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Yellow vests don’t do politics

‘We debated for hours and decided nothing

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Leemage · Corbis · Getty

The weekly meeting in Branceilles (1) was starting as I arrived. During the evening nearly 150 people got up to speak, people who found themselves homeless because they could no longer pay the rent or depended on charities for food. Their pain and anger were suddenly public after being kept private so long. One said, ‘I used to spend my evenings yelling at the telly.’ They were angry at all the political class: Emmanuel Macron and his ministers, members of parliament they barely recognised, and other elected representatives.

The discussion was unstructured, but participants blamed politicians for everything: wages that barely lasted till the second week of the month, pitiful pensions, rising rents, hospital staff shortages. People felt at breaking point. A call for Macron to resign was cheered. An organiser asked, ‘Anyone against?’ and a woman gingerly raised her hand and said, ‘Don’t get me wrong. I can’t stand him. That’s why I’ve been on the roundabouts for three weeks. But who’ll he be replaced by if he goes?’ A commotion ensued.

Almost nobody mentioned the private sector’s responsibilities; it is perfectly screened by the political class. No one mentioned capitalism or the private ownership of the means of production; the economic system was taken for granted, even if they agreed its excesses needed restraining, bosses should earn less and their employees make a decent living in a ‘moral economy’ (2).

The hardest thing is trying to organise anything. This is just a talking shop. We debate, but nothing gets decided and attendance drops every time Rémi

Journalists from news channel BFM TV persuaded a platform speaker to go outside for an interview. When people realised what was happening it was the speaker, not the TV crew, who was noisily ejected. People shouted, ‘We don’t want spokesmen!’ and the meeting was abruptly wound up. Another speaker, Rémi, said angrily as he left the platform, ‘The hardest thing is trying to organise anything. This is just a talking shop. We debate, but nothing gets decided and attendance drops every time.’ One of his companions, Jean-Claude, tried to reassure him that their subcommittee could talk about it the next day. But the platform speakers had insisted they were not elected representatives and wouldn’t impose anything. Rémi agreed that was true, ‘but we need our subcommittee, otherwise nothing will move forward.’

Makeshift shelters at roundabouts

In La Poterie, there were braziers and makeshift yellow shelters at every roundabout exit. Katia pointed to a new white toilet bowl in the road and asked, ‘What on earth is that?’ Her friend replied, ‘The presidential throne.’ No one had a good word to say for politicians, but political divisions were clear: the protestors were so ideologically divided that a nursery assistant went round trying to encourage people to speak to each other. She failed.

The south exit, nicknamed ‘Calais jungle’, was open to anyone, including foreigners. The homeless had set up their shelters at the north exit, ‘Notre-Dame-des-Landes’. The western exit was manned by average couples who kept warm around a small oil drum fire and tidied up before going home at night. At the eastern exit, pensioners had set up a sound system that played golden oldies by Eddy Mitchell; at dinner time the smell of pork and chestnuts drifted from under their marquee. People kept telling me, ‘We don’t do politics.’ Insisting on that may be the only way to hold the movement together. Without that consensus, every roundabout would be chaos.

The absence of activists was striking. Conspiracy theories were doing the rounds, provoking debate; everyone hated the mainstream media, which is accused of lying and manipulation. Everybody got their news from constant social media updates. This is how the far right, which has no local presence, compensates for its absence on the ground. Leftwing parties and unions were absent, but put out their messages on Facebook and Telegram. The workers’ movement, or what remains of it, regularly gets several hundred people to demonstrate in towns in the department of Ardèche in response to calls from national confederations or parties. But they have no presence at most blockades and maintain that the yellow vests are fascists who are being manipulated and reject organisation.

Only one local official showed up, trying to recruit with leaflets and membership forms. That went down very badly. When another member suggested that ‘rather than preach to the masses, it would be better to give them a sound system’, the response was no warmer. Local union chapters still don’t have an official position on the yellow vests after weeks of conflict and much discussion, so a decision on the sound system might be some way off. In one town, a few activists did get involved and set up committees on action, demands and organisation. Almost none of the roundabout protestors knew anything about them.

So the decision by the road transport union to call off a strike planned for 9 December, when a big protest in Paris was causing panic in high places (3), felt like it confirmed what protestors already knew. Sylvette said, ‘They could have given us a hand. They won [the fuel protest] because of us, and now we’ve been conned. They’re all bastards.’ There was loud applause for this.

How to organise?

Are the yellow vests really hostile to outsiders? They would have been happy to end their isolation, as they realised union involvement would strengthen their position in current conflicts. The question of organisation has become central, even obsessive, as time has gone on and the authorities’ crackdown has grown harsher. How should they coordinate? What should they do about informers or direct action? Should there be decision-making at the barricades, should it be coordinated between roundabouts or towns? Far from refusing to organise, everyone is struggling to work out how to do it. Dominique, a volunteer activist who found her way onto a filter roadblock, told me: ‘It’s funny. They don’t seem to know about general assemblies, agendas, taking turns to speak, recording minutes, and an odd thing called an imperative mandate that the people have the right to revoke.’

It’s also funny that Dominique never thought about sharing her knowledge with other protestors. The political culture she referenced had evolved over the long history of the workers’ movement. Without input from those familiar with it, the yellow vests have had to start from scratch. And in a struggle like this, every day has counted. References to the French revolution are ubiquitous in the movement, and enthusiastically picked up by some politicians. ‘Guillotines’ have been set up on roundabouts with headless mannequins of Brigitte Macron, nicknamed ‘Marie-Antoinette’. Revolutionary-style registers of grievances have been circulated and assiduously completed by demonstrators. (Though they were actually supplied by local authorities, which promised to ‘pass them up’.)

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t stand Macron. That’s why I’ve been on the roundabouts for three weeks. But who’ll he be replaced by if he goes? A woman at a meeting

In the 1789 revolution, peasants fought together with the radical urban middle class, who are absent today. There are other significant gaps in the protestors’ historical memory: 1830, 1848, the 1871 Commune, 1917, 1936, 1944; the workers’ movement has been forgotten. May 1968 is occasionally mentioned because some of its protagonists have shown up at roadblocks. But labour history has been wiped blank, and so has the story of participant organisations involved in social life. Many people in this would-be apolitical movement without spokespeople actually see their only option as putting up a list of candidates in the EU elections. The era of mass political parties is long gone and all parties are now subject to the same electoral contempt, yet there is no option but to imitate them, since there is no alternative model. Students in one town refused to let yellow vests join their school blockade because they rejected ‘all forms of political cooption’.

A week on from my first meeting, Gaëlle, Ludovic and Lucie were back at the next gathering. Attendance had shrunk. The organisers announced that four actions were planned for the weekend, but gave only the meeting time and place, saying the details were a surprise. A bricklayer objected: ‘Hey, fill us in. You’ve decided everything and you’re only going to tell us at the last minute? We’re all yellow vests, aren’t we?’ Police infiltration was given as the reason for secrecy, rather than the decision of the subcommittee. The bricklayer got angry. ‘Last week we debated for hours and decided nothing. And you have a five-minute discussion and it’s all cut and dried?’ Jean-Claude and Rémi promised better organisation next time.

Eventually dialogue got under way. There is extraordinary creativity, with practical and artistic initiatives; protestors refuse to attend any meeting with the authorities that is not recorded on film. Social contact has returned. Lucie said, ‘I used to feel alone. Alone with my own shit. I didn’t dare talk to anyone about it. You feel isolated, ashamed. Now look, you see how many friends I’ve got?’ Her father Ludovic hugged her. ‘I’m 46 and I’ve never read a book in my life. But you know what I’ve been doing for the past two nights when we get back from the roundabout?’ Smiling, Lucie said, ‘Reading the constitution.’

Pierre Souchon

Pierre Souchon is a journalist.

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