The Politicisation of the Gilets Jaunes

Jacline Mouraud sits before her computer screen, recording a video message to post to her handful of Facebook friends. “I have two little things to say to Mr Macron and his government. When will this attack on drivers end that you have put in place since you have been in office?” she demands. “I have made a little list of what we have suffered since you have been there, and we are fed up to the back teeth.”

The 52-year-old Bretonne native continues in that same vein for four-and-a-half minutes, lambasting French President Macron’s planned ‘green fuel tax’ as an assault on the common Frenchman.

Her diatribe certainly hit home – the video, which was posted to Facebook in October last year, garnered more than six million views in less than a month. It also catapulted Mouraud into the spotlight as one of the original exponents of the Gilets Jaunes, a grassroots revolutionary movement that are behind some of France’s most violent protest action in recent history.

Eschewing party affiliations

Every Saturday for the past seven months, Gilet Jaunes activists have taken to the streets in cities and towns around France, castigating the policies of Macron’s government. The group’s goals have swelled well beyond the original remit of simply abolishing the planned increase to fuel tax to a list of no less than 42 demands, which range from a rise in minimum wage to the resignation of Macron.

The anger directed at France’s leader and calls for governmental reform would suggest that the Gilets Jaunes are a political movement, but the truth is not so simple. “It’s making political claims, but it’s not a political movement in the sense of party politics,” explained Dr Pierre Bocquillon, a lecturer in European Politics at the University of East Anglia. The movement has always claimed to be leaderless and apolitical, and Gilet Jaunes participants themselves are not universally affiliated with a single political party – in fact, they come from right across the political spectrum.

An opinion poll published by the Elabe Institute found that in the May 2017 elections, 36 percent of participants had voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, while 28 percent had supported her polar political opposite, leftist politician Jean-Luc Melenchon. Similarly, when five Le Monde journalists studied the Gilets Jaunes demands, they found that two-thirds were “very close” to the position of the radical left, while almost half were “compatible” with the position of the far right.

In France’s Assemblée Nationale, these two political factions have a highly fractious relationship and struggle to co-exist at the best of times, so it seems implausible that their representatives would be part of the same movement. But they have found common ground in their economic reality. “When you look at the sociology of the [Gilets Jaunes], many are the kind of people who are just making ends meet – they’re not necessarily the poorest but nevertheless, they’re in quite precarious situations where the end of the month is difficult,” said Bocquillon. “That was what really called many people to the movement originally.”

Organising a revolution

As the movement has grown, however, some of the more politicised Gilets Jaunes have begun to organise themselves in a bid to safeguard the longevity of their movement. Mouraud, for example, founded her own political party in January this year, named Les Émergents (the Arisen). She told reporters at the launch that she viewed this organisational step as vital in safeguarding the longevity of the movement, saying: “Phase A has been done – everyone knows what is happening in France. Now we have to pass on to phase B and launch into building and proposing. To demand without proposing something is a little illogical.”

“It’s one solution, as momentum can only last for so long,” said Bocquillon. However, the lack of overarching political affiliations within the movement makes it nigh on impossible to establish a party with a manifesto that every Gilet Jaune could support. This was an issue that one faction of the movement came up against when they put forward ten candidates for last month’s European elections. “A lot of people said ‘they don’t represent us, they just decided that they represent us, and we don’t want that’,” explained Bocquillon.

However, there’s another, deeper reason for resistance against party politics within the movement. Elabe polling in December also showed that five percent of respondents had voted for Macron in the May 2017 elections; they had been drawn in by his outsider status, and had hoped that he could improve their quality of life. The fuel tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back in a long line of policy changes that appeared to favour the richest in French society. Enraged, these Gilets Jaunes turned their backs not just on Macron, but on traditional politics altogether.

This anger and distrust means that any move that seeks to bring the Gilets Jaunes into those circles will always be met with scepticism and reluctance. It’s the reason that figures such as Melenchon and Le Pen have been unable to make significant inroads – why should they be trusted any more than Macron?

Nevertheless, the stark truth remains that alignment with an existing political party, or the establishment of their own, may be the Gilets Jaunes’ only hope for survival. They were able to earn certain concessions from Macron in December by virtue of their sheer disruptive impact on the country, but as the movement wanes in size, this strategy seems less likely to succeed. Last Saturday saw just 7,000 Gilets Jaunes take to the streets, compared to a high of more than 250,000 last year. With the power of collective bargaining fading, if the movement hopes to achieve its stated goals, it will have to relinquish its apoliticism and set aside individual loyalties.