World in View: French ‘Yellow Vests’

January 28, 2019

From the January-February 2019 News & Letters

The uprising of the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) against French President Emmanuel Macron bears no comparison to the revolutionary events of 1789, or 1968, as some have claimed. It is a movement entirely of our time, with all its brutal contradictions.

Demonstration of gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in Belfort, France, on Dec. 29 2018. Photo: Wikipedia.

It broke out Nov. 17 when hundreds of thousands of protesters, wearing the yellow vests French drivers are required to have, blocked roads and fuel depots across the country in opposition to a proposed fuel tax hike. Protests spread to Paris, where Macron’s Elysee Palace was placed on lockdown.

Police have responded brutally, with 15 people losing eyes to rubber bullets deliberately fired at head level at close range.

Macron was forced to “delay” implementation of his tax hike. In other concessions, he promised to raise minimum wages by 100 euros per month, cancel tax increases for poor pensioners, and make overtime pay and year-end bonuses tax free.


These economic demands are supportable. But the movement has also been tinged with racism, including attacks on Black supporters of Macron as “non-French,” anti-Semitic claims that Macron is a “tool of the Jews,” and turning over immigrants to the police.

There have also been attacks on journalists, who have been forced to travel with security guards while covering demonstrations. Most Yellow Vests appear to have voted for either Far Rightist Marine Le Pen or dubious “Left populist” Jean-Luc Melenchon, with both courting the movement.

The yellow vest symbol spread to other countries in just as contradictory a fashion. In Belgium, Germany, Finland, the UK, and Canada anti-immigration groups adopted it. As far away as Taiwan it was used to symbolize economic demands. This is the unity and brutal disunity of our time.


Italy’s Far Right “populist” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini praised the Yellow Vests and sees them as potential allies in his plan to remake the European Union with Italy and Poland as leading forces replacing France and Germany.

Macron represents the European Union’s technocratic elite. He owed his initial success to not being Le Pen or Melenchon. In the end he may be consumed by the contradictions they and their supporters represent.

When French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb resigned in October, he said of Macron: “In Greece there is the word hubris. It is the curse of the gods. You get too sure of yourself, and think you will sweep everything before you. There’s the saying, ‘The gods blind those they want to strike down.’”

—Gerry Emmett

3 thoughts on “World in View: French ‘Yellow Vests’

  1. This article reveals what I thought when mainstream media briefly covered these protests, but gave no context for them. The Far Right can use the same tactics and strategies the masses use, for a far more sinister purpose. It is very helpful to read about the ways the gilet jaunes have been appropriated. There are many in Europe who oppose a Far Right agenda, like those Holocaust survivors in the Netherlands we rarely hear about who stand in solidarity with Palestinians for human and women’s freedom, rights and dignity. With whom can we stand in France?

  2. From what I see in the paper News & Letters the definitive take on the Yellow Vests movement is: on the one hand, dismissive, on the other, demonizing.

    I’ve been trying to get a sense of the “gilets jaunes” and it’s not been easy. There is little or no nuance coming from the anarchists, Rah! Rah! Rah! Go Team! I picked up the winter 2019 issue of N+1 with 220 pages but only one sentence mentioning “the current populist French riots against Macron’s gasoline taxes.” On N&L’s take: I agree that glibly lumping events in France with 1789 or May 1968 is silly, but to compare is also to contrast. As Hegel learned from Plato collection is itself a form of division. Take the gilet jaunes fear and hostility toward journalists. The kind of over generalizations appearing in N&L’s French ‘Yellow Vests’ like jumping to conclusions about who they vote for. (See for example, the extensive empirical study on the actual political, demographic make-up of the movement done by sociologists including the Durkheim Institute, Gilet jaunes: a pioneering study of the ‘low earners’ revolt.)

    One night at Oscar Grant Plaza, site of the Occupy Oakland camp, a reporter came up to a group of us. I was the only person willing to talk to her, while my friends all gave me the stink eye. Well, I didn’t say anything stupid (or brilliant for that matter), but I think my friends were right. The gilets jaunes do not want any self-appointed spokes people (the LePen people and the Melenchon crowd are very opportunistic) or having the press appoint them. Consider Danny the Red Cohn-Bendit, the press appointed poster boy for the events of May 1968. He spent months in 2018 on a nostalgia tour. His message? May 1968 was a complete success! But he had only sour grapes for the Yellow Vests.

    According to The Nation, truck driver Eric Drouet was the first to call for collective action on Nov. 17, 2018. According to Paris based Rona Lorimer, writing for Commune magazine, the events were sparked by an online petition created by a young, self-employed woman named Pricilla Ludosky. As the study cited above put it: “the high proportion of often working-class women, a social category traditionally not very mobilized politically, is a notable fact.” It’s clear that women are massively involved in the movement, something N&L is usually attuned to.

    Now for Old Truck Driver’s Readers’ View, and the headline that announces it. He compares Yellow Vests with the Tea Party. Fine. Now to contrast the two: the Tea Party movement got off the ground thanks to money and talking points provided by right-wing think tanks. The Yellow Vests, for all their flaws, are a genuine grass-roots movement. I find apt Kevin Anderson’s comparison of the Yellow Vests with the 2017-18 protests in 80 small cities and rural areas in Iran.

    As for the headline “Challenging Fascism Across All Borders,” it disgusts me.

    –Lewis FInzel

  3. It is one thing to be opposed to “self-appointed spokes people” but quite another to try to avoid or even shut down open discussion of the meaning of a spontaneous movement. Precisely because a movement is new and spontaneous it demands the widest discussion of its meaning. That is true especially among its participants because the reality that unfolds from a spontaneous movement is new to even to those participants. In any case, how someone “voted” is not necessarily a guide here. I know, for example, white auto workers in Detroit who in 1968 voted for the racist “populist” George Wallace in Michigan but had a different perspective during rank-and-file strikes against automation.

    Eric Drouet rightly and quickly disassociated Yellow Vests from its Paris adherents who met with Luigi Di Maio a leader of Italy’s the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe ruling coalition. Di Maio was there boosting candidates for his position for the E.U. Parliament elections. Drouet also criticized the Yellow Vests who, when they spotted the French Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, shouted out disgusting anti-Semitic epithets. Gerry Emmett’s early warning in this respect is well-taken. Finkielkraut like most of the French population supported the Yellow Vests. French President Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen spoke forcefully against this anti-Semitism. What should be heard with much greater care than them or Drouet’s criticism are the mass demonstrations throughout France on February 19 against its growing anti-Semitism.

    At this moment, holding fast to an unspoken-for spontaneity that is singularly defined by its opposition to Macron will not do when so much is at stake. Macron has certainly proved that his Europe, his internationalism, is not about the well-being of ordinary workers. Responding to the Yellow Vests, many of whom work two jobs to survive and have only Saturday to demonstrate, Macron called French workers lazy, lacking a “sense of effort.” Macron’s internationalism is about the well-being of capitalism. However, no human being can be silent about speaking out against Europe’s growing retrogression into a racist nationalism, which under similar economic conditions in the 20th century sucked the world into two global conflagrations and unspeakable inhumanity.

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