On 17 November 2018, two major protest movements hit headlines.
Across the English Channel, people took to the streets of cities across France. Nearly 250,000 police officers reportedly turned out. On the face of it, they were protesting tax hikes on fuel. But it was clear from the outset that the ‘Gilets Jaunes‘ (yellow vests) protests were about more than taxes. Unlike Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK, the Gilets Jaunes protests included intense state violence, resulting in serious injuries among protesters. But it has also had some success.
Gilet jaunes protests have continued every Saturday since 17 November 2018. Meanwhile, in London, thousands of people shut down five major bridges under XR’s banner. It was the group’s first big public action, which it called “Rebellion Day“. This event led to a mushrooming network of climate action groups across the UK and globally. And XR has also had some success in achieving its aims.
While British media has frequently put XR in headlines, it has been much less focused on events in France. So The Canary spoke to journalist, author and activist Paul Cudenec to find out more about the Gilets Jaunes.
“The filter of political dogma”
Cudenec was born in the UK but lives in France, and he’s been in contact with the Gilet Jaunes protests since they began. He initially had doubts about their political potential. In a blog post on 27 December 2018, he said he was “not particularly impressed” at first:
On the same Saturday… that Extinction Rebellion took its urgent environmental message to the streets of London, here were the French rising up against increases in petrol prices!
But Cudenec changed his mind after digging a little deeper:
What has impressed me most about the Gilets Jaunes phenomenon is the way that it has allowed people’s voices to be expressed and heard directly, without the filter of political dogma.
He pointed out that, like XR, the Gilets Jaunes have brought out many people “who are new to political action”. As a result, people sometimes aired their views in a “naive, clumsy or politically incorrect” way. But Cudenec looked at what they said rather than how they said it; and he saw a “powerful rejection of capitalism”. As a result, he set out to provide English-language reporting that put across the voices of the Gilets Jaunes movement. Winter Oak has an index of his writings on the subject.
“The guiding aim of the Gilets Jaunes from the start was social justice, and this remains the case,” Cudenec told The Canary. By opening a space for people to speak “without the filter of political dogma”, Cudenec told The Canary that the Gilets Jaunes have “broken through the barrier that has long prevented the radical left from reaching ordinary people”:
To start with, the Gilets Jaunes’ protests were sparked by a rise in diesel fuel prices, so it came across as some kind of vaguely right-wing populist movement. But it quickly became clear that this was not the case and that there was general opposition to social injustice behind it. In fact, most of those taking part were new to protesting and more or less unpolitical.
A November 2018 report by US anarchist group Crimethinc said that the presence of the far right in Paris Gilets Jaunes protests was “undeniable”; but its influence was ultimately small. In fact, the Gilets Jaunes had a broadly diverse make-up. This resulted in some scenes of apparent in-fighting, such as anti-fascists in yellow vests attacking far-right militant Yvan Benedetti, also wearing a yellow vest. However, the anti-neoliberal spirit of the protests ultimately put forward a “deep critique of modern capitalist society”. As a result, in recent months, far-right elements have “adapted to the general political evolution or drifted away” because:
the Gilets Jaunes’ principles of horizontality, inclusivity and democracy are not compatible with fascistic ideologies.
More than six months after the protests began, the Gilets Jaunes are still going strong. Protests will happen once again on 29 June under the name ‘Acte XXXIII‘. The Canary asked Cudenec how he currently sees the movement, and he said:
The protests are still going, remarkably enough, all over the country. Obviously, after all these months there has been a drop in the sheer numbers involved on a weekly basis, but not to the same extent as we have seen with past protest movements in France.
The French interior ministry estimated less than 10,000 people turned out to Acte XXIX on 1 June. Cudenec previously told The Canary that many doubt official numbers. However, the number of protesters on the street today is down on the first few weeks. Cudenec said this is because:
The main reason for reduced numbers on protests, apart from fatigue, is repression. There have been thousands of injuries. Dozens of people have lost eyes and hands because of the grenades used by the ‘forces of order’. There have been thousands of arrests. People have lost their jobs, their marriages, their homes. But as a well as putting some people off coming, this has also ensured that many others are determined to carry on. They have sacrificed so much that they cannot imagine giving up.
State violence against Gilets Jaunes protesters has been particularly violent. This has left some protesters seriously injured and even mutilated. As a result, protesters were “obliged to defend themselves – or just give up and go home”, Cudenec said. This has led to some spectacular scenes of protesters fighting back against the police. But it’s important to see this as self-defence against an openly repressive state. “Most Gilets Jaunes could see the need to stand firm against physical repression,” explained Cudenec.
What the Gilets Jaunes have exposed
Fuel taxes sparked the protests. But hundreds of thousands across France were motivated by long-term anger at president Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal policies. The Canary asked Cudenec what he believed the impact of the Gilets Jaunes has been on French society. He said:
Macron has refused from the start to make any but the most meaningless of concessions to the protesters. It is clear that this is what he is in power to achieve – to break the back of French resistance to neoliberalism, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher set out to break the back of the trade union movement in Britain. I would say that the impact that the Gilets Jaunes have had, and continue to have, is to expose this reality. Their persistence and energy, in refusing to back down, has forced the system into ever-more brutal violence, ever-more draconian bans on protests, pre-emptive arrests and so on.
He also said that, even as numbers have decreased, the protesters have widespread support among the public:
There is a definite bedrock of sympathy and support among the population as a whole. They are recognised as being authentic, of the people, in a way that traditional left-wing movements don’t always manage. Protests are usually applauded by passers-by. There is little sign of any animosity towards them, outside the bubble of the political and media elites.
The Canary also asked Cudenec why he thought the British media has been relatively silent on the Gilets Jaunes. He said:
To start with, the Gilets Jaunes were depicted as right-wing, then they were quickly sidelined and forgotten. The extent of the protests and the severity of the repression is just not known to most people in the UK. It has got to be deliberate. The UK corporate media has plenty of correspondents in what is, after all, a neighbouring country. There was plenty of news about the Notre-Dame fire. Where were all those reporters during the months of Gilets Jaunes protests? How come the UK public hears more about protests in Venezuela than in France?
Silence in the media led some right-wing commentators in the UK to claim the BBC was gagged by a government ‘D-notice’. That wasn’t true. It’s more likely that what the Gilets Jaunes represent is simply too difficult for the mainstream media to portray concisely. It is outside the bounds of traditional left-right politics, yet it is avowedly against the ruling neoliberal system. But there could be another reason. “British people can often be inspired by the French spirit of resistance and revolt,” Cudenec said.
The Canary asked what people in Britain could learn from the Gilets Jaunes. “People in the UK need to rediscover a grassroots solidarity,” he said. “Start talking to each other, refuse to follow orders from the corporate media, from the state, from NGOs.” And building such solidarity means discarding political gatekeeping:
This movement would have to be open to everyone who shared its broad aims, regardless of whether they knew how to speak the ‘correct’ political language. It would have to have faith in itself, in the people themselves, confidence that it would naturally evolve in a healthy political direction.
In some ways, XR has adopted this approach. The climate action group has done a fantastic job of mobilising tens of thousands of people across the UK, many of whom may never have committed to political protest before. But Cudenec highlighted one important way in which XR and the Gilets Jaunes differ: compromise with the state. He said:
The Gilets Jaunes have always refused to be tamed by the system, although there have been many attempts. They are the opposite of something like Extinction Rebellion, which has worked very closely with the authorities to avoid confrontation. The Gilets Jaunes have paid the price for their position, with all the repression unleashed on them, but it means that their revolt has remained a real one and not some kind of PR facsimile of rebellion.
Revolt and resistance
In his 27 December 2018 post, Cudenec said XR and the Gilets Jaunes were “two wings of the same global popular uprising against the industrial capitalist system”. The Canary asked if he still felt this way.
I still think that the mass participation in XR points towards a growing rejection of industrial capitalism, but it now seems clear that the central organisation itself is heavily compromised by its connections to the system… If climate activists manage to break free of this control and explicitly challenge capitalism and its industrial infrastructure and thinking, then their revolutionary path will certainly converge with those who currently describe themselves as Gilets Jaunes.
The Gilets Jaunes represent a truly grassroots revolt, one that’s been organised through friends and communities. And that’s where the British left has too often faltered. “I would say that people in the UK need to stop thinking in terms of social struggles that organise people,” Cudenec said. “The real social struggle is for people to organise themselves.”
True self-organisation can be scary, difficult, and fraught with unknowns. But it’s also empowering, exciting and – in the end – essential for the survival of ourselves and everything we love.
Now is the time to let the French spirit of resistance and revolt inspire us all.
Featured image via Olivier Ortelpa – Wikimedia
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