France’s neoliberal order trembles as the yellow vest revolt shatters established political conventions. The new terrain presents both dangers and opportunities.
As I write these words, a veritable earthquake is rippling through French politics and society. Four weeks into its most serious social unrest since the banlieue riots of 2005, large parts of the country continue to be shaken by a groundswell of popular protests, roadblocks and occupations. This past Saturday, the so-called gilets jaunes — a loosely structured movement of angry citizens named after the yellow high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to keep in their cars in case of distress — defied an unprecedented security crackdown to return to the streets of Paris and other French cities in their hundreds of thousands. The protests can only be described as a resounding repudiation of the widely-despised president, Emmanuel Macron, and his neoliberal assault on working-class living standards.
Confronted with a change of tactics by riot police, who now found themselves backed by dozens of armored vehicles and water cannon, the gilets jaunes did not manage to overwhelm security forces as they had during the previous two weekends, when some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of the capital were smashed up in scenes of generalized disorder not witnessed in central Paris since May ’68. Nevertheless, even the mobilization of 89,000 riot police and the arrest of over 1,700 protesters across the nation could not withhold the yellow vests from once again descending upon the main avenues leading up to the Champs Élysées for “Act IV” of their mass rebellion. A police spokesperson noted that, due to the more dispersed nature of the riots, the overall damage from property destruction was much greater and much more widespread than in previous weeks. A number of other French cities also witnessed violent clashes, including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon, Dijon, Nantes and Marseille.
What began four weeks ago as a nationwide response to a widely-disseminated Facebook call by two angry truck drivers to block local roads and highway toll stations in protest against a new “ecological” fuel tax introduced by Macron’s government has now spiraled out into a full-blown popular revolt against the banker president and the wealthy corporate elite he so openly represents. While the yellow vest movement — if it can even be properly defined as such — remains inchoate and contradictory in terms of its social composition and ideological orientation, there is little doubt that it has opened up a major fissure in French politics. The neoliberal center finds itself under siege, and the political establishment appears to be at a loss on how to respond. “We are in a state of insurrection,” Jeanne d’Hauteserre, Mayor of the 8th District of Paris, lamented last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Four weeks in, the uprising also continues to confound mainstream journalists and experts. “The gilets jauneshave blown up the old political categories,” one French media activist told ROAR on Saturday night, after a long day of riots in the capital. “They reject all political leaders, all political parties and any form of political mediation. No one really knows how to confront or deal with this movement — not the media, not the government, nor anyone else. What we are witnessing is unprecedented in French history.” While the outcome of these dramatic developments remains uncertain, it is clear that France is currently living through a rupture of historic proportions, taking the country onto uncharted terrain. For the left, the emerging scenario presents both exciting opportunities, but also a number of significant political risks. How are radical and autonomous social forces to insert themselves into this unfamiliar and uncertain situation without losing sight of the dangers that lie ahead?
A deepening sense of crisis
For now, only one thing is certain: the explosion of popular outrage and the implosion of the old political categories has left a gaping hole at the heart of French politics. The resultant sense of crisis and confusion is palpable. For several weeks now, all the major news channels have been airing non-stop footage of roadblocks and burning barricades, while the main newspapers have consistently splashed the gilets jaunes onto their front pages. During “Act III” of the uprising on Saturday, December 1, live TV images broadcast to millions of people from the Alps to the Atlantic revealed how police had effectively lost control over large parts of the capital. As tens of thousands of yellow vests stormed the Champs Élysées, other groups went off into the surrounding beaux quartiers, where they burnt luxury cars, built barricades, smashed bank windows, looted luxury stores and defiled public monuments.
Elsewhere in the country, hundreds of roads, roundabouts and toll stations as well as a number of supermarket distribution centers and eleven Total fuel refineries were blocked by yellow vest protesters, while the port of St Nazaire continues to be occupied as well. Fearing a complete loss of control, some government officials have begun to openly call for a state of emergency and the mobilization of the army to quell the popular revolt — or at least to assist over-stretched police forces in the capital. Authorities on Île de la Réunion, a French dependency in the Indian Ocean with a population of around 865,000, recently declared a curfew after protesters there overran local security forces and blocked access to the main port, the airport and the island prefecture.
This past Saturday, December 8, French authorities — determined to reassert control over the street — placed large parts of central Paris on lockdown, blocking roads, shutting metro stations and sending in armored vehicles and water cannon to reinforce police lines. In the morning, an eerie calm descended upon the French capital as thousands of stores and restaurants shuttered their doors and boarded up their window displays in anticipation of renewed violence. By the early afternoon, it became clear that the government’s unprecedented security operation had — unsurprisingly — failed to deter the gilets jaunes, who once again poured into the streets surrounding the Champs Élysées in large numbers, only appearing strengthened in their resolve to confront the cops and reinforced in their conviction that Macron must go.
Given the heavy-handed police repression, which left at least 120 protesters requiring immediate medical assistance, renewed clashes were all but inevitable. In an appropriate irony, the situation got especially heated around the Boulevard Haussmann, named after the reactionary urban planner under Napoleon III who designed Paris’s iconic broad avenues specifically to maintain social order and forestall further popular uprisings in the wake of the revolution of 1848. Police fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and copious amounts of teargas to keep the gilets jaunes from accessing the Place de l’Étoile where the Arc de Triomphe stands, but repeated attempts to disperse the protesters faltered as different decentralized groups simply kept reassembling on the main avenues. At night, small-scale skirmishes and isolated incidents of looting continued in the area surrounding the Place de la République.
In recent days, the political crisis has been aggravated by what appears to be a veritable convergence of social struggles. On December 1, ambulance drivers joined the fray, demonstrating in front of the presidential palace with screaming sirens. On Monday, December 3, French students radicalized their ongoing struggle by blocking access to over 200 high schools; the following Thursday an estimated 100,000 of them participated in a nationwide walkout against Macron’s changes to university admission procedures and a rise in administrative fees. Shocking footage of several dozen students being placed in stress positions by riot police for an extended period of time soon went viral and served to further inflame the tensions and anti-police sentiment among thegilets jaunes. Then, last Saturday, thousands of environmentalists at a pre-scheduled climate demonstration in Paris donned yellow vests in solidarity. Meanwhile, the main unions for French farmers, truck drivers and public transport workers have all announced their intention to go on strike.
Further compounding the government’s paralysis in the face of these developments is the widespread support the protesters have received from the public. Polls indicate that over two-thirds of respondents approve of thegilets jaunes, presenting a stark contrast to the abysmal 18 percent approval rate for Macron. Interestingly, despite the concerted campaign of disinformation waged by the government and establishment media, which have consistently sought to drive a wedge between the “real” gilets jaunes and an “extremist fringe” of left-wing and right-wing casseurs, or “hooligans”, the protesters themselves have so far largely refused to be divided along these lines, displaying a relatively high tolerance of targeted property destruction and physical confrontations with the police, providing more militant elements with significant room for maneuver. When several banks were smashed and a number of luxury cars went up in flames on Saturday, the crowd could be heard roaring in approval — and subsequently cheered on firefighters as they put out the flames.
An inchoate and contradictory movement
Given its inherent complexity, the international media have so far largely failed to make sense of the puzzling yellow vest phenomenon, with many reports lapsing into an uncritical regurgitation of the disdaining moralism proffered by the French bourgeoisie. One columnist for The Guardian even wrote that they had “never seen the kind of wanton destruction that surrounded me on some of the smartest streets of Paris on Saturday — such random, hysterical hatred, directed not just towards the riot police but at shrines to the French republic itself such as the Arc de Triomphe.” For good measure, the author added that “an extreme wing of the gilets jauneshas turned towards the nihilist detestation of democratic institutions and symbols of success and wealth.”
On Monday, the unreconstructed soixante-huitard class traitor Daniel Cohn-Bendit decided to chime in as well, condemning the gilets jaunes — true to style as a classical Bourbon reactionary — for their “extreme” and “frightening” violence, while saying nothing of the notorious brutality of the French riot police. Some of the most horrific injuries inflicted by the CRS and the BAC on Saturday included a young woman in Paris who lost an eyeball after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet, and a man in Nantes who lost a hand after he accidentally picked up a stun grenade thinking it was a teargas canister. The gilets jaunes, of course, have yet to deploy armored vehicles, fire any weapons or dismember a policeman. Their “violence”, as Pamela Anderson — of all people! — has so cogently argued, has been almost entirely symbolic.
For all his bourgeois hallucinations, however, it should be clear that Cohn-Bendit’s derision of the gilets jaunesis far from an isolated occurrence; indeed, it neatly reflects the intense contempt in which the French ruling class have historically held the uneducated jacques bonhommes, the insolent frondeurs, the ill-mannered sans-culottes — in short, all the uncultured peasants and lumpen who somehow mustered the conceit to insubordinate the divine authority of the king. The widespread use of the term casseurs is a testament to this, as is the statement by Interior Minister Christophe Castaner last week that “the movement has given birth to a monster.” It was a choice of words that would not have stood out among the litany of dehumanizing abuse the Versaillais once hurled at the communards, before proceeding to indiscriminately massacre over 20,000 working-class Parisians accused of having participated in the revolt of 1871. As the celebrated young French author Édouard Louis astutely put it, the gilets jaunes, just like their predecessors, “represent a sort of Rorschach test for a large part of the bourgeoisie, [forcing] them to express their class contempt and the violence that they usually only express in an indirect way.”
The reality of the matter is that it is not the movement itself, but the neoliberal restructuring of French society that has given birth to a monster — the monster of a resurgent nationalist far-right. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the gilet jaune phenomenon started out on the wrong foot, as an anti-tax protest initiated by a number of people with known anti-immigrant views and prior association with far-right groups. In the first weeks of the roadblocks, the media widely reported a number of disturbing incidents of racist, sexist and homophobic abuse, especially in some of the more peripheral areas of France. It is also undeniable that several ultra-nationalist, monarchist, fascist and neo-Nazi elements have actively participated in the clashes in Paris in recent weeks.