Yellow Vests, Act V

"Gilets Jaunes," Ciat Conlin, 2018

An account of Saturday's demonstrations in Paris

(Image courtesy of Ciat Conlin, 2018)

On the Champs-Élysées at 9 am Saturday morning, I wandered in the precarious silence as the crowd of yellow vests slowly gathered. I was immediately struck by the variety of ideologies represented: anarchist and communist symbols, naked, silver-painted women from the French-Ukrainian feminist group Femen, protest signs that ranged from calls for a sixth republic and a new constitution to banks and the Illuminati, as well as an array of ethnic and regional flags-- Berber, Catalan, Breton, Wallonian.
By 10:30, a large crowd had gathered, at which point we were encircled by the police, and not allowed to leave. But the real action had not yet began. I spoke with several people, each with very different reasons for being there. Three men who had come from Normandy described the strain of fuel taxes on their income, since they often had to drive long distances. A man in a black hat said he was an anarchist-- but, he clarified, a “literary anarchist,” and not the kind “that burns things in the street.” He explained that he has nationalist friends who have come with him to the demonstrations, and that he believes that nationalism is the only real alternative to neoliberalism in France--and that if that’s true, he’ll take it.
By 11.30, we had to start running. The police had been attempting to isolate and encircle the protesters, but eventually people had broken past them. The police hit back at those breaking through with batons and started firing tear gas canisters. We ran down towards Iéna, near the river; I felt the sting of tear gas in my eyes, though I had avoided being directly exposed to it. All the while, the crowd continued shouting, “Tous ensemble, tous ensemble!” or “Macron démission!” and, at calmer moments, singing the Marseillaise. Sometimes a passerby in a car or motorcycle would honk or shout words of approval and the crowd would shout and wave back. The walls of buildings were covered in word and images mocking Macron, demanding his resignation or, occasionally, his execution-- graffiti left over from the unrest of the preceding Saturdays.
In many ways the protest was oddly contained. Since the 17th of November, the demonstrations have taken place each Saturday without fail. On previous Saturdays there was serious rioting, with stores looted and buildings burned, and serious casualties, including several deaths [1]. Yet on the other days of the week, life in Paris remained relatively normal. Even during the demonstration, there were strange reserves of normalcy. An outdoor market on Avenue du Président Wilson remained open during the protest--and people bought fish,vegetables, and whole rabbits while police and protesters clashed mere meters outside the stands. The market seemed a temporarily neutral place where police, gilets jaunes, and shoppers coexisted without bothering each other.
Though the demonstrations began in November with grievances over an increase in fuel taxes [2], they have since expanded to encompass a much larger set of demands of Macron’s government--from an increase in the minimum wage to smaller class sizes in schools [3]. In the week leading up to this Saturday Macron had surprisingly made a few concessions --among them an increase in the minimum wage and tax cuts for pensioners [4]. While in weeks past entire buildings had burned, this Saturday was calm by comparison [5].
I saw little violence on Saturday that did not come from the police. Around 3:30, a pile of wood and cardboard was set ablaze in the middle of Rue de la Boétie. At first the fire was small and tame, and as people gathered to warm their hands over it, it seemed less threatening than cosy on a cold December day. Masked people danced around the fire to classic rock and punk music. Someone poured lighter fluid on the fire and it grew, exhaling a cloud of black smoke. At this point, the police came, again with tear gas, as well as CRS units with fierce-looking dogs. We ran down the street and stood slightly out of the way by the entrance of a store-- closed, like most others in the area, in anticipation of the demonstration. We watched the confrontation and, with our scarves and marks, tried to breathe in as little gas as possible. The scent of tear gas mixed with smoke is one I’ll always remember. After a while a fire truck came to put out the fire and the scene calmed down.
On the Champs-Élysées, I spoke to a casseur, “breaker,”-- one of the violent protesters who have been the focus of much of the media coverage. He actually walked up to us and volunteered that he was “one of the casseurs.” He, unsurprisingly, seemed a little aggressive, but he was willing to speak and asserted the necessity of violence-- violence is what keeps a mass demonstration going, it’s the energy of it, and without it the demonstration is ineffective because there’s no real threat. An American participating in the protests told me there were two different kinds of casseurs-- les vrai casseurs, the real ones whose eyes were wild with the adrenaline of political violence, and the police infiltrators whose expressions were bureaucratically cold. He said that they sometimes went around trying to start fights with protesters, an opinion shared by a number of others. Though I cannot confirm this, what I saw made me sympathetic to this view.
By this point in the afternoon, a massive crowd had formed on the Champs-Elysées, yet it was relatively calm. A communist organization called Proletarian Revolution held up a banner for their cause. A woman holding it told me she was there for the revolution, and for the working class. Many people compared the gilets jaunes movement to May 1968. And as confusing as much of it remains, the clearest thing about this movement is that it is truly popular. Recently 68% of French people expressed support for the movement, while Macron’s approval rating continues to decline [6]. Ordinary people were here in a mass demonstration--the only kind that can really make a difference. The economic impact has put pressure on the government; it is clear from Macron’s recent concessions that the state feels threatened. [7]. Where the movement will go I do not know, and it's clear that leftists involved in the movement have to take a stronger stand against fascists and other reactionaries whose nationalism (support only for French workers) prevents them from seeing immigrant workers as part of the movement.

1. “« Gilets jaunes » : une troisième journée de mobilisation marquée par des violences,” Le Monde, 2 December 2018,
https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/live/2018/12/01/gilets-jaunes-suivez-en-d...
2. Elisabeth Zerofsky, “The Complicated Politics of the Gilets Jaunes Movement,” The New Yorker, 12 December 2018,
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-complicated-politics-of-the...
3. “VERBATIM. Voici toutes les revendications des Gilets jaunes,” Le Journal du Dimanche, 28 November 2018,
https://www.lejdd.fr/Politique/verbatim-voici-toutes-les-revendications-...
4. Leigh Thomas, “Macron’s concessions set to blow out French deficit,” Reuters, 11 December 2018,
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-protests/macrons-concessions-s...
5. Peter Conradi, “Gilet jaunes protestors return to Paris in smaller numbers,” The Times, 15 December 2018,
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gilets-jaunes-protesters-return-to-pa...
6. “Sondage Opinion Way - LCI : le soutien aux Gilets jaunes ne faiblit pas,” LCI, 07 December 2018 https://www.lci.fr/social/sondage-lci-le-soutien-au-gilets-jaunes-toujou...
7. “French business counts the cost of ‘gilet jaunes’ protests,” The Financial Times, 10 December 2018,
https://www.ft.com/content/62e2f894-fc8c-11e8-aebf-99e208d3e521

Posted By

Lydia Hirsch
Apr 7 2019 21:06

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  • "Where the movement will go I do not know, but running with them, shouting, chanting, and singing, it was impossible not to feel a sense of solidarity and hope. It seemed the easiest and simplest thing to understand was that what was happening was a revolutionary moment."

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Comments

Noah Fence
Dec 19 2018 10:09

Thanks for this, a good read.
I may comment later.

Nymphalis Antiopa
Dec 20 2018 10:11

So a 'literary anarchist' believes that

Quote:
nationalism is the only real alternative to neoliberalism in France--and that if that’s true, he’ll take it.

A nationalist 'anarchist' - impervious to significant right-wing elements amongst the 'yellow vests' who hate immigrants and adore 'their' nation. If I was on such a demonstration I might be taken for one of those

Quote:
police infiltrators...who..sometimes went around trying to start fights with protesters

if such a protester came out with such very dangerous anti-libertarian crap like that. Very easy to call someone with passion against all forms of hierarchical authority like the nation a "police infiltrator", because it suits such vile people to categorise people like that. An idiot such as this 'literary anarchist' willfully hides any historical memory of the terror that 'nationalism' in France, or elsewhere, can lead to. It might have

Quote:
seemed the easiest and simplest thing to understand was that what was happening was a revolutionary moment

if one remembers that the Nazis also considered their movement 'revolutionary'. But a genuine desirable revolution is never

Quote:
the easiest and simplest thing to understand

Lydia Hirsch
Feb 7 2019 19:45

Hi, thank you for your comment. I'm not in agreement with this "literary anarchist," but he was a real person I spoke to, and that was what he said. I believe I presented him critically. We have to be clear and unambiguous in our opposition to nationalism and racism, and what this man said was troubling to me-- nationalists and anarchists might both dislike a centrist like Macron, but for completely different reasons and with completely different ideas of an alternative.

Quote:
Very easy to call someone with passion against all forms of hierarchical authority like the nation a "police infiltrator", because it suits such vile people to categorise people like that.

There were a lot of real anarchists there-- not "literary anarchists." There were also police infiltrators pretending to be anarchists and it was pretty easy to tell them apart.

Nymphalis Antiopa
Dec 20 2018 17:17

I agree that the 'gilets jaunes' movement is very confused, confusing and contradictory, with some radical aspects as well as reactionary aspects. But I certainly do NOT agree that "it's the job of the left to take control of the movement" unless you mean to critique the left. Certainly throughout history the Left (of capital) have taken over movements in order to channel them into their political ambitions - whether that of State power, to increase recruits to their party or some other hierarchical form of control. Any genuinely libertarian involvement in such events with a desire to influence and be influenced cannot be seen as either a "job" nor a desire to control. A genuine involvement in such a new development as the "gilets jaunes" (whilst not denying aspects of it which are not new) would be to at least get very angry with those aspects of it which are flag-waving and nationalist, which the left (even the libertarian left) in France are generally not doing at all - they're largely trying to add their politics in parallel to the right without really clashing with them, minimising the threat of fascism with a mostly opportunist hope of subtly trying to entice people into their perspectives without explicitly confronting ideologies that are a danger to the working class. It all seems very Weimar to me, though with a more confusing tangle of ideologies and adherents to these ideologies than the Germany of the 1920s to early 30s.

Noah Fence
Dec 20 2018 18:10

I find a paradox here - to stand with fellow workers, well yes, of course. To stand with nationalists OR liberals(who are clearly a bigger obstacle to working class interests than any other ideological group), fuck no! It’s kind of tricky, right? I guess you have to look at whether they are there as workers, or there for their ideological agenda?
I find myself really uncertain about this shit.

Nymphalis Antiopa
Dec 22 2018 16:51

For an analysis of nationalism, and of French nationalism in particular, see this: https://libcom.org/library/nation-state-nationalism-oiseau-temp-te-andr-... (however, this is not the best of translations)

Spikymike
May 10 2019 12:14

Happened on this short reflective text written in the early stages of the French Yellow Vests movement, and by a presumably uninvolved academic, but with some interesting historical comparisons that relate to the supposed 'contradictory' elements in the movements demands with reference to the category of a 'moral economy':
https://ediciones-ineditas.com/2018/12/11/moral-economy-power-and-the-ye...
may be relevant also to other so-called 'populist' movements?

baboon
May 14 2019 14:42

Given its fundamental interclassist nature the gilets jaunes movement was never going to be a vehicle for workers' action despite the legitimate anger of the latter.

Along with the ICC, I think that the coup de grace to this movement came with Act XVI when the French state manipulated the movement or, more particularly its black bloc "casseurs", into doing its bidding. The slogan of the leadership of the gilets jaunes was "March on the Elysee". Thus on March 16 "the most beautiful avenue in the world" became the battleground, a battleground chosen and prepared for by the Macron government. The Interior Ministry, with its overwhelming force and its armour could have easily protected this area from attack but it didn't. It invited the "casseurs" in, funnelled them into a section and allowed them to attack. The owners of the wealthy premises had been promised full remuneration from the French state for any damage caused. The resulting media spectacle played right into the hands of the state and Macron laid it on thick: "No-one can tolerate the Republic being attacked under the right of demonstrating". The "Republic in danger" idea generated by the ruling class was laughable given the pin-pricks that a few dozen casseurs represented but they were very useful to the French state in discrediting the movement and strengthening its own repressive apparatus and the state generally around the idea of the "defence against chaos". As useful adjuncts to the state the black bloc anarchists had already shown their worth in the Ukrainian "revolution".

A couple of weeks later the unions felt strong enough to call a number of demonstrations to "converge" with the gilets jaunes movement. A weak working class was dragged out into at least 5 separate union demonstrations in Paris along with various pointless parades. A further carve-up and attack on proletarian identity on top of the inter-classist mixture of the gilets jaunes.

Nymphalis Antiopa
May 15 2019 16:37

Could Baboon please tell us what social movements over the last 25 years have NOT had some element of interclassism? It's one of the expressions of the horrific nature of this epoch.

In fact, if anything the gilets jaunes, for all their obvious contradictions and general avoidance of attacking these contradictions, have far less bosses involved now than back in November; and their attitude towards the cops has generally become a great deal more antagonistic than at the beginning of this movement. But of course, the perfectionists of the ICC and Baboon, one of its fellow travellers, have no notion of the advance and retreat of movements, have no notion of possible progress, because they never need to make progress. They were born with a perfect class consciousness and so have no need to make mistakes.

Such dogma ensures that they can in no way contribute to any useful practical understanding of the contradictions that need to be confronted and overcome.