This is the first article in a two-part series on the Yellow Vest protests. Read the second part here.
Paris: The Rond-Point du Nouveau Monde (New World Roundabout) never seemed so aptly named. Like thousands of similar traffic circles across France, this roundabout located near the small Alsatian town of Guebwiller was occupied by a group of Gilets Jaunes, or ‘Yellow Jacket’, protesters on November 17.
Over the following weeks, hundreds of men and women of all ages gathered at this strategic intersection to block the RN83 road between Belfort and Colmar. The blockade remained relatively mild, but this disruptive action and the collective discussions that ensued were enough to free the political imagination of its participants.
Why people are on the streets
An apprentice in his early 20s, Michel* was concerned about the proposed increase of the so-called ‘carbon tax’, which ignited the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes. He was initially drawn to the Rond-Point du Nouveau Monde after quitting his first internship at a distant factory, because he could ‘no longer afford to pay for the gasoline’.
Officially, this tax raise aimed to finance France’s ‘ecological transition’. For the Gilets Jaunes, however, it was a cover up for recent fiscal reforms in favour of the wealthiest section of the population. Indeed, in 2018, out of the 10 billion euros generated by the carbon tax, only two were allocated to the country’s energy transition, while the rest went to replenish the government’s coffers.
While the Gilets Jaunes movement has been described as a fiscal revolt, its primary concern was not with taxation per se but with the trade-off at the heart of the fiscal system grinding to a halt for the middle and working classes, especially in the small towns and peri-urban areas that have been the cradle of the Gilets Jaunes movement.
It is in these parts of the country that the downsizing of the state and the deterioration of public services has been the most visible over the past decade. As some of the most perceptive analysts of the crisis have pointed out, the Gilets Jaunes are not a libertarian movement. While contesting the use of taxpayers’ money, they put forward a demand for more regulation of the markets and better public services.
Sophie* works as a nurse in a home for persons with mental disabilities. The first week of the occupation, which saw the Gilets Jaunes set up roadblocks on the RN83, she went on a sick leave to devote herself fully to this new cause. When I met her during a protest in Paris on December 8, she claimed to earn a decent salary but was concerned about the deterioration of the public health services and about her own ability to pursue her work: “I’m a bit fed up working alone with 90 residents during weekends, because that means putting other people’s lives at risk, so it would be great if he [President Macron] could move his ass.”
By avoiding complaining about their own difficulty in making ends meet while pointing at the rise of social suffering around them, the Gilets Jaunes I interviewed over several weekly protests in Paris conveyed a certain idea of a dignified working life and a sense of anguish at watching its foundations fall apart. These lower earners’ search for respect went hand in hand with their ‘bread and butter’ grievances.
As Hervé*, a 20-something machining technician from Besançon told me, “I can’t complain, I make a good wage but I have a mentally handicapped brother and my mother is soon going to be retired. In six months, when she retires, it’s going to get complicated. Frankly, I don’t give a shit about earning a lot of money… We just want to live decently and be represented by people who don’t make fun of us [qui se foutent pas de notre gueule, quoi].”
Besides the issue of fiscal justice, one of the core issues that the Gilets Jaunes movement has been raising all along concerns the value of work under a neoliberal order characterised by state downsizing and rising economic insecurity. Behind this mobilisation are primarily low-earning workers, employees and small entrepreneurs, who see themselves in opposition to ‘la France d’en haut (upper-level France)’ but also to unemployed populations surviving on welfare and contemptuously referred to as les assistés (welfare recipients).
In parallel with his unhindered class contempt and ‘Jupiterian’ style, Emmanuel Macron’s unabashed promotion of the ‘premiers de cordée (lead climbers)’ has deeply alienated the most vulnerable sections of the labour force. This is particularly true of a growing precariat, for whom job protection is no longer synonymous with the defence of stable professional positions and class identifications. In a more existential manner, it is about defending the economic value of an active working life over a life on welfare – an economic struggle with strong moral implications. As Vincent, a 21-year-old self-declared anarchist worker from Alès, in the south of the country, explained to me during the fifth Gilets Jaunes gathering in Paris on December 15, “Right now I’m doing some CDDs [temporary jobs] and I’m only earning a bit more than what I’d receive if I was unemployed. Maybe 50 euros more, which I spend in transportation costs to go to work. Sadly, it’s no longer profitable to work.”
A protest with a difference
As emphasised by many commentators, the Gilets Jaunes movement departs in significant ways from the mobilisations witnessed in France in the recent past. The absence of trade unions in the movement is particularly noteworthy and is revealing of the marginalisation of ‘intermediate bodies’ under France’s fast consolidating neoliberal order – a marginalisation that Emmanuel Macron has significantly contributed to and of which he is now reaping the benefits in the shape of an acephalous mobilisation providing little scope for negotiation. The Gilets Jaunes’ emphasis on the material and moral value of work, however, continues the trend of mobilisations of recent years, such as the movement against the reform of labour laws of 2016-2017.
Another continuity with recent mobilisations concerns the politics of place and pace of the movement – its focus on holding ground while taming traffic flows. In echo with various ‘public square movements’ – from Occupy Wall Street to the Spanish ‘Indignados’ –, France has been witnessing a proliferation of occupation struggles in both rural and urban spaces. In Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Sivens or more recently Bure, environmentalists and anti-capitalist groups have been opposing development projects through the long-term occupation of the land and the formation of Zones to Defend (ZAD).
The movement against the reform of labour laws, for its part, led to the Nuit Debout experiment, through the occupation of the Place de la République, in Paris, during the Spring of 2016. In parallel with this politics of occupation – which in the rural ZADs was accompanied by the invention of new forms of dwelling, in interaction with local populations –, French protesters have been resorting with growing frequency to roadblocks and blockades. The idea, here, is not so much to occupy a place and defend it against state repression but to disrupt traffic flows in order to press for specific demands or for a more revolutionary agenda of systemic change.
This tactic was systematised by truckers in the mid-1980s, before being radicalised by a section of the far-left gathered around the Comité Invisible, whose anonymous writers have been calling for an insurrection under the rallying call that, ‘Power is logistic. Block everything!’ One of the main inspirers of the Gilets Jaunes, Eric Drouet, is himself a truck driver, and the movement is probably more indebted to the art of restraining of truckers than to the manifestoes of the radical Left.
Whatever their genealogy, the protest tactics of the movement tend to blend in the logics of occupying, regrouping and blocking by turning occupied ronds-points into miniature ZADs while using them as a base area for various disruptions of traffic flows and commercial activities. The weaponisation of the traffic infrastructure suggests that the asphalt, rather than the shop floor, has become the new battleground of French protest politics, while the blockage might well be replacing the strike as the truly contemporary form of resistance to the tyranny of the markets.
The importance of the rond-point
The centrality of the rond-point in this new politics of occupation and disruption seems rather improbable at first. These traffic circles are emblematic of peri-urban France, a part of the country where nearly a fourth of the French population resides but which is often considered as peripheral to the affairs of the country while lacking in social integration and political awareness. For urban elites, the 40,000 ronds-points scattered across the country are iconic non-places epitomising an ‘ugly France’ (la France moche) brutalised by the motor-car civilisation.
On the contrary, for the populations of these peri-urban areas – which have provided the Gilets Jaunes movement with the bulk of its participants – these traffic circles are an elementary structure of everyday life. They are integral to their practices of circulation and consumption.
This is particularly true of those roundabouts located near commercial zones where the mass-merchandisers and supermarkets that have replaced convenience stores are concentrated. The rond-point is also the main point of concentration of traffic flows and, as such, a primary target for any operation disruptive of the circulatory order of things.
The last element of continuity with mobilisations of the recent past, especially with Nuit Debout, concerns the dialogical component of the protests. True, these mobilisations have been catering to distinct audiences. While Nuit Debout primarily brought together members of the urban Left, the Gilets Jaunes draw their main support from peri-urban and small-town populations with a much fuzzier political profile.
Both movements, however, have provided political novices with an initiatory journey into protest politics, if not into politics tout court, by gifting them with a platform to voice their anger, their anxieties and their hopes, to experiment with direct democracy, and to gain a new sense of belonging through collective actions and freewheeling discussions.
Small shacks made of wood, plastic and tarpaulin became the rallying point of this disparate roundabout society. In Sens, a small town located 100 km southeast of Paris, the roundabout located in front of the local Jardiland (a chain of stores specialising in gardening) was renamed the ‘rond-point des Gaulois’ in reference to a comment by President Macron on the ‘change-resistant Gauls’.
When I visited the encampment, a small group of participants fondly recalled their celebration of Christmas together. “We came right after the family dinner,” said Sara*, in her early 20s. “We saw much more of the magic of Christmas here than in our own families.” Jean*, another pillar of the occupation, went a step further: “This is the family that we have chosen.”
Antagonistic relations with other ronds-points only strengthened these new bonds, a major divide pitting those toeing a legalistic line against those arguing for more aggressive protest tactics.
In Sens, for instance, the Gilets Jaunes from the ‘rond-point des Gaulois’ and those from the ‘rond-point d’Auchan’, located near the eponymous supermarket, have been at loggerhead for weeks, each of them accusing the others of radicalism and incivilities against non-compliant drivers. The sense of place has grown so strong among each group that the ‘Gaulois’ recently printed badges in the name of their rond-point, which carry the effigy of a fearsome Gaul.
A conversation across ideologies
On these makeshift agoras, where few protesters knew each other before the movement picked up, ideological cleavages were not erased. In the heat of the struggle and the bitter cold of the night, these differences seemed to have lost significance, though.
In this motley crew, Hervé* recognised France at large: “There were some far-Right idiots, some far-Left idiots, some un-politicised fools, and some politicised fools. There was a bit of everything, the whole country was there.”
Whereas the coexistence of individuals of such different denominations would have proved contentious in any other setting, this was not the case on the ronds-points. For Hervé, the Gilets Jaunes are Aristotelician political animals: “We can talk to each other, we’re not beasts, after all!”
The more people met and the more they conversed, the more they awakened to their collective strength. Says Vincent*, the anarchist worker from Alès, “Right now, people talk much more about politics. They are awakening. Voters are maturing into political citizens, into constituents.”
During their blockades, the Gilets Jaunes built communities of speech and learnt to talk back to power. No wonder that their main demand recently shifted from the defence of purchasing power to the introduction of a referendum mechanism that would allow French citizens to introduce new law proposals, repeal existing laws, and revoke political representatives. This may sound like a distant populist dream. This new demand, however, is a by-product of the Gilets Jaunes’ discursive experiment and is consonant with their aspiration to remind political representatives that, in the words of Hervé, “We [the people] are their masters, not the opposite.”
*All names have been changed.
All photos by Laurent Gayer.
Laurent Gayer is a research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris.