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Six Months of “Yellow Vests”: A New Age of Social Movements

Last updated on 28th July 2019

For the political scientist Samuel Hayat, the mobilisation of the “Yellow Vests” constitutes a sign, among others, of a profound swing in the relationship with politics, closing a century and a half of space based on partisan and ideological clashes. For this specialist on the 1848 revolution, “the Yellow Vests do not cleave France”.

Samuel Hayat is a political scientist and specialist in the 1848 revolution. During the first months of the mobilisation of the Yellow Vests he wrote two texts (here and here) that allow to better understand the event unfolding before our eyes.

Six months after Act 1, he looks back at the political irruption that we witnessed, the way it struck the intellectual world, the reasons for the unprecedented scale of repression, and the possible next six months of Yellow Vests.


Six months after Act 1 of Yellow Vests, is it time to write history?

“Like in most historical events, interpretive quarrels over the meaning to be given to it begin in the event itself. In the case of the Yellow Vests, the tension concerns the question of who participates, what they want, but also about the story itself: the choice of characters, the supposed leaders, the driving forces …

It seems to me necessary not to let interpretations of this event that go in two dangerous or problematic directions to impose themselves. The first sees an almost incomprehensible rush of anger and rage, in front of which the only logic would be to stop, channel, or repress it. The second thinks that the mobilisation of Yellow Vests can be interpreted in the pre-established categories of the sociology of social movements, with a reading grid that sees, for example, a Poujadist movement or a demand centered on purchasing power.

We have thus heard a whole series of schemes of interpretation that, with the laudable desire to make the movement intelligible, reduced in practice the openness of the possibilities that marked it. These two types of interpretation are not identical in what they mean politically, but they are symmetrical, in the sense that they do not take into account the specific historicity of the movement itself and the irruption of the new that it contains.”

Why was history so solicited in order to attempt to interpret the mobilisation of the Yellow Vests?

“Firstly, because the Yellow Vests themselves drew on the symbols of French history, notably 1789, while remaining difficult to interpret in terms of historical continuity. #MeToo also constitutes an unprecedented movement in its forms and stakes, but it is possible to insert it into the long history of feminist movements.

By drawing on the distant past, and with a very strong concern to present their non-membership in the political or union field, the Yellow Vests thwart this type of interpretation. Even if it is partly an illusion, the double idea of ​​inaugurating something radically new, while redoing the archaic or timeless gesture of the popular uprising, takes on a performative dimension.

It is also interesting to note that it is often the historians on the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century who were the first to take the lead in interpreting the Yellow Vests, such as Gerard Noiriel, Sophie Wahnich, or Michele Riot-Sarcey.

A subsidiary question is to know why the words of historians have been put in the spotlight so much, while we have hardly heard sociologists, especially those working on social movements.

It is the fruit of both the devaluation of the words of the social sciences in the media, which spares historians; an excessive modesty of sociologists who often avoid pronouncing themselves before making a long journey, especially if the moment contradicts some of their analytical frameworks, for example the importance of organisations in social mobilisations; but also of a particularly marked tendency in France which consists, in a period of troubles, of addressing in priority to historians in order to compare the elements of reality to the great myths of the Nation and to the long history of the country.”

Can we identify important lines of division in the way the intellectual world and that of research have taken hold of the mobilisation of Yellow Vests?

“Since at least the strikes of 1995 no mobilisation has been so inviting for researchers to take a stand. They were very much solicited by the media first of all because it was quickly realised that the usual editorialists were unable to provide an interesting comment, and that it was necessary to elicit more enlightening words. But researchers have also developed their own initiatives, as never before, with the constitution of research groups and the setting up of collective surveys in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon, Grenoble, Lille … In the ned, many researchers became involved by signing petitions, either in support of the Yellow Vests, or in protest against the repression they were subjected to or by participating in many meetings, sometimes bringing together hundreds of people, in different cultural or alternative places.

This setting in motion of the world of the research constituted something novel, but in the end rather not that cleaved. There have been very few articles directly opposed to the movement, except for some texts here and there, like in ‘The Conversation’. But when the reality of history emerges, those who say that the reality should not exist are inaudible. The conservatives have not faded, but their voices are meaningless, because they say nothing but: ‘What is going on shouldn’t be happening’.”

Some family dinners were surely agitated when the topic of Yellow Vests arrived at the table …

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“Maybe, but let us not forget that the Yellow Vests have received majority support, even massive, throughout the six months that have elapsed since the act 1. A study of the Society and Consumption Observatory compared the social profile of those who support and oppose the Yellow Vests. There are, of course, correlations, for example between the level of education or income and the lack of support. But apart from the very rich and highly educated, there are no homogeneous social environments in the critics of the movement. And even those who criticise the movement, for example on the issue of violence, recognise in their majority the validity of the claims it bears.

This is a specificity that signifies that the movement built itself on slogans that are consensus and are of two kinds. First, social justice through criticism of profiteers and the ultra-privileged. Then, radical criticism of the party system, which is often shared even by those who are opposed to the Yellow Vests …

The weakness of the demonstration of the ‘red scarves’ [a fake movement created by the government to try to thwart the Yellow Vests – ed] is the indecent sign that in the end the Yellow Vests cleave very little. The history of France is full of counter-movements supporting the government in times of unrest. This existed in 1848, after February 6th 1934, May 30th 1968 with the support of de Gaulle, or recently with the demonstration of January 27th 2013 in favour of marriage for everyone. Each time, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves in the street with the support or blessing of the government, against those who dispute it.

Here, after months of preparation, and while the government draws an apocalyptic picture of the situation, it leads, at best, to a few thousand red scarves … This is the sign that the Yellow Vests, if they can invoke criticism, do not divide France, only a few categories of commentators …”

How do you interpret the presence of the extreme-right among the Yellow Vests?

“A real specificity of this mass movement is that it can not be easily placed either on the left or on the right. We are faced with a movement that carries values and demands that are rather in the great tradition of the left, in its egalitarian side, but which is animated by people whose votes and social profile, especially at the beginning of the movement, would bring them rather to the right.

All of this is unequally documented and confirmed according to the studies already done, but it is clearly part of a movement that is welcoming vis-à-vis people who are, by their beliefs and their votes, on the right and extreme-right, because it intends to represent all citizens and therefore refuses to pose the slightest partisan barrier.

This is something entirely novel, which makes the movement susceptible to new criticism, designating it either as an incoherent movement or as a movement where the extreme-right is present, which is problematic for the left, but where the extreme-left is also visible, which poses a problem for the right and the extreme-right, some of who had believed that their time had come in the first weeks of mobilisation and have since withdrawn from the mobilisation.

This unprecedented configuration is linked to the citizen, or rather ‘citizenist’, dimension of this movement, which is the first of its kind in contemporary France, since it refutes in its principle the left/right divide that has organised not only political but also social movements for more than a century and a half. But the breakdown of partisan politics and its rules is such that the divide between citizens and political elites has been able to replace the traditional divide.”

Can this “citizenism” really organise politics?

“This ‘citizenism’ is the object of constant construction and reconstruction within the movement itself, through a series of devices that build unity. This is not only about unified claims, but also about local and national leaders who constantly offer reminders about the norm of unity. It is this constant work that gives the movement its unprecedented longevity and makes it particularly resilient and inclusive. Refusing any demand that is not unanimous imposes to not talk about immigration, unemployment, wages, and the public service, which are divisive topics.

This is also why the movement prevents itself from asking the question of domination, because domination would reveal the existence of crystallised and partly invisible powers that go through the movement itself, be it between small bosses and the precarious, between private employees and public employees, between unemployed people and people who work, between men and women, between whites and non-whites … The survival of the movement is thus conditioned by the fact that all of this remains hushed up.

This is not an aporia of the movement, since this does not prevent it from continuing and taking an increasingly important place in the space of social movements. But if one places oneself in the tradition of the left, which gives a central place to the questioning of dominations, it is a movement that can not completely belong to it.”

Compared to the two texts you have produced this winter to help understand this unprecedented mobilisation, and which have been widely read, what do you think you missed, a few months later?

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“I had not spotted the decisive role of entrepreneurs in the mobilisation, which is better known now. The prehistory of the movement, around groups mobilised in particular against the speed limit, is also better appreciated. This does not change the analyses that I have been able to perform on the ‘moral economy’ of the Yellow Vests or on the ‘citizenism’ of this mobilisation, but I wasn’t able to measure the importance of local leaders who found themselves invested with the power to be the guarantors of the ‘spirit’ of the Yellow Vest. There is also a lack of information on the way in which media representatives have put forward and selected not ‘representatives’ of the Yellow Vests, but certain figures.”

You produced a striking first text, which focused on the “moral economy” of the Yellow Vests, a notion borrowed from the British working class historian E.P. Thompson. Is it paradoxical that this in many ways very original mobilisation was often apprehended with concepts from industrial societies, or even Ancien Régime?

“We are facing an optical effect. For a relatively short period of time, namely the political modernity that extends from the late 18th to the end of the 20th century, politics was organised around a field of professionals who managed to impose their codes and models of classification on the entire society. The division was in right-left terms and unfolded around programs and worldviews regularly competing in electoral competitions. The citizens, through the game of partisan identification, were part of this framework.

Today, not only in France, something has closed itself, with the end of partisan politics, centered on ideologies and mass politicisation across parties. 21st century politics are increasingly organised around three poles: experts, leaders, and citizens. However, the reign of experts, which today bears the neoliberal doctrine and considers that it is necessary to select the best to apply the most effective decisions, is not so far from the ideal of selection of the most devoted to the public interest in 15th century Florence. Likewise, among the founding fathers of the United States, the idea of ​​wisest governance prevailed, against partisan divisions into factions.

The second aspect is the triumph of leaders, which the political scientist Vincent Martigny has just devoted a book to, ‘The Return of the Prince’ (Flammarion). Bolsonaro, who refused any debate or to give a program, is an emblem. Like the electoral campaign in India where everything revolves around Narendra Modi. This ‘rockstar’ politics pushes ‘public democracy’, as defined by the philosopher Bernard Manin, to an extreme level, with a very personalised form of power. But here again, it is a form of return to the old days since this politics centered on incarnation was constitutive of the politics of pre-revolutionary absolutism.

The third aspect is the politics of the citizens, which we referred to as ‘common politics’ in a recent issue of the magazine ‘Politix’ directed by Claire Judde de Larivière and Julien Weisbein. In this framework, doing politics is not a story of parties, but first and foremost the construction and management of what is common. This common politics, which we now see a resurgence of, is decisive in the medieval and modern world.

These three reigns – experts, leaders, and citizen communities – were concealed for two centuries by state and partisan politics, the organisation of a confrontation mediated by professionals of politics. All of this is resurgent with the collapse of parties, whose gravediggers are many, but with Macron in the forefront. He is an expert, who wears the chief’s clothes, but also places himself on the citizen’s terrain. It is often forgotten that before his victorious campaign, he did a great tour of France to listen to the citizens. And he replayed this with the ‘grand debate’, which one can criticise, but it is clear that this is an unprecedented gesture for a President of the Republic. Macron embodies these three figures, the expert, the leader, the citizen, who have in common the rejection of partisan politics.”

How do you explain the unprecedented level of repression against the Yellow Vests? Is it in the chemically pure crystallisation of what the philosopher Grégoire Chamayou recently referred to as “authoritarian liberalism”, and the Second Empire, which succeeds 1848, constitutes one of the first historical incarnations of it?

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“We must distinguish two things. It is in the nature of the state to repress, whether the politics it leads is liberal, socialist, communist, or conservative. What is a lie is the promise of liberalism not to be authoritarian. A state that establishes liberal and capitalist politics is led to carry out authoritarian and repressive policies. But it is not its liberal character that makes it repressive.

However, the extent of the repression is in something different. Why does the state repress so much and why does it mutilate so much? The first explanation lies in the maintenance of order. The state has only two models at its disposal. One from the colonial world, based on counter-insurgency methods, which has experienced a revival of theorisation and legitimacy after the riots of 2005 and is applied to manage working class neighbourhoods. The other comes from the management of social movements, established in the early 20th century, and based on the sanctioning of demonstrations, the organisation of a service providing order, and the clear identification of responsible persons. But the movement of Yellow Vests does not borrow the traditional ways of social movements. Therefore, anti-riot and counter-insurgency strategies – which do not produce the same images and the same effects in the 8th arrondissement of Paris and in the suburbs – were applied to it, particularly from December 1st.

Added to this is the fact that since the labour law, an autonomous offensive movement has been reconstituted in France, with its appearance in the leading procession. Regularly, determined people can thus raise the level of conflictuality in the Yellow Vests demonstrations.

The mechanisms that led to the authoritarian drift of the government are therefore multiple and not related to its economic liberalism, but first of all to the difficulty of the state to adapt its repression to this movement taking unprecedented forms. But it is clear that its displayed liberalism does not prevent it from borrowing the solutions of authoritarian regimes: mutilations, mass arrests, preventive searches sometimes higher than the number of demonstrators …”

You are a specialist in 1848, a time when Paris was at the center of a spring of European peoples. How do you explain that the Yellow Vests have crossed our borders only anecdotally?

“There have been attempts. In Egypt, the government removed yellow vests from sale … In France, where every motorist is required to have a yellow vest, the government had to face a situation where everyone could obtain a symbol of protest. This is not the case everywhere.

The second important element resides in the fact that the internationalisation of a movement requires resources. In order to export a mobilisation, you need a network, which unionism could have brought if it had not stayed aside. Border crossing can only be done in a mode of imitation and not exportation. But in order to imitate a movement, it is better that it is victorious.

In 1848, the revolution won. In 2011, in Tunisia, too. The phenomena of identification work all the better because we are referring to a victory. Here, this is not the case.”

How do you see the next six months of the Yellow Vests?

“I do not think that this movement upsets the political field, even though the will of the Yellow Vests to get out of the partisan field is strong. Although the disrepute of politicians will only increase, the latter seems determined to continue to act as if everything could continue as before.

On the other hand, I think that this mobilisation will profoundly change the space of the social movements by allowing people, previously excluded, to enter it. Many Yellow Vests who did not participate until now have adopted the habit of demonstrating. I think they will not leave and that putting on once or putting on again a yellow vest will give them legitimacy in order to join this space of social movements.

There is no reason, in my opinion, for the movement to stop. The Yellow Vests have withstood so much slander, disrepute, repression, manoeuvres like the ‘grand debate’ that I do not see how the school holidays could stop it. One can imagine a base of mobilisations of low intensity, at the local and national level, with a regular rise in conflicts and grafts on more sectoral or partisan movements. In my opinion, not only will the Yellow Vests continue to fight, but they have created the conditions for the power of social movements of all kinds to increasingly rise in the coming years.”


Joseph Confavreux, Mediapart

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