Back to the Future: The Yellow Vests Movement and the Riddle of Organization

The following text is adapted from the contribution of Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes to a panel at the Historical Materialism conference in London. The text has been published here and on Notes from Below.

The uprising of the YVs (Yellow Vests or the “mouvement des gilets jaunes”) and its persistent tenacity mark a point of no return. In our opinion, there is a before and an after the YVs. At least in Europe and in terms of class struggle.

Ten days ahead of its first anniversary, we are here in London to present a viewpoint that is situated and immanent to the emergence of the YVs, based on our militant practices and interventions. We do so, therefore, with our eyes turned back, to the last 12 months, to tell you what has happened so far, but with our hearts and heads set towards the future; the future not only of this new and powerful movement, but – more generally – the future of class struggle in Europe.

The YVs are indeed the strongest movement that has emerged on the scene of the old continent between the late 1970s and today. Moreover, the YVs make for a movement that has crystallized and exploded many of the contradictions that exist in today’s world, anticipating several issues that concern our future.

The YVs movement is first and foremost an autonomous movement – that is, a movement that was born, has taken shape and has grown outside any institutional framework. Also, it is an anti-crisis movement – that is, it gives substance to a self-organized response from below against the brutal deterioration of the living and working conditions of the middle and lower classes, and against the authoritarian turn of the state machine. Since the crisis of liberal democracy, the crisis of capital and the crisis of the institutional left do not seem to be fading away, the emergence of the YVs speaks not only of our recent past and present, but also largely of the near future and our political tasks.

After four decades of neoliberal reaction and after the radicalization and strengthening of processes of neoliberalization following the 2008 crisis, the YVs were the only movement, at least in Europe, to win victories in the cycle of struggles that began in 2011: Emmanuel Macron, “the President of the Rich,” had indeed to withdraw the carbon tax, concede a series of more or less symbolic measures, but above all exceed the budgetary limits imposed by the Brussels “golden rules”. Even worse, Macron had to slow down, or in some cases defer, the agenda of neoliberal reforms – which has further increased the tensions already existing among the European ruling class, between the supporters of the federalist turn and the supporters of the confederalist perspective, as is particularly clear within the European Central Bank (ECB) board.

That said, by way of introduction, it is very difficult to account for the richness and variety of a movement like the YVs in 20 minutes, for several reasons. First of all, because it is an extremely heterogeneous movement. Its social composition – transversal to the poor or impoverished – is not only closely linked to the spatial composition of the different parts of the country that mobilize, but it can change rather significantly between assemblies that are not too far apart geographically. At least, this is what we were able to notice when we joined the popular assemblies of Paris and its suburbs (as MIP (Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes) we are present in five different assemblies). Moreover, the movement is present throughout France, so you understand the difficulties of mapping the YVs. However, if we want to sketch out a somewhat wild socio-geographic radiography of the movement, we can say two things. From the point of view of social composition, it is not the lower strata of society or the middle classes that are at the forefront of the dynamics of the movement, but rather the social segments in between, that is, those impoverished workers who are going through major downgrading processes of worsening of their social conditions, and who see the future in a darker way than they could ever have imagined before the crisis. From the point of view of spatial composition, it is neither the working-class districts nor the city centers that are most active, but the peri-urban areas, the inner suburbs, the diffuse peripheries, i.e. these semi-rural and semi-urban spaces that constitute a limbo from both a socio-economic and political point of view. Finally, with regard to its subjective composition, it should be added that this is a fairly old movement (the average age of the YVs being between 45 and 50 years), with a strong female presence, i.e. women, and middle-aged women in particular, still playing a very important role.

The second difficulty is that this is a movement that has been going on for a year, i.e. it now has a certain longevity. During this time, the movement has mutated and gone through different phases, depending on the evolution of its organizational process, but also on the tactics put in place by the government to contain, divert, repress it, etc. The movement thus experienced peaks in intensity (the first four weeks, 16th March, 14th July), moments of decline (during the election campaign for European elections, in August, in October), moments of high contamination (on 5th February and 1st May with grassroots trade unions, the anti-racist and suburban marches of February and July, in September with the ecological protests). That is, the movement has continued to be important for supporting ongoing struggles, whether local and linked to a territory, or sector-specific and labor-related. And November 2019 is a month full of events: the movement is in fact far from over…

Third, it is difficult to report in 20 minutes on this movement because of the plurality of its forms of action. The YVs have thoroughly renewed the practices of blocking, assembly and demonstration, while practicing self-inquiry in an extremely interesting way. Beyond the occupations of the buildings known as People’s Houses (Maisons du Peuple), and beyond the free-toll (péage-gratuit) actions, what characterized the movement were four forms of actions: 

  1. circulation blockades, also in particularly strategic roundabouts as far as the flow of commodities or the flow of people are concerned – the issue being not only economic blockage, but also visibility and exchange with other citizens

  2. the transformation of these blockades into occupations, and the proliferation of assembly spaces, which immediately became the focus of the movement’s self-organization and places of sociability, mutual aid and solidarity

  3. it is within the occupied roundabouts and local assemblies that the YVs have constantly discussed among themselves, drawn up questionnaires, compiled lists of grievances (cahiers de doléances), put forward their revendications: in short, in these spaces the YV have carried on practices of militant self-inquiry, by way of improving overall political perspectives and constantly organizing actions, the spectrum of which ranges from sabotage and offensive practices to peaceful and symbolic initiatives

  4. the transformation of the classic demonstration (the marches established in agreement with the police prefecture) into a weekly riot meeting in the rich districts of French metropolises, where looting of shops can go hand in hand with urban guerrilla warfare with an almost insurrectional content. 

Of course, this plurality of forms of action must always be considered within precise spatio-temporal coordinates. In short, the practices of the movement vary in time and space. 

However, if we want to try to politically synthesize this subjective, social, spatial, temporal and practical multiplicity, we can say – this is our thesis – that the movement has produced the inseparable unity of the social question and the political question; it has said loud and clear that the social is political and that the political is anchored in the social. More money and more direct democracy, or – we could say – more income and more autonomy. If we want to reduce the movement to its core, we could risk to claim what follows: according to the YVs, the material problems of the production and reproduction of life must be dealt with collectively, and direct democracy cannot be limited to the simple liberation/circulation of speech. The refusal of representation and delegation, the demands for fiscal justice and Macron’s dismissal, the politicization of ecological issues, but also the rediscovery of human warmth, social ties and fraternity, all this shows well that, within the movement of the YVs, only through the involvement of oneself, in the first person, in a community of struggle can one hope to change the relations of power in force today. The staggering unleashing of juridical, police and also symbolic violence against the movement (let us think of the contemptuous and arrogant treatment reserved by the media to the movement) clearly shows that the YVs have succeeded in turning these power relations upside down like no one before them – at least in Europe since the 1970s!

But let us return to the origin of the movement and its different phases. To be realistic, the genealogy of the YVs must begin a little more than a month before the 17th November 2018, which was the inaugural date of the mobilization. This movement does not emerge from social spaces that are constituted a priori, and this is the first element that makes of it an autonomous movement, in the sense that from its origins it is separated from a pre-existing organizational base. Very early on, even before the movement appears as such in the public space, on the local scale forms of organization are put in place, in parallel with the diffusion of slogans that circulate on social networks – such as the one that will give the movement its name, the yellow vest, intended to be placed in front of the cars of angry users against a new fuel tax. These kinds of problems, which are generally dealt with by (right-wing) associations defending motorists, are here invested in a much more global way, by a much broader social base than the one we usually see at work in this kind of circumstances. Therefore, what is invested from the beginning in the YVs movement is not access to the road, or claims over a driving practice, but the very possibility of using the car as a working or reproductive tool that is absolutely essential in the diffuse peripheries that we mentioned above. Once this has been said, it is extremely difficult not to read the yellow vest movement as the emergence of a social conflict linked to extractivist practices of the state in the field of taxation, but also as the socialization of an essential means of production such as the car.

However, it was not until 17th November 2018 that the movement really emerges as a political force in the sense that it begins to embody a level of antagonism that has not been seen in France – and more broadly in Europe – for several decades. 17th November is placed under the sign of blockage as a mass political practice: it is the first investment of the roundabout, reclaimed by the YVs to become both an organizational space but also a blockage point for the commercial and industrial zones that mark the fabric of peri-urban and rural France – even the Arc du Triomphe, one could say, is a roundabout…!

It is in parallel with this exacerbated conflict that the movement’s slogans widens, totally contradicting the thesis of a Poujadist movement: the movement demands the return of the wealth tax abolished a few months earlier by the government, and the dismissal of the President himself, to immediately turn to address a much broader spectrum of demands. It is as a result of this powerful mobilization – which brought the riots to places where they had been absent since the Paris Commune – that the French government makes its first concessions: “They were content to drop a ridiculous suspension of fuel taxes for the year 2019, amounting to 4 billion, which represents an offering of 6 cents for diesel and 3 cents for gasoline.”

From this point on, the YVs movement has continued to reinvent itself to the point that the story of each phase would take several hours to be detailed. We can say that, at first, the movement is deployed according to a double temporality, spatially determined: the occupations and blockages take place throughout the week and throughout France, and the demonstrations unroll in the beautiful districts of Paris (and other cities) on Saturday mornings and afternoons. The absolute autonomy of the movement and its political agenda, combined with a very high degree of participation and antagonism, has prevented the government from finding real “exit strategies for the crisis,” forcing it to constantly change its tactics, which – in turn – has been at the root of many shifts in the practices and perspectives of the YVs.

To stay always in the early phases of the movement, one of the first slogans of the YVs has been the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (CIR). The investment of the YVs with this slogan must be understood above all as a consequence of the permanent articulation of the social and political struggle rather than as a trademark of the movement’s supposed sovereignism, or its purely formal attachment to democracy. The criticism of much of the radical left, which consisted in putting forward the idea that “it is not the CIR that pays the bills,” only deepened its separation from the YVs movement. As for us, as MIP, we preferred to avoid the double pitfall of Marxist vulgate (“money before CIR,” “le fric avant le Ric”) and political sociology (the procedural aridity of the CIR), to treat it from a point of view immanent to the movement, its composition and its tactics, which in these early phases have entirely been under construction.

In this respect, it is important to be very clear on one point: the right, the Front National (FN), the followers of a dubious Frexit, and small neo-fascist groups, have definitively lost all hegemonic aspiration on the movement from February onwards. And this has not been the result of leftist criticism of the movement, but the fruit of collective intelligence that has matured in the daily practice of direct democracy. Beyond the physical expulsion of neo-fascist and reactionary groups from the streets and assemblies, what shifted the movement’s support to other fronts of social and anti-racist struggles, is on the one hand the exercise of sharing the experiences of protest and blockage, of freeing speech, and of incessant confrontation within assemblies; and on the other hand the unparalleled detestation of the police due to the countless mutilations committed by police forces. From this point on, in the landscape of French parliamentary politics the centrality of the question of the police and of the “support for the police” has been decisive in separating the YVs from sovereignist entrepreneurs – both from right and left.

Then, since the very beginning of 2019, when the insurrectional power of the movement has begun to resize, the prospect of a confederation of assemblies launched in Commercy (a small village in northeastern France) has been increasingly emerging. This initiative, inspired by Kurdish democratic confederalism, has brought together up to 300 local assemblies to discuss the political lines of the movement on four occasions (in January, April, June and last weekend). While continuing to guarantee “all power to local assemblies,” the AoA (Assembly of Assemblies) has immediately appeared to be an extremely important framework to be invested for structuring the movement. The size of the AoA offers the possibility of a national meeting beyond the Saturday “acts” in Paris or in other major French cities, and it constitutes a very interesting political space, both as a tool for knowledge among the different local experiences, and as a tool for harmonizing the practices and perspectives of the whole movement. To give just one example, during the AoA held last weekend in Montpellier, which brought together more than 600 delegates from 300 local assemblies, seven working tables were set up, on:

  1. the improvement of the organizational structure of the AoA itself

  2. the relations to be developed with the rest of the population

  3. the identification of our enemies or opponents

  4. the preparation of the first anniversary of the movement, that will take place next weekend

  5. how to act in the context of municipal elections

  6. how to relate to other movements (including the environmental movement and the trade union movement)

  7. the renewal of internationalism at a time when powerful popular revolts are breaking out all over the world

As we can see, the political subjectivation of the YVs and the forms of counter-power that the movement has been able to develop so far seem to us to have great political potential. In this respect, following the success of the last AoA, a week before the first anniversary of the YVs, shortly before the next youth climate strike, on the eve of a strike movement against pension reform that promises to be quite significant, in a transnational context of social upheaval, it seems to us that the situation is and remains, at least in France, highly explosive. And the fact that the Montpellier AoA has produced three calls (to invest on November 16-17, to celebrate this anniversary all over the world, to commit to the strikes of December against pension reform) seems to us a very promising political fact!

Author of the article

is a militant research collective based in Paris. Formed in the wake of the 2016 Nuit debout protests, they seek to recast the frameworks of workers' inquiry and co-research in the present conjuncture, with an analytical focus that attends to both situated trajectories of mobilization and new dynamics of capitalist exploitation. More information can be found on their website.