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“In all societies there is a seething undercurrent of anger. And they’re part of it.” They are the gilets jaunes, and the person speaking is one of those Parisians who is against the protest movement. The colère was first coloured yellow and then stained with the red of the wounded in clashes in the streets of France’s biggest cities. The yellow is that of the vests which have become the flag of a movement proudly born in the streets and at traffic roundabouts, the scenes of a protest that originally stemmed from an increase in fuel prices, but which on 17 November 2018 changed shape and content, painting the map of France yellow.
Acts 1, 2 and 3 were staged regularly all the way to Act 53, the anniversary on 17 November a year later. A year in which one of the biggest protest movements in recent French and European history came to the fore in the French streets. Bringing with it all its anger, seething in the countryside and suburbs and then exploding across the country. In a sort of manifesto of hatred for the capital, the rich, the establishment and Emmanuel Macron, whose policies oppose the yellow vests, has brought them to their knees.
The anger flowed into violence, splitting the movement. In a spiral, in the paradox of a violence that turned the spotlight on the movement, but at the same time undermined its credibility. It was also the sign of a media narrative that has struggled to get into focus. As the Radio France Inter journalist Philippe Randé admits: “We failed to realise what was happening.” And he tells how, for the first time, journalists were forced to work with bodyguards.
“It was war,” say those who took to the streets, retracing the lines of that anger of which the yellow vests have become both architects and victims. Among the casseurs were infiltrated extremists who mingled with the protesters, who destroyed and set fire. And then there are those political parties that tried jump on the bandwagon. Even in Italy.
Everything has been said about the gilets jaunes. That they’re a prey to the Rassemblement National. They’re fascists, extremists. Then you hear “Bella Ciao” resounding in the streets, with the protesters singing their own version of it. This diversity within the movement is extremely rare and difficult to understand, with anger and social condition uniting the protestors more than the ideological battle lines. The anger that contains the strength of a dream and the frustration of gesture.
“I went out on the street to say I wanted to live better, and in the end it’s worse than before,” admits David, a young man who was struck by an LBD bullet, the controversial weapons used by the French police. “With the yellow vests there’s been an escalation of police violence rarely seen in the past,” explains Ian B., the false name of one of the members of the collective “Désarmons-les”. The collective has examined and recorded case after case of alleged abuses by the police. According to the annual report of the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale, there has been an “unprecedented and significant increase” in the use of LBDs of over 200% against the gilets jaunes.
While the violence of the demonstrators was shown around the world as TV images, it was only after some months that the police violence began to be talked about, thanks also to the convictions and requests for investigations by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the United Nations. And above all thanks to the rising number of judicial investigations into the culpability of the police.
Following the numerous cases of people wounded and maimed across France, the possibility started to emerge that law enforcement agents were attacking protesters even when they did not pose a threat, with evidence of a deliberate and disproportionate use of force. Caused, according to some observers, by the government’s inability to cope with the protests. Or the result, according to others, of a true strategy of tension to deter people from demonstrating.
But the street clashes, the absence of a real leader, the caste hostility, the struggle for democracy and the hostility towards traditional media, are not just found in the yellow vest movement. In what is much more than an apparent synchrony around the world, there is a clear and slender thread that links geographically remote local movements. It takes on the contours of violence, contains an illusion, puts forward a demand for change.
It asks if an alternative is possible. An alternative that passes through the construction of a world view, rather than consensus. The crisis of neoliberal policies, the struggle for social justice and the redistribution of wealth are fuelling many recent protests, whose strength lies in the social networks and the explosion of people’s frustration on the streets. These movements are taking on the connotations of a real threat to Nations, which are faced with a new subject. And amid the difficulties of dialogue, they end up responding to violence with violence.
But the demands of that populism that “can never end well”, according to the economist Francesco Saraceno, an Italian living in France, call for reflection. About the limits of democracy. And the meaning of struggle.
It is still difficult to understand the legacy of a movement that is shot through with contradictions and which risks losing its way and petering out. However, what is clear is that the phenomenon of the gilets jaunes has marked Macron’s policies and the history of France, a country accustomed to centuries of struggle.