Reportage. Two years after France’s deadly social explosion, what remains of the movement that brought Macron’s presidency to the brink of collapse? Nothing.

The yellow vests paralyzed France – then they evaporated

“In the beginning, it was a good movement. They were right. We can no longer survive here. Then, however, the violence began. There were certainly infiltrators. I don’t know who was behind it. Maybe the state, the army, the secret services. But there were infiltrators, and they were used to discredit the yellow vests.”

Right at our arrival in Bordeaux, when we get into a cab, the driver, in his 40s and multilingual, begins to tell us what the yellow vests movement had meant for him. It was a mobilization so fluid that it never fit into the interpretations of analysts who tried, in vain, to explain something they knew nothing of: the malaise of that territory surrounding Paris called “France.” Today, there is nothing left of the yellow vests; and yet, they managed to put fear into President Macron for at least six months.

In the fall of 2018, the price of fuel rose to €1.50 per liter. In the meantime, the government had planned a further increase in taxes on gasoline and diesel. The revolt broke out. There were more and more calls for mobilization on Facebook. On Saturday, November 17, 282,000 people wore their yellow vests, a symbol of those who have to use cars to earn a living, and blocked the country’s roads in 2,000 different places. Traffic circles became the preferred place for traffic blocks. At the end of the day, there were one dead and 227 injured. President Macron and the executive were taken aback.

In the course of the following weeks, participation decreased significantly. They were not in large numbers, but the yellow vests were everywhere. However, the clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement bodies got more serious. The casseurs, the black blocs, entered the scene. In Paris, there were guerrilla warfare scenes on the Champs-Elisées. The government abandoned the increase in fuel taxes; however, the pressure on the executive and the president was not easing. The goal of the movement was now to force Macron and the government to resign. According to a poll, 84% of French people supported the protests.

In Bordeaux, it doesn’t take much to get people talking about the yellow vests. Since November 2018, on every Saturday, the center of the city has been the scene of violent clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement agencies.

Fatima is an extraordinarily kind waitress of Portuguese origins, working in one of those bistros that give you a taste of all the clichés about France, as if they were true, in one dinner offered at a reasonable price. She stops at our table and tells us: “I would have liked to march with them as well. The problem was that on Saturdays, when there were marches, I had to work here. Their reasons for protesting were the same as mine,” she says with a smile, “but then they started to insult us, to call us collaborationists, they threatened us and the clients. We had to lock ourselves in.”

David, who owns a bar in the center of town and doesn’t seem to have any particular sympathy for the yellow vests, recounts very similar events. He claims that there were all kinds of people among those who were seen wearing yellow vests in Bordeaux. Young and old, people from the extreme left and supporters of Marine Le Pen. However, in 24 hours, we have not yet managed to encounter even one. “That’s normal,” he says, “they weren’t local people. The yellow vests only came to town on Saturdays. They are people who live in the province.” Thus, to find them you have to go on the move.

Saint Nazaire is a harbor town of less than 70,000 inhabitants on the Atlantic Ocean, less than 400 km northwest of Bordeaux. To understand why the uprising started with the rise in the price of fuel, one should also experience what it means to be unable to afford a car. By train, it takes five hours to get to the town, changing trains at least twice. The French railway network is built on hubs, and there is only one true hub: Paris. To go from one city to another, you have to hope that your route is included in a longer one that will inevitably end in the capital. Otherwise, you change trains and have to rely on hope once again.

We chose Saint Nazaire for a reason. Here, for the first time, the yellow vests in the area set up a headquarters, a physical place in which to meet: the Maison du Peuple. Unlike in Bordeaux, the average income here is lower than in the rest of France. At the station bar, overlooking the STX shipyards, on which the city’s economy depends, many people are already unmistakably drunk. The air is heavy. A gang war is ongoing for the control of drug trafficking. There are shootings in Saint Nazaire. A man has been killed and a little girl has been wounded. The unusually high temperature of 35 degrees Celsius and the concrete are not making it easy to cross the long avenue that connects the station to the center. Between shuttered stores and broken windows, there are many temporary employment agencies, a few Turkish restaurants and a few strip clubs with come-hither names.

Two representatives of the Maison du Peuple collective have decided to show us their headquarters. It is an old occupied building in the center. Marie and Killian, the first one an office employee in her 50s, the second one a guy in overalls, looking less than 20 years old, are two people whose situations would seem to be very different.

“Of course, the increase in the fuel price was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But then we realized that the problem wasn’t the price of diesel fuel itself,” says Killian, who, like Marie, says he had never been interested in politics before the movement began. “We were tired of counting for nothing, as if we didn’t exist,” he says. The young man tells us that participation in the mobilization was open to everyone, and the important thing was that there shouldn’t be any ties with political parties.

The often-contradictory demands of the movement, from calling for a lowering of taxes to an improvement of public services, tell a story of an implicit agreement between the state and deep France that has been betrayed. The increase in the cost of fuel alone would not explain a revolt that lasted for several months, if it were not linked to the constant disinvestment in public services by the authorities in Paris.

This is why the further one goes from the big centers, the more the phenomenon seems to have taken root. The big cities where the demonstrations took place were unaware of the reasons why the yellow vests came in from the countryside. “People needed to know that they were not alone, they needed a place to meet,” says Marie. Our impression is that the mobilization was above all an opportunity to unite so many personal stories, often of loneliness, exasperated by isolation and economic difficulties, who found each other at the roadblocks.

Killian harbors anger towards the police. He says that after all the abuses committed by law enforcement, he wanted to become a casseur himself. The violence in the streets and the management of public order were at the center of the debate. According to the weekly L’Express, 11 people lost their lives during the demonstrations, two died of cardiac arrest and an elderly woman died because she was struck by a tear gas grenade in her house. There were 4,439 injured, 1,944 among police forces and 2,495 among the yellow vests. Among the latter, 24 lost an eye, five lost a hand and one had to have a testicle removed. These serious injuries were caused by the LBD rifles (which shoot hard plastic bullets) that were used on almost 13,000 different occasions.

The judicial response was also particularly drastic. In the period of November 2018 to June 2019 alone, more than 10,000 yellow vest protesters were arrested, 3,100 convicted and 400 of them immediately imprisoned. The two activists don’t like the trade unions either, even though here they should be represented by the dockers, who saved them from police charges more than once. “We don’t want people from the union. We think differently,” Killian is still saying nowadays. “They want to stop the economy by stopping work. We want to stop everything.”

And yet, when you ask them about their idea of how the country should look, everything becomes vague. They talk about finding humanity again, about working for everyone, but neither of them is able to explain how that would work. As we leave the Maison du Peuple, we’re having lingering doubts that we haven’t understood what the yellow vests really wanted.

Having very little experience with politics is a trait that often recurs in the stories of those who have been part of the movement, together with the total rejection of labels or any approach towards the parties from the opposition that have tried to exploit the revolt. It is no wonder, then, that every attempt at setting up a leadership for the movement has been abortive. Neither is it much wonder that the two lists that directly claimed a connection to the yellow vests collected only 0.55% at the 2019 European elections. The only political proposal produced by the movement was the request to initiate a citizens’ initiative referendum.

What happened in Saint Nazaire is too particular to wholly explain the mobilization of the yellow vests. One must instead go into the depths of rural France, towards the center of the country. At least as far as the train takes you. We arrive in Chatellerault, a town of almost 30,000 inhabitants in the department of La Vienne. In this small town, which lives thanks to the automobile district, the average income, of about 1,500 euros per month, is more than 200 euros lower than the rest of France, which puts it in the poorest 30% of the country. In the center, more stores are closed than open. The big real estate groups have taken charge of renting or selling empty storefronts, desolate, abandoned and full of mail that was never collected and advertising flyers.

Sylviane, in her 50s, employed at a company in the automotive district, says that she took part in the movement with enthusiasm from the start, but then moved away from it. At Chatellerault, participation was massive in the early stages. “Thousands of people,” the woman tells us. Then there was the fire at the Main Jaune, a monument dedicated to the automotive industry, an act the yellow vests were directly accused of. “I left the movement because I was disgusted by the violence and by the way in which many people who had nothing to do with it took advantage of our good faith.”

“The problem was the lack of organization. They didn’t even have any security during the protests,” says Jean-Claude, a retired public administration worker and long-term trade unionist at CGT (the French CGIL). “Of course,” he explains, “the demands of the yellow vests were confusing, one might call them right-wing, linked to a deeply individualistic approach – but there is a problem, especially in districts like this one, completely abandoned by the state. If we look at public offices, in recent years the number of employees has been halved. And transport has worsened as well.”

“The very presence of the state is now up for discussion.” It almost looks like the yellow vests have highlighted the conflict between the countryside and the city, between Paris and the periphery – not that of the banlieues, which did not take part in the revolt, but the rural one, which feels forgotten by Paris. On October 26, 2019, only 13,250 people in the whole country demonstrated wearing reflective vests. It was the end of a movement already in agony. A little over a month later, protests against the pension reform began. It was a mobilization led by the unions, with impressive numbers, which made people forget the yellow vests.

For this September 12, one of the most popular Facebook profiles from the movement has invited all French people once again to block the country, calling for the unions, which will take to the streets on the 17th against the policies of the government, to join their mobilization. The numbers of the participants in both protests, if they end up comparable or not, will be able to say whether the yellow vests have been definitively relegated to France’s past, albeit its very recent one.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!