The two faces of the gilets jaunes

 There is a growing gulf between the grass-roots gilets, the militant mob involved in violent destructionand the political wing seeking to keep the main movement together.

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The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement sweeping through France continues to defy all categorisation. More than two months after the first rallies at roundabouts across the country, the rebellion has mobilised the rural poor and small-business owners disillusioned by the right, as well as manual workers and public sector employees disillusioned by the left. Far from being an uprising of the poor against the rich, the gilets jaunes reflect a popular majority composed of the working and lower-middle classes who are not represented by any political party.

Even as the movement is divided between those who want to harden the protests and those who hope to enter politics (by contesting the European Parliament elections in May), it is united around a demand for democracy and the building of a common life. In times of deep discontent, the gilets jaunes’ fight for greater economic equality and social solidarity resonates with a majority of French people (who polls show support the movement).

Now that its moderate wing is becoming more organised and disciplined, it has the potential to offer an alternative to both President Emmanuel Macron’s ultra-liberalism and the anti-liberal populism of the far left and the radical right. The stakes for France and the EU could hardly be higher. European politics risks sliding into a soft totalitarianism – with the elites and the insurgents using authoritarian and demagogic methods to impose their will on the people.

Having captured the presidency 20 months ago by smashing the party political establishment, Macron now embodies it. He combines the bureaucratic technocracy of the French central state with the market fundamentalism of global finance in an attempt to create a start-up nation of tech entrepreneurs, modelled on Silicon Valley. The American social thinker Christopher Lasch conceptualised this kind of politics as a fusion of old elites with new classes that isolates the establishment from the concerns of ordinary people.

Macron has made concessions on the minimum wage, fuel prices and tax on overtime work, but his nationwide debate is merely an extension of his presidential campaign – a horizontal platform at the service of vertical power and wealth that never trickles down. The president and his government seem to have little understanding of everyday life beyond the elite layer of French society. His spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux dismissed protesters as those who “smoke fags and drive diesels”, stating “that’s not what we want 21st-century France to be”.

Macron’s mantra is that all progress is positive and that France has to adapt to globalisation, eerily echoing Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” and Tony Blair’s “things can only get better”. In an age of growing economic dislocation and cultural instability, it is no surprise that Macron’s popularity hit historically low levels.

The moderate wing of the gilets jaunes has decided to stand ten candidates in the European elections because it rejects both the establishment and the extremes. This part of the movement is equally opposed to the rampant individualism associated with Macron and the statist control proffered in different ways by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left and Marine Le Pen’s radical right. For the gilets, French politics lacks a sense of lived solidarity anchored in the common life of ordinary people.

By contesting the European elections, the moderate gilets run several risks. One is that they will attract support from the disaffected and take votes away from the populist extremes. The main beneficiary would be Macron. In the latest polls, his party En Marche! retook the lead from Le Pen’s National Rally and his approval ratings went up. The gilets movement could contribute to the fracturing of the opposition and the strengthening of the ruling elites.

Another risk is that the gilets jaunes will split into various factions and that mobilisation and popular support will fizzle out. There is already a growing gulf between the grass-roots gilets, the militant mob involved in violent destruction, and the political wing seeking to keep the main movement together.

The continuous violence will not just tarnish the political wing in advance of the May elections. It could also provoke more police violence, such as the aggressive, rather than defensive, use of stun grenades and rubber bullets, and escalate an already febrile atmosphere.

Escaping this spiral will require a spontaneous movement to transform into a political organisation that combines mass mobilisation with a programme, a strategy and credible candidates. Paradoxically, the weaknesses of the movement are also its strengths. The gilets emerged not from trade unions, political parties or militant groups but from a grass-roots and social media uprising. This is not a rural rebellion, like the 14th-century Jacquerie, to which it has been wrongly compared. Nor is it a variant of the anti-tax, anti-spend protest led by shopkeeper Pierre Poujade (the founder of “Poujadism”) in the 1950s.

Rather, the gilets are an embryonic expression of a cross-class and cross-cultural alliance that reflects a popular majority. It holds paradoxical positions, being anti-state-as-usual but pro-government intervention, anti-big business but pro-enterprise, anti-trade union but pro-worker, anti-nationalism but pro-patriotism, anti-globalisation but pro-internationalism. These positions might seem contradictory, but in reality they are coherent and compatible.

The main task is to build a political party that retains its roots in the country and offers a politics that serves people. If the gilets can provide leadership and popular participation, they might stand a fighting chance against the Macron establishment and the populist insurgents.

Adrian Pabst is an author and New Statesman contributing writer, and head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent

Adrian Pabst is head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author of Liberal World Order and Its Critics (Routledge). Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianPabst1​.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam