France: The Yellow Vests’ Missed Opportunity

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Yellow Vests movement (Gilets jaunes) began in November 2018. Prior to the first occupations of roundabouts across France, a petition taking a stand against the rise of fuel prices was posted on line by a member of the public. Almost a million signed the text which was the springboard for the launch of the longest social movement in post-war France. (At the time of publishing the piece, the weekly demonstrations across France were still going on).

The government’s decision in 2017 to cut the speed limit on country roads from 90 to 80km per hour was another factor in the rise of the Yellow Vests. People sympathetic to the movement saw it as a failure on the part of the government to understand the needs of rural residents who are totally reliant on their cars.

The movement soon made further claims of a ‘progressive’ nature centred around the high cost of living. The Yellow Vests demanded the reintroduction of the tax on wealth (arguing that taxation is unfair as it falls on the working and middle classes), the increase of the minimum wage, or the implementation of the Citizen’s Initiative referenda. Protestors immediately got personal and called for the resignation of President Macron.

There is no alternative

Apart from abandoning the decision to rise taxes on fuel, Macron did nothing to answer the movements’ claims, nor to assuage public discontent. He basically reiterated that there was no alternative to his neoliberal economic policies, and gave licence to the police to handle demonstrators with extreme brutality.

The longest social movement in French history (but not at all the most numerous in terms of participants), is also a new sociological phenomenon. The Yellow Vests for the most part are newcomers to militancy. They are not members of a political party or of a trade union, most do not vote and they reject the entrenched left/right cleavage.

The Yellow Vests are in employment, but they struggle to make ends meet. They mostly are middle-aged, and living in rural or peri-urban areas. Women are quite well represented among protestors, but the movement is overwhelmingly white. The Yellow Vests is indeed a Franco-French story which has failed to attract the populations from an ethnic background who are essentially concentrated in urban areas.

The movement’s most fundamental characteristic is its loathing of representative democracy: the Yellow Vests despise professional politicians and describe them as ‘corrupt’ and ‘incompetent’. They also want to stay away from left parties and unions. In short, they only believe in themselves to carry out major social and political transformations. But how can one achieve such ambitious objectives without looking for allies and working out concrete political outcomes (for instance, an alliance with organised progressive forces or taking part in elections)?

Two concentric circles

The Yellow Vests embrace the highly fashionable – if simplistic – populist viewpoint according to which society is divided between ‘the people’ (the large majority of citizens) and ‘the elites’ (the very small, 1% fraction of the dominant classes).

The apparent loathing of professional politicians and political representation has not prevented some Yellow Vests from appointing themselves ‘spokespeople’ of the movement: Priscillia Ludosky (who started the online petition in May 2018), Éric Drouet or Maxime Nicolle have even become media stars and household names, often for the wrong reasons. (Drouet and Nicolle have propagated far right propaganda and conspiracy theories on social media)

When two splinter groups decided to run a list of candidates at the last European elections, they were immediately ostracised by the rest of the movement. The results were derisory: one list received 0.7% of the share of the vote and the other 0.5%. When they voted, a majority of Yellow Vests supporters chose Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally.

Is it surprising? Qualitative surveys show that there are in fact two concentric circles of Yellow Vest protestors: the core – which takes to the street on a weekly basis – is economically progressive and culturally rather tolerant. This is the public face of the movement. But there is more to it than this ‘left-wing’ component. A larger circle of supporters, less active in the movement, is motivated by the defence of specific material interests (rise on fuel, speed limit, curbing immigration). The Yellow Vests’ anti-system and anti-establishment rhetoric combined with those material concerns was therefore largely compatible with Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-migrants and anti-elite discourse.

Now what?

In short, if the movement has put forward very decent proposals on the social and economic side of the argument, it has failed to appeal to the masses of salaried workers (blue and white-collar workers), as well as the unemployed, the young and racialised populations. The reasons for the eventual failure of the movement are clear today: the idea of a popular rebellion against an arrogant and right-wing president may have been a romantic idea to most French for a short period of time, but it did not suffice to form a real political movement.

The people who demonstrate across France every Saturday have ended up representing nothing but themselves. French workers, for the most part, got bored if not impatient with demonstrators who did not offer any proper solutions to the crisis.

The Yellow Vests movement, far from helping a weak and discredited French left, has in fact further deepened its crisis. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who publicly supported the movement from day one, fared very badly at the European elections. His France Insoumise movement received 6.3% of the share of the vote (down from his 19.6% at the 2017 presidential election). Le Pen is on 23.3% and the beleaguered Macron on 22.4%.

An IFOP poll published on 27th-28th May revealed worrying figures: 38% of people who voted for Mélenchon in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, 58% who voted for France Insoumise at the European elections, and 61% who plan to vote for Mélenchon at the 2022 presidential election, would cast their vote in favour of Le Pen, should she face Macron in the second round of that 2022 election.

Voters in France are ideologically and politically so confused and angry that the shift of a significant chunk of left-wing voters to the far right is now a distinct possibility.


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