What is happening in Paris is complicated. Add to that the fact that my French is not very good, and I am far too busy to read everything my friends are posting, and you can see why I have been reluctant to say much about this movement. But it is far too important to ignore, so here is a short summary of some articles I have read and found useful. I recommend reading all the articles here, even the ones I am critical of. As I said, it is complicated and one needs to read widely to get the full picture. I will continue to update this document as I learn more. (Feel free to make suggestions!)
First of all, I think it helps to go back to this article about Macron from last July: “Emmanuel Macron Is Not Your Friend” to understand a bit why things are the way they are.
In this sense, we can think of Macron as an updated, French version of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, with a dollop of the newer generation of triangulators. He’s consciously cast himself as the outsider who will break from politics as usual in defense of decency and democracy — and he’s done it all in the service of implementing a right-wing economic agenda.
Then we have those on the left who are excited about the movement, seeing it as something authentic and new which the world cannot yet process. Both David Graeber and Édouard Louis are dismissive of accusations of racism. Graeber writes “while certain identities might be (condescendingly) indulged, that of ‘the white working class’ can only be a form of racism,” and Louis writes:
When the ruling classes and certain media talk about homophobia and racism in the gilets jaunes movement, they are not really talking about homophobia and racism. They are saying “Poor people, shut up!”
But others are more pessimistic about the radical possibilities of the movement. The international journal Liaisons has a correspondence with Alexey Samoedov, comparing Paris with the Ukrainian uprising at Maidan in 2014. While they agree it is a complex movement
The Yellow Vests are disparate. Some applaud the police, while others hate them. Some denounce immigrants, while others express their solidarity. Most survive, and it’s from there that we must start.
Samoedov warns about being too blithe about the fascists in their midst:
do not abandon the fight against the fascists so easily. There is a Russian proverb that says, “if you place a spoon of shit into a pot of honey, it becomes a pot of shit.” It’s a principle that seems to guide anarchists and the left in their perception of social movements.
Antonio Negri agrees:
The idiotic idea that it is possible to “use” movements of this kind, utilising them in the fight against a right-wing government, is also alive and well in France. It is the eternal dream of putting Father Gapon to work! But this has never happened in the history of the workers’ movement. Or rather, when it has happened, it was because the militant organisation of the working class had invested the spontaneity of the movement and transformed it into organisation. Is this what is happening now? When it is small Left groups organising within outbreaks of metropolitan violence, and when the CGT, completely extraneous to these movements, pathetically insists on increasing wages?
Julius Gavroche makes a similar point when he compares what is happening in Paris now to Brazil in 2013:
What is taking place in France is reminiscent of what happened in Brazil in 2013, when a movement against the rising cost of public transportation provoked a nationwide crisis. This crisis gave tens of thousands of people new experience with horizontal organizing and direct action, but it also opened the way for nationalists to gain ground by presenting themselves as rebels against the ruling order. There are two significant differences between Brazil in 2013 and France today, however. First, the movement in Brazil was initiated by anarchists, but grew too big too quickly for anarchist values to retain hegemony—whereas anarchists have never had leverage within the movement of the “yellow vests.” Second, the movement in Brazil took place under a supposedly leftist government, not a centrist one. The hijacking of the movement against the fare hike in Brazil set the stage for a chain of events that culminated in the electoral victory of Bolsonaro, an outright proponent of military dictatorship and extrajudicial mass murders. In France, the context seems even less promising.
Finally, for now, I don’t really know if these “Demands of France’s yellow vests” actually represent any kind of consensus? If they do, then perhaps the answer to whether the Yellow Vests can speak is “yes” and what they have to say is a bit disturbing:
on immigration: “Prevent migratory flows that cannot be accommodated or integrated, given the profound civilizational crisis we are experiencing.”
As I said at the outset, I am still trying to figure this out, but so far I am more worried than encouraged.
Update: December 16, 2018
French writer Édouard Louis is optimistic:
I think that what is important was for the left to be there, to be present. It’s already what started to happen with the gilets jaunes. At the beginning, you had a lot of right-wing people, some of them far-right—politicians or celebrities—who were supporting this movement. And then the movement started to become more left-wing, because at the beginning they were talking only about gas, and now they are talking about social justice, equality.
But the blogger Y.C. is not:
I do not deny the very diverse angers of the “people” who participate or sympathize with the “gilets jaunes” movement. But I do not think it can lead to something positive especially when two of its claims are the expulsion of asylum seekers who did not get their stay permit and the end of so-called “dependence on social benefits” paid by the state
But there is little actual data, except for this one study which suggests that those on the left outnumber those on the right:
The dominant response was to declare themselves apolitical, or ‘neither right nor left’ (33%). On the other hand, among those who did take a position, 15% were on the far left compared to 5.4% on the far right; 42.6% were on the left, 12.7% on the right, and only 6% in the centre.
It should be noted that only 2 of the 166 people interviewed mentioned the management of immigration in their responses to the two questions presented. This suggests that analyses that view the movement as an expression of the far right should be reconsidered.
Joshua Clover’s piece suggests something similar, picking up on the comparison with Brazil I quoted earlier
While we are familiar with street movements drifting right—Brazil provides a disastrous example—the gilets jaunes seemed to have reverse this course at moments over the duration of disturbances, particularly as the weekly calls for Saturday convergences have meant a certain urbanization and have moved toward a broader proletarian base
But while all that is encouraging, there is also this:
On Route A6, the main artery between Paris and Marseilles, a huge banner was hung on a bridge, accusing Jews of controlling French President Emmanuel Macron. The banner read: “Macron is a whore of the Jews.” Social networks have also become an arena for spreading anti-Semitic expression. Thus, for example, a message circulated by an anonymous source wearing a mask: “It was the rich Jews who brought Macron to power so that he would be their puppet and they are pulling the strings. The Jews are responsible for the lowering of taxes on the rich and for the whole financial situation.”