France’s Yellow Vests: A Test for the Populist Left

France’s Yellow Vests: A Test for the Populist Left

With the threat of the far-right looming, transforming the “gilets jaunes” into a viable political force that can defeat Macron, let alone neoliberalism, will be no simple task.

Protesters chant during the "yellow vests" demonstration on the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, December 8, 2018. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Ever since the gilets jaunes protests in France began in November, dealing a crippling blow to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, the response from the global left has been overwhelmingly positive. The movement has inspired numerous calls for a European Green New Deal, and the former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson’s support for the protesters quickly landed her an interview in Jacobin. Just over a year since Macron’s “flexible” labor reforms and courting of capital investment were greeted as the salvation of liberal democracy, a movement arose—apparently out of nowhere—to insist that this platform has no popular support. For leftists seeking to organize new political coalitions against neoliberalism, the sudden force of the gilets jaunes would appear to be a sign that the people are on their side.

Indeed, the gilets jaunes movement has given hope to advocates of a populist strategy for left movements to take power in Western democracies. Populist theorists and practitioners believe that neoliberal governance has isolated people from one another and alienated them from the political process. Traditional left movements centered on workplace organizing and street protest have of late found themselves unable to mobilize the working-class base available to them in the past. The left-populist response to the impotence of these leftist and social-democratic parties, as articulated by theorists such as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, is to recast politics as a struggle between ordinary people and the oligarchy. This understanding of political conflict, left-populists argue, is an inclusive one. Transcending class categories as well as race, gender, and other identities, it is meant to unite all those left behind by the neoliberal economy as the left’s potential constituency.

There has been some controversy over whether or not the sort of political base left-populists claim to speak to and for actually exists. Over the last decade, self-declared left-populist parties have seen some electoral successes in countries like Greece and Spain. Critics of the populist approach nonetheless believe it is futile to look for potential left voters among people who, perhaps by voting for politicians like Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump, have consistently rejected programs grounded in class solidarity or human rights. The gilets jaunes movement has shown that at least in France, it is possible to conceive of a coalition uniting “the people” against “the elites.” At the same time, France’s actually existing left-populist party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise, has had a difficult time channeling the protesters’ anger into a viable political force. With the danger of the far right constantly in the background, the populist left will have its work cut out for it if it can ever hope to defeat Macron, let alone the neoliberal order he has come to symbolize.

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On the one hand, the gilets jaunes appear to confirm the fundamental assertion of the left-populist approach that the division between the people and the elite can be made more salient than the division between left and right. What initially brought the movement together was frustration at the high burden fuel taxes placed on the poor and the precarious, at the same time as Macron’s government cut taxes on France’s wealthiest citizens. Many reliable surveys of participants indicate that the majority of the protesters do not identify with any political party, and many do not vote at all—exactly the sort of alienated political subjects left-populists hope to turn to their side. Among the gilets jaunes that do express a political affiliation, a significant percentage favor Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, and there is a correlation between regions that voted for her and support for the movement. However, it is far from evident from the information available that the gilets jaunes uniformly veer towards the right—depending on how one counts who is a “member” of the movement, supporters of radical and moderate left parties are similarly represented. The protesters are a mixture of left, right, and unaligned, united in their rejection of a government widely perceived as favoring an economic oligarchy. It is no large stretch to see in the gilets jaunes something resembling the “vertical” coalition against elite rule that advocates of left-populists seek to mobilize.

On the other hand, it is too early to declare the gilets jaunes a bona fide revolt against the neoliberal order. It was not Macron’s attempts to weaken labor protections, nor even his market-friendly reforms to the national rail service, that brought people into the streets. Though at their peak the gilets jaunes enjoyed support among almost 70 percent of the French population, it was not so long ago that Macron’s reforms were nearly as popular. What specifically sparked the protests was an increase in taxes on diesel fuel, which, though not a major expense in its own right, symbolized the mounting unaffordability of daily life for those that depend on their cars. Another highly unpopular measure was the government’s lowering of speed limits on local highways. The crucial final ingredient was Macron’s conceit that he can govern both like a CEO and like a king. Some of the gilets jaunes’ most common complaints have involved the president’s lecturing an unemployed worker that he could find a job just by “crossing the street”; his refusal to take responsibility when it was revealed one of his core advisers, Alexandre Benalla, had attacked protesters during a May Day demonstration last spring; and the half-million euros spent on dinner plates at the Elysée palace. Macron’s condescending attitude has perhaps done more to undo his popularity than his broken promises to preserve the French welfare state.

The indignation of the gilets jaunes stems from a disconnect between people’s daily experience and the way power is exercised—a disconnect Macron has come to embody is his very person. This visceral sense of unfairness has resonated across demographic, regional, and political differences.

The core of the protests, it appears, is not so much the re-organization of work, the slashing of social spending, or the empowerment of finance capital under the global neoliberal order. Rather, what has motivated the gilets jaunes is a particular sentiment of social unfairness in Macron’s France. As life for many people becomes increasingly difficult, particularly outside the country’s major cities, the government has shown itself to be indifferent, even hostile to these concerns. The indignation of the gilets jaunes stems from a disconnect between people’s daily experience and the way power is exercised—a disconnect Macron has come to embody in his very person. This visceral sense of unfairness has resonated across demographic, regional, and political differences. It is also highly amorphous and often ambiguous, leading to demands that might otherwise appear incoherent: protecting French business owners while also making taxes more progressive; or treating asylum seekers with dignity while also swiftly deporting those whose claims are rejected. The gilets jaunes have clearly tapped into just the kind of sentiment that populists believe is the key to overcoming the neoliberal malaise. What is less clear is who will benefit from this powerful new political force.

No French politician really knows what to do with the gilets jaunes. In the early weeks of the protests, many commentators in the French media simply assumed that the movement would become a boon for far-right politicians like Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal. Though there have been scenes across France of men in yellow vests making anti-Semitic gestures or attempting to block migrants from crossing the border, it appears these worries were premature. Far right “populists” have failed to shape the movement in their own image—at least for now.

At the same time, their adversaries on the left have not done much better. When Jean-Luc Mélenchon launched La France insoumise in the run-up to the 2017 presidential campaign, he promised that the new movement would be a vehicle not only for his own ambitions, but also to translate popular anger into a genuine movement to create an alternative to neoliberalism. Since then, La France insoumise has become the primary left opposition party, and has taken some genuine steps towards empowering democratic participation, crowdsourcing its official platform, organizing in marginalized suburban neighborhoods, and bringing into its parliamentary wing a number of bona fide political outsiders, including rising stars formerly employed in modest jobs like Adrien Quatennens and Danièle Obono.

Many of La France insoumise’s claims to internal democracy have nonetheless been revealed as window-dressing for an organization tightly controlled by Mélenchon’s inner circle. For example, though election lists for this spring’s European elections were supposed to be drawn by lots from any supporters who wished to run, it turned out Mélenchon’s former campaign director was personally selecting the most suitable candidates. Though the movement’s leader retains a devoted following, some of his outbursts have arguably done more to damage La France insoumise’s credibility than boost its popular support, such as his blustery and self-righteous accusations of conspiracy when a campaign-finance inquiry targeted him at his home. Following Macron’s major neoliberal reform bills, La France insoumise as well as other movements on the left (though there has been palpable friction between them) mounted sizeable protests, each time promising to unite all of those incensed by Macron in a “convergence of struggles.” In comparison to the recent protests, however, the earlier mobilizations and the parties leading them appeared relatively conventional, none coming anywhere near the gilets jaunes’ success in delegitimizing the current government.

In the early weeks of the gilets jaunes protests, Mélenchon and his allies declared their support for the movement, as did most of the opposition parties on both left and right. La France insoumise’s participation in the movement has not been without its successes. The party has always been good at making itself present in the media, and it may be partially thanks to them that journalists backed off the narrative of the gilets jaunes as an inherently far-right movement, helping to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, the France insoumise deputy François Ruffin—a journalist and provocateur whose work has often focused on highlighting the conditions of France’s rural and post-industrial regions—has put out regular videos of himself making jokes about Macron with vest-clad protesters at rural roundabouts. A talented communicator who speaks in an authentically non-Parisian idiom, Ruffin has come closer than most French politicians in casting himself as a friend of the gilets jaunes.

Beyond such relatively superficial advances, however, La France insoumise has had a difficult time incorporating the gilets jaunes’ demands into a broader left platform. The gilets jaunes have at every turn rejected claims by people or parties to represent the movement as a whole. Despite having been created just two years ago as a protest against established politics, La France insoumise increasingly looks to many of today’s protesters like just another political party. Making the case for the links between the gilets jaunes’ grievances and its own eco-socialist platform will likely be a steep uphill battle. This case is nonetheless there to be made—for example, by highlighting the fact that those hit hardest by Macron’s cuts to provincial rail services are often the same people who would have suffered under the aborted diesel tax. In any event, building a coalition capable of guiding this movement in a leftward direction will require working with other organizations and movements on the left—which has not always been La France insoumise’s strength—including unions, environmentalists, and advocates of police reform.

In the long run, a left party that could provide a structure for this new political constituency—whether La France insoumise or its possible successor—would be a force to be reckoned with.

The issue on which La France insoumise has chosen to stake much of its political capital in the wake of the gilet jaunes movement is the establishment of a system for passing new laws by popular referendum. The call for “citizen referenda” was both one of the gilets jaunes’ central demands and has been a part of La France insoumise’s official program since the party’s founding. As a result, Mélenchon and his allies can claim with some credibility that they are capable of delivering on at least one of the movement’s core concerns. The issue of referenda in many respects gets to the heart of the gilets jaunes’ motivations. If the protesters are highly divided as to how to understand the causes of the unfairness in French society, most appear to agree that the solution is a more robust practice of democracy. As is obvious since the Brexit vote, referenda are hardly a cure-all solution to the shortcomings of contemporary democracy. But done right, they may encourage the experiences of deliberation and participation that a healthy democracy requires.

At the same time, France’s far-right parties have also supported the proposal for “citizen referenda,” a resemblance which has led La France insoumise’s leaders to commit a number of serious unforced errors. For example, Alexis Corbière, a deputy close to Mélenchon, was recently asked how La France insoumise would respond to a referendum on issues like marriage equality, abortion, or the death penalty: in other words, the sort of referenda that the far right might try to use to undo key advances in human rights. Rather than specify the precise terms a referendum might take, or propose constitutional amendments that would preserve these advances, Corbière simply insisted that he trusted “the people” to make the right decision. Even worse was Ruffin’s statement on referenda, in which he cited as an authority the left anarchist Etienne Chouard, most recently known as an ally of right-wing anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists. These statements give little indication that La France insoumise understands how its support for referenda differs from that of the Rassemblement national.

Still, it is worthwhile for any left movement that claims the “populist” label to explore new forms of democratic engagement. La France insoumise might take this moment as an opportunity to remind itself of the promises it once made to allow for more participation within its own movement. As Macron’s top-down leadership style has come under fire, Mélenchon would be wise to avoid his rival’s mistakes. But the lessons of the last several weeks go deeper than this. What the gilets jaunes have revealed is that there is in France today a large constituency of people who feel disconnected from politics: people who, by spending a Saturday occupying a roundabout with their neighbors, are literally seeking out new spaces for political action. In the short run, it is likely that La France insoumise will remain too weak to pose a serious threat to even a hobbled Macron presidency. But in the long run, a left party that could provide a structure for this new political constituency—whether La France insoumise or its possible successor—would be a force to be reckoned with.

Jacob Hamburger is a writer and a co-editor of Tocqueville 21, a Franco-American blog on contemporary democracy.