably be portrayed by the historic wing of the yellow jackets a “betrayal”.

The original ill-defined and undefinable, anti-ideological, anti-political citizens’ movement is not yet buried. But it is certifiably defunct.


To read more of John Lichfield’s reporting on the gilets jaunes, click here

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.


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