Yellow Fever: Viruses Good and Bad
by Charles Reeve
translated by Janet Koenig
It’s hard to say what the last straw that led to the outpouring of social anger in France was. Was it the announcement of the sumptuous renovation of the Élysée Palace? Was it the president’s arrogant tone? Or, was it, finally, the few cents increase of the cost of a liter of gasoline? Undoubtedly, it was everything at once. The camel’s back was already overloaded when the powerful thought that they could continue to pile things onto it for a long time to come. Suddenly, the exploited classes in the peripheral areas of France came out of the shadows, wearing fluorescent yellow to make themselves visible in a system in which they had become invisible. We are witnessing an explosion of anger and frustration that has accumulated over many long years—from failed strikes, crushed movements, scorned resistances, bad experiences of submission and resignation, lost illusions, erosion of rights—with a continual descent into deeper poverty. As wealth and luxury grow and spread and the well-being of the nouveaux-riches pushes the poor further to the margins, people settle into survival mode. Everything moves in the same direction: salaries are lowered, employment is made more precarious—uberized—pensions are reduced, public services are degraded or disappear, meager social benefits (for lodging, childcare) are whittled away, gentrification in large cities forces the displacement of masses of workers toward the peri-urban deserts, neglected by a public transportation system now increasingly reserved for cities, with their further gentrification.
With the first Yellow Vest (Gilets Jaune—GJ) demonstrations, the “specialists” in social conditions discover a first indicator of social malaise: the mobilization is the strongest and most determined in regions and territories where public services are the weakest. Obviously, one doesn’t have to be a sociologist to understand that in this impoverished and atomized world abandoned by public transportation, a car has become an indispensable means to find whatever little work there is, to reach the closest hospital that is still open, to get to a social service appointment, to get to a post-office, to take the kids to school. So, piggybacking responsibility for the destruction of the planet onto the need to consume diesel fuel is experienced as one more aggression against an already weakened body. Generally speaking, representing workers as the ones responsible for the planet’s ecological disaster is an idea of the wealthy that intensely irritates those very workers. The class character of taxation is clarified: workers always pay more and get less back in the form of public services. Gradually, through questioning the vertiginous increase of inequality, we come to the social question.
Another weighty straw was the suppression of taxes on the very wealthy, the first flagship measure of the young business banker become president, founding his commitment to the capitalist class. This tax, which had already been reduced to a minimum, was now totally suppressed to please that class. A measure that is a corollary of one of the dogmas of neoliberalism: the more the rich grow richer, the more they make the poor work. To which popular experience responds: the more wealth accumulates at the top, the more poverty spreads.
Suddenly the Yellow Vests! Groups of yellow vests block highways, toll booths, entrances to towns and cities, traffic circles, access to shopping centers. The demonstrators gather and march to prefectures and other places symbolizing the state, such as tax centers. In a short while, the protest over the increased tax on diesel fuel is eclipsed by growing demands increasingly centered on the inequality of incomes and taxes, on the necessities of life. These are the first signs of anger against the ownership class and the state. They bring with them a profound rejection of the political class as a whole, leading to a critique of the forms of political and trade union representation.
In the first phase of the revolt, the first analyses naturally look for historical precedents: some look back to the Jacqueries of the pre-French Revolution; others to political movements of a populist, fascist nature, or even to a corporatist movement like post-World War II Poujadism. It’s soon apparent that these kinds of readings don’t apply to the currently unfolding events. This movement is not anchored in the peasantry or in the petty bourgeoisie of merchants or shopkeepers. It is essentially a non-urban movement composed of isolated people living far from urban centers. The blockage of stores and circulation of merchandise totally removes it from any solidarity with the commercial social stratum that was the mainstay of corporatist movements after the war. The demonstrators and individuals the police arrest are predominantly proletarian: employees, workers, unemployed, precarious workers, retirees. A remarkable feature of the movement is the large percentage of women of all ages—almost half of the participants—as well as that of young, precarious employees. These are not society’s poorest, but those who are becoming poorer, those who express their desire and right to live and to have fun, to go out, to go on vacations. This is a population that carries the marks of lives broken and blocked by the violence of the capitalist system, women and men left out of the modern liberal dynamic who are anxious about their immediate future, people who feel scorned and forgotten by their representatives and their speeches. Obviously, this is a composite population, which also includes artisans and small entrepreneurs lost in the whirlwind of the modern startup economy. Their relationship to trade unionism hardly exists, as the leadership of major union apparatuses is largely associated with the system’s institutions and its corruption. This is a population marked by the violence of class exploitation but without a reference to class politics, without the experience of class struggle for the most part. About half of the GJ have never demonstrated or participated in collective actions. If we can’t say that opportunities for demonstrating have been lacking in recent decades, the fact is that this revolt’s determination also expresses a consciousness of the need to go beyond repetitious forms of struggle incapable of reversing the balance of power with capitalists and with the state.
The large national demonstrations of December 1st expressed a hardening in confrontations with the state and the possessing classes. These demonstrations spread over the entire country, and in the northeast overflowed into Belgium’s Wallonia and a week later into Brussels. In the big cities, Paris in particular, demonstrations took on a more violent character, ending in the kind of street riots not seen since 1968. Overall, the number of demonstrators was not huge: 200,000 in all France, 10,000 in Paris,with roughly the same numbers a week later—figures not commensurate with demonstrations in previous years or with traditional union parades. But the intensity, the kind and force of the clashes, expressed a much more radical content and worried the government and the bourgeoisie.
On December 1st, police forces were overwhelmed by the determination of the protesters and felt their hatred close up. The repression was proportional to the surprise and it will continue to increase. On December 1st, the police used thousands of gas grenades and explosives and quickly ran out of ammunition. There were reports of countless serious injuries among the GJ. In Marseille, the demonstration began with the cry, “The police are with us!” but quickly changed to, “Police murderers!” In Paris, the place officially granted for the rally remained vacant, while groups flocked spontaneously to the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, which got trashed. The demonstrators soon turned toward nearby avenues and wealthy neighborhoods. We were witnessing something completely new. Cafés, restaurants, and luxury hotels were systematically targeted, attacked,ransacked, and sometimes looted. Expensive cars in upscale neighborhoods were burned. It was a revolt against wealth and the propertied classes, against the arrogance of luxury.
The Stock Exchange was also attacked and large department stores in the capital’s center, where the holiday shopping ritual was soon to begin, were evacuated and closed by the police. A few police stations were also attacked. Groups tried to storm the Élysée Palace and were violently forced back by the police. On one of the avenues in a very wealthy area, someone graffitied the walls of a luxury hotel with tourists barricaded inside, “Babylon is Burning!” Hotel and restaurant guards who tried to reason with the demonstrators were treated as “agents of the system, flunkeys of the rich.” In Bordeaux, the town hall was attacked; in the town of Puy, the prefecture was burned; in other towns, the same scenario: the places of power were systematically targeted, sometimes invaded and wrecked, high-level public servants and deputies were threatened. Some social services were attacked. On the evening of December 1st, the government seemed disoriented and worried. Announcing the first political concessions during the disorder did little to calm the situation. Things had gone far beyond the few cents increase in the price of diesel fuel. However and despite the size of the first explosion, on the following weekend, December 8th, the government found no other way to respond to the demonstrators than with greater repression and the militarization of the large cities, deploying 100,000 police officers, including almost 10,000 in Paris, and the use of a dozen armored vehicles.
By the end of the December 1st weekend, the scene was already troubling for the government. The political crisis was compounded by a social crisis: the movement was highly popular, the bourgeoisie were frightened, and the capitalists specializing in mass product distribution—especially the luxury trade—were showing signs of panic. There were hundreds of arrests, including many of minors. In Paris alone, more than three hundred fires were reported in middle-class neighborhoods The police stations were filled to bursting. The majority of the protesters who came to Paris from the provinces to express their revolt were unemployed and isolated individuals, angry at the situation—as is typical of situations of social revolt in the streets. It is risky to make a sociology out of all the angry and determined “people.” On December 8th, the number of arrests rose to 2,000 for all of France. In Paris alone, twelve police stations were devoted to holding the arrested. Hundreds of persons “known” to the police were put into preventive detention, “accused” of “intentional crime.” On both December 1st, and 8th, groups of young radicals experienced in street demonstrations connected with groups of young people coming from the suburbs. But the presence of the former did not determine the character of the revolt; it simply contributed to the expression of popular anger. The presence of small extreme-right groups has also been noted; we will come back to this later.
If the French police are very efficient at controlling classical demonstrations, if it possesses a “know-how” that is widely recognized and sold to various world powers, things become more complicated when it comes to urban riots that express “the capacity of a population to revolt,” as an official in the police force recognized. At this level, he added, a simple police response is insufficient and dangerous for the state; only a political response can have some weight. In fact, only the president’s address and the announcement of a few meager promises helped divide the movement and calm the street demonstrations, especially in Paris.
The production of goods has not been directly affected. Even if mobilizations found, here and there, workers’ support and sympathy, they took place outside of workplaces. Nevertheless, although there was no stoppage of the economy, the circulation of commodities and the consumer sector have been hard hit by the demonstrations in major cities and by the blockades of roads and commercial centers. As the employers and their economists quickly made known, economic consequences were felt. The official campaign against the GJ and the media have strongly emphasized the movement’s effects on commerce during the holiday season.
Insurgents always think about shutting down the economy. The idea of a general strike has been invoked in every strike and demonstration that preceded this explosion—without success, as we know. In their turn, the GJ attempted to stop the circulation of goods in a less direct way, by means of barricades. This was the meaning of the blockade of depots and fueling places, of impeding the circulation of heavy trucks. Even on the days of national demonstrations, the GJ maintained these filtering roadblocks on thoroughfares and at shopping centers. The issue of exploitation was not absent from GJ’s motivations, as is shown by the pickets at the distribution centers of Amazon, a company known for its disgusting labor practices and tax evasions. But the GJ groups, composed mostly of former workers and the jobless, along with isolated workers, know that they have no direct ability to shutdown the economy, which is at the heart of the system. They have tried to act, therefore, on the circulation of goods and services. In fact, just as you can only block the circulation of goods if they are produced, produced goods can only be profitably turned into money if they circulate and are bought and consumed.
The GJ actions have occurred after years of unsuccessful strikes over changing the retirement age or in defense of public services. One recent episode ended with the pitiful defeat of the railway workers’ fight against the further dismantling of public rail transportation. Reading between the lines, we find in this movement an acknowledgement of the powerlessness of the major trade unions today, of their weakness and their failure to oppose the current economic logic. The recent embezzlement scandals that have plagued the large union bureaucracies, increasingly sustained by public funds, confirm this balance sheet. The consensual attitude of the union leaders and their denunciations of the GJ have only deepened the chasm. Nevertheless, this has not prevented the GJ from joining struggling workers, as seen with the blockades of petroleum refineries. Locally, some union militants came to the encampments at the GJ barricades and roadblocks as individuals. In cities with a large working-class population, the union and GJ marches have been, for better or worse, more or less mixed together. This was the case in Marseille with demonstrators from poor neighborhoods struggling against gentrification and local government corruption. In poor neighborhoods and working-class areas, high school students mobilizing against an umpteenth selection process have also expressed their solidarity with the GJs.
The position of the GJ regarding patriotic, xenophobic, and racist values has been ambiguous from the beginning. This ambiguity is a reflection of the reactionary spirit and the isolationism shared by many participants. This is a stumbling block for the movement and its future. In certain regions—in the north and southwest, and even the west—where the forces of the extreme right are strong: racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia are expressed, sometimes openly. But French society is what it is: a melting pot where proletarians come from diverse origins. The diversity of people in the encampments has testified to this. Here and there, we have noticed the active presence of young people on the barricades who come from poor neighborhoods, and even material support by women from immigrant neighborhoods. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable presence of militants from small, extreme right-wing groups, clustered around patriotic symbols, especially in demonstrations in the large cities.1
Radical and libertarian circles have debated about whether or not to participate in these demonstrations, whether or not to leave the terrain free to the extreme-right. A large majority of militants and activists was naturally drawn to barricades and roadblocks and many went to the encampments to discuss with and support the GJ. In the riots and confrontations on December 1st and 8th, radicals had a sizeable presence and the extreme-right groups were often expelled from the streets. It is not clear if the majority of the GJ understand what is at stake, their concerns being elsewhere. And it would be vanguardist to think that the actions of “radicals” can remove the danger of the organized extreme-right. More important is that the profound reasons for this movement against injustice, social inequality, and against the privileges of the propertied are values difficult for the extreme-right present in this movement to support. On the other hand, we must recognize in the movement the absence of any explicitly critical discussion about capitalism or the social relations of private property. The rich are attacked, not the capitalists. Moreover, xenophobic and racist values, rejection of refugees and those on relief as “responsible” for social misery, paranoid conspiracy theories, are all widespread in society and so naturally found in this movement.
The rise of conspiracy theories goes along with the absence of confidence in politicians and the media. The belief in conspiracy is, in fact, the perverse fruit of the crisis of representation. No longer trusting official and unofficial discourse, remaining outside any critical debate, isolated individuals turn to the delirious rants disseminated on social networks that claim to expose “the hidden causes” of the social and political crisis.
The presence of the French flag and the constant resort to La Marseillaise were the visible expression of the reactionary dimension of this movement. Of course, the red flag and the Internationale are forgotten today, especially as they are associated with the disaster of the former state-capitalist countries and with the forces of an outmoded and collapsing left. It is true that La Marseillaise is used in demonstrations as a symbol of the revolutionary struggle against the nobility and their privileges. But its warlike and racist words have no doubt been sung with xenophobic motives, even if the song expresses the people’s hatred of elites. Moreover, the accusation of racism has been badly received, as shown in the GJ’s action to block the circulation of the newspaper Ouest France after it reported on GJ antisemitism following a few episodes involving isolated individuals or small neo-fascist groups.
It is impossible to know how much the debate, discussion, and intervention into the movement of radicals and libertarians can counteract these reactionary orientations and push the discussion beyond formal and misleading conceptions of citizen equality to open minds to emancipatory concepts. Yet the interactions between these two worlds sometimes produce surprising results. In the street, the black bloc, against whom the media rail, at first annoyed the GJ; but they later applauded them when they joined in. Suddenly, the acronym GJ replaced black bloc in police discourse! We have witnessed some improbable encounters, such as a gathering of anarchists in a northern town to which twenty or so GJ were unexpectedly invited: the anarchists wanted to talk about the GJ movement and the GJs wanted to know about “anarchism.” According to a witness, it was a rich exchange.
Also at the center of the mobilizations is the issue of representation: the rejection of representation as we see it in the modern world, and which, for many people, has nothing to do with the idea they have of democracy. The discrediting of the political class and the leadership of the major trade unions is profound and it is hard to see how the system can remedy this. All the attempts to contain the mobilization within an institutional framework have been destined to fail. In an incisive press article, a few parliamentary representatives talked about their frustrations when searching for the movement’s spokespersons. “They [the GJ] say, ‘We are the People.’ They reject the very idea of representation. And the same goes for us. At most, they agree to send over a delegate. But in that case, they want to be present too.” An other deputy added, “Some people of good faith stop because they are afraid, others become radicalized in their ZAD traffic circle. . .It just takes one guy to stand out, one guy to agree to talk for him to be immediately challenged by the others who don’t want a leader.” 2
Indeed, the GJ have no leaders and those who proclaim that role for themselves are immediately disowned, especially from the moment they agree to use the media. From one encampment to another, you hear or read on their signs, “Nobody represents anybody.” The majority of self-proclaimed leaders are tied to parties on the right or the extreme-right, which has tried, without much success, to take control of an elusive situation in a traditional setting. Locally, the GJ occasionally agree to form delegations or collectives in order to give institutions their list of grievances. These lists reflect the social situation; they do not make negotiable demands and one idea is dominant: “We must say NO to all that!” (The lists also include demands that appear racist or xenophobic, such as the expulsion of undocumented immigrants.3)
The determined rejection of representation shows the extent of the crisis in political institutions and the difficult task ahead for politicians to address the crisis within the structure of parliamentary democracy and trade unionism. This determined rejection goes along with a strong capacity for self-organization. This has been especially visible in local groups that have occupied traffic circles (a practice banned by the government in mid-January). Freedom of speech, the idea of occupation, and the collective creation of areas for discussion and action, referred back, in a subterranean way, to the practices of Nuit debout4 but especially to the impression left by the ZAD struggle.5 The GJ self-organized to carry out the actions they decided upon, thus enabling them to totally ignore existing parties and unions. This ability to self-organize and to conduct direct actions in milieus where there is practically no experience with struggle is a remarkable fact and constitutes one of the strengths of the movement. It expresses a trend of the whole period.
The minority that tries to sustain the movement politically is rather close to ideas on the right and the extreme-right, sometimes also the sovereignist left of La France Insoumise [Unbowed France], the left-wing populist and democratic-socialist party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon ; it proposes the use of referendums or the dismantling of the current constitutional framework. Others, “social movement specialists,” naively count on the old left to take over the GJ movement. They hope to contain the revolts within confines the GJ has just broken out of. The state, for its part, was clearly surprised by this movement. At first disoriented, it then sowed a discourse of fear while betting on strong repression and mass arrests presenting the poor in revolt as a danger. We have returned to the nineteenth-century idea of “les classes dangereuses.” But to block social anger by surrounding Paris and the large cities with police is not viable in the long run and will end by paralyzing social life. The political response based on meager material concessions turned out to be indispensable. In the beginning, this response was seen as the first victory in years, even if minimal, in the face of the dictates of economic logic; it was proof that the struggle could get results if it ramped up the level of confrontation and frightened the ruling class. But it quickly became obvious that it was a victory of dupes, as the rules of liberalism impose limits that can only increase inequalities and thus anger.6
A saying that first spread among GJ blockades has been relayed everywhere: “The elites worry about the end of the world, we worry about the end of the month.” This declaration was interpreted as proof that the protesters rejected environmental concerns, that they displayed an egotistical blindness to the ecological disaster and were preoccupied only with the increased price of fuel. With the continuation of the movement and its insistence on the responsibilities of the powerful, we saw that this opposition did not exist in reality and that a link could be made between social impoverishment and ecological disaster. During the December 8th demonstration, a number of GJs joined the Marche pour le climat (Climate Walk)organized by Greenpeace. For the majority of the GJ, responsibility for the global ecological disaster lies with those responsible for the general impoverishment. They quite simply reject the tactic of putting the responsibility for ecological disaster on the “poor,” and punishing them with taxation
This profound expression of social anger has encompassed various values, concerns, and desires, which are sometimes contradictory. The movement turns both towards the past, when animated by despair, fear about social security and the desire to withdraw into oneself, and toward the future, when motivated by a profound critique of income inequality and class. A GJ remarked to a journalist that the government’s concessions are insufficient because everything gained will soon be taken back, in one way or another, adding, “That’s why we’ll never have enough!” Put another way, the movement is a wave that doesn’t carry numbered, negotiable demands. It is a movement whose demands are qualitative. It poses the question of social inequality in a society that is rich and opulent. Like any essentially negative movement of rejection, it carries within it both a reactionary perspective and another that aims for a different future. These perspectives have not yet taken on a concrete, organized form. Up to now, the values of social justice and the rejection of class inequities have been dominant, preventing reactionary values from expressing themselves in ways that violently target the “Other.” A rejection of the traditional system of representation could, paradoxically, end up supporting authoritarian projects. Only the self-organization and direct democracy present in these mobilizations can bring about a dynamic of questioning the current organization of society. As always, the authoritarian and reactionary route, fueled by the values of patriotic sovereignty, xenophobia, racism, and social withdrawal, is easier to follow because it relies on placing confidence in new leaders, on the return to a mythic past that does not question the ever-existing social relations of domination and exploitation. The prospect of emancipation is very difficult, and we cannot imagine its maturing without the expansion of GJ mobiliations and practices, their spread to the wage-earning sectors that are at the root of the reproduction of social life. The great rejection could only then begin to generate new social relations capable of reorganizing life. As Herbert Marcuse wrote, “The search for lost time” would then become “the vehicle of future liberation.”
Meanwhile, divisions, propaganda campaigns, and ferocious repression weigh down the movement. Divisions and fatigue are apparent and hubs of GJ activists have become isolated. But the anger is still there and it continues to find an echo in society. Much remains possible, including the unpredictable.
- For a sensitive report on the disparate composition of GJ groups, the confused ideas expressed in the movement, and the presence of racist and xenophobic ideas see: Florence Aubenas, “La révolte des ronds-points – Journal de bord,” Le Monde, December 16/17, 2018. Also for a live account of the demonstrations in Paris, see: Mickaël Correia, “Gilets Jaunes, ça part dans tout l’essence,” CQFD, December 2018,http://cqfd-journal.org/CQFD-no171-decembre-2018.
- “Députés cherchent chef de rond-point” (Deputies seek traffic circle leader), Libération, December 8, 2018.
- A shameful action marked the movement in its infancy: undocumented immigrants discovered in a truck stopped at a roadblock were handed over to the police.
- See Ferdinand Cazalis, “Nuit Debout: The Longest Month,” Field Notes, Brooklyn Rail, June 2016.
- See S.G. and G.K., “ZAD: The State of Play,” Field Notes, Brooklyn Rail, July 2018.
- The government asked large companies to “voluntarily” pay bonuses to employees. Thus the higher salaried employees and the well-paid workers obtained significant additional income while the precarious and low-paid workers, the pensioners, those who fought, had a right only to minimal and uncertain compensation. The large bonuses granted to the police who repressed the protestors were also badly viewed.
The return of the Yellow Horde
by Jean-Luc Sahagian
translated by Janet Koenig
It was Saturday on the Canebière, the historic main street in the old quarter of Marseille, its Champs-Élysées. There we were, a little lost in the middle of slow-moving processions with their signs and bogus rituals. Then we heard some clamoring in the distance and we went down to the Old Port. The place was invaded by Yellow Vests. In front of the Rue de la République and also on the quay going to the town hall were rows of cops and even armored vehicles. We were in a crowd where we knew no one, but there I felt for the first time in this country, like a breath of air, something I wasn’t used to, the people’s anger, which certainly came from far and wide. I had felt this same emotion a few months earlier in Armenia, when the people had blocked the entire country to force the leaders out. This same force was expressing itself independently, without all the political crap.
Soon a group of Yellow Vests ran towards the Canebière. It wasn’t a demonstration, there were no orders given, no order at all. In the middle of the crowd, a bearded guy cried out, “Let’s go! We have no party, no union, no leaders. We are the people!” And I suddenly felt how powerful these simple words could be. What was beautiful was that all you had to do was put on this piece of cloth to be there, as simple as that, to give up the old certainties, the old order, to belong, an unknown among other unknowns. We went back up the Canebière, passing the feeble CGT (Communist trade union) procession with its sound truck denouncing the same things for a thousand years and its police contingent holding onto its little guide ropes. It was obvious to us that they and their old ways were finished, their time was over and this was a good thing. All this leftist government, which co-managed misery for too long, was literally melting away before our eyes. And we left this dusty union behind.
The yellow horde shouted savage cries, we were beyond spoken language, “Aooga, aooga,” no more need of slogans, just “Aooga, aooga,” this war cry, the howls of beasts; we passed the leftists and post-leftists, feverishly grouped around their banners and leaflets, and they also seemed stunned by the explosion of this new anger, of these manners not respecting the usual protocol. In fact, they seemed outraged by this: the yellow horde didn’t care, yes, it simply didn’t give a damn, as if they never existed, they and their incomprehensible, parochial squabbles, petty bourgeoisie who fantasized for so long about the poor, the proletarians, and who now turned up their noses before this impure people, before this language, so little chastised (“Macron motherfucker!”), before this crowd which carried away everything and made fun of all the old customs. This was a revolutionary situation, when new manners suddenly appeared, when the certitudes began to lurch, when humor again became dangerous and the bourgeoisie, from the left to the right, began to tremble.
Up ahead on the avenue, I saw other Yellow Vests coming down. They were old, some were limping, others seemed haggard, carrying large sacks, pulling suitcases; they had decked out an old dog in a yellow vest, which hung down to the ground. We had the impression they were leaving for the crusades, that a whole people were setting out on a march for who knows where, for an imaginary Jerusalem perhaps, preceded by old men with prophetic beards, by drunken beggars and exhausted dogs. That a whole ruined people suddenly surged out of the shadows and invaded the cities, that these new vandals were numerous, staking out territories beyond traffic circles, and that they would soon encamp in our places before continuing their journey after having ravaged everything. I was seized by this vision, saying to myself that maybe they would no longer stop. We would no longer stop. The authorities could talk in vain, no one would listen to them anymore. There was nothing to be done, the people had risen and were on their way.