It is impossible to remain on the sidelines


December 6, 2018

This text was originally published on Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes as “Sur une ligne de crête: Notes sur le mouvement des gilets jaunes”. It has been translated by Hector Uniacke, Andrew Anastasi, and Patrick King, and is being simultaneously published by Viewpoint.


Below you will find the English translation of the analysis by the Parisian collective Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes, published Friday, November 30th, on the eve of Act III of the yellow vests movement [gilets jaunes]. As is known, this third act that took place in Paris and in many other cities in the Hexagon1 on Saturday, December 1st, assumed, with every passing hour, some truly insurrectionary features. The principal symbolic and institutional places of the République have been invaded, targeted, surrounded, and besieged head-on by an incalculable number of demonstrators: once again the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, to which can be added the Bourse de Paris, the Prefecture, the Place de la République and the Place de la Bastille. Over the course of the afternoon the situation completely escaped the hands of the forces of order. Just as the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Caster, announced their arrival at the Prefecture in order to sustain the “management” operations of public order, the city was taken, appropriated, fiercely and joyfully, by the demonstrators.

In the aftermath, French president Emmanuel Macron’s government has performed a volte-face. In a speech on Tuesday, December 4, the prime minister Philippe announced that the scheduled rise in fuel taxed would be suspended for six months, along with a freeze on utility prices which would take immediate effect. But the protests have carried on unabated: the Union Nationale Lycéenne, the union of secondary-school students, stated in a communiqué that access was blocked to 300 high schools throughout the country, from Marseilles to Nantes, with “approximately 100,000 students” mobilized; the CGT, the major trade union federation in France, along with Force Ouvrière, has called for a transport strike beginning the evening of Sunday, December 9th, in addition to days of action which are due to start on Friday, December 14th. Clearly, something has snapped, and a powerful social insurgency has been activated. What political encounters and unexpected coalitions will take hold on the streets in the days to follow, now that the stability offered the demand to cancel the tax raise has been lifted?

But in the French press, as in social networks, the parallels with other events of “historical” significance are squandered. In the first place, the comparison is made with May of ‘68, in relation to which some analogies are even shown concerning the places taken by storm by the demonstrators: in the first place the Bourse de Paris, and then the barricades spread pretty much everywhere in the beaux quartiers of the capital. But other parallels circulate: one says that it is a cycle of struggles that had been seen, in recent times, in Greece, or even, as the very leader of France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has written, with the Tunisia of Ben Ali – in this case, the parallel is made with reference to the illegitimacy of the sovereign: in Tunisia Ben Ali, in France Macron. However what these parallels do not catch is the completely unprecedented character of the social composition that characterizes this movement, its territorial articulation and dissemination. For this reason, the collectively-produced dispatch that we are publishing constitutes a beginning to reflection in such a sense, an invitation to the development of this political research “in medias res.”

It appears clear that, facing this hybrid and “tangled” composition that bursts onto the present scene to the stomping rhythm of the multiplication of the yellow vests, and facing the unprecedented force of a mobilization quickly transforming itself into popular metropolitan revolt, the cries of alarm at fascism appear completely out of sync. Just as it seems to us reductive, at least, to limit ourselves to providing a descriptive picture of the subjects and the demands that are in play. Just as the types of invitations to “get one’s hands dirty” – which, more than an indication of method, seem to constitute an implicit admission precisely of political impotence – appear to us useless and repetitive, like a broken record. Once one recognizes the complexity of the social composition of the yellow vests, it is necessary to immerse oneself in the very rough waters of this movement, trying to trace some lines of political distinction and some possible prospects for the extension of the struggle.

From this point of view, the day of Saturday, December 1st, seems to have marked a leap in social and political quality with respect to the first two weeks of mobilization: the city of Paris, we would even say the metropolitan social composition, has taken part actively in the uprising, alongside the great many coming from the extreme periphery of the Île de France, as well as from many other regions in the depths of France, neglected by the spotlight. The analysis that we have written here closed with the convocation of an autonomous demonstration in the vicinity of the Saint-Lazaire station. Precisely from this station of the city, which became one of the symbolic places of the demonstration convocations during the movement of the previous spring, an impressive march came to life on Saturday, one which seems to us to have contributed to a qualitative leap, in terms of political subjectivation, with respect to the first days of struggle: collectives from the popular neighborhoods, railway workers, students, queer and feminist collectives invaded the streets of the center of Paris, alongside dozens of other improvised marches, without apparent coordination. Many wore yellow vests, others red ones, and still others neither.

Macronism is now a tragedy that is being consumed in many acts, as many acts as the movement of the yellow vests has completed so far. An Act IV has already been announced for the coming Saturday the 8th, again in the city of Paris. A president, elected by a minority of French people, voted for by those who wanted to respond to the dangerous advance of the far right, and who, taking up residence in the Élysée, declared in a solemn tone that he would reconcile France in a few months. A president who, as the railway workers and students know well, has made the breaking of political mediation the distinctive trait of his anti-politics, an anti-politics perfectly compatible with the dreams of a new technocratic leader for Europe. A president who with the assault on the railway workers dreamed of going down in history as the one who had done in France what Thatcher had done with the British miners. A president and a government delegitimized by summer scandals – see the Benalla affair – and by the crumbling of his own governmental structure, with the resignations of many ministers.

The totality of these elements, in order to go beyond mere reports of political news [resoconti di cronaca politica], shows us that the Gaullist political-institutional system, and its material constitution, which have marked the history of the Fifth Republic, have arrived at a point of no return. If the outcomes of this revolt are still unpredictable, in France as on the European level, an element appears clear: the extremism of the center that has characterized Macron’s anti-politics has come to an end. And the final blows of this meltdown could be more harsh: there are already those who invoke, like the Alliance police union, the reactivation of the state of emergency, and the use of the army for the coming demonstrations – something that has already happened in the case of La Réunion, where the movement has taken on insurrectionary characteristics for around ten days.

It is departing from such considerations, from this level of internal and external delegitimation of French power, that we must also understand another essential trait of this movement: the will, now unanimous within it, to dethrone the sovereign (a tag made next to the Opera of Paris last Saturday: Macron = Louis XVI). A movement born online, with a petition, with the typical features of French “citizenism,” but which soon married direct practice, the economic blockade, and assault on the places of political power. A return of popular violence inscribed in the history of a country whose temporality is marked by cycles of revolts and revolutions. Now this demand [istanza] of dethronement, which has sedimented as a widespread sentiment in French society, is interpreted differently by the forces of the opposition: Benoît Hamon has called for the immediate resignation of the Minister of the Interior. Jean-Luc Mélenchon is asking all the forces of the opposition to converge around a vote of no confidence and for all the forces of opposition to insist together on the necessity of modifying the electoral system in a proportional sense and to turn to new parliamentary elections. Marine Le Pen, who moved agilely in the first weeks, trying to interpret the demands of the yellow vests and trying to codify them in nationalistic and identitarian terms, showed some signs of weakness after the events of Saturday, addressing herself openly to the yellow vests and asking them to quit their marches in order to leave the field open for the police forces.

The text aims to provide some keys for reading and a direct handle on how much is happening in France, with the awareness that the shock and destabilizing force of the yellow vests will have some immediate and medium-term effects on the European level, in a scenario still strongly characterized by instability. It is evident that the strategic problem that this text poses in the form of a question, beyond some immediate political-institutional alchemies or solutions, is an insistence on the extension of struggles and on the process of subjectivation that blast away the technocratic cage and at the same time the tendency already underway toward the re-nationalization of the European space. We know that it is not at all easy, but… Hic Rhodus hic salta.


A battlefield: this describes the movement that has gripped France for the past few weeks, insofar as it is traversed by a social composition and political themes – taxation and purchasing power – that break with our classic interpretive grids. One thing is clear: the “yellow vests” movement requires us to put aside our political routines, in order to participate in it with the prudence of those who know how to advance in a strange and partly unknown milieu. From the outset, then, we must avoid the rigid dichotomy of either simple mimicry or full-on hostility. In this regard, it is imperative not to lose sight of our political convictions.2

Beyond the two major days of mobilization on two consecutive Saturdays, November 17 and 24, this first phase of mobilization extends the sequence of struggle of 2016-18, while also marking a significant leap. While the forms of action practiced by the yellow vests indeed remain familiar to us – traffic blockades, confrontations with the police – several elements have emerged during this last three weeks stand out to us.

First of all, the social composition of the movement. This novel uprising is characterized by the downwardly mobile middle classes and social strata undergoing proletarianization. Certainly, the familiar strata of public and civil servants, service workers, wage earners from the industrial basins, and students are present. But a whole host of other social segments struggling to make ends meet seem to be at the the forefront of the dynamic: employees of small and medium enterprises, shopkeepers, artisans, and the growing plethora of new forms of independent and precarious labor. The unity of this social diversity, beyond the rejection of Macron and his centrist politics (right or left, it doesn’t really matter), lies in a generalized feeling of having had enough [ras-le-bol], anchored in the materiality of living conditions. The violence of falling class mobility for some, the harshness of work for others; those who see their social rights crumbling or those who never really had these rights; those for whom the future suddenly appears to be much darker than they had expected, and those who grew up with a receding horizon of expectations.3 This social dimension of the protest, made up of wage difficulties and economic insecurity, has fed into the anti-politician dégagisme.4 And while there have been many women in the ranks of the yellow vests, it is surely because they experience in the first instance the double violence of having to support the degraded reality and seeing the all the practical aspects of this degradation rendered invisible.5 Seeing one’s life, and that of their family, friends, and neighbors becoming more and more unbearable – this is what pushes people to not only take their distance vis-à-vis representatives of the “general interest,” but to also actively commit themselves. And they have done so in a squarely oppositional manner, even through there are many political newcomers among the yellow vests.

This social composition explains in part the geographical, generational, and political make-up of the movement. From a territorial perspective, it is neither the metropolitan centers nor the low-income neighborhoods that are at the center of the mobilization, but rather the peri-urban zones, the inner suburbs, the diffuse periphery. Neither city or countryside, these semi-rural and semi-urban spaces constitute an in-between space, from both a socio-economic and political viewpoint. Although housing here is less expensive than elsewhere, these sites have the most glaring lack of public transportation. The use of a car, far from being a choice for a more comfortable lifestyle, stems from pure necessity: in order to get to work in the morning, drop off the kids at school, to go to classes, and head back home to sleep in the evening, you are forced to lock yourself up in a car and drive several dozens of kilometers each day, very often stuck in traffic jams. If in addition to all that, you have to spend thousands of euros to buy and maintain a vehicle, and when you already have a hard time making it to the end of the month…one can well understand why an iniquitous increase in the price fuel might represent the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Especially since this measure is being presented as a necessary step to finance the ecological transition – which adds to the economic stakes a clear air of blatant hypocrisy.6 As has been said many times: the increase in fuel prices is ecologically ineffective and socially unjust!

In this sense, the movement actually represents a politicization of the environment. The dominant classes seem to have themselves refrained from making this question a moral injunction based on individual consumption, in order to attribute a political determination to it: on the one hand, by making the middle and popular classes pay the cost of a shadowy or ill-defined ecological transition, and on the other hand by using their demands to delegitimize the movement. But this politicization of the environmental question is a battlefield, in which anticapitalist struggles can and must find their place. In this context, the refusal to accept this state deceit [mensonge] is a refusal to endorse the status of being “responsible” for the ecological crisis and thus opens the possibility of drawing a clearer class line separating who is responsible/not responsible: between big capital, corporations, and government policies, on the one hand, and the middle and working classes on the other. Of course, there is no question of affirming that the “environmental consciousness” of the demonstrators has grown; but it is precisely in these accelerating phases of political subjectivation that such a discourse can take hold.

The fact that the movement was launched on the demand for a lowering of taxes (even though it has subsequently expanded) is sometimes invoked to support the idea that it has nothing to do with a classical dynamic of anticapitalist struggle. This argument presupposes that the conditions of taxation, and thus the question of the state, are external to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production. As a fundamentally unequal phenomenon, taxes can be an important – but certainly not exhaustive – element for the critique of systems of exploitation.7 Criticizing the yellow vests on this one aspect, as being a demand that derives from the private sphere, risks appearing myopic.8

Moving away from a short-term timeline, let us try to enlarge the frame of reference. Once again, France seems to be undergoing, with some delay, with social dynamics that have already manifested themselves in other contexts after the crisis of 2008. All things being equal, with the labor reforms and the cycle of mobilizations that accompanied them, these “impure” and “scrambled,” “ambiguous” and “contradictory,” even totally “fucked” political phenomena have been taking place in Europe for some time in Southern and Eastern Europe. In the wake of an austere technocratic sequence – which imposes “blood and tears” reforms in pure neoliberal style, that is, without any gesture towards consensus – a popular reaction, difficult to grasp, spontaneously bursts forth, outside traditional party and union frameworks. Unlike the 2011 movement of the squares, however, these breakthroughs that are hard to politically anticipate and determine, do not fall within the diverse galaxy of post-68 movements.9

The “Forconi” [Pitchfork] movement in Italy, of 2012-2013, displayed features similar to the yellow vests. After the purges of the “technical government” of Mario Monti, a politically and socially transversal composition, far from being uniform across different regions (in Piedmont, Sicily, etc.) rose to the forefront by demanding lower taxes. In a strange mix of social demands fraught with acts of racism and sexism, the “Forconi” – like the yellow vests – blocked strategic nodes of the economic and demonstrated in the streets, and in much more conflictual ways than the institutional left. The analogy stops here, however. The Forconi movement appears now as one of the precedents for the Lega Nord–Five Star Movement government pact, and took place in a wholly different context. To be brief: France in 2018 is not Italy in 2013. Five years ago, the far-right had not yet come into government in several countries, either in Europe or America, while the economic crisis had only lasted “five years” at that time. Second, Italy had not emerged from an intense but ultimately defeated cycle of mobilization, and the institutional left, like the autonomous movements, did not show a mobilizing capacity comparable to that seen in France.

On this point, the resounding transnational echo that the yellow vests are currently experiencing, as opposed to the movements of last spring or 2016, should also be taken into account. With the yellow vests we are dealing with something more “troubling.” Indeed since he took power, Macron has embodied, to an increasing degree, the alternative to Angela Merkel’s ordoliberal governance within the EU ruling bloc, the “extreme center.” The popular delegitimation these protests represent, vast and cross-class, on the eve of the 2019 European elections is deeply worrying the guardians of the status quo.10 And this is even more the case now that the extreme right has come to power in Eastern Europe as well as Italy, and the rise of reactionary forces and parties is becoming a more and more serious threat in the central and northern parts of the continent.

That being said, the stakes are not yet set, and the game remains largely open, even if we are operating in a hostile environment. Let’s return to the facts.

The day after Saturday November 17th, the interior minister Christophe Castaner was compelled, despite the government’s intent to downplay the significance of the first mobilization, to give a balance-sheet the blockades worthy of a war bulletin. The entire French territory is at boiling point: from the Mont-Blanc tunnel to the port at St. Nazaire, through the refineries in the North-West, several logistics warehouses, and up to the two-thousand roundabouts blockaded outside service stations or commercial centers. Several thousand injured and two dead come to complete the picture.

The day after Saturday November 24th, the respective moods of the partisans of order and the “professionals of disorder” were in agreement, for opposite reasons, over the scale of the event: the Avenue Champs-Elysées, that high point of political and economic power, up in flames for a day, while the surrounding beaux quartiers saw scenes of urban guerrilla struggle. Never mind that that only a few shop windows were broken, that almost no consumer products were looted, or that the cops (despite the number of injuries and a massive deployment of “non-lethal” tactical equipment) did not come out in all their splendor. For both sides, what mattered the most was that the demonstrations, according to a typical logic of the riot, were in continual decomposition and recomposition, without, nevertheless, pushing the situation to zero point, as was the case on Réunion Island, where the state had recourse to the army! Yet almost nobody among those who came to the Champs to depose the sovereign showed the least sign of dissociating themselves vis-à-vis the acts of violence (a significant factor in terms of subjectivation)…all while cheering for the firefighters who hurried to put out the fires, too. And once again, our frames of analysis were put to the test.11

We are now entering the third week of the mobilization and the situation is still developing. The unions were prepared, after a spring which saw struggles by students and railway workers, for Macron’s latest round of anti-social reforms, in particular those regarding pensions and unemployment, expected for spring of 2019. Similar discourse for the students, with enormous hikes in student fees for non-Europeans, and who are still searching, at least in Paris, for durable forms of organization. In the meantime, Marseille has been shaken by a twin mobilization which has significantly affected the historic center: first, the protests against the redevelopment of the La Plaine area, then the three marches following the death of 8 people when a building collapsed in Noailles. Feminist collectives went onto the street on November 24th against “sexist and sexual violence against women,” notably under the banner “Us too” [Nous Aussi], which emphasized, as against “All of us” [Nous Toutes], the centrality of race and class to questions of sexual violence. As for Saturday, December 1, the third round of the yellow vests, three other demonstrations, long-planned, are scheduled to take place: one by the CGT, on classical redistributive bases, another by ACT UP, for World AIDS Day, and another by the “Rosa Parks Collective,” which combines social issues with anti-racism.

To parody Mao: there is great chaos under heaven. But the situation is not in itself excellent. What we can be sure of is that that the sphere of social reproduction is at the center of all these struggles: pensions, unemployment benefits, training [formation], housing, health etc. It is through reproductive labor that race and gender determine and restructure exploitation, marking a point of structural incompatibility with the xenophobic and sexist tendencies that have been so apparent amongst the yellow vests. Yet the sphere of social reproduction will be central not simply to defining schisms within the movement, but to defining the horizons of the struggle and the multiplication, both possible and preferable, of its sites. The battlefield of social reproduction is one on which we can move beyond the triptych: prices of petrol, buying power, and tax revolt. A triptych which, and we must be realistic here, would fail in the current conjuncture to contest the processes of re-nationalization of the European political space. In the final analysis, the centrality of “social reproduction” brings us back to the necessity of a political subjectivation of the current movement, which will not be achieved except through a multiplication of sites and aspects [thèmes] of the struggle. Put briefly, there will not be in the medium-term a political subjectivation of this movement without an expansion of the sites of struggle and an articulation between them.

In sum, if this movement – despite its highly contradictory character – renders the social malaise irretrievable by the center; if the social and economic crisis brings with it only more chaos and increasingly authoritarian management of this chaos; if this dangerously chaotic ensemble implies a change in forms of struggle and a reconfiguration of militant practices, then it’s our role to keep time with it. That’s why we are calling, with the “Comité Vérité et Justice pour Adama” and l’Action Antifasciste Paris Banlieue, to demonstrate Saturday, December 1 at 13h00 at the St. Lazaire station alongside the yellow vests. We do so with no sure knowledge as to what will come out of this day, but with the certainty that it is impossible to remain on the sidelines and not position ourselves within this movement on the basis of our struggles.


  1. Translator’s Note: The mainland part of metropolitan France. 

  2. To take one example among many others: the position of the yellow vest movement towards migrants, a position that intersects with the divisions crossing the European left parties, from France Insoumise to Die Linke.  

  3. From this perspective, financial pressure catalyzes anger, by determining the anti-elite discourse and the focus on Macron and his government. The political character of this sentiment comes from the fact that taxes have constituted until now the nearly-exclusive object of the economic policy of EU member states. This fact makes it possible to not only break with narrowly economistic conceptions of capitalism, but also to raise the hypothesis that taxation would represent a rentier form of surplus-value extraction. 

  4. Translator’s note: Dégagisme roughly translates to “get the hell out-ism.” It refers to a popular disaffection with elected leaders and the current political establishment. Although the term began to circulate in France after the 2011 Tunisian uprising which ousted Ben Ali, it has recently been used in France Insoumise campaigns. A parallel can drawn to the 2001 protests in Argentina, which saw the widespread deployment of the slogan “que se vayan todos!” – “Out with all of them!” 

  5. It is thus not by chance that in certain cities – Montpellier, Nantes – the feminist “Nous Aussi” demonstration of November 24 converged with the yellow vest protests.  

  6. See in this connection the article in Le Nouvel Observateur: “Un demi-milliard provenant de la cagnotte du diesel n’ira pas à la transition écologique,” November 20, 2018.  

  7. On this topic, as with the environmental question, the major industrial groups are potentially too absent in the yellow vests’ critique. 

  8. This is not to underestimate the presence, even during riots, of organized right and neo-fascist groups. In this regard, the movement’s two primary political and symbolic expression (on the internet and in the street) have until now been the claim of belonging to the “people,” on the one hand, and the Tricoleur on the other. And yet, if we relate these symbols to the social composition described above – which seems to us a minimal materialist prerequisite – we can see proof of the fact that the dominated classes, in all their diversity, are not external to the state, if only in the sense that they experience their situation through the symbols and categories by which the state establishes and reproduces it hegemony. And to the extent that we are speaking here of a racist state, it is not surprising that the claim of belonging to the “people” signifies both an opposition to “elites” and the ruling classes, on the one hand, and to the segments of the proletariat that are not “truly French,” on the other – that is to say, the non-white proletariat. In short: “class” never simply designates a position in the relations of production, but also a position of differential inclusion in the state, from which one draws material and symbolic privileges. This relationship to the state explains, in part, the porosity of the movement to the far right.  

  9. These eruptions in fact do not constitute merely a critique of the institutional – party, and union – left; they also take distance from other autonomous movement forms, whether they be worker, student, feminists, or anti-racist movements.  

  10. The crisis of German leadership goes beyond the impasses that austerity policies have run up against. The election of Trump in the US and rising Euroscepticism on the one hand, and the growing difficulties of the Christian Democratic Union on the other, have only strengthened this tendency. The fact that Angela Merkel, after the recent results in the Hessian state elections, announces she was stepping down as party leader at the end of 2018 seems a particularly telling example…  

  11. To dwell on these “details,” in which the devil loves to hide, people did not stop talking to each other, confronting each other, having exchanges, etc., a clear sign that something is smoldering…along with the ashes. 


author

Plateforme d'Enquêtes Militantes

A French militant inquiry platform 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.