The Yellow Vests Protested for 16 Weeks: What Happened?

Written by Austin Dilley

In the late fall of 2018 the hashtags #GiletsJaunes and #yellowvest began trending on Twitter. The hashtags served as a rallying cry for a wave of mass protests in France, spurred by a diesel tax meant to curb France’s CO2 emissions in accordance with goals set out by the 2016 Paris Climate accords. On November 17th millions of people flooded the streets of France’s largest cities in what would become the longest running protest since World War Two.

The yellow vests is not a singular easily explainable movement. They are not monolithic, hyper structurized, and politically ingrained like the Women’s March, nor are they directly tied to a specific political issue like the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It has no leader, no structure, and no unified list of demands; it is from this decentralization that the movement has been able to garner widespread support and rally for 13 weeks, only mobilising for 13 individual days. It is less of a protest and more of a weekly insurrection driven to the streets by a political and economic climate that resonates throughout the world.

Angered by decades of policy that have privileged the rich and alienated the working class, the yellow vests is a response to the gentrification of low income city centers, the privatization of public infrastructure, and Macron’s policies that have consistently given tax breaks to mega-corporations and the top echelon of French society. His diesel tax was simply the match that sparked the fire.

Through 13 weeks of consecutive Saturday protests, the yellow vests were attempting to do more than overturn the diesel tax (which was overturned after three weeks of protests by Macron in December). Rather, the protest grew out of a collectively held disillusionment with the current French government and hoped to not only oust Macron but tear up the constitution of the Fifth Republic and replace current representative government with a direct popular government.

Despite the protests’ ability to transcend racial and political lines, to unify millions of working class peoples via a stronghold class conscious, and to continue its momentum nearly five months late; the yellow vests have been incapable of achieving the change that they set out to accomplish. They did make progress towards a more economically viable France (the Diesel tax was repealed and minimum wage increased) but the systemic issues that served as the catalyst for the protest still remains.

This tension is expressed by a statement in December of 2018 in which the Elysee said that both Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and President Emmanuel Macron “both wished the increase in the carbon tax would be removed [from the 2019 budget].” Despite Macron calling for “solutions and funding that will meet the challenges of the ecological transition; solutions that will preserve the purchasing power of our citizens,” he stood by his decision to eliminate the ‘solidarity tax on wealth’ (ISF) in 2017, a cornerstone policy of the 1981 socialist party’s platform. The ISF was imposed on those worth more than €1.3m ($1.45m). Repealing the tax earned Macron the nickname “President of the rich”, and was described by one French political columnist as Marcons original sin’.

Though the yellow vests have achieved some success in repealing the diesel tax, their more radical demands have yet to be addressed. With dwindling support and growing criticism from all sides, it is unlikely that they will succeed in enacting widespread social change.  This failure of mass mobilized protests may seem familiar, especially to Americans who have participated in wave after wave of protest following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The collective failure of progressive liberals to curb the rise right wing neoliberalism with traditional models of change over the past two decades is worrying to say the least. The question that rises to the forefront, of why theses protests are failing, when looking at both the yellow vests and the Women’s March is possibly more troublesome than the fact that they have failed in and of themselves.

Why are traditional forms of protest and civil disobedience that were instrumental in bringing about mass social change in the 20th century now failing in the 21st century? Despite the fact that protests today are larger, longer, better organized, more inclusive, and reach farther across the globe; they are consistently failing, more often than succeeding.

In the case of the yellow vests, that question can be answered in part by looking at what made the protest so powerful in the first place; its leaderless horizontal structure and ability to organize millions along identities relating to a national class conscious, rather than a political, racial, or ethnic alignment. The yellow vest movement isn’t easily described or understood, and that is what gave it so much potential. However, the protest has to be understood as it has evolved since its beginnings as an online petition in the summer of 2018.

The petition was started by Priscilla Ludosky, a 31-year-old businesswoman of French West Indian of Martinique heritage who runs a cosmetics business out of her home. Ludosky is a relatively dignified and respectful woman who serves as an unlikely leader for what has become such a raucous and intense political movement, one that is often derided for being far right and racist (members of the Gilets Jaunes have identified with far right political movements within the EU and France).

When Ludosky first  posted the petition on Change.org in May, it was met with silence. In October, she was contacted by Eric Drouet, a 33-year-old who later became the de facto head of the movement and was eventually arrested in January for carrying a “prohibited D class weapon” (allegedly a wooden stick).

Drouet worked closely with Ludosky to publicize the article and spread it to the wider French public. In addition to being a “petrol head,” his association with the Gilets Jaunes is also driven by deeply extremist political tendencies. However, his love of cars and racing them more than likely influenced him to join the Gilets Jaunes and his eventual rise as probably the most identifiable and influential figure within the movement.

The collaboration between Ludosky, an Afro-Caribbean French woman, and Drouet, a politically radical white “petrol head”  may seem like an unlikely relationship to be the driving force behind France’s longest running protest; but in reality they are a prime example of why the movement has garnered so much support.

For most people, especially foreigners and American liberals, the Gilet Jaunes movement appears as a disunified radicalised mob that could just as easily descend chaotically into a new formed Fascist state as it could overthrow Macron and establish a utopian leftist France. However, this well observed disunification is what makes the movement simultaneously so powerful and worrying.

There is no direct leader, organization, or plan. Most importantly their demands are not unified and there is no structure. While this method of organizing allows the the yellow vests to garner huge amounts of power across the French political landscape, it is the root cause of its biggest flaw. In lacking a structure, a leader, and a unified front, the movement has been used by a vocal minority of far right activists t as a platform to voice worrying policies and drive the protest away from its roots in class orientated organizing.

In an interview with the Guardian, Daniel Cohn-Bendit the leader of the 1968 protests and current aide to Emmanuel Macron, said “his movement is very different to May 68. Back then, we wanted to get rid of a general (Charles de Gaulle); today these people want to put a general in power,”  referring to calls by fringe members of the the yellow vests to install Général Pierre de Villiers as the new Prime Minister.

“And nobody in 68 made death threats against those who want to talk,” Cohn-Bendit continued. “This is the power of force. All those on the left thinking this is a left wing revolution are wrong: it’s veering to the right. To hear that gilets jaunes who want to negotiate are receiving death threats is evidence of this authoritarian right. I hear people from la France Insoumise (hard left), talking about this being a great people’s revolt and how the people are speaking, but these are the same ordinary people who pushed Trump into power”.

Cohn-Bendit’s criticism is a scathing and disappointing rebuke of the most radical movement to rock the French democracy in decades. Yet, his comments point to a growing crisis in democracies and a burgeoning tension between old rank activists and new ‘radicals.” Resistance by old rank activists and politicians, people who were successful in achieving massive change in the second half of the 20th century, pivots on painting current protest movements as too violent, too destructive, and too decisive to fix or “heal” deeply divided states.

Old rank activists decry current protesters for using the same tactics they did 50 years ago. When current protesters block highways they are “disrupting everyday life.” When they resist or attack a hyper militarized and abusive police force is no longer “civil disobedience” or “protest.” Now it is just the acts of “football hooligans, and some who are disaffected youths from the banlieues [suburbs]”. And when new rank protesters attack and criticize icons of imperialism and colonialism, they become terrorists of the state.

Old rank activists like Cohn-Bendit haven’t been able to update their political ideologies to analyze and truly understand a very different world order. Rather than evolve their activism within the context of the solidification of globalism, the domination of the economy by corporate-capitalism, and, most importantly, the realization of the full implications of climate change; they have become stagnant against the ever flowing stream of modernity. They have become ideological anchors, allowing the world to flow around them and entrenching themselves into the offices of governments and the boardrooms of global companies.

The yellow vest movement and other contemporary social movements are born from a global class conscious that is beginning to realize the bleakness of the future it is being forced to inherit. It isn’t the world of 1968 where governments were prospering in a post-war economic moment. This new world order carries none of the hope or glamour of past protests and organizers.

The future we are being forced to inherit is one that demands working two jobs just to keep your head above water; where people are crushed into poverty and despair by the one-two punch of hyper wealthy corporations and the governments that have become beholden to their whims; and where the very world we live on has been given a doomsday clock for survival.

We are in the process of beginning a two fold realization; 1) the effects of climate change are being felt now and threatening the existence of the human race; and 2) the horrifying fact that there isn’t anything wrong with the system, but it is running exactly as it always has and was intended to do, to empower and uphold the will of the wealthy upon the backs of the global poor.

The Gilets Jaunes are ushering in a new revolutionary moment. Realities faced everyday by the global working class are only worsening. Oceans are creeping up our beaches and natural disasters are enacting unimaginable destruction the world over. More people are displaced than ever before. Companies triumph and the working class is perishing.

The tensions that sparked the Gilets Jaunes are not unique to France. Rather, the yellow vests can, and do, serve as a thermometer of the current state of global activism. It shows that old rank activists can’t understand these protests because they are holding on to the possibility that this system can be repaired, restarted, and still be capable of driving us into a clear, peaceful, and happy future. In reality the Gilets Jaunes and the tensions that sparked it point us in a much more dire direction. The system is beyond repair. The very foundations of our global democracies aren’t approaching crisis; the crisis is happening now and it is only going to get worse.

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