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Protests and Movements

Experiential Politics and the Yellow Vests

High police presence at a demonstration in Paris in 2019. Photo by Michalis Lianos.

June 26, 2020

The Yellow Vests came out of the blue. French society was deeply unaware of the potential that such a movement could have. It is well known that established political institutions and the media vilified the movement. It was not surprising since the white lower classes were seen as the inert, obtuse buffer between the segregated racial minorities and the various layers of the middle class. What is surprising is that a spontaneous, non-partisan movement emerged and broke through the established architecture of political stratification in a postindustrial society. This is surely related to the rare conjuncture of a new political party (“La République En Marche”) winning both the presidential and the parliamentary elections in France, and a President who had never been elected to any office before. Hopes of improvement were high and so was the ensuing disappointment.

A demonstrator declares his position, Paris, 2019. Photo by Michalis Lianos.

The movement appeared in the national public sphere on November 17, 2018. Two weeks later it made global headlines. During that time, a spectacular transformation was underway. From the initial spark linked to the tax on fuel, the Yellow Vests rapidly advanced towards questioning the entire political architecture of contemporary societies. They were now demanding the establishment of a citizen-initiated referendum as a tool to give full control to “the people” over important decisions in all areas of governance. At the same time, they asserted that they were “the people” and that they were humiliated and supposed to live silently in near-poverty, disregarded by the “elites,” even whilst they incarnated the very heart of French society. That feeling of social legitimacy was particularly reinforced by their self-representation as “apolitical” and “pacifist,” since most of them had never participated in a demonstration before and were indifferent or hostile to political parties. They were accordingly shocked and offended to meet with violent police repression, because they considered themselves as law-abiding citizens exercising for the first time their right to protest.

Besides their significance as a movement of protest, the Yellow Vests have initiated a new stage in the structure and practice of social movements. Their numerous original aspects challenge a series of assumptions on the nature, organization, and success of collective political action. I will briefly touch upon five cascading points to illustrate the sociological interest of these innovations:

1. Rejection of all links to political parties and constituted movements

The most impressive part of this phenomenon is its spontaneity. The Yellow Vests did not come together under a specific political approach or theory. They did not even share a loose political perspective. However, they instinctively felt that all structures of political “formatting” should not be trusted. Anyone holding or seeking power was in their eyes corrupted, corruptible or, at best, interested in advancing primarily his or her own interests, not those of the “people.” This is not to say that they moved towards “populism.” On the contrary, they disallowed not only authoritarianism but even hierarchy within the movement. They almost immediately became a tight community of individuals, a “family” as they often called themselves, of persons who jealously guarded their right to decide separately on each issue when they agreed or disagreed. They spontaneously fled any given sociopolitical framework or platform.

2. Ideological plurality

Social movements are well known for their proneness to ideological homogeneity. While tensions and antagonisms always develop in a movement, it is almost taken for granted that those tensions revolve around the control of a unifying framework of ideology and consequent action. The Yellow Vests are once more a flagrant exception to that law of homogeneity. Not only did they not converge upon a specific political ideology but they managed at the same time to build a pluralist foundation for their demands. That became possible both because they decidedly kept party politics away from their movement and because they spontaneously accepted coexistence with each other, while they were often in great disagreement on specific issues. Their explanation was experiential. They were “in the same shit” and what mattered was their objective resemblance and the will to change that condition. Their explanations for that condition may have differed but they always had to do with a system where the powerful did not respect the “people” enough to secure for them a decent life.

3. Neuronal architecture and autonomy

The movement self-organized around partially overlapping groups that emerged either online or spatially. Each participant was involved in discussions, debates, assemblies, and protesting actions either via one or more online groups, or one or more roundabouts. The development of this neuronal structure which covered France entirely (including its remote colonial territories) was a vital trait of the Yellow Vests. Their consciousness of the individual autonomy offered by the Internet was reflected in their choice of the roundabout as the point of community convergence. The conceptual premise in both cases is that autonomous points of intersection guarantee that only the network as such holds power. There is no governing top and no executing bottom.

4. Direct democracy

Naturally, these characteristics formed a symbolic foundation geared towards a polity where constant and equal participation was seen as a precondition rather than a utopian objective. Impressively, a movement of moderately educated, lower-class, first-time protesters immediately asserted that representative systems of participation and decision are obsolete and dangerous. They used two powerful ways of expressing that assertion. Firstly, they disallowed any representation of the movement by anyone at any level. They only chose roundabout “spokespersons” on a case-by-case basis, despite the immense pressure of all political institutions to have them elect permanent representatives. There was never anyone who could speak in the name of the Yellow Vests and any attempt to do so amounted to betraying the movement. Secondly, they decided that the entire political structure of contemporary societies should change. They demanded the introduction of citizen-initiated referenda in every domain. They would decide, and the “elites” would merely execute their decisions.

5. Tolerance of uncertainty

We are today (February 23, 2020) in the 67th week of the Yellow Vests movement. This is undoubtedly the longest-lasting movement of all-encompassing political protest in recent history. The Yellow Vests never had a specific utopia that they were pursuing and a specific political plan to implement. On the contrary they remained reciprocally open about their pluralist priorities and ideas. That allowed them to attain an unprecedented level of collective reflexivity. They focused on advancing towards overall political change, rather than seizing a share of power in an established system. In doing so, they did not mind the uncertainty of the outcome. As they usually said when I interviewed them, “We must continue. We will see what comes out of this.”

Although not as numerous, some Yellow Vest gatherings, marches, and protests continue in various places throughout France. Everyone wonders what the lasting impact of the movement will be. At any rate, one conclusion is safe to draw. The Yellow Vests have proven that a new level of collective political reflexivity is possible. They have established a new link between individual experience, community, and polity as a prefiguration of large-scale direct democracy.

(This piece is based on extensive empirical research since the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement. For further analysis, see here, here, or here.)

Michalis Lianos, University of Rouen, France <michalis.lianos@univ-rouen.fr>

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