Yellow Vests and Black Raincoats

This article is a personal analysis of the Yellow Vests movement in France, written by Morgan, a French Anarchist currently living in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Submitted by LAMA on June 5, 2019

First of all I should state that this is a personal account of the situation, it is my take on a very diverse and complex social movement. The Yellow Vests movement was sparked by a government increase of oil prices in October 2018 though it is far from being the only reason: a generalized speed reduction on the roads was also seen as a way for the government to disguise a new tax by increasing the number of speeding tickets. However these reasons are only the tip of the iceberg. The real origins of this explosion of anger can be found in the policies of president Emmanuel Macron and the French political and social situation. Emmanuel Macron was elected with only few people ever voting for him ; his opponent being the far right candidate Marine Le Pen. A number of voters refused to chose between a racist and a former banker. Unsurprisingly Macron is now conducting a right-wing style of governance; reducing taxes on the rich, continuing his predecessor’s attacks on workers’ rights, repression of social movements, harassment and deportation of migrants etc. In this context the Yellow Vests movement appears as a true popular revolt which has more to do with the fact that people are fed up with the whole situation. However this anger is taking many forms and has not always been directed at the origins of the problem. I will try and explain the movement’s evolution and shed a light on its class composition, then I’ll try to explain the anarchists and revolutionaries’ response to the situation and I will then conclude on the movement’s perspectives and current situation.

In the beginning the movement was launched by a mobilization on social media platforms, especially Facebook. In a few videos seen by millions of people and shared by thousands, individuals were calling on people to oppose the government’s fuel prices increase, new speed limits and taxes. At that time the symbol of the yellow vest appeared ; in France every car owner is bound by law to have one in their vehicle. The videos also called on people to rally in the roundabouts and to wear this vest or display it in their cars. These roundabouts soon became quite central in the mobilization. This gives us a hint on the class composition of the movement in its early stages. The roundabout is typical of France’s industrial and commercial centers, suburbs in-between the countryside and cities, rural areas and small towns. As opposed to the typical movements centered on big urban centers this one took hold in more rural parts of the country. At one point people started occupying these roundabouts, day and night in some places ; tents were erected, shacks constructed and campfires were lit. One has to remember that it was still winter time and the nights could be quite cold. From time to time the roundabouts were blocked and skirmishes with drivers happened here and there. A few people even died because they were hit by cars. However most of the occupations consisted in distributing leaflets to passing cars and debating with other Yellow Vests. The occupations are the place were people who had never participated in any mobilization were starting to learn, make friends and comrades etc. At that time only a few of them were union members or had been militants of any political party.

Politically speaking the movement always has been, and is, very diverse. The focus on taxes, and fuel prices were quite foreign to leftwing activists. On the roundabouts you could also find a number of petit-bourgeois, small business owners, racist and fascist figureheads etc. Depending on the place some racists attacks took place and on one occasion people arrested migrants and gave them up to the police. This is far from being the core of what was happening, but this explains why many leftists and anarchists did not know how to react. However as the movement grew and was met with police repression the situation started to evolve. People started to converge on weekly demonstrations called “Acts” and were faced with police brutality. Occupations on roundabouts were more and more violent because of police repression and not only because of other car owners. At one point the movement decided to regroup for demonstrations in Paris. One cannot stress enough how politically young the Yellow Vests are as a whole. For example, in France one has to declare intended demonstrations to the police. The problem is that although the movement had figureheads, there was no leader and no central decision making process. What happened is that people decided to show up in Paris just by announcing it and they chose a symbolic place that has always been off limit to social movements; the Arc de Triomphe and the upper class neighborhoods surrounding it. This led to heavy clashes with the police and a part of the movement started radicalizing. From people who wanted the police to join them and treat them as fellow workers they started to become more and more angry at what was perceived as unjust and unfair violence and repression. In the meantime, business owners and right-wing elements started to distance themselves from the violence, however the core of the movement did not. Demands started to include more and more things like minimum wage increase, taxes for the rich and democratic reforms. More anarchists and leftists started to join, sympathize and organize within the movement as it appeared for what it was – a working class movement, unaffiliated to political parties and unions. For some anarchists and revolutionaries the fact that these people were capable of rioting in the most upper class neighborhoods of Paris has also been a wake up call. These demonstrations did not always take place in Paris ; some cities emerged as political hubs although they did not have a tradition of participation in social movements and riots sparked by police repression started in a lot of them.

The shift between a mainly non-violent and peaceful movement to a more determined one was also accompanied by the media. In the beginning the bourgeois media found that the movement was quite positive. It seemed like a dream come true for right-wingers; a peaceful popular movement against taxes, government involvement in the market etc. However as the movement became more radical the media started to describe them as irresponsible persons, and called on people to distance themselves from rioters and vandals etc. In the meantime police repression kept on growing and the media did not say anything about it. At this day at least 30 people have lost an eye because of the LB-40 (flashball), 5 lost a hand because of grenades and one person was killed. The number of wounded are in the thousands and a lot of people are being condemned to jail time after each demonstrations. Most of them were not even directly involved in the riots. The role of the media in not reporting police brutality and the distortion of facts explains why a lot of Yellow Vests are now considering them as liars and enemies. A few journalists were even attacked during demonstrations even though most of the violence they face has been coming from the police. We also have something to say about the role of public figures within the movement. Most of them refuse to be considered as leaders and a lot of them do not hesitate to call on people to act outside the law. For now the ones who tried to recuperate the movement for their own political gain or tried to distance themselves from rioters were met with a loss of popularity, death threats and attacks, even during the demonstrations or at their homes. This is also the case for government ministers and political figures opposing the movement.

As always the revolutionary movement (anarchists and autonomists) did not agree on the situation and the response we should have. Especially in the beginning, a lot of people considered the movement to be a right-wing and even far-right movement. It is true that some of the early leaders in the Yellow Vests had a right-wing background. However for me a lot of the rejection from parts of the revolutionary movement came from the disconnect between the revolutionaries and the working class. This is of course a greater problem that should be adressed elsewhere. Because of the problems that I mentioned before, and especially racism and antisemitism, some comrades are convinced that this movement is nothing more than a fascist movement. However there has been a shift in the face of police repression and riots. To their credit most autonomists groups like the “appelistes” (Lundi Matin, the invisible committee, Julien Coupat) were very enthusiastic from the very beginning. But we also have to note that their enthusiasm is also based on the fact that they reject traditional class analysis.

As people were criticizing the movement for its racism, a lot of comrades took it upon themselves to try and expel the fascists from the movement. It mainly came in the form of street brawls during demonstration, doxxing and attacks against fascists’ headquarters. At one point and time the situation was tense for left wing organization and groups. Some attacks were really violent and a number of comrades were wounded. The fascists even attacked mainstream left-wing groups, not only revolutionaries and antifascists. They are still a threat but it seems that the tide has turned for them. They lost a number of brawls and recently they were beaten so badly that they ended up in the hospital. Some of them decided to go to the police which is unusual for those groups who pride themselves on their strength and who are culturally close to the ultras and hooligans. However for me these street groups are not the main threat ; the intellectual figureheads of the movement are sometime far more problematic. A number of them support conspiracy theories and/or low key antisemitic views. For the time being there seems to be no solutions for that other than pointing out the problem.

The riots in the streets are at level not seen in Paris since 1968. The upper class neighborhoods have been attacked and even a ministry was broken into with a forklift during a demonstration. The Yellow Vests are getting more and more radicalized because of the repression; as a result they are starting to view the tactics of what they see as “the black bloc” as more and more justified. Most of the people active in the riots are first timers. This alliance between Yellow Vests and the “black bloc” also called “Kway noir” in french or “Black raincoats” is an issue of great concern for the government. They have not succeeded in creating a rejection of the more radical elements by the movement. Even worse, a lot of people are starting to consider that black bloc tactics are justified in term of self defense and that they have sometimes defended them from police violence. On the other hand the increase in police violence means that a lot of people are now justifiably scared to go to demonstrations and that has provoked a drop in participation if not in popularity.

Concerning the mainstream unions their attitude toward the movement has often been quite hostile but an hostility towards them can also be felt within the Yellow Vests. The reason being that the section of the working class active in the movement is not the same as the one that is unionized. The unions in France are overwhelmingly members of the public sector, have a higher pay and/or work in companies with more than 500 employees. On the other hand a lot of the Yellow Vests come from the private sector, and more precarious situations – self employment, temp jobs etc. However on the ground the rank and file of the unions has been participating in the movement from the very beginning. What is new for France is that this kind of social movement has never been further from the unions and can be seen as an other sign of their loss of power. However unions are not opposing the movement ; for the 1st of may Yellow Vests and unions were demonstrating together.

The government has attempted other means of destroying the movement using methods other than sheer repression. The main attempt was “the great debate” a type of national consultation supposed to inform the president of the request and demands of the people. It took the form of local groups of randomly selected people tasked with debating and coming up with requests. However at the end of this the president declared basically that he understood the demands but was not going to do anything about it, therefore showing what the attempt was all about ; destroying the movement and gaining time hoping people would get tired. It was even more absurd to try and start the “great debate” because the movement already had more or less clear demands ; things like the “RIC” ; Popular Initiative Referendum. This would basically permit people to vote on policies and propose new ones. Raising minimum wage and taxing the rich are the two other big demands on the part of the Yellow Vests.

Recently the demonstration of the 1st of May has seen much violence coming from the police. The government had given orders not to let the more radical groups time to gather. This took the form of a lot of charges and attacks on the demonstration and even on mainstream unions, which is quite new. The representative of the main french union, The CGT, even had to leave the demonstration because of police violence. The government succeeded in limiting this demonstration but failed miserably in the eyes of the public. For example they were caught lying about demonstrators attacking a hospital-it turned out people were just trying to flee police violence. More and more videos show special police groups attacking people randomly, even in their own buildings. Police repression has had the effect of radicalizing and bringing revolutionaries and Yellow Vests closer together. More and more the common denominator of this diverse movement is a hatred for the police and calls for a revolution.

It is difficult to see what the future will bring. However this movement is like no other we have seen in the past years. Personally I think that even though this movement has a lot of problems and things that need to be addressed it is still the most encouraging thing to appear in a long time ; an autonomous, working class, social movement.