Yellow vests: la (Gilets Jaunes) beauté est dans la rue
The yellow vests movement came unexpectedly to shake the political status quo, a short analysis on the movement is presented with an attempt to compare it to the Danish situation.
Technocrats in power in combination with prolonged austerity policies and the well-established state of emergency produce a blend describing the modern Zeitgeist in post-2008 France.
With the yellow vests France is passing another wave of actions against the austerity caused by the crisis and the bank/technocrats in power like Macron. The first wave was Nuit debout, which formed as a resistance against “loi travail”, and introduced France to the spirit of Occupy and the movement of the squares along their horizontal structures. Nuit debout was accompanied by several general strikes, with the participation of the unions, but looking in the outcome almost nothing won at this struggle, except proximity and connections among the people, which were formed in small circles of discussions around Republique square, or simply by being together in the streets. Although, the lack of gains and repeated losses reinforced people’s mistrust not only in the unions who called for the strikes, but also in the representational institutions in general. That can be seen by the continuous fall over the years in voting participation.
This experience mixed with characteristics of France and the refusal that people should continue paying more and more (i.e. fuel tax because of the climate change), or simply the impossibility for some to face the increased charges brought the second wave of actions, the yellow vests (Gilets Jaunes). The glowing yellow color of the vests has no other meaning for what it is actually used on the streets: it is saying: look at us, notice us, pay attention to us. Gilets Jaunes, apparently, they are car-positive, but they reclaimed the streets (1) , the roundabouts, etc. However, the motive of the movement is no other than the old cry for social justice: characterized by the negation of the multitude to accept the current status quo with continuous diminishing quality of life and the widening the inequality gaps with the higher and higher rate each year. The tax on the fuel prices that triggered the yellow vests movement, added pressure to the precarious lives of the people, living under neoliberal austerity policies and managed to unite and release the rage of many different social groups. Maybe the act of opposing a particular tax recalls the spirit of the act of Civil Disobedience, by Thoreau (2).
Gilets Jaunes movement has some unique characteristics that helped the movement to grow and to establish itself over the last months in France. Gilets Jaunes transformed the Multitude (3): the yellowish jacket as a flag maybe did not unite completely, under this common struggle, this sum of scattered individuals, but certainly the degree of multitude’s multiplicity is reduced, under the magical property that the squares and the streets have. Having different theses and antitheses among movement’s subgroups is normal, but the direct democracy and the horizontality efforts were remarkable here. Characteristically, some of the representatives decided by some assemblies in Paris were called back as they were not recognized by the people. No others will act and decide instead of us.
Several protests of Gilets Jaunes since 17th of November 2018 can be described as a normal insurrection. The vibes of Blocage (4) were expressing well the beats of the country. By spreading the movement not to the metropolitan centers, but also to the periphery, or by decentralizing the actions in Paris by not moving only around a central demonstration with a well-defined route, proved to be effective. These could recall nomadic tactics (5). The state was attacked like a virus is spreading and attacking an organism, into many different vital points, which made the situation not manageable. For some time, central key points along the country were blocked and this mega-machine called Paris turned ungovernable. In arc de triomphe the graffiti was saying “we took heads for less than this”. This could make governors wonder if having such an act of insurrection as foundation of the patriotic storytelling could be like a shot on their own feet: ”Glory to the French republic!” and ”glory to the revolution!” are so deeply intertwined…
Of course, full range of the control mechanisms weaponry was used back. Let’s look that shortly:
Control Mechanisms: bring order
· TINA (6): The politicians were furiously calling to “structure” the movement and to create “representatives” which they will be called to “negotiate”, but Gilet jaunes seem to resist strongly in these attempts, respecting the movement’s direct democratic roots.
· Capitalize the movement: back to parliamentarism: already two new parties were formed by two women that had an active role in the movement. Some voices inside the movement are asking primary for some further democratization of politics, such as with higher participation of the people by electronic voting, more referendums, etc. without though having radical political demands. In France there are signs that this movement will lead to a formation of another party, a techno-populist digital party following the examples of Italy or Spain (7). Higher participation and transparency are certainly desirable but cannot alone dissolve the power structures.
· Divide and conquer: state secret passion (such as with Cointelpro techniques (8)) and all-time classic the integral fights in the movements are a suicidal tendency. It was hopeful that on February the unions appeared on the streets for first time together with the yellow vests.
· Call all the people: Macron organised already a ”Grand débat”, calling people to submit their theses and secondly there are thoughts for a referendum, where giving the people the sense of participation into the political game, gives a relief. Of course, it on the hands of the ones in power to evaluate and respect the referendum’s outcome, as modern European history showed.
· Revolving doors (9): Other more advanced way of coping with the pressure is in case the current people in the government are the replacement of the people in power with new “pure” people, not stigmatized by a specific political party before, but they primarily follow the systematic orders, technocrats (like Papademos , Monti or simply one of course Macron as the whole formation of his party is based on this).
· Reaction march: Red scarfs and supporters of the government made their first appearances on the streets. Also, far-right groups were participating in the protests (mostly as individuals) as they are part of the multitude and of course are promoting their speech.
· Police Repression: The repressive apparatus of the state has been activated first of all. The movement counts so far more than a dozen people dead, over 20 lost an eye and others mutilated (due to the use of explosive grenades) and 1700 people wounded enough to be hospitalized (government tracking numbers). Or one guy was sentenced to 6 months prison for a simple Facebook post.
The police techniques are also notable: The ”French school” consists of absolutely no communication with protesters and crushing demonstrations in order to cause fear and collapse of the protests. The technique of ”nasses” often applied (closing an area to keep protesters captive for several hours, sometimes under a rain of tear gas, which usually ends up by an attempt to bring everyone to the police station for “rebellion against authority”). This technique might have a mild dissuasive effect on the newcomers, but could lead to a further radicalization of the protesters, as on the contrary attacking demonstrators unites them. On other European countries limited police contact through communication officers is used along with undercover cops, aiming to divide the crowd between “rioters” and peaceful protesters.
· Legislative power: The well-tested mechanism in other countries the prohibition of demonstration was passed along with further assigned power to the police and higher charges to the demonstrators in case of arrest. This follows up to all the laws that have been passed since the declaration of the state of emergency in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, reminding us that the best mode of governing is the state of emergency.
· Mild state s step back: The 100 euro of the lower salary among a few other benefits that Macron gave are used as a way to mitigate the demands of the demonstrators.
· Media/Spectacle: The use of the riot-porn images from the media, remind us that the spectacle is a social relationship mediated by images (10) and in this case the social relationship that is implied is the further terrorization through the violent scenes of the protests of the passive observers of the mass media aiming to further passivity. Hopefully the multi-sourcing of information through social media has a counterbalancing effect.
· Play the clock: Hope that time erodes everything: bad weather, holidays and exhaustion will bring the movement to a slow death, as it did in previous protests. The strategy is then in any other case to use the repressive apparatus (police), sanction immediately any attempt of something less inoffensive (justice), and bring fake negotiations with representatives, so that people have no other choice than going home waiting for the outcome, and don’t have the strength to restart the struggle once again when the negotiators have been kicked out.
In Scandinavia not even the first wave (the squares movement) has passed from its shores and metropoles. Maybe the Nordic model’s wellbeing was enough to make people not willing to question the status quo. The triggers for unrest in Denmark though could be many: The example of the scandal of Danske Bank is characteristic: somebody hearing that just commented “that is what banking is, no? what to do?”, all the TINA ideology condensed into a single sentence. Other possible initiating points in Denmark could be the Ghetto’s laws, the “social death” in Sjælsmark or Lindhom. The increased military expenditure according to NATO’s demands. The unprecedented same political speech that the social democrats have with the DF, which signifies how much right wing the overton window has shifted, as nationalists capitalize all the people’s frustration coming from austerity policies.
The damping force that blocked these waves to reach to Scandinavia, or in other words the fortification of the system, is the apparent trust that the people have on the state and on its institutions. Maybe this could be tracked back to the 20th century history of social democracy in Scandinavia. The few pills that the welfare state still provides.
Another drag force that the dominant ideology successfully uses is the belief is that in case that economy shrinks is not because of structural reasons (financialization, boom and busts circles, etc.), it says is rather simpler: is because of bad management.
And how can representational institutions be questioned in times that not even the trust on the state and faith on managerial handling of the economy has not been questioned?
La beauté est dans la rue
In France they know this phrase well. And on the voices of Gilets Jaunes somebody can hear on them echoes of people discussing in Republique square “standing up all night long” in 2016, the la rage of the Paris suburbs of 2005 or the people calling for social justice since ’68, 1871, 1848 and 1789.
Any success of the movement will come if and only if solidarity is shown: The deterritorialization (11) of such a movement – the call for internationalism. And Unity, if once they don’t manage to divide us, or more seriously if we avoid doing it ourselves.
Although, the matter is not which bridges, roundabouts and other geostrategic points should be blocked in such a case. People should get down on actions/praxis, as consciousness is born in the streets. But on the same time and based on the previous experiences of the movement some ideological barricades should be build up: and one of the most important roads that should be blocked is the one to conformism. Only then the simple dissatisfaction and the desire not to have this way of life could be converted to a productive force.
And even if the glowing yellow color of the vests may seem weird at least initially for the radical left. But the important thing is that by forming such a grassroots movement, the people’s pallet tends to be painted with vibrant colors again, away of the greyness of austerity and nationalist-expansion times.
- Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle.