The “yellow vests” movement, a letter to our english-speaking friends

Created by
Raymond Desmarées
samedi 12 janvier 2019
As a change, we publish today a text in English for those living outside of France, French or foreigners, who may have a lack of understanding or feel confused about the yellow vests movement. This brief social, cultural and institutional reading aims to explain, at least in part, the insurrectional form taken by that movement.

You probably heard about “yellow-vest” riots in Paris. Please beware the sensational headlines. This is  not an urban guerrilla: the fights in Rio’s favelas can be described as such, not those in Paris. We are not in the middle of a civil war, Yemen is. Words have a meaning. However impressive the images, nicely created by aggressive and clever police moves such as encirclement, and despite the many wounds and mutilations amongst the protesters, violent events remain limited in scope. For several years, the riot police developed strategies to surround protesters, block them, limit the duration of protests, harass them with tear gas and dangerous weapons such as flashball guns. The result is guaranteed: the government obtains a good reason to blame the protesters. Yet troubles are very localized. Don’t be scared, most of us are not.

You need to know that the events in Paris are a very minor part of a movement that is mostly happening, peacefully, in the rural areas and small towns. The yellow vests are tired of being isolated from everything, far from good internet connections, jobs, schools, hospitals, train stations. All kind of facilities and services are being closed down every day in areas that have not been selected by economic and political powers as “attractive urban centres”. Over the last ten years, one school and two post offices closed every single day,  as well as many local hospitals. Yellow vests are tired of paying ever-increasing taxes, resulting for instance in decreasing pensions, while the so-called “great wealth” tax (“ISF”) was repealed, major companies have benefited from tax cuts (40 billion in 2019), and multinational corporations do not pay their dues… People are tired of pseudo-environmental measures, while big companies that destroy the environment remain protected, and individual consumption behaviour is being blamed for pollution. Yellow vests demand environmental, social and fiscal justice.

Poverty has dramatically increased in our country, although it is one of the richest in the world. Out of 65 million French inhabitants, 9 million people live below the poverty line and 4 million people suffer from inadequate housing. 200,000 people are homeless in France. One of the top claims of the yellow vest movement is “no more homelessness in our rich country”. At the same time, French big companies pay the highest dividends to shareholders in Europe. Some secondary schools located in underprivileged suburbs went on strike as well. The invisibles - working class, discriminated minorities and generally people excluded from the economic system - want to make their voices heard and their presence felt. Their symbol, the yellow vest, is a high-visibility jacket used in case of emergency, to be seen in the dark… Enough is enough.

That is how French society works… Leaders do not listen. Our politicians are increasingly perceived by a majority of the people as stubborn, arrogant and authoritarian. In France, there is no sense of restrain (unlike protestant-based Nordic or Anglo-Saxon societies in Europe): when you have power, you use it and abuse of it. There is no dialogue at all. We have weak unions, unlike Denmark for instance, to which politicians or private company leaders do not listen anyway. Macron’s government has been especially open in his scorn for labour organizations. It promotes a “start-up culture” in which the winner takes all, and others have only themselves to blame.

The institutions of the Vth French republic fit this ideology perfectly. The executive branch, particularly the president, have very strong power, more than in the British or American system. Conversely, the French Parliament has limited power, unlike most of European “Parliamentary” democracies (Germany, Nordic countries, etc.). By taking full advantage of the French constitution (or its flaws), to an unprecedented extent, Macron attracted a lot of criticism: his governing style was described as a “Presidential Monarchy”. He was accused of transforming the French parliament into a simple “publishing chamber” whose sole task is to realize the president’s desires. Members of the parliament from the governing party are seen as mere puppets of the government, blindly voting for any reform that the government proposes and blocking every single suggestion from other parties. Macron, however, has a limited democratic legitimacy. Only 18.2% of the registered citizens voted for him in the first round, and 43.6% in the second round, although he opposed to the extreme right Marine Le Pen (22.4% in the second round). Macron himself spoke of his election as a “hold-up”, and described his presidency as “Jupiterian”. Recently, he lied to the French people. In response to the yellow vest movement, he claimed that he would increase the minimum wage, but the government only increased a state-paid bonus for low incomes, which is not the same: a raise in wages leads to higher social benefits, which the bonus does not impact upon. This obvious lie (the latest in a long series) calls his reliability and legitimacy into question.

We (the yellow vest supporter, who are a huge majority of the population, according to opinion polls) want power back to the people. We want to decide for ourselves. A democratic nation can legitimately overthrow the ruling class and representatives when they fail to pursue the people’s goals. Of course, our history inspires us. We have a background, a theoretical (and practical) experience. When contradictions are too acute, when everything is blocked, when there are no ways around institutional obstacles, at such times, we actually thrive. Our country is deeply, strongly republican - not, of course, in the American sense but in the classical sense: we want to live in a society where no man is under the dominion of any other, but only obeys rules agreed in common, in the general interest. We have a culture of contradictory debate. That is what the yellow vests do. They talk, they organise, they vote, in every corner of the country. Referring to the list of wishes written at the time of the French Revolution to inform the king about the people’s complains, they have made lists of “doleances”. The yellow vests synthesized all grievances and turned them into a list of demands, publicly advertised on social networks. How can each of us strengthen the democratic nature of the movement? By voting on the proposals! As Macron has not answered any of them, now the yellow vests want to find a way for the French people to debate and decide by themselves, the RIC: a referendum launched by the citizens themselves, forcing the parliament to translate the popular will into law.

Obviously, those trends we're fighting against are global. A few protesters in other countries have adopted the yellow vest as a reference. Similar movements are emerging, for instance in Belgium. For the sake of everyone’s good and to avoid the spread of authoritarianism or even dictatorship, here comes the time for a democratic, pacific, citizen revolution.

“We have been nought, we shall be all!”

Raymond Desmarées & Europe Insoumise


Photo: Yellow vests dancing in the street, while blocking the traffic at the Hope crossroad in Belfort, France. Source: Thomas Bresson – Wikimedia (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International).

Crédit photo
Photo Thomas Bresson - Wikimedia (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)