For over three months now in France, the gilet jaune or yellow vest revolt has mounted one of the biggest and most sustained challenges to neo-liberal capitalism anywhere in recent years. The movement has shown remarkable staying power, mobilized large numbers of people, first in rural areas and then in the capital as it has managed to draw in larger and more diverse social layers. Remarkable still has been its success in forcing real concessions from an arrogant Macron government, most notably the temporary withdrawal of the hated gas tax that sparked the protests. The yellow vest movement have been confusing to some on the left because it departs from what we expect from the class struggle, certainly in a place like France, home of some of the most “classic” expressions of the class struggle from the French revolution to the Paris Commune, and the mass strikes of 1936 and 1968. The movement has displayed a curious mix of modern and pre-modern forms of struggle, some harking back to the French revolution. These old forms might very well become features of twenty first century anti-capitalist protest.
Economic and social change
The yellow vest protests reflect economic changes in the French countryside and their effects on France’s class structure, revealing fault lines of social inequality and class struggle in the countryside that have been dormant for years and have not until now found public expression. The outsourcing of rural manufacturing over the last few decades has led to widespread rural unemployment and underemployment, sharply lower wages, declining union strength, and reduced working class consciousness. While some businesses have subcontracted production abroad, others have moved from rural areas to provincial cities, leading to unemployment for some and longer commutes and higher gas consumption for others. Seventeen million French workers now work outside of their own place of residence and fourteen million have to drive their own vehicles to work. Even before the announcement of the gas tax, French drivers saw a 23% rise in gas prices over the last year.
Patterns of rural capital concentration in France have thus put tremendous strain on rural working people and small-time artisans and independent entrepreneurs who use their own vehicles for transportation to work. Altered patterns of work and residence and the distance between the two puts a particular strain on women, especially single women with children. This reliance on cars also points to the paucity of rural mass transit lines. This contrasts with the extensive bus, metro, and new tramways in Paris and underscores the hypocrisy of the government’s claims that the tax was motivated by environmental concerns. The relationship between work, gas and transportation prices, and the workers saddled with increased costs makes this a class question. Tax is a tool of class struggle, imposed by an openly neo-liberal government as a way of financing employer social security contribution reductions.
Who are the Yellow Vests?
The name of the protests refers to the fluorescent vests that motorists are required to keep in their vehicles and wear in case of emergency. As such, it implies a somewhat different social actor than that associated with social protest in France and elsewhere. Rather than a social identity based on class or political identities such as “worker” or “communist”, the yellow vests refer to social actors created by a law on safety that has been expanded to cover the status of consumer (of gas).
Research on the demographics of these protests conducted by teams of sociologists reveal important information on the class composition of the protesters. A full 25% of those participating in the protests were retired. Though only 27% of French workforce consists of white-collar jobs, 33% of the yellow vest protesters and 45% of working-age protesters were white collar. Artisans, shop owners, and managers account for 6.5% of the French population, but 14% of employed protesters. Upper management personnel account for 5% of the protesters and 7% of employed protesters. Blue collar workers (ouvriers) counted for only 14% of the yellow vest protesters. There are few small farmers among the protesters and few left in France after having being decimated by the GATT and French and EU agricultural price policies in the 1990s.
The protesters then are overwhelmingly non-proletarian, sensu stricto. Yet their demands resonate with blue-collar concerns. White-collar employees may conjure up images of privileged managers but in France 60% of public and private white-collar employees earn less than 2,000 euros net per month. Single-parent families are particularly affected, and this is one of the reasons for the very high proportion of women among the yellow jackets. After all it was Priscilla Ludosky, a single working mom who launched the petition against the gas tax and hence the movement itself.
Some saw the tax dimension, the class heterogeneity of the protesters, the absence of unions, the attempts by the National Front (FN) to associate itself with the struggle, and incidents of homophobia and Antisemitism on the margins of the protests as signs that this was a right-wing revolt. Indeed, since the nineteenth century reaction and counter-revolution in France has often been associated with the countryside while Paris is often treated as center of radical activity.
It would be a mistake however, to see the movement as reactionary. Suspicions of an FN connection to the yellow vests are unfounded as the protests have occurred in locations far away from areas of strong FN support. Racism, Antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, and immigrant bashing have been specifically denounced in yellow vest declarations. As for the gas tax, Eric Toussaint and others have pointed out the long revolutionary pedigree of anti-tax revolts.
From Sans Culottes to Yellow Vests
Today’s yellow vests present interesting parallels with the sans culottes of French revolution of 1789. The sans culottes were politically involved radicals that were both a social and political grouping. They were the shock troops of the upheavals in Paris during revolutionary 1790s. Socially, they were a somewhat amorphous mass of urban independent artisans, journeymen, apprentices, unskilled day laborers, water carriers, domestic servants, and a smattering of nascent proletarians, all struggling against high food prices and united in their hatred of the crown and aristocracy. They wore a distinct dress: men, Phrygian bonnets, tricolor ribbons, and breechless pants for the men to signify both their social position and revolutionary political opinions.
The class composition of France’s rural poor today is similarly heterogeneous and the yellow vest jackets themselves may be seen as a 21-century form of the Phrygian bonnet. The preponderance of small owners of capital and skilled artisans and the near absence of property less wage earners reflected the pre-industrial capitalist world of late eighteenth century France. The preponderance of struggling petty bourgeois and white-collar employees among today’s yellow vests represents a rural France that has seen widespread deindustrialization of manufacturing.
The forms of struggle employed by the yellow vests revolt represent a curious blending of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century forms of class struggle that might very well foreshadow new reconfigured forms of 21st century class struggle. The movement began with an online petition against Macron’s gas taxes on Change.org. The petition stimulated the revolt itself on November 17, 2018 with the construction of approximately 2,500 barricades in rural areas and later spread to Paris. This is a stark reversal of patterns of provincial and Parisian protests over the last few centuries and a partial return to pre-revolutionary forms of revolt. Rarely, over the last two centuries have provincial protests inspired Parisian protests.
While issues of representation of French economic and social elites took center stage in the run up to the French revolution, bread prices stood behind most of the social struggles and protests of the Revolution. By July 14, 1789 bread prices –the staple in 18th century France, hit a century high, the purchase of which cost up to 88% of working person’s salary. Macron’s proposed tax is the 21st century equivalent of the 18th century bread prices.
The forms of struggle seen in the yellow vest protests continue a long tradition. The protests began with a petition, itself an old form of struggle. The use of petitions, barricades, marches, demonstrations, and the listing of demands by the yellow vests echoes forms of popular struggle reaching back to the 18th century. The yellow vests have even started a Facebook page called Les cahiers de doléances (declarations of grievances) des gilets jaunes in an obviously conscious reference to the cahiers de doléances that were written out of mass popular assemblies throughout the country during the early phase of the 1789 revolution.
Some compare the rural protests to old regime jacqueries. A jacquerie refers to pre-1789 peasant uprisings against local aristocratic exploiters often in opposition to heavy feudal dues. The targets were local seigneurs or feudal lords, rather than state officials. Feudal registers, which recorded feudal dues owed by the peasants to their seigneurs were often burned. As the French state centralized beginning in the 17th century under Louis XIII and the massive jump forward in centralization during and after the revolutionary 1790s, protests shifted to national political targets, particularly the crown in its Parisian seat of power, and later republican political institutions, particularly the parliament. So, as local rural protests of the “lower classes” the yellow vests protest resemble the jacqueries, but differ in their pitching of demands directly to central state power holders.
The demands raised by the yellow jackets have been leveled against the national government, rather than private capitalist firms or banks. This too has deep roots in France’s history of popular struggle and reflects France’s steady centralization over several centuries. Beginning in the 17th century, the French monarchy steadily accumulated powers at the expense of the regions civil society represented by the medieval estate system, which gave a limited form of political power or input to the clergy, nobility and commoners. Various forms of bourgeois republican rule have also been marked by increasing centralization of state power. The 1958 constitution of the fifth Republic under Charles DeGaulle, for instance, was a sharp increase in presidential power. The state centered demands of the yellow vests accord with this aspect of France’s revolutionary tradition.
New forms of struggle
The use of tactics such as petitions, barricades, and demonstrations therefore puts the yellow vest protests solidly in the tradition of popular protest since the 18th century. The protests also depart in significant ways from France’s tradition of popular and working-class protest. Since the 19th century, especially after the founding of the third Republic popular protest has been reflected in the electoral and Parliamentary arenas by Socialist and Communist Parties of various stripes. The yellow vest revolt has taken place outside of the framework of both and the unions and the parties of the left have only slowly and with difficulty related to the movement in terms of support and coordinated action. Likewise, the yellow vests protests have not involved strikes. This too reflects the lower income, but largely non-proletarian class composition of the yellow vest protesters, few of whom could count on strike pay or union support.
Like other recent anti-capitalist movements such as Occupy and Podemos in Spain, the yellow vests are highly suspicious of established political groupings and reject formal organizational structures. Like Occupy, the yellow vests established horizontal organizational structures. There is gender parity on yellow vest committees, a stark contrast to most unions and organizations of the French left.
The ongoing provincial demonstrations are for the most part relatively small actions at traffic roundabouts that are often met with aggressive police presences leading to violent confrontations and as of mid-February, over 10,000 arrests. Near weekly demonstrations in Paris by yellow vests and urban supporters have fluctuated in size but have shown real staying power over the course of the movement so far. For example, one of the Parisian yellow vest demonstrations protest drew 8,000-modest by French standards and according to the Interior Ministry just 12,000 took to the streets on December 29, down from the 282,000 from the original November 17 protest. Yet, some 50,000 people turned out nationwide on the first Saturday of the New Year, and 80,000 for “Act IX” — named for the ninth straight weekend of protest.
While unions often organize demonstrations on weekdays, thus combining street protests with work stoppages, the rural yellow vest protests are mostly organized on Saturdays to accommodate the needs of working mothers. Few yellow vests are union members and lack the protection from employer retaliation for missing work.
The crisis of the unions and the left
The protests take place against the backdrop of sustained neo-liberal assaults on the welfare state that have been carried out by a succession of social democratic Socialist Party governments and openly right-wing parties. Most recently, Macron defeated a transportation strike last year putting the unions on the defensive.
One of the most significant aspects of the struggle has been the marginalization, even absence of left wing political and union organizations. It took three weeks from the beginning of the protests for unions to meet with the yellow vests to formulate a response. At the first yellow vest protests in Paris the on December 1, unions pointedly marched at a distance from the core yellow vest crowd. Since then, unions have become less suspicious of the yellow vests, and have made efforts to coordinate activities. On December 8, unions and other social movements joined the yellow vest protests in Paris for “act IV” of the weekly nationwide protests and the CGT and SUD Solidaires union federations have signed common declarations.
Relations with the left have also been spotty. This has been difficult in part because the protest movement has rejected creating organizational structures. However, it also reflects the crisis of the left itself. The SP and its affiliated CFDT union confederation have openly embraced neo-liberal policies, the CP, which had once received 35% of the vote saw its electoral score in presidential elections plummet to 5% and then lower. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise party showed impressive electoral strength and seemed poised to offer a left alternative to the SP, but has failed to offer a consistent path forward. The far-left New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) experienced disappointing electoral results, a crisis of orientation, and a sharp decline in membership after a promising beginning when it was founded in 2009. The yellow vest protests emerged in a period where the left and the worker’s movement had very little to offer in ways of leadership and effective support.
What then do these features of the yellow vest protests tell us about class struggle today in France and beyond? Changes in the global capitalist economy have altered the geography of industrial production in ways that weaken the centrality of traditional sectors of the workers movements in manufacturing sectors like auto and steel. Without a doubt, there remains significant manufacturing production in France, the US, and the global north in general. But internal subcontracting, the marginalization of unions, and new groups of workers without traditions of labor protest has led toward reduced capacity to struggle while new, often hyper exploited sectors with seemingly few resources, have shown remarkable potential.
These changes are reflected in emerging protests by low wage workers in the US and marginalized and precarious groups, not traditionally tied to organized labor or the left, elsewhere. Like the teachers’ strikes in the US, the leadership role of women in the yellow vests points to their centrality in these new precarious local economies.
The parallels between the class composition of the yellow vests and the sans culottes of the French revolution, and the continuity and breaks with various forms of struggle since the eighteenth century, reminds us of the connections between capital, the state, and forms of social protest and how they change over time.
The demands raised by the sans culottes, their forms of struggle, their state-centered targets, and their class composition reflected the mode of production and political economy of eighteenth century France. This explains the prominence of struggles around food prices and the emerging tradition of urban uprisings aimed at France’s highly centralized state. The pre-industrial nature of eighteenth-century France produced a class structure whose lower levels consisted of numerous and often seemingly imperceptible gradations rather than the class structure of property-less proletarians, petty bourgeois, and capitalists produced by the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Likewise, the class composition and forms of struggle of the yellow vests are a product of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. The patterns of capital concentration in the French provinces, neoliberal extra market surplus value extraction (the gas tax), and France’s highly centralized state have shaped both the yellow vests’ forms of protest and made the state the central target of their demands. In a curious parallel with the sans culottes, it could be said that the heterogeneous lower class composition of the yellow vests represents the post-industrial rural countryside in ways similar to the pre-industrial class composition of their sans culottes ancestors. More generally, the yellow vest experience suggests that neo-liberal capitalism will stimulate both traditional and novel forms of struggle from the barricades and petition to horizontal organizational structures and gender leadership parity.
The protests also glaringly underscore the weakness of the traditional organizations of the labor movement, the unions and political parties. Like Podemos in Spain, the yellow vests reflect the impasse of traditional parties of the left and even traditional forms of doing politics. While the fall of organizations and leaders can clear the way for the advancement of struggles, deep social change and revolutionary change, needs a resolute leadership with a clear program and deep roots to the masses of working people and the oppressed to whom they are democratically held accountable. Time will tell if the yellow vests will take its place alongside the Phrygian bonnet, the red and black flag, and the hammer and sickle, but the underlying economic and political shifts and the contradictions of neo-liberal capitalism that have produced the revolt will certainly deeply mark anti-capitalist resistance for the foreseeable future.
K Mann is Visiting Professor of Sociology at Miami of Ohio. Mann is author of Forging Political Identity: Silk and Metal Workers in Lyon, France, 1900-1939 (Berghahn, 2010) and an upcoming book on US labor and social movements.
Image: Musée Carnavalet Public Domain Wikimedia Commons