Last updated on 28th July 2019
The movement of November 17th allowed the emergence of atypical figures. Among them is François Boulo, who represents the Yellow Vests from Rouen. The labour lawyer is one of the movement’s most popular personalities, developing a structured analysis of neoliberalism, punctuated by quotes from Charles Peguy and exhortations to awareness.
For “Reconstruire”, he revisited his vision of the world, the present moment, history, and the future.
What fundamental difference do you see between the social reality of the Yellow Vests movement and the media portrayal of it?
“If one listens to the traditional media, the movement is racist, anti-Semitic, violent, and its demands are incomprehensible because they are unclear. The answer is very simple. If one wants to qualify the movement, one must describe the very large majority that forms it, and not its tiny minority. And the overwhelming majority is neither violent, racist, nor anti-Semitic, and the demands are very clear.
There is, of course, media treatment that totally distorts the reality of the movement. The main explanation for this dysfunctional treatment is a sociological explanation, because a class reflex operates in the world of journalism.
The media behaviour says more about the degree of sociological division in our country – between the working and middle classes on the one hand and the upper middle class on the other – than the Yellow Vests movement. The division is huge. The upper middle class is completely dissociating itself from the remaining 75% of the population: they do not want to change their system, they do not want a rupture in politics, they are in their little individual comfort, they earn a good living, consume, have activities. They absolutely do not want to see the misery around them and the misfortunes of other people. They are captured by the fear of change, the fear of losing their position.
That’s why they are totally blind to police violence and to the authoritarian drift we are witnessing at the moment. This blindness proceeds from a class reflex.
I’m pretty sure most people do not even realise what they’re doing.”
Are the Yellow Vests, born from the internet and social networks, building their own cultural representation? Are they reclaiming control over their image?
“Only a part of the population was aware before the movement that the traditional media was totally out of touch and gave a biased and distorted view of reality. The movement has made people realise much more broadly that the media is truly acting as a defender of the established order by complacently relaying government propaganda.
This is why we are seeing a growing popularity of alternative media that retranscribes reality … Or at least the part of reality totally obscured by traditional media. There are even Yellow Vests like Gabin from ‘Vécu’, who has created completely alternative media.
The movement illuminates the divide between the traditional media system and the people. The media system, however, has immense power at its disposal because it defines and organises the conditions for public debate, and ends up stifling real subjects.
For years and years it no longer described reality. The distrust it provokes has allowed to think on different grounds: citizens will now seek information elsewhere.”
In analysis for “Thinkerview” you analysed the dissociation of parties that are identified as being sovereignist. Do you think that the Yellow Vests serve as reconciliation in the street between two politically divided popular electorates facing a bourgeois bloc unified behind Macron?
“Yes I think so. Many (Yellow) Vests realised the consequences of the extraordinary delegation of sovereignty granted for years to the European Union. They realised that from now on we were deprived of essential elements of sovereignty: control of the budget, the currency, the commercial policy. Politically the division between the sovereignists is contradictory with the majority that they represent in the country. Macron plays on this division to suck the blood from the whole center and what is called the bourgeois bloc.
This bloc does not reduce itself to the real bourgeois, to the big capital, but widens around 20% or 25% of support, around the upper middle class that identifies with, and thinks like, the bourgeoisie without necessarily having the patrimony of the bourgeoisie. This class believes it votes for its interests when it votes for Macron, while in fact Emmanuel Macron pursues policies that are for the 1%, or 0.1%, so there is at least 19% or 24% of people who vote against their own interests.”
In the same interview, you mentioned the idea that some of our elites are not as educated or cultivated as they claim. Do our elites deserve to represent us? Does the diminution of the intellectual level of our leaders diminish the symbolic justification of the hierarchical organisation of society? Do Marlene Schiappa and Christophe Castaner want to give power to the people?
“The collapse of the intellectual level in France is obvious. It is accentuated by the overrepresentation of the mediocre in the public debate and the invisibilisation of the pertinent intellectuals: Emmanuel Todd is very rarely heard, we do not speak about Lordon, Sapir is not even worth mentioning.
This intellectual collapse is reflected in the media and in institutional representations. The delegation of sovereignty granted within the framework of a representative system, in a context of betrayal of the elites vis-à-vis the people and the general interest, is no longer perceived in the same way in the collective consciousness. People say to themselves: ‘Given the result we arrived at with our representatives, we will take back power because we won’t do any worse than them’.”
You analysed that the upper middle class was not the one to be taxed, but the ultra-rich who earn 1 million. Do you identify with the theme of 99% versus 1%?
“It’s not even the 1%, it’s the 0.1%. This is, in my opinion, the most telling formula to try to make it clear to the 20/25% who vote Macron that they vote against their interests.
We are still told that the shareholders of the CAC40 and the leaders of the multinationals are the elites of the nation, that they represent the engine of the economy. But in the current system, and especially that of free trade enshrined in the EU treaties, what is the job of a CAC 40 boss? It is to increase the remuneration of the shareholders. They have two possibilities: to increase the turnover of the company, or to lower the expenses. Increasing turnover for companies operating in a competitive market is very risky.
The simplest solution in the context of free trade is to reduce production costs by relocating to countries with very low wages. So their intelligence is mobilised against the general interest of the peoples in the developed countries. But they do their job well because their mission is to increase the remuneration of their shareholders. The framework in which the elites move, or those who are portrayed as such, is rotten. It no longer allows the search for the general interest.
Those who create jobs, the real innovators, are the professional engineers in companies, the bosses of small and medium enterprises, who work 50 or 60 hours a week, who can earn 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 euros a month, and this does not pose a problem. These are obviously extremely comfortable salaries. But this level of remuneration is that of real workers, who are not rentiers like the shareholders of multinationals, whose level of remuneration is not correlated with a real job and the value of merit. These middle classes who work a lot are the real engines of the economy, they consume the money that they will earn, and it makes the economy work.
Today the big problem is that these upper middle classes feel closer to, and identify more with, the side of the upper middle class rather than the rest of the population. And I know this because my friends think exactly like that.”
In your opinion, can the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum be relevant within the framework of the European Treaties, which European jurisprudence places as a higher standard than national laws?
“There is a conflict of interpretation of jurisprudence that leads to a nuance. The Court of Justice of the European Union considers European treaties as superior to national standards, but this is not the case with the jurisprudence of the Council of State, which considers that the constitution is above European treaties. The hierarchy of norms is, from top to bottom, the Constitution, then international treaties – especially European ones, and then the law, regulation, decrees, and finally the regulatory part.
I know very well that this refers to the speech around the slogan ‘No RIC without FREXIT’. Indeed, we will have to question European treaties. But our leaders relied on the referendum of 2005 because in 2008 they made the same treaty again under the name Treaty of Lisbon by having it ratified by the parliament.
I know it’s a little funny when I’m a lawyer, but it shows that the issue is not a legal one for me. The question is about the economic balance of power at a time when we are going to try to get out of European treaties.
A real strategy must be developed, because if we are proceed carelessly, the financial markets will start to move, Germany will seek to defend its interests … There is a need for a real economic strategy in order to exit the submission to European treaties and German domination in particular.”
Trade unions struggle to understand the Yellow Vests movement. In your opinion, is it a slow death for historical tools of struggle or simply a slump?
“The problem is the dichotomy between the union bases that are in the movement and have been at the roundabouts for a long time, and organisations at the national level. Philippe Martinez or Laurent Berger clearly do not want to get involved in the movement. That’s why we try to build links with the union bases and set people in companies in motion. The strategy of convergence seems to me essential in order to massively expand the mobilisation and to tilt the balance of political forces.”
Engels said – concerning the Communards’ Wall in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, where the last Communards were shot in 1871 – that he was the “silent and eloquent witness of the fury that the ruling class is capable of”. Can the same be said of the bodies of Yellow Vests that have been mutilated, blinded, and imprisoned with extremely heavy penalties?
“This is linked to the denial that the bourgeois class wraps itself in, which is locked by fear, the fear of losing its social position and its advantages, not to mention its privileges. This denial extends to blindness towards the violence of repression. The President of the Republic explains to us that it is unacceptable to speak about repression in a lawful State, while the reality is that what is unbearable is such repression in a lawful State! Are we still in a lawful State?
Illegal instructions are given by the Paris prosecutor’s office to systematically put all who are arrested in custody, to keep them there for hours and hours, even when the list of charges is completely empty.
These measures of depriving liberty undermine fundamental freedom. The executive power is deepening the social divide and trying to tighten the bourgeois bloc irresponsibly. It is a leap forward into catastrophic ideological confinement.”
Did the student-jurist François Boulo, who was studying human rights and fundamental freedoms in law, expect to one day be confronted with infringements of the right to protest being denounced by a group of UN human rights experts?
“Ah, certainly not! I always thought we were a country of Human Rights, I never could have imagined that we could switch to such an authoritarian drift in our country. What I have seen since the beginning of the movement astonishes me. I do not want to speak again about the facts, we know them, be it the police and judicial repression, the anti-breakers law, and now the army on the streets. What astonishes me even more is the lack of reaction from the guardians of the temple, i.e. the lawyer profession, the media, and associations.
There is the unbelievable apathy and general indifference of intermediate bodies. I call on the good conscience of this country to wake up.
I am extremely worried because, indeed, I never could have imagined that we can drift to this point.
In the work of political emancipation, intellectuals had already done the work of analysing the means of maintaining the neoliberal ideology. But I do not like this term because in liberal there is the notion of freedom, and people say at first sight ‘freedom is better than prison.’
I prefer to call it the dictatorship of the ultra-rich, a system where the rules and the absence of rules are built in their interests.
The media narrative around the UN instrumentalised by [the situation in] Venezuela has given rise to a hallucinatory sequence. This dictatorship of the ultra-rich, this neoliberalism, can only remain standing thanks to the authoritarian drift, which aims to maintain the dynamics of widening inequalities. This ideology creates too much misery to be accepted again in a country like France, particularly and sentimentally attached to the notion of equality.
Macron, who is the epitome of neoliberal ideology, sheds the mask of what this ideology is, and resistance to it drives him to demonstrate his authoritarian software.”
Your speech on socio-economic issues is technically well-oiled, your vision of the world is very structured. Were you ready in November 2018, did you expect the Yellow Vests in some kind of silence of fate?
“I absolutely didn’t envisage , even if I could have anticipated before his election – that ‘6 months after Macron is elected, France comes out the streets’. I envisioned a revolt, but it didn’t happen after six months.
Two months before the movement, I started to write a book, and in one of the first chapters, I was going to write about the impasse that the neoliberal ideology drives us into. Two impasses even: a political impasse, because by deepening inequalities we reduce the level of acceptance to politics and we create social and civil tensions.
The second impasse is ecological, since the neoliberal ideology is based on infinite growth yet impossible in a world with limited resources. I had these ideas in mind before the beginning of the movement, but I was a thousand miles away from imagining the eruption of this movement only two months later.
However, as soon as it began to be publicised in late October – early November, I really had the intuition, yes, that all of this would explode.”
Bourdieu said that “as long as there is struggle, there is history. Do you have the feeling of enrolling yourself in a historical continuum, in a French tradition of contestation?
“Yes of course ! Like Emmanuel Todd, this movement made me proud to be French.
It made me proud of history. We are a people who do not submit, who are proud, who want freedom, equality, and fraternity. We learn it at school but we began to doubt that these values still existed, taken as we were, subordinated to individualism, overconsumption, and instantaneity.
So yes, I started to doubt, and this movement showed me that the French people still exist, always have their values, and it’s great. I obviously think that we are writing history. What is certain is that as of November 18th 2018, this is what is said at the roundabouts. The references go beyond May ’68 – it is 1789. We are doing the Revolution. It is in the minds of all those who are in the movement, the idea that we are writing a page of history.”
Interview by Raphaël Sandro and Baptiste Pyat, questions by Sacha Mokrtizky and Baptiste Pyat.