Yellow, Red, Tricolour, or: Class & People

human tumult, with all the vulgarity of small and big needs,
with its strident disgust for the police that repress it

It is an understatement to say that “les Gilets Jaunes” have caused a tsunami of comments and analyses. The following essay only stresses some misinterpreted or neglected points (and possibly strikes a few discordant notes). For an in-depth study, we recommend Tristan Leoni’s essay Sur les Gilets Jaunes (only in French so far: see “For further reading” at the end of this text).

Despite defeats

Those who call themselves the Yellow Vests have not acted as parasites on class struggles to hinder or smother them : they are the result of a persisting yet defeated proletarian resistance, which has to cope with unfavourable conditions.

In France, 1995, a wave of strikes, particularly a 3-week railway stoppage, with mass popular support, caused a government climb-down over reductions of pensions in the public sector. In 2005, the “banlieues” exploded into riots. A few months later, a countrywide rebellion forced the government to shelve a plan for a lower-paying scheme for young entrants on the labour market. These were half-victories in a lost war. In 2010, in spite of numerous demos, the retirement age was raised and pension amounts were reduced. In 2017, against a protest wave, the Labour Code was altered to make it easier for companies to hire and fire. In spring 2018, railway personnel went on a long discontinued strike that ended in defeat.

The result has been a general loss of confidence in the unions’ and parties’ ability to defend workers’ interests, compounded by a growing dissatisfaction with institutional politics, and the decline of parliament as a shock-absorber : when a majority of voters said NO to the European Treaty in 2005, only to have MPs and senators turn their NO into a YES three years later, people started wondering how much their ballot papers are really worth.

So the “Yellow Vests” are not a historical fluke: though nobody could have foreseen them, it was predictable that such a stubborn, though unsuccessful, insubordination would bypass conventional channels, and produce a new-style movement.

The Gilets Jaunes do not stand for a particular category, nor even for an addition of categories. They are a collective experience as obstinate as diverse and confused. Its scope can be measured by its resonance on social networks, but more effectively by the roundabout blockages and streets marches: between 500,000 and one million took part in at least one “Gilets Jaunes” action.

As for violence, everyone understands that mere law-abiding action would have only been met with fine empty words. On December 1, 2018, as on March 16, 2019, thousands of yellow vest wearers stood and remained a few feet away from the groups – far less numerous of course – who smashed windows, improvised makeshift barricades and attacked the police. The “peaceful” majority did not join the “violent” minority, nor did it necessarily approve of its behaviour, but it did not reject street fighting either: disrespect for law and order was accepted as compatible with the aims of the “Gilets Jaunes”, possibly as a complement of marches and blockages. Violence by proxy. On the whole, government, party and media efforts to sort out the “good” (constructive Yellow Vests) from the “bad” (destructive rioters) have been unsuccessful.

Still, such a large mobilisation did not prevent the weakening of the movement.

After a few weeks, roadblocks were less numerous, partly because of police counter-action, and this deprived the Yellow Vests from their economic and political fighting strength. Roundabout gatherings turned from blocking points into meeting and debating places. Many people with no previous experience of sharing collective action grew aware of themselves as social individuals, which is highly positive, but they were having much less of an impact on the running of society.  

Meanwhile, the crowds that assembled every Saturday were proof of a strong persisting commitment. Despite beating-ups, mutilations, court sentences and a great deal of slander, the Yellow Vests did not crack under external pressure, they kept occupying the streets, but their movement was unable to renew itself. The weekly recurrence of demos from November 17, 2018 onwards demonstrated an enduring energy, as well as the loss of momentum of a movement in search of itself, unable to break the cycle of repetition. The self-organising community of struggle perpetuated itself, but no more, and was less a means than an end in itself.


In France as in other countries, history is rich in mass protests on the part of small trades and crafts, and if those groups had been the majority of the Gilets Jaunes, no doubt their movement would have acted and been treated quite differently. Actually, in spite of their notable presence in the very first weeks, most small businessmen and tradespeople, displeased by the drop in turnover due to town centre and traffic trouble (at the time of the Christmas shopaholic binge), drifted away from the Yellow Vests. 2018-2019 Gilets Jaunes do not belong to “petit-bourgeois” or “middle class (even lower middle) radicalism”.

Indeed, whether we define the proletarians as those “who have nothing to lose but their chains” (Communist Manifesto, 1848), or as “the destitute, that is to say the property-less, the without-reserves - and not the badly paid” (Bordiga, 1949), or as “someone who has no power over his life and who knows it” (Situationist International, n.9, 1964), the vast majority of Yellow Vests   fit in with these definitions. That’s no surprise. Statistically, about 20% of the French labour force are manual workers, and 27% do low-paid menial jobs in the service sector.

Also, there are over a million self-employed people in France, and the Yellow Vests include quite a few of them. Most of these “micro-entrepreneurs” would be better called precarious labour since they are barely able to support themselves, let alone a household, with hardly any chance of ever becoming “real” bosses, i.e. those who have the minimal capital to hire employees.  

As for not having “reserves”, in France today, 10% of the population own £ 2.600 of combined assets (furniture, savings, an ageing car, etc.). The average inheritance left by people when they die is £ 27.600, and for one third it amounts to less than £ 7.000. So much for the affluent worker and the emergence of an extensive middle class now nearly encompassing each and every one of us.  

Broadly speaking, the Gilets Jaunes are not the poorest of the poor: they eke out a meagre living, yet they usually stand just above the official poverty line, so they are not entitled to receive welfare. They may not be going down socially, but they feel an increasing downward pressure on their living standards.    

In brief, unlike the bulk of organised labour, the Yellow Vests work in very small companies, or run a one-person business, they have insecure, non-unionised, unprotected jobs, and until recently were unable or unwilling to engage in collective action. For most, taking to the street and blocking a road was a first and empowering step, and they have to invent ways and means of action often different from those of unionised and politically organised labour.

The key question, however, is not the sociology of the Yellow Vests, in particular the proportion of proletarians among them. What matters is what they do, what they address and what outcome they hope for. 

Most Gilets Jaunes regard themselves as working people, not proletarians :  they do not position themselves in a wage labour vs. capital relation. Nowadays, apart from a few idle rich and the unemployed, everybody is said to be doing “work” of some kind, and the owner of a small clothes boutique is wont to say that he spends more hours per week in his shop than his salesgirl. By and large, the only bosses targeted by the Yellow Vests are the tycoons, the stockbrokers, the bankers, the financiers, bloodsuckers feeding off the producers of real wealth. The enemy is not so much the business world as Big Business. This explains the unpopularity of the Universal Basic Income theme, which for them smacks of charity or public assistance: it would go against the self-respect of men and women who want to be able to make a living from their work.     

A special feature of the Yellow Vests is having a predominantly proletarian composition without being a proletarian movement, because they do not react as labour facing – and possibly opposing - bosses.

Globally, the movement has stayed outside the work place.

Nearly all Yellow Vests who have jobs (by far the majority) collectively acted outside working hours. They hardly ever went on strike. Apart from notable but few exceptions, they did not call for work-stoppages, and there were also very few attempts at solidarity with existing strikes. Equally significant is the fact that the Yellow Vests’ rebellion did not spur unrest within work-places. To the limited extent in which there was tentative common endeavour (“Yellow Vests, Red Vests or No Vests, Let’s Fight Together !”, sometimes even complemented by ecologists’ green vests), the alliance was more vocal than real, with mutual sympathy rather than collaboration, like parallels unable or unwilling to meet. So, no “struggle convergence” to speak of.  

For example, there was a sizeable female presence in demos and road blocks, stronger than in most usual political or union actions. Not all female Gilets Jaunes are wage-earners, but a lot of them are, which corresponds to women’s proportion in wage-labour. In fifty years, while the French male work-force only increased from 13,3 million to 13,7 between 1968 and 2017, women’s employment has gone up from 7,1 to 12,9 million. Quite a lot have taken an active part in marches and roadblocks, but very few (if any) have resorted to the powerful strike “weapon” provided by their activity in the work place. Disrupting or obstructing (even partly) the functioning of the school, the kindergarten, the factory canteen, the office cafeteria, or the town hall administration would have had a strong economic and political impact. The executive might vacuum the company floor, or the headmaster help with school dinners, but they are unlikely to do it for more than a couple of days. Gender discrimination on the labour market results in most women being confined to low status poorly-paid employment, but those jobs also put them in a position of strength, often equally strategic as that of male workers. If a very small portion of them took advantage of it, in spite of their intense participation in the movement, it shows how difficult it is for them – and for men – to overcome the weight of thirty years of working class debacle.

A comparison may be of assistance. Though the Yellow Vests of 2018-2019 and the “banlieue”  rioters of 2005 are remarkably different, they have something in common. The 2005 rioters stayed in the suburbs and did not go for “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, but their rebellion reached such intensity that the government announced a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in a number of towns. Yet, despite their social background and the fact that some of them had jobs, the “banlieue” rioters did not connect with work-place struggles,  as if they fought in the streets for want of being able – and willing – to do it in their workshop or office. The strikes that were taking place during those three weeks in 2005 unfolded separately from the suburban explosion.

Equality, solidarity, unity   

In the general meeting of the Saint-Nazaire Gilets Jaunes (6-7 April, 2019), a participant denounced the “class contempt” of the rulers for the ruled, while she rejoiced over the fact that the meeting gathered “everybody”, from “business owner” to “welfare recipient”. Yet class means more than “contempt”, it derives from specific interests different from the interests of those who happen to belong to another class. The boss of a small service provider, the shoe-shop owner and the plumber with a labour force of five, all three need low wages as much as the Tesco chairman does.

The cohesion of the Yellow Vests depends on ignoring the existence of classes, and on acting as if they composed the true working people confronting an illegitimate government in the pay of a tiny super-rich elite.

Though gradually the demand for higher wages became frequent in Gilets Jaunes’ debates (initially, the emphasis was on a rise only for the minimum wage), their line of attack aims less at wage labour than at income, i.e. purchasing power. For them, money is the crux of the matter, money earned by labour and taken away in taxes, and fundamentally what money can provide: a “decent” life and self-esteem. For them, equality means the ability for everyone to make a living from his or her work, be it wage-labour or not.

When some people inhabit palaces while others have to sleep in the street, such blatant disparity is one of the appallingly visible signs that the existing world needs changing.

However, awareness of inequality only leads to a better understanding of social issues if we inquire into the cause of the uneven distribution of wealth. Emphasising inequality prioritises the amount of money everyone has, how much he or she earns, inherits and gives back in taxes: it overlooks the basic fact that the social position occupied by each of us determines how affluent or poor we are. Of course the bourgeois is rich, but he is rich because he is a bourgeois, not the other way round. Once you think in terms of income, you locate yourself on a graduated scale with numerous multiple levels from top to bottom, and the image of a ladder where all and sundry move up or down from one rung to the next. This vision obscures the understanding of society as a set of groups each determined by its function.

The prevailing view among the Yellow Vests admits wealth accumulation, and the inequality it entails, providing it remains moderate and does not allow anyone to take advantage of his position to dominate others. In short, they reproach this society with being unfair, and they fight for a world where no-one would be either too rich or too poor. No aristos, no beggars. No profiteers, no spongers either. The only remedy to excessive inequality is a fair redistribution: taking from the obscenely rich to hand back to the unjustly poor. As things stand today with the bourgeois having the upper hand, this kind of “real Left” platform, based on a revisited Keynesianism, is highly unlikely to be achieved or even attempted, unless there arises a surge of struggles, which so far does not loom on the horizon.   

Re-inventing a “people”

“We are the motherland, we’re angry and we fear for our children’s future”, so declared a call for community mobilisation on January 6. The Yellow Vests’ self-recognition as a people recalls post-1789 republican ideology, illustrated by the “Macron = Louis XVI” graffiti. 2019 has reinvented the “social republic”, whose important (if not central) theme, from the French Revolution to 1848 and throughout the 19th century, was precisely the right to work. This was and is more than asking for labour rights or jobs for all : it demands the possibility for everyone to make a living out of work, and a decent living, i.e. the ability to support his or her family (in a not distant past, the male worker, especially if he was skilled, prided himself on being the main or sole breadwinner; nowadays, the provider for the family is often a single mother).

In its heyday, the – now decayed but not completely defunct – labour movement would bring in its train enough non-working class elements to provide it with regular electoral support, thanks to votes from small farmers (in countries like France and Italy), and from those groups called in the past “petit-bourgeois” and now more often “salaried middle class”.

Social-democratic and Stalinist parties brought together a “people” around organised labour. In a workers’ neighbourhood, not everyone was working class. A number of small shopkeepers, school teachers, clerks and public service employees would side with workers to form a popular background, the core of which was industrial factory labour.

The French CP used to be one of the strongest in the western world, but it was not unique in fostering a patriotic image, claiming to be more “national” than the “cosmopolitan” bourgeois. Each PCF convention ended with the delegates singing both the International and the Marseillaise, and it was common for factory occupiers to display red as well as tricolour flags at the plant gate.

Since the PCF lost its unifying force, a lot of the components (working class and non-working class) it used to stand for and federate, now find themselves political orphans and look for whatever commonality appears to be available. A solution is a togetherness no longer structured around a working class nucleus, rather a common people unified by the fact that they happen to live in France, which can entail nationalism or xenophobia – but not necessarily does so. In fact, the “migrant question” and the European Union play a minor role in Yellow Vests’ debates and demands (unlike the National Front – National Rally now - which always treats immigration and French “sovereignty vs. globalism” as its main plank).  

Briefly put, the best currently accessible identity is to belong to a working people, in the broadest possible sense. This explains why many men and women who for instance are indifferent or even hostile to strikes can recognise themselves as “Gilets Jaunes”, and empathise with them, even without taking part in the actions, sometimes just displaying a yellow vest on their windscreen or visiting a discussion website favourable to the movement. Strikes are divisive, but “the people” knows no division, or it would not be the people any more, and internal strife is a harbinger of civil disorder.   

Since traditional politics, parties and even unions are disruptive factors, what brings people together ? Usually, social movements feed on (and choke on) an over-abundance of myths:  in France, the July 14 Bastille Day, the 1793 Jacobins, the 1830 overthrow of the monarchy,  the June 1848 worker insurrection, the 1871 Commune, the 1940-44 Resistance, etc. In 2018-2019, one single historical reference dominates all others : republican France, the social republic, and instead of the red flag, the everywhere to be seen three-colour one.

A people needs federative figures and it fights for its icons. Painting “The Yellow Vests Will Triumph” on the Paris Arch of Triumph meant the public re-appropriation of a most significant republican place, a political shrine supposedly taken over by an illegitimate elite. As if there was a breach of contract between government and people: State power no longer coincides with the common man and woman. Inside the monument, mutilating the face of the statue of an angry woman (who was encouraging the 1792 volunteers on their way to defend revolutionary France at war against reactionary monarchies) was a response to what the Yellow Vests regarded as a 21st century disfiguration of true France by a privileged minority.


A constant of radical critique is to highlight and support all proletarian actions that break with State or bureaucratic control: revolutionaries promote self-organisation, wildcatting, the general meeting as a sovereign body, direct democracy… As it happens, the libertarian slogan, “Down with Leaders !”, could be taken as a major Yellow Vests’ rallying cry. However, as their activity unfolds, autonomy, from being necessary, becomes essential. The Gilets Jaunes self-organise the Gilets Jaunes, whose programme is first and foremost to get together and act together, peacefully if they can, illegally when they have to, but the rebellion repeats itself one Saturday after the other: it neither goes further than its first objectives, nor challenges its own limits.  

Talking about “the Yellow Vests”, as we have been doing since the beginning of this essay, might appear to treat them as a totality and ignore their multiplicity, in other words to “essentialise” them. But this is precisely how the Gilets Jaunes wish to be regarded. For better or worse, they draw their energy from a capacity to accept no definition except that of themselves as a whole. Their resilience wants no name but “les Gilets Jaunes”, and for them this collective name is enough. A remarkably well chosen sign of mutual recognition. The high visibility jacket is less a piece of clothing than an over-garment. The yellow waistcoat is mostly associated with often manual not-so-well paid jobs (road work, construction, railway, etc.). But, though related to work, it is not just workwear in the sense that donkey jackets were and overalls still are typically working class: it is protective clothing that can be worn over a coat or a jacket, without the constraint of a uniform.  The “high-viz” encapsulates the Yellow Vests’ program: the demand for the right to work in conditions that protect the worker and family. Whereas a number of minorities, sexual minorities especially, fight an uphill battle against social “invisibilisation”, it merely took a few days for the Gilets Jaunes to achieve nationwide and even international visibility.  

The yellow vest helps define a togetherness with no reference to a specific doctrine, ideology or party, nothing but the legacy of a republican nation, which the Yellow Vests avoid making explicit: they are content with consensual symbols like the French flag, with hardly any nationalist connotation (though a minority, “non-White” men and women are part of the Yellow Vests). The only ones who come forward with theories are intellectuals or activists, but they remain on the fringe of a movement that distrusts dogma, and they play no leading role in a gathering that bewares of leaders. The only theme that the Gilets Jaunes agree on is the referendum proposed by popular initiative, which has no realistic political outlet: it provides the Yellow Vests with an ideal unifier, almost too good to be true, too utopian to create possible dissent among them, since they lack the means to impose it in the present or any foreseeable future.

Reformism yesteryear & today                 

Despite their rejection of all existing parties and their refusal to build a new one, the Yellow Vests revive typical reformist elements.

In a great majority of cases, like the Gilets Jaunes, the worker movement – in the broadest sense – also cuts down classes to a rich vs. poor opposition : by bourgeoisie, it means only corporate fat cats and financial oligarchs, and by capitalism, only trusts and monopolies.

Besides, the labour movement may claim to be fighting exploitation but, in reality, it acts on the level of distribution relations: like the Gilets Jaunes, it demands more money. When an early initiator of the movement asked the government “What do you do with our money ?”, she was involuntarily echoing the French CP’s slogan “Let’s get the money back”. From the soft Left to the ex-Trotskyists via the ex-Stalinists, nearly everyone agrees on one variant or other of a redistribution scheme (“Let’s Share the Wealth”, “Spread the Wealth Around”…).  

When the wage-earner fails to get a higher wage by reaching out to its source (where the labour/capital relation is reproduced) through direct opposition to the boss, his demand moves on to the outcome of this relation : money, which everybody has, albeit in extremely different quantities. The homeless, the CEO, the hypermarket owner as well as the cashier, all take part in the universal money flow. Then the wage-earner no longer confronts capital, he addresses  public authorities which have some regulating power over the re-allocation of existing wealth. Depending on the amount of pressure the proletarians are able to exert, the State will or will not grant them a “fairer” deal via a minimum wage, old age pensions, family and unemployment allowances, progressive tax rates, etc.

As is well known, in Europe and north America, organised labour is on the wane, real wages and social transfers have decreased, and governments have increased the tax burden upon working people while handing out ever more corporate tax give-aways : tax cuts for the rich, like a welfare in reverse. In France, the rejection of a fuel tax increase morphed into a wider and deeper collective outcry, which brought together heterogeneous groups around a common goal: to restore a democratic public body, one that truly represents and protects the “real” people.

Prioritising purchasing power reflects a political stand. The wage-earner’s income originates in his labour. For the boss, it originates in the wage-earner’s work. But when it comes to money, for both, the sums available to them also depend to a large amount on how much they have to give the State and how much they will receive in public services, benefits, etc. Both the owner of the big restaurant and his washer-up think they pay too much in taxes for what they get back. After all, both may be driving diesel cars, so both were fiscally penalised by the increase in the cost of fuel.

It is unlikely that any big restaurant proprietor took part in the road blocks, but the issue of buying power is a powerful unifier. Of course, the interests of the shoe-shopkeeper contradict those of her sales-person : a higher wage for the latter would impair the benefits of the former. Nevertheless, the Yellow Vests make do with this contradiction because they are not targeting the capitalist social relation. It is the public authorities’ task and duty to enforce equality before taxation (no more tax cuts for the rich: to each according to his means), and to regulate competition (hypermarkets should pay milk farmers a proper cost-production price). They hope to redress social injustice by public fairness, and to turn the State from an opponent into a partner, albeit a renovated State, under citizen control thanks to frequent referenda organised by popular initiative.   

A major difference between traditional reformism and the Yellow Vests, though, is that they refuse any mediation : neither interference from outside (parties, unions),  nor from their own ranks (no leaders). This “citizens’ uprising” does its utmost to keep away from everything but itself. “No Union/No Politics/Just the People”, a placard proclaimed: the people’s self-assertion sums up the people’s programme. Neither reasonable reform nor revolutionary overhaul are on the agenda. If politics, as Bismark said, is “the art of the possible, the attainable”, the art of power seeking and sharing, of ruling and reconciling, then the Yellow Vests do not do politics. Literally, they are asking for the impossible.    

Bourgeois rule

The State and its political and media supporters were dumbfounded by the irruption and determination of the Yellow Vests. The rulers always have trouble imagining that the ruled are capable of rebelling: for them, the erupting mob is not just unreasonable, it is irrational. Then the government composed itself (the wielders of power have weathered social storms before) and continued up the road it has been following for some years. Now “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, as we wrote in 1848.  

Disregarding even very moderate suggestions that he might soften his line, the head of State has stayed on course. No wage rise is to be expected, the objective remains to develop “productive capital” so that business can compete on the world market, and it is normal and sound for the rich to be rich (aren’t they the wealth-creators and the risk-takers ?). Protesters are to be flash-balled into submission. Plus a few minor concessions to sugar the pill… actually more than union-led struggles had achieved in the last decades. That’s the bourgeois precautionary principle, at its lowest possible level.

The bottom line is that the “Fordist-Keynesian” social safety net will keep being torn at. Reintroducing the wealth tax would not have impoverished the ruling class, and might have slightly appeased popular anger, but giving in on the issue would be a sign of weakness, and why should the super-rich be content with 9.9 million when they can have 10 ?  

Macron is famous for his repeated jibes at the dispossessed, calling them “slackers”, “illiterates”, “those who are nothing”, etc. Whether uncalculated or deliberate, they openly express the class contempt that the bourgeois normally keep to themselves. This is to be expected in a situation when the rulers have the upper hand and are not afraid to publicly assert their domination. It is a well-established – usually unnoticed – fact that the bourgeois are much more class conscious than the proletarians. The Yellow Vests are a broad dynamic movement with a groundswell of support, yet unable to challenge a balance of power that has been favourable to the bourgeois since the 1980s.

Force of the negative vs. politics

The Gilets Jaunes have the strength of the “work of the negative”: history only proceeds by way of violent harrowing oppositions, "wild" and "incomprehensible" negations that first seem to lead nowhere, and are therefore regarded as absurd, destructive and criminal by defenders of the existing social order.

The Yellow Vests’ peculiarity is to be also negative towards their own movement : they refuse to give themselves the means necessary to their goals. They are self-defeating in that they do not engage in political battle as is usually known.

As for the electoral gain that the far-right may obtain out of the Yellow Vests’ discontent, it is no more indicative of the movement than the post-May 68 elections were.  These did not reveal the true meaning of a 3-week general strike and social earthquake. (For the record, in June 1968, the Gaullist right won an absolute parliamentary majority. A year later, in the presidential elections, the old left failed miserably (5%), the CP had its halcyon day (21%) which did not last, because in 1981 the new-born Socialist Party came into power with the CP as a – very minor – junior partner.) After an intense social movement, what comes out of the ballot box is at least as significant of its limits – and demise - as of its inner nature. Besides, the National Front/National Rally has not waited for the Yellow Vests to grow and prosper. 

In the May 2019 European elections, the handful of Gilets Jaunes claiming to represent the movement were only a fringe phenomenon, and no-one was surprised when they did very poorly. The Yellow Vests wish to be heard rather through direct action than the ballot box, so they did not care any more about the 2019 European election campaign than they normally do about the others. Most of them simply voted in May 2019 as they did before, some for the National Rally, others – rather numerous – by not bothering to visit the polling booth. The largest “worker party” in France is the abstainers’ one. Non-voting reached record highs in the 2017 presidential elections, but abstaining was 69% among manual workers, 65% among  office workers, and only 50% among executives, middle managers, well-paid white collar workers and people invested with a minimum of power. The lower your income and social position, the less you vote.

The Gilets Jaunes are not the first to take a political stand while keeping away from what is known as politics, but they do not bother to invent new political forms either. This contradiction saves them from “recuperation”, and also prevents their actions from having real effects, because there are only two ways they could obtain satisfaction: fighting for complete change (revolution), or pressing for much better public policies (reform). The Yellow Vests are going neither way. The movement goes round in its own circles, and after the December 1 riot it climaxed again on March 16, but no riot is enough to reverse the prevailing trend.

Incidentally, it is misleading to speak of “urban guerrilla” or of “pre-insurrectional situation”. Though those words label interwoven facts, there is a difference. Insurrection implies some use of lethal weapons, on both sides. When rioters raise the stakes and open up the possibility of overthrowing and/or seizing political power, they resort to weaponry which only the State can legitimately use: in the Middle Ages, spears, bows, swords, etc.; in modern times, firearms. With the Yellow Vests, this is not the case.

In these circumstances, the perpetuation of a declining movement could hardly prevent its efforts at clarification remaining at its lowest common denominator: the demand for authentic democracy. Whatever left or far left manipulation was involved, in January 2019 the Commercy “First Assembly of Assemblies” (a meeting of 75 delegations from various Gilets Jaunes groups), followed three months later by one in Saint-Nazaire, expressed what is now the highest possible consciousness of the movement : a general dissatisfaction with public institutions, current politics, existing parties and unions. The Yellow Vests favour participation in lieu of representation; direct democracy in lieu of parliamentarianism; grassroots politics in lieu of professional politicians; bottom-up in lieu of top-down. 

Activists hoped that a weakened but still persisting movement could be grist to the mill of organisers and programme-drafters, but attempts to interfere from outside have met with very little success. When the political and intellectual left call for feasible measures and reasonable steps, this is not the kind of reason the Gilets Jaunes wish to listen to. In January 2019, the monthly Monde Diplomatique, one of the leading French voices calling for a “real Left”, adequately epitomised the reformers’ predicament when it described the Yellow Vests as “culturally foreign to most of those who make this paper and most of those who read it”. This movement is too wide, heterogeneous and contradictory for any old or new party to provide it with a coherence or identity. It tolerates spokespersons as long as they ride the wave of popular mobilisation, remain consensual, and refrain from advocating anything dangerously specific, such as a political line or – worse – an election commitment.

Furthermore, the left has driven itself out of the movement by its instant and constant rejection of Yellow Vests’ violent actions (this was also the stand taken from the very beginning by all unions: their December 6 joint statement denounced “all forms of violence”). No party can give the Gilets Jaunes a direct political outlet and use them to build a power base of its own.


If the Yellow Vests caused nearly no work stoppage, if they very rarely called for strikes, this is because thirty years of defeat still weigh heavily upon people’s consciousness and behaviour: the Gilets Jaunes have shaken this historical set-up, but this is still a long way from dismantling it. Up to now, social movements have not reached a point where the railroad worker, the “self-employed” lorry driver, the post-office clerk, the warehousewoman, the nurse and the primary school-teacher could start tackling the common cause that organizes and rules their lives : wage labour. In the early months of 2019, calls for a general strike as a way of expanding the movement had little chance of being heard.

The Yellow Vests’ revolt is a crack. But nothing is broken yet. It is a staggering blow that leaves its own participants both empowered and stupefied. Hundreds of thousands of people have experienced self-organisation, disobedience, disrespect for politicians, law and order, the police and, far from least, for the media. History, however, is a poor educator. A far-reaching social surge is not a school where pupils learn by trial and error, step after step, comparing past and present: too many false memories abound. Whatever will remain of the Gilets Jaunes does not depend on them.

G.D., June 2019    

For further reading

Tristan Leoni, Sur les Gilets jaunes

For French readers, a substantial essay which details the origin of the surge ; its geographical roots ; its class composition ; its demands; the important part played by women; the Yellow Vests’ relation to politics; the often commented upon yet marginal role of sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and racism; the implicit presence of far right ideology as well as the failure of far right political groups to infiltrate the movement; the disconnection between the Gilets Jaunes and the left and far left; Yellow Vests’ self-organisation; the function of violence; and how the initial momentum was gradually lost when the roadblocks decreased and the Saturday demos came to repeat themselves.  

To keep our essay short, we have not dealt with the “strike/blockage” issue. Let’s just quote a passage from T. Leoni:

“ [..] the Yellow Vests [..] targeted circulation rather than production.  Yet blocking means blocking other people’s work. It is only because some workers produce goods and others transport them, that the blockade has any "impact": in other words, blocking is the result of a minority, because the majority does not go on strike. By definition, the sphere of circulation is not central, it is upstream and downstream of production. [..] In May 68, when 10 million workers were on strike, there was no more flow to block ! Therefore, to make revolution, blocking or stopping production is not enough [..] : it is necessary to change production from top to bottom (and therefore most likely to do away with a lot of it), as well as  changing the social relationships that come with it. This is rather difficult if you only rebel in your spare time.”

  • On the proletariat as those “without reserves”: Bordiga, Class Struggle and “Bosses’ Offensives”, 1949
  • "The proletarians (..) have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property." (Communist Manifesto, Part I).
  • Call of the First Assembly of Assemblies in Commercy, January 27, 2019
  • The Yellow Vests’ novelty and incongruity bewildered intellectuals and artists, left-wing or otherwise. One exception was Pamela Anderson who wrote as early as December 4, 2018: “When some protesters destroy cars and burn shops, they symbolically attack private property that is the basis of capitalism. When they attack police officers, they symbolically reject and challenge repressive state forces – forces that primarily protect the capital.” Her statement came out when the movement was gathering momentum, in stark contrast with the tardy recognition by 1,400 French writers and artists who waited until May 4, 2019, when the Gilets Jaunes were running out of steam, to publicly declare this protest worthy of support. It appears ex-Baywatch TV and movie star Pamela was more to the point than a whole array of personalities from the world of culture.
    Pamela Anderson Yellow Vests & I
  • To help put the Yellow Vests crisis in the context of the contemporary period:
    Call of the Void, 2003
    In for a Storm. A Crisis on its Way, 2007
    More specifically: From Crisis to Communisation, PM Press, 2019, chapter 4, “Crisis of Civilisation”.
  • The quote at the beginning of this text is from George Bataille’s collected works (the second volume compiles 1922-1940 unpublished manuscripts and drafts: Oeuvres, Gallimard, 1970).