The French sociologists are already complaining about the lack of any books of theory written by the yellow vests. Politicians, from Le Pen to Mélenchon, claim to have had the demands of the protesters already in their programs, although few of the latter appreciate their attempts at shoehorning them into their preferred ideological outlook. The old nouveaux philosophes, however, are left having to reluctantly reckon with this new force. All the French intelligentsia are feeling ignored.
Is Sartre’s Existentialism set to make a comeback? Yet, in hindsight, the movement is not that difficult to understand: it has brought together, among others, anarchists, extreme leftists and fascists, who all have had enough of the old, familiar political signifiers, replacing the once-fashionable vests of the petty bourgeoisie with the yellow ones that they are all required to have in their cars.
And it is no accident that the protests started with the increase in fuel taxes, messing up Macron’s environmentalist turn, which was planned to be achieved at their expense. On the other hand, our own followers of Beppe Grillo believe that their “V2-Day” (short for “Vaffanculo-Day,” an ultimately failed 2008 citizens’ referendum initiative for cutting all state funding for media, during the times of Berlusconi) was actually a relevant precedent for the French protest.
These overenthusiastic M5S supporters are thus boasting that—fortunately—“our” yellow vests are actually in power, and it’s all thanks to them that there are no more violent protests here. The new Italian government has incorporated them within itself—don’t you see? Many claim to believe in good conscience that the thugs who broke the windows of banks in Paris and robbed ATMs—the most violent minority of the protesters—are fascist infiltrators.
However, everyone’s interpretations were thrown into confusion when the yellow vests rejected a late meeting with Macron, on the grounds that no one can claim to speak on their behalf. This is the main novel aspect here, although there are precedents both ancient and modern. One might remember the Luddites, or those vandalizing factories and suburbs in protests more than a century ago. To understand what is driving them, I think we should focus on the people’s new primary needs, and the new forms of misery they are rebelling against—problems that are affecting far more than just the large Parisian suburbs.
The new poverty bears no resemblance to the old, for instance to that of the ‘50s in Italy, which writers depicted in many lines of powerful verse. The age-old theme of hunger was what moved the writers and thinkers who built an entire mythology around the proletariat. Today, poverty looks very different: the cost of living is very high, and not everyone can make the proverbial ends meet.
I was particularly struck by an interview with a woman protester on a French radio show, in which she said she had a salary of only €1,200 per month and had to rent an apartment far from Paris, where she worked. She had to spend around €400 monthly just to drive to her workplace and back. And what did she decide to do in the end? She put on the yellow vest, because she simply couldn’t take it anymore, and the fuel tax had finally opened her eyes.
Where in all of this are the fascists, the left, Macron? They were all caught off guard by the reality of this new form of human misery. This is a popular protest that does not fly the flag of any party, because they are not willing to be “represented” by any of them. It is no coincidence that everything started on social media. Are they in fact that “multitude” theorized so elegantly by the Communist Toni Negri? Or do they look at all like the youth of the Italian “Lotta Continua” movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Not at all—even while this movement has a lot to do with the globalization of the market, which has brought with it the spread of the new basic needs.
Undoubtedly, the young Marx would have written many fiery pages about this protest, and would have made some sense of it, even as his Communist Manifesto would not have had the same success for such an audience. Simply put: the Emperor has no clothes, and everyone has seen it, even though many still think this is nothing more than a flash in the pan. One can no longer ignore the new needs of a people who cannot manage to live any longer, not just at the (rather low) level of what is called the middle class, but even at the level of the old form of poverty, based on a lack of food, during the times when political figures used to not be embarrassed to call them “sheeple.”