For several months, massive protests, occupations, and blockades have rippled across the entirety of France. The Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement first arose out of anger over a proposed increase in taxes on diesel fuel, something many French citizens outside large cities rely on, but quickly morphed into a general opposition to the French Government, especially current president Emmanuel Macron.
After an initial protest on November 17, 2018 in Paris, massive riots have engulfed most French cities each and every Saturday on a scale not seen in the country since the near-insurrection of May 1968. At the same time, occupations and blockades of roads and roundabouts across the country sprang up. The majority have maintained their presence to this day.
Several Shotgun correspondents recently returned from traveling in France to better understand the Yellow Vests movement and what lessons we might take from it here in New Orleans.
The simplest takeaway from the movement is that the Yellow Vests’ tactics have produced real results. Not even three weeks after the first demonstration, Macron announced that he would postpone the fuel tax increase indefinitely, as well as granting some other minor concessions he claims will reduce the cost of living. Before this wave of unrest, Macron had built a reputation of being unresponsive to protest movements, successfully pushing through unpopular reforms to raise the cost of education and attack the rights of workers and unions.
This time around, the Yellow Vests have refused to be placated by Macron’s attempts to quiet them. Despite his suspension of the tax that sparked the movement, the occupations and encampments have continued unabated, and the riots each Saturday have only increased in scale. The new major demand of the Yellow Vests is simply the resignation of Macron himself. The Yellow Vests’ endorsement of a variety of tactics, ranging from general assemblies to attempts at burning down government buildings, as well as their refusal to allow public figures speak for them, has allowed the movement to withstand political pressure as well as police repression.
It has also helped to show how fluid the character of social movements can be, as participants collectively develop new strategies and ideas over the course of the struggle. In the first weeks of the movement, many people were dismayed by the presence of conservative or even fascist elements in the protests. This disappointment caused many experienced activists to sit out or denounce the movement in confusion over how to engage with what they saw as a potentially powerful right-wing force.
But over time, a variety of tactics drastically reduced the conservative presence among the Yellow Vests. Early on, some antifascist groups successfully removed known fascists from the Saturday protests, a practice our contacts say has since generalized throughout the movement. Anti-immigrant reforms, demands which surfaced early on, seem to have been left behind by the discourse around the movement. Disagreements around property destruction have also largely been settled. Conservatives attempted to sway the movement towards racist government reforms, but the vast majority of the movement has gradually accepted banks and luxury stores as equally appropriate targets to the politicians and government offices that serve them. The movement has continually clarified its understanding of the political and social situation, setting itself in firm opposition to the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
The Yellow Vests’ attitudes towards police have also transformed. At the outset, many protesters expected the police to support them or even join the movement. This changed after the intense police violence they faced across the country in the first weeks. The police almost immediately treated the movement as a true insurrection, unapologetically shooting to kill or maim with tear gas grenades and rubber bullets. Several protesters and bystanders have indeed been killed during the movement, and many more have lost eyes or hands in the clashes. Police have smashed and burned the communal cabins and structures the Yellow Vests built at roundabout blockades to facilitate collective meals and discussions. These experiences produced a clear understanding that the police will never be allied with a popular social movement, no matter how broad the movement’s desires are.
There are a few specific, tactical lessons we in New Orleans can take from the Yellow Vests. They’ve done an admirable job at syncing the rhythms of daily life with those of their protests. Many politicians hoped that the holiday season around Christmas and the New Year would derail the movement, as it has with prior periods of unrest. Instead, the Yellow Vests were able to find ways to use the joyous celebrations to energize their revolt. Protesters used the quiet time off work around Christmas to organize with one another, taking a welcome break from the hectic pace they had maintained since November. In rural areas, many Yellow Vests simply celebrated the holiday together at their occupations. Then, the movement deviated slightly from its normal schedule of Saturday demonstrations to hold massive events in most major cities on New Year’s Eve that blurred the line between celebration and riot in a way not too unfamiliar to us here in New Orleans. So many of us here rely on the rhythms of holidays, parties, and festivals, whether because of the nature of our jobs or simply because they briefly allow us to let go of the stresses of daily life. If a social movement on the scale of the Yellow Vests were to erupt here, we would do well to also find a way to use the endless festive energies of the city to bolster that movement’s power.
Protesters have also been unafraid to take it upon themselves to immediately increase their quality of life, without waiting for politicians to do it for them. French highways are lined with toll booths and speed cameras that siphon money from drivers who rely on the roads into corporate and government bank accounts. Since the movement erupted, many people have taken it upon themselves to put an end to this extortion by smashing or painting over the cameras, and snapping off the toll booth gates. A recent report found that over sixty percent of all cameras in the country have been disabled or destroyed. It leads Shotgun to think: how many of us have stacks of unpaid tickets from the new speed cameras lining Canal street? And the cops have installed those ominous red-and-blue flashing surveillance cameras everywhere – how hard could it be for someone to render those cameras non-functional?
Further reading: https://communemag.com/yellow-vest-diaries/
art by Erin Wilson!