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“Throw Them All Out!” The Yellow Vests Uprising in France

It is a euphemism to say that the yellow vests movement does not correspond to any other major movement in the history of contemporary France. What has characterized social movements since 1968 was their political legibility. Either they were launched by labour unions and subsequently supported by political parties, or they were the results of spontaneous focused actions (by students, nurses, rail workers) which were quickly supervised by unions and political parties.

In both cases, they fitted neatly into the game of representative democracy which was born with the establishment and then the progressive extension of universal suffrage. The labour division of representation was clear: unions defended the categorical interests of the workers and political parties formulated these categorical demands into political proposals via the political institutions (parliament, government).

Representative democracy

Representative democracy is a regime in which citizens are governed by elected representatives to whom they have delegated power. It is important to point out that its founders have always clearly distinguished this type of governance from the very notion of democracy. Emmanuel-Joseph Siéyès acknowledged the opposition between republican representative governance and democracy. In a speech given after the outbreak of the revolution, Siéyès – to whom the “Third Estate” (the people) meant “everything” –  spelt out the precise difference between both regimes:

“Citizens can put their trust into some of their own. They comment on the exercise of their rights without giving them up. It is for the common good that they nominate representatives which are much more capable than themselves to know what the general interest is and to interpret their own will accordingly. The other way of exercising one’s right in shaping the law is to directly participate in its creation. This immediate concurrence is what characterizes true democracy. Participation by intermediates constitutes representative democracy. The difference between these two political systems is huge.” (What Is The Third Estate?, first published in 1789)

The revolutionary leaders of 1789, who were in every aspect comparable to our present leaders of the left and the right alike (middle-age, white, bourgeois men), opted for “representative democracy” rather than “real democracy”.

The major reasons for this decision are well known: the complexity involved in organising a system of direct democracy in a country with such a large population, but also the alleged political incompetence of an infantilised population dispossessed of its political power. Conservatives, liberals and socialists have always agreed on this point and argued that the peoples ought to be kept as far away as possible from the process of political decision-making

Today, they lament in unison about the growing abstention rates during elections or the supposed political apathy of the electorate. Indeed, if citizens desert in masses, how much credibility should we give to this representative regime in which representatives end up merely representing themselves?

The yellow vests have voiced several, more or less clear and coherent political demands (fairer taxation, salaries, state of the public services, more democracy and more order, less immigration, etc.) but more than anything they express a radical critique against the system of political representation.

First and foremost in their watchwords and slogans: “The people are sovereign !”, “Macron, we are not your sheep”, “I accuse this system that makes the rich fatter and the poor hungrier”, “Elected officials, you are accountable”. Even though the most scathing criticism is directed at the president of the republic, it is the entire political personnel that is targeted by the mocking, unflattering and sometimes even hatefilled comments.

Therefore, talking about a left or right take-over of the movement seems to me to be missing the point. Occasionally and locally, militant political activists have tried to organize the yellow vests and influence their mode of actions. But these actions, which certainly shouldn’t be underestimated, cannot hide the more important and original trend of the movement: the radical mistrust towards representation and political institutions.

The end of an aristocratic era

To start with, the representation of the movement itself is not straightforward. Regional representatives who had been nominated online have quickly been rejected by other yellow vests who have refused to have these elected officials speak in their name. A reception of representatives of the yellow vests in Matignon failed due to the enormous pressure they fell under (some of the representatives even received death threats).

More than a century of labour representation comes to an end here. The socialist movement accepted the principle of bourgeois political representation. The executives of the parties and unions as well as their elected officials have in effect been mandated by their comrades to take decisions in their stead.

Roberto Michels, working for the German SPD at the beginning of the twentieth century (a socialist party which he described as the “most democratic on earth”), concluded his study with a very pessimist observation: partisan representation will lead to the emergence of a category of political professionals, which will very soon be committed to defending its own point of view and its own material interests against the interests of those who they represent. This tendency is so strong in every political organisation that Michels called it the “iron law of oligarchy”:

“Whoever says organisation says tendency towards oligarchy. In every organisation, be it a party, a labour union etc, the aristocratic inclination manifests itself very strongly.

While the mechanism of organisation gives it a solid structure it also provokes serious changes in the organised masses. It turns the respective positions between the leaders and the mass completely upside down. Organisation leads to the division of all parties or all professional unions into a leading minority and a led majority.” (Political Parties. A Sociological Study of The Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, first published in 1911)

Given the defiance, and even the instinctive rejection of the principle of representation by the yellow vests one might speculate that, as a matter of principle, this movement won’t benefit any political force: neither parties (old or new, right-wing or left-wing, populist or not…), nor unions. In their modus operandi, the yellow vests have derailed two centuries of political action and trampled on its rules and decency. More than anything else, this could be the big innovation of the movement.

Ordinary citizens

However, I am not predicting the imminent collapse of the classical system of political representation. The latter can survive despite its current crisis, but only in the same weak and erratic manner as it has done during recent years – with high abstention rates during elections and a very low capacity of the elected at every level to galvanise the people around their political actions.

Are the yellow vests political aliens? No, on the contrary, they are ordinary citizens, voting left, voting right and probably even more frequently abstaining from voting. They have simply stopped believing in the game of representative democracy. For some, this is at best, a makeshift, for others it is an unbearable perversion of the “real democracy” they have come to identify with.

In the medium term everything is possible: the fall of the Macron monarchy (which is not at all consolidated) or a return to a conservative post-movement; a backlash comparable to that of May ‘68. A population scared of a radicalized movement may want to push forward an agenda which would try to “re-establish order”. If, furthermore, the current social agenda made way for more identitarian demands (most notably on the immigration issue), then Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) would be best suited to profit electorally from this movement.

But the left could take advantage of the yellow vests in order to reconnect with the people like the emergent labour movements did over a century ago. However, its way of functioning and its relation to the practice of political action would have to undergo a Copernican revolution. The left will finally have to learn how to operate democratically: absolute parity on all levels, the end of the professional political mandates (limited in time and number), the right to revoke leaders, collective management. No left party is really living up to this kind of democracy. If the left cannot be radically left-wing, it could try to be radically democratic and in that way closer to the people.

More articles by:

Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere

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