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The disillusionment driving the yellow vests
By: Dr. Nathalene Reynolds
There can be no doubt that the tenacity of the protesters, who started the yellow vest movement in November 2018, and who have so far achieved only meagre success in terms of direct outcomes, has astonished the French politicians.
Historians of the Left, anxious to portray the French Revolution of 1789 as a glorious phenomenon in which ordianry people led the nation to a new era, often refrained from a more critical review of that period.
A peasant revolt (or jacquerie) was the result of a crowd expressing their rejection of the established order before submitting to it again, givingup fatalistically on the hope of overthrowing it. The revolution, on the other hand, reflected the will of the propertied, in this case, the bourgeoisie, who already holding a few privileges, intended to increase them by overthrowing the old elite of the ancien régime, because the former’s economic situation allowed them to envisage a better future by so doing.
The French government, which judges the claims of the yellow vests to be utopian, expects, for its part, that they will sooner or later acknowledge the realities of the 21st century globalised market.It rejects their vision of the future on the grounds that it fails to take into account the course of national and international events.
This article, looks at the recent work of François-Bernard Huyghe and Damien Liccia, In the mind of the yellow vests, which provides useful insights into this movement.
The two researchers indicate that since November 2018, a forgotten question has emerged: that of a “just society” based on “the social contract.”. However, they seem to forget the hope that the En Marche movement of the soon-to-be-president Emmanuel Macron aroused on the eve of the elections of May 2017. The near-unanimous positivity across French media already seemed unfounded, and although some in the foreign press did draw attention to Macron’s fairly privileged social background and the time he had spent in banking, few in France seemed to pay attention.
Huyghe and Liccia recall that the people no longer have trust in “their representatives, their media”, in short the “techno-structure.” They no longer adhere to the “European promise”. They reject “the moralising oligarchy.” They oppose “democracy, in its etymological sense” (i.e. “command by the people”) to the “norms of the liberal rule of law.” The hike in the price of fuel, many felt, was only a symptom of a deep malaise. They worried about a lack of prerogatives they claimed on the basis of their citizenship and, finally, rebelled against the contempt they felt the elite was showing towards them.
During the second phase, the yellow vest movement addressed the issue of tax justice, and, finally, that of political representation. The debate has shifted, opposing “democracy of the people (in the sense of a capacity to fully achieve their will, without mediation)” and “liberal democracy, that of the rule of law guaranteeing the protection of the rules and freedoms.” Defenders of the latter were quick to resort to arguments portraying the people as a potential source of danger, who might behave unrealistically if granted the prerogatives contained in the Citizen Initiative Referendum they demanded. This is an instrument of direct democracy that would, were it to be adopted, allowcitizens who gather a number of signatures set by law to bring about a referendum.
In any case, the yellow vests have rediscovered “two traditional forms of social confrontation.” The first is the strategy of the slowdown; people “certainly very honourable in everyday life” decided to slow down the traffic, and to break traffic speed radars (to prevent the state from collecting revenue from speeding fines), thus taking over public space. “And some of them, amazed at being gassed or baton-charged, who consider themselves honest people, have also thrown a few punches… One defines oneself by one’s adversary… We thrive by staging confrontation.”
The authors do not refer here to rioters who represent, according to them, a marginal group. The state, meanwhile, continues to have the power to repress, reinforcing the lack of understanding that divides the masses, to use a Marxist concept, from the elite. In this way, the population has rediscovered the second traditional form of confrontation: it is no longer unaware that at each demonstration (or to use the terminology in vogue “act”), the yellow vests will be up against the forces of law and order.
The French government, which judges the claims of the yellow vests to be utopian, expects that sooner or later they will acknowledge the realities of the 21st century globalised market
Bernard Huyghe and Damien Liccia look into a phenomenon to which the European media may give too much importance: that of populism, “the political insult par excellence.” The latter, varying from case-to-case, blame yellow vests for: “the violence of their speeches (or indeed of their actions), their hatred of the elites, the claim to embody a genuine people without respecting their legal representatives, their disregard for norms, law or humanity when they contradict the political will of the people… or their naivety: demanding the immediate implementation of their selfish claims, without taking into account hard facts, not least economic ones.”
They conclude:”Condemned for its style, its hostility, its fantasies and its unrealism, populism is the ideal bogeyman…”.
The concept of populism has evolved over time. But a political class “in full ideological disarray” resorted to it, for lack of being able to respond to a population that expresses its “political refusal of the System, of ‘right-thinking’ and of political correctness […] at each election.”
“At every [yellow vest] demonstration, commentators highlight the lack of education of the masses, the insufficiency of explanation of the historical movement supposed to lead each one to conquer his autonomy and bring prosperity to all. So there is a problem of pedagogy – [the elite having perhaps robbed the masses of their sense of history].
Populism is said to comprise three typical characteristics: its supporters refuse to accept reality, they believe in conspiracy theories and false promises (thus leaving space to demagogy) and in “false hierarchies, [amounting to] a refusal to recognise the skills of experts, professionals and intellectuals.” They are “prey to selfish, narcissistic passions (fear of the foreigner, obsession with ethnic purity).” “Finally, they cultivate an attachment to outdated values”, refusing “modernity, progress, Europe, cultural openness, etc.” and would be “destined to end up in rubbish bins of history”.
Such a reading ignores an important dimension: “France from below” nurtures even more a feeling of hostility toward the political, economic and media elites which, in its opinion, are one and the same and which aim at perpetuating their position at the top of society’s institutions. It is convinced of the existence of a “cosmopolitan and oligarchic class” anxious to maintain its “financial power” and its “moral hegemony.”
Moreover, the movement of yellow vests reflects “a struggle of the periphery” (rural France and small towns) against the bobos [bourgeois bohême or Bohemian bourgeoisie, or very loosely translatable as ‘Champagne socialists’] of the city centres… of those who are less and less able to benefit from social mobility (especially through schooling)”). They “rebel against the opportunities enjoyed by the few” who jump from a foreign university into a new job and who dare to consider themselves tacitly as “superior minds.”
Edwy Plenel is the president and co-founder of Mediapart, an independent news and information website, which has shed light on many of the mysteries of high politics. In a recent, and appropriately titled, essay Victory of the Vanquished, Plenel attempts an analysis of the yellow vest movement that challenges the “established order”, “its immobility” and its certainties; the “yellow vests”, he writes, “opened the door of a history that had previously been padlocked.”
Criticising “the class morgue that has been unleashed against a people lowered to the rank of crowd”, he adds: “Why should the Fifth Republic [the republican system that has governed France since 1958], remain as it is when any honest observer would agree that it is slowly suffocating French democracy, diminishing parliament, undermining checks and balances, enslaving the state itself?”
Thus, the two years of the Macron presidency, according to the author’s analysis, reveal the decadence of an obsolete system, demonstrating the illusory commitments of the En Marche movement, with a new government that has adopted practices no better than those of the monarchic ancien régime. Plenel adds that “the violence to which the police forces resort is an echo of a great fear of the haves.” This violence is reminiscent of “the almost unanimous opprobrium” of which the Paris Commune (1871) was the object, even by novelists such as George Sand and Emile Zola. In the words of the latter, the “bloodbath which the people of Paris have just taken was perhaps a horrible necessity to calm some of their fevers.”

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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.