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The Gilets Jaunes achieved nothing Their revolution became an absurdity

A waste of revolutionary potential. Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

A waste of revolutionary potential. Kiran Ridley/Getty Images


November 17, 2023   6 mins

Five years ago today, Paris was liberated. Or, if you were a Parisian, the streets of the capital were blocked by tens of thousands of ploucs (yokels) in high-vis jackets. Right from the start, the Gilets Jaunes rebellion defied the usual rules for French political theatre of the streets. Half a million people, young and old, male and female, working-class and middle-class, mostly provincial and mostly white, and many previously politically inactive, captured towns and roundabouts all over France.

Wearing the yellow vests was a stroke of political genius. The protesters were saying, in effect: “We have been forgotten or ignored by the insolent, thriving France of the big cities. From now on, we will be highly visible.” The bib — which French motorists have to carry by law in their cars — gave the protesters a uniform and a sense of camaraderie. Like almost everything about the Gilets Jaunes, that proved to be misleading.

The protesters quarrelled from the beginning. France would be a better place, they said, if there were no politicians. The people would govern directly through perpetual referenda. Anyone who emerged as a Gilets Jaunes leader was suspected of wanting to be a “politician” and insulted and rejected. They tried to invent a kind of non-ideological anarchism but could never agree what that meant.

Protest became insurrection. At the movement’s peak, in late 2018 and early 2019, the Gilets Jaunes briefly threatened the institutions of the French state. The ElysĂ©e Palace was besieged. The Arc de Triomphe was vandalised. A ministry was attacked by a mechanical digger. There was also a rash of attacks on town halls, politicians’ houses and motorway toll stations.

The state responded to their violence — mostly initiated, in my experience, by the militant wing — with violence. Five demonstrators lost hands and 24 lost eyes to police plastic bullets or stun grenades. Some of the victims were peaceful protesters.

This disappointed many of the original Gilets Jaunes supporters. All the same, the movement continued. There were more than 70 actes — or weekend putsches — of decreasing size before the Covid pandemic brought them to an end. At that point, few of the original Gilets Jaunes remained.

It had begun as a provincial rejection of Paris, politicians, parties, trades unions, the media and all ideologies of the Left, Right or centre. It was simultaneously Poujadiste, demanding less state and less taxes, and state-interventionist, demanding more services and subsidies for the peripheral France of the countryside and outer-suburbs. By the end, however, it was largely urban and Leftist.

Their profile changed bodily, not just demographically. A typical Gilets Jaunes march in the early days was full of wide-bodied provincials — left-behinds with big behinds. By the end, they were mostly slender, metropolitans in their twenties, thirties and forties. Their slogans were not just anti-Macron but anti-capitalist. A typical banner at one of the last Paris marches read: “Capitalism is organised crime.”

The French media was oddly reluctant to recognise this gradual capture of the movement. It was quicker to seize on the fact that some of the original “personalities” (never say leaders) were connected to the far-Right. They were dismissed as racists. They were portrayed by commentators on the Left as a working-class revolt against globalism, which was brutally suppressed by “Macron’s militias”. They were dismissed by the pro-European, liberal centre as Putin’s poodles, manipulated by lies online. All those portraits are misleading; all contain an element of truth.

In the beginning, it was about pump prices. But that fury set ablaze other provincial grievances: the erosion of public services; low wages; the high cost of living; a new tax on some pensions; Macron’s decision to partially abolish a tax on wealth. On top of this came a decision to reduce the speed limit and country people believe that speeding fines are a crafty way of taxing the ploucs or pĂ©quenauds — yokels or rednecks — to subsidise the cities.

One of the central beliefs of the Jaune “philosophy” could be summed up as follows: “All politicians are corrupt and they steal our money. We finance the success of the Bobo (Bourgois Bohemenian) elites in the big cities. They do nothing for us.” But in a recent book, the economist Laurent Davezies dismantled that founding Gilets Jaunes mantra. In fact, he calculated, French cities hugely subsidise the countryside and small towns. The greater Paris area, the Ile-de-France, creates 31% of the nation’s wealth but pays itself only 22% of national income. The rest goes in state transfers to rural or provincial France. In the poorest rural communes, state spending is 36% higher than the national average.

All the same, it is undeniable that life, jobs, and local sources of pride and wealth have drained from large tracts of provincial France in recent decades — as they have from similar parts of Britain and the United States. Simultaneously, middle- and lower-income people have been squeezed out of the booming cities into unlovely, distant suburbs. They rely on cars to commute to work as outer suburban public services are often, by French standards, poor. These were the twin breeding grounds of the Gilets Jaunes: the small towns outside the glow of France’s booming Metro areas; or the featureless outer ring of conurbations (Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Montpellier) or large towns (Rouen, Caen, Rennes and Nantes).

JosĂ©-Edouard, a 61-year-old retired building contractor, spoke to me beside a roundabout in rural Calvados on the second weekend of protests on 24 November 2018. “We’ve been betrayed by every president and prime minister for 40 years. Everything has been for big finance, for the banks, for the wealthy and nothing for the people in the middle or at the bottom,” he said. “Every local source of wealth in provincial France, every local economy (bassin d’emploi) has been drained. People can no longer live on what they earn
 They are crushed.”

As the movement bounced from anger at petrol prices to attempted revolution, allegations ranged from the reasonable to the lurid and absurd: France was being sold to the UN; taxes were almost all wasted on the gilded lifestyles of politicians (in reality, less than 0.1% goes to them); Brigitte Macron had a de facto state salary of €500,000 a year (in reality, zero). My local roundabout became microcosm of the fragmented, yellow-clad anti-politics nationwide.

JosĂ©-Edouard soon broke away with a group of followers. Those who remained — including a home-carer, a warehouse worker, an unemployed father of two — made unflattering remarks about him. He wanted to impose his own political line; he had decamped with their €500 cagnotte (kitty) collected from motorists.

Yet they remained as determined as ever. The movement was not just a protest, they said. It was an uprising. All governments would be controlled in future by popular votes online or RĂ©fĂ©renda d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). There would be higher pensions, lower taxes, better services and better welfare payments. All would be financed from the billions saved when the salaries and expenses of politicians were abolished. In a few weeks, however, they had reduced their roundabout picket to Saturdays only. In a few more weeks, they were all gone.

There was a triple paradox at the heart of the original Gilets Jaunes movement. The first was that, while it started and spread rapidly online, it also rescued people from the rural-suburban isolation of their homes. It became a social club as well a social movement. The second is that, although the absence of leaders attracted broad early support, the lack of direction allowed the movement to be hijacked by organised forces, initially from the far-Right, finally by the Left. There were street battles in Lyon, Paris and elsewhere in the New Year between hard-Right and hard-Left urban guerrillas, both groups wearing yellow vests. The Left, partly in the nebulous shape of the Black Bloc movement, eventually won.

Then there was the fact that the movement, despite its grandiose threats, never had enough support or any remotely workable plan to bring down the French state. President Macron, after a shaky early response, responded skilfully. His Great National Debate allowed people to express and relieve some of their anger. And €10 billion in tax cuts for low and middle incomes and a boost to the minimum wage blunted the edge of fury in Middle France.

Apart from this, the Gilets Jaunes achieved little. They ruined their case by overstating it. They said that leaders were not necessary, but they proved that they were. They were determined to bring down Macron, but he was re-elected last year. While Macron has adopted their demand for more direct democracy and wants to simplify the rules for popular referenda in France, his plan will not look anything like the laptop governments proposed, but never defined, by the Gilets Jaunes.

All the same, the movement revealed a profound animosity towards the ruling elite which cannot be easily dismissed and remains unappeased. The origins of that animosity — even hatred — are rooted in a crisis of distrust, disinformation and dislocation that confronts all 21st-century representative democracies. In France, mainstream parties, the media, the church and the trades unions have lost respect.

The Gilets Jaunes detested Macron because, they said, he had claimed to be a different kind of politician, but he was the same as his predecessors. In a sense, they were Brexiteers without Boris, or Trumpers without Trump. If they had found and accepted a charismatic leader, they might have gone further.

Will they rise again? I doubt it. A small number of die-hard, rural Yellow Vests remain, but they are marginalised and discredited. Some time ago, I tracked down JosĂ©-Edouard again (although it turned out that he had given me a false name). He lives in a rather grand converted water mill. He denied he had run away with the “kitty”. He said he left because the others were making racist remarks and that he donated the money to the benevolent fund for fire-fighters. “JosĂ©-Edouard” still blamed banks, globalism, the European Union and corrupt politicians for the ills of provincial France. Like so many of his former comrades, he has stopped believing that he can do anything about it.


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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Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago

Am I alone in sensing a certain “de haut en bas” self-satisfaction in the tone of this article ? “We’ve seen off this bunch of losers and I reckon they won’t be coming back … good riddance”.
They were a protest movement for a very large group of people who’d been ignored and exploited for a long time. I don’t ever remembering them putting themselves forward as a coherent political party. They did what they could. And perhaps Covid conveniently broke the narrative before they could do more.
But that’s OK. Let’s just go on ignoring them. No need to think about solutions that might help them, is there ? I’m sure France will continue doing just fine without them …
“The Gilets Jaunes detested Macron because, they said, he had claimed to be a different kind of politician, but he was the same as his predecessors.”
Written as if there were any doubt about it ! And exactly my beef with Blair and his ilk.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

No Peter, you are no alone. Mr Litchfield article just confirms what General de Gaulle used to say at the end of his life : « la vieillesse est un naufrage Â» and I am sure Charles will only confirm this.
The yellow jacket movement was started after the fuel prices were raised 
.just a notch, supposedly to finance the ecological transition, which they, like us city slickers, knew was a lie. That broke the camel’s back. I can remember Edouard Philippe the then PM, on the Sunday evening news claiming « there is no alternative Â» Angela Merkel favourite punt, es gibt keine Alternativ !! Not being a Macron fan, fairness forces me to admit that he never was party to this lunacy but had to pick up the remains of this mess. Edouard Philippe sees himself as the next in line for presidency

..not my president for sure !!!
I regularly go to Corrùze, things in the country are pretty much the same, even if not worse since interest rates were increased. 40 % of loan applications are refused by the banks the “ reste à vivre” or what remains after fixed costs, is not enough. What I see when I drive down there, are hard working people trying to make ends meet

.not “ploucs” as Mr Lictchfield relishes to call them.
You ought to be ashamed and crawl back under the stone you came from Mr Litchfield and since you are living in the Normandy countryside, I am amazed that you didn’t get a truckload of manure on your front door porch

your “ ploucs “ neighbours never heard of UnHerd probably.
i just found this on you tube, quite by luck. I don’t see Ploucs expressing themselves et even if you don’t speak French, pictures speak volume.
https://youtu.be/fqBhOXqJnxU?si=ZAUyccOFdTsy81wK

Last edited 7 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

That would be Blighty I’m ashamed to admit. Typical expat (but he does parler français au moins).

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

[comment removed – superfluous]

Last edited 7 months ago by Peter B
Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Upset me ??’ the very contrary, I am in total agreement. I suggest you pause and read again what I said which was directly meant for Mr Lichfield


I come from a very posh and dismissive family when it comes to “ploucs” 

they would probably worship Trump who embodies “ ploutocratie “ 

..thing is
..this “ plouc” has tons of money which makes him acceptable and “un ploucs” him.
One of Macron advisers Benjamin Grivaux coined it by saying about the yellow jackets “ they smoke fags and drive diesel”

..life being the b***h it is, the very Grivaux was later caught filming himself masturbating for the benefit of a mistress. Not sure the word leak fits for this one 

.but it did leak
..on social media and Mr Grivaux political career went up in smoke

..and we all cruelly had a big laugh.
So

when I hear a snob mocking “ ploucs” I immediately become suspicious of his spare time activities.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Just had to bury my Chief of Staff
..so yes.

Klive Roland
Klive Roland
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

But “ploucs” there are, as chronicled by Édouard Louis in his excellent book ‘The End of Eddy’. Attitudes in some parts of rural France are a million miles from those in the cities: unemployed men who won’t let their wives work as they can’t suffer the thought of the woman being the bread-winner; teenage girls who are written off as strumpets if they’ve had more than two boyfriends; boys who don’t conform to traditional ideas of masculinity being beaten up every day at school…

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Klive Roland

Klive, the vast majority of yellow jackets were working people just blowing their tops off under the symbolic and useless raise of petrol prices. Things had been simmering for a while. Eddy, as interesting as his book might be, is a totally different thing.
So
..to have Litchfield call these people ploucs is really insulting.
No doubts that things went totally out of control, gazillions of euros of destruction. Is this inexcusable ? Yes it is. Did they achieve anything ? again, no and the population after having supported them, got very tired of this, longing for a peaceful Xmas. But Lictchfield dismisses their case in an unacceptable insulting manner. Did the miners achieve anything in the UK back then in 
..1982 ? no. Did they have a cause ? Yes, they did and I would never label these guys 

.as Ploucs. The man needs a rest and a long one. Anne Marie Moutet is far more qualified to write about French matters.

Klive Roland
Klive Roland
7 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

In fairness to the author, the use of the word ‘plouc’ was intended to signal how Parisians regarded the Gilets jaunes at the time. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse him of calling them ploucs.
Nevertheless, I agree that there is a slightly dismissive tone to the article, not helped by the headline (which, if I understand correctly, the author does not write).
To understand who the Gilets jaunes are you could do worse than to look at Christophe Guilluy’s book ‘La France PĂ©riphĂ©rique’ which dwells on the winners and losers of globalisation and the resentment of elites which has built up in rural France.
With this in mind I think Lichfield is right when he casts the Gilets jaunes as “Brexiteers without Boris or Trumpers without Trump”. The phenomenon is happening seemingly everywhere….there was an interesting piece in The Guardian (yes really!) this week about the Dutch farmers…so many obvious parallels with the Gilets Jaunes.

Last edited 7 months ago by Klive Roland
Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
7 months ago
Reply to  Klive Roland

Christophe Guilly I agree will give a far better understanding of where the yellow jackets were coming from from and why. The fact is that he had been alerting for a while without being listened to. Eddy’s book on the other hand, is a personal account of a young man having to deal with his homosexuality in a family and extended circle that would not tolerate it. That would sum up the yellow jackets as a bunch of homophobic red necks as group.

james elliott
james elliott
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

There is an air of ‘let them eat cake, as long as its halal, and they can still afford it under hyper-inflation’, yes.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

It’s the same group that all governing western party’s are ignoring as fast as they can. Those who depend on commodity production. It’s a convenient wedge issue to get elected, after all urban elites can get all their commodities from free trade cheaper than buying from local yokels. They say nothing about how co2 intense their habits of imports from across the globe.

Saul D
Saul D
7 months ago

It’s no so simple. At one level the initial Gilets Jaunes focus was on the price of diesel, particularly in the countryside. The French government changed course or at least gave some concessions. It also pulled Macron back from being a Europe-first president to being a French first president and pushing more strongly for nuclear power.
The same type of pushback against green regulations took place with the Truckers protests in Canada and is also happening with the Farmers Party in the Netherlands. Heat pump protests hit Germany. And the fear of the public reaction to fuel price increases led both France and Spain to subsidize fuel prices at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While there is general support for climate change policies, it can’t come at the cost of impoverishing parts of the community. We’re told energy should be getting cheaper because of renewables, and yet it isn’t.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago

Good God, what an insufferable snob.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Thank you for that excellent synopsis of La Belle France.
Perhaps next time, and there WILL be a ‘next time’.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
7 months ago

Obviously the gilets jaunes are like the other populist movements across the western world.
Here in the US we’ve had Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan’s Reagan Democrats, the Tea Party, the Trump MAGAs and Car Parades.
And nothing has changed. Except that the urban educated class has decided that the ordinary middle class are really white oppressors and The Enemy of all good people.
Don’t miss the next exciting episode of The Revolt of the Commoners.

Last edited 7 months ago by Christopher Chantrill
Paul Hemphill
Paul Hemphill
7 months ago

The article is quite condescending but paints what is probably a realistic picture. In Australia, extreme right wing and mostly white male politicians and “identities” endeavoured to get an Aussie equivalent up to capitalise on a widespread culture of grievance amongst folk in rural and regional areas and urban fringes who felt ignored, excluded and unlisted to by the “elites, the insiders, affluent and educated townies, and the powers that be. They managed to rustle up the odd protest and blockade, with the yellow vests we call “high vis” (much favoured by workmen and politicians seeking photo opportunities), but nothing every really came of it. We don’t do revolution and rebellion like Frenchies can, particularly if these get in the way of long weekends, public holidays and major sporting events. Our wannabe ‘jacquerie’ morphed into antivaxxers, conspiritualists, “sovereign citizens” and sundry others during the Covid lockdowns, earning the subriquet “cookers” or RWNJs (right wing nut jobs), whilst many broke cover during our recent referendum on an indigenous Voice to Parliament to add to climate of fear and loathing.