Interview. French demographer Hervé Le Bras explains the social makeup of the recent protests against Macron’s government, marked by the distinctive yellow vests worn by demonstrators. ‘I would describe the phenomenon in terms of a sector of the country that is afraid of slipping down into poverty.’

France’s ‘yellow vest’ protests are a leftist movement against precarity

Last month, the Emmanuel Macron government proposed an increase on gasoline taxes. In response, protesters took to the streets wearing the yellow vests that drivers are required to have in their vehicles. The movement has become a symbol of Macron’s perceived elitism.

We asked historian and demographer Hervé Le Bras, a professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris, some questions about the “yellow vest” protest movement.

For many years, you have been analyzing the transformation of French society by taking the map of the country as your starting point. From this perspective, what does the map of the “yellow vest” demonstrations tell us?

The first thing that catches one’s eye is that the movement has drawn most of its members from places along what I would call the “empty diagonal,” which runs from the Ardennes to the Atlantic Pyrenees, cutting the country into two. This line passes through regions that are being depopulated, where only the deeper rural parts still survive. These are areas from which public services have been gradually disappearing and where businesses are closing their doors one after another. As an example, I would mention the department of Nièvre, which is more or less in the precise center of France, where almost 7 percent of the inhabitants took part in the protests on Nov. 17, during the first yellow vest mobilization.

So these are mainly people living in the countryside, away from the big cities?

Actually, the composition of the movement is quite diverse. And this is true from a number of different points of view. The rural component, or rather the “peri-urban” one, i.e. somehow suspended between city and countryside, is strong. But, at the same time, there are also many inhabitants of the metropolitan suburbs, often those who are the most distant from the city centers. It is no coincidence that the first protests were about the increase in fuel prices: these are people who have to use their cars every day, to reach their workplace, to go shopping or to go to the doctor.

The movement is undoubtedly expressing a social malaise—but is it the case that the poorest are the ones mobilizing?

From this point of view, things are rather complicated. It is a complex movement, inside of which there is a mix of demands for tax cuts and for stopping price increases, and also various social demands, such as the restoration of public services that have been cut in recent years, especially in health care and transportation. This is in addition to a more general demand that the state should “return” to being closer to the citizens. In this sense, I wouldn’t really speak of “the poor,” who are often concentrated rather in the banlieues and in the poor neighborhoods of the large cities; I would describe the phenomenon rather in terms of a sector of the country that is afraid of slipping down into poverty, people who have experienced a decrease in their purchasing power and who are looking toward the future with growing apprehension: they feel abandoned by the state, both on the social and economic level and on the level of representation.

On the political level, with the partial exception of Mélenchon, it is mainly the extreme right of Le Pen’s National Rally and the “hard right” of Wauquiez’s Republicans who are trying to “appropriate” the movement for themselves. Does the map of the mobilizations tell us something about that?

It tells us that the areas where the mobilization was the strongest so far do not match with those where Marine Le Pen got the most votes in the presidential election, or where her party is most strongly rooted. Indeed, the movement often involves left-wing electoral constituencies, where people have been voting for the PCF for a long time, and then for the Socialists. This does not mean, however, that the extreme right couldn’t possibly profit from this movement, which is aimed primarily against Macron, ahead of the European elections next year.

The government and the president chose a heavy-handed response, announcing fines, indictments and the intervention of the police to disperse the roadblocks. What does that say?

It doesn’t say much, except as an indication of the limits of Macron’s presidency, which has done everything to reduce the role of intermediate institutions, attacking the trade unions head-on, helping to dismantle the old parties, continuing the policies of welfare cuts—and now has to deal with a protest that is calling instead for “more State.”

However, it seems that there is also an unspoken factor influencing what is happening in the country now: what some researchers such as Christophe Guilluy, the author of La fin de la classe moyenne occidentale (“The End of the Western Middle Class”), have described for a long time as a kind of opposition between “deep France,” which is white, and the multiethnic metropolises.

Such a reading of the state of the country is more political than scientific, and it has to do with the attempt to transpose social issues into identitarian terms. Actually, it is precisely this imaginary conflict that the right-wingers are invoking in order to paper over the real problems of the country. And, in any case, immigration—the theme that keeps haunting identitarians of all types—cannot be found among the watchwords of the yellow vests. This movement is not developing along the lines of a division in terms of skin color.

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