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Understanding The Yellow Vests Movement and Its Stakes From an Ecological Perspective

By Black Ouioui, a French DGR sympathizer / Image: Norbu Gyachung, CC BY 4.0

The yellow vests movement has been struggling for six month now. Half a year. This is a record-breaking movement in France by its length. Commentators no longer refer to the May 1968 movement, but go back to several democratic protests that occurred during the 19th century. This movement is interesting for the ecological resistance, first because it gives an insight of what future social instability or chaos might look, like in phase 3 of the decisive ecological warfare (DEW), due to the grow of inequalities and ecological disruptions. It is also very interesting in a tactical point of view, because that kind of future mass movement could constitute strong levers (as only few people are part of the radical movement) to help the resistance, in an opportunistic way, to harry and destabilize civilization, with the unintentional help from people who are little concerned by ecological issues. The simplistic and anthropocentric yellow vests saying “end of the world, end of the month, same struggle” designed in order to reply to the unfair pseudo-ecological taxes, could, not for the reason they primarily think, have unexpected ecological benefits by disrupting the techno-industrial system. Then, the question to us is how can we support and strengthen these movements whenever they spontaneously emerge in order to achieve these benefits.

The yellow vests movement started in October 2017 on social networks with a great fed up against the president Emmanuel Macron’s policies. His policies are mainly in favor of the riches and the big companies, doing them one fiscal gifts after another, while the country middle class is becoming poorer and poorer. The movement was specifically triggered by the increase of the fuel tax, the hardening of mandatory vehicle safety inspections (with the unsaid goal, behind security and ecological arguments, to stimulate the growth of the cars sales) and the reduction of the speed limit from 90 to 80 km/h. The increase of this tax was part of a pack of so-called ecological measures of the “extreme centrist” and liberal government of Emmanuel Macron. The minister of ecology Nicolas Hulot, known for being anything but a radical ecologist, resigned a few weeks earlier in August 2018, denouncing his own powerlessness in this government and the impossibility for him to implement the ecological measures he aimed at. This man, quite popular in France, was only a store front for the government. Actually, the current trend in liberal politics is to make poor classes bear the weight of the pseudo-ecological transition, via guilt, individual change and taxes rather than global systemic changes, industry restriction and fair laws, that would, for instance, tax the airplanes fuel, which is « duty free » for the airlines, at the same level than people pay for everyday fuel.

In October-November 2018, people started to put a yellow vest on their car dashboard (a few years ago, it became mandatory to keep one in every car for security reasons), in order to show their disagreement with Macron. This was a huge success, with a majority of cars on the road displaying it. Then, it took the form, since the 17th November 2018, of huge protests every Saturday, not only in Paris but also all across the country. Other actions are also conducted during the week, including the permanent occupation of hundreds of traffic circles. It managed to cause millions of losses to businesses like supermarkets, multinationals, and, among others, luxury shops on the Champs Elysées.

The movement was first watched suspiciously by a part of the left-wing for several reasons, but mainly because they believed the mainstream media’s speech. First, it looked anti-ecological and formed of “rednecks”, many said. Cars, as everyone acknowledge now, are part of the ecological problem, and the movement started as a popular protest against the fuel tax (coined pejoratively by some as a « Jaquerie », a term that refer in France to Middle Age protests against taxes). Also, as a popular mass movement, very diverse political tendencies were represented. Nationalism and sovereignty, as cross-political tendencies (from left- and right-wing both), are quite common in the movement. The national flag, seldom used by the left (except by Jean-Luc Mélenchon who tried to bring it back into fashion to prevent from the extreme-right monopolizing it), is often present in the occupied places or during the protests. This made many think that the movement was led by extreme right-wing people, but later this turned out to be wrong. Along the same lines, the presence of racists and anti-Semitics have been over-emphasized since the beginning by the media in order to discredit the movement.

Actually, mostly, those taking part to the demonstrations were new to politics and militancy, and never formerly campaigned. Like vomiting, it was natural to them, everywhere in the country, to reject as a whole the current political system, all parties included, that was cooking them on a low heat. It was visceral. This led them to banish all party banners or distinctions. Many of these people are anarchists without even knowing it. All actions, blockading, occupations and protests are self-organized, principle deeply rooted into the movement.

Consistently, no official authorization requests, with some official leader that would be responsible for the protest, were sent to the administration, which is decreed by law in France. This is a natural consequence of the fact that the movement was spontaneously born on social networks, rejects the government rules of the game and is almost totally horizontal. People are very mistrustful to any representative, who could negotiate and betray his fellows by compromising with the authorities. Some people in the movement have more influence than other, but either they refuse to become representative of the others, because they don’t feel legitimate, either when they try to, they are immediately rejected by the majority of the others.

The movement also came quickly, due to police clampdown, to a high level of violence, with bloody police confrontations and devastated urban areas. The violence levels culminated the Saturday 6th of December 2018, when the people came in front of the Elysée, with a helicopter ready to extract Macron if by chance they succeeded to enter the palace (at this time a lot of people were burning or guillotining life-size Macron dolls across the country), and more recently the Saturday 23th March and the May Day 2019 with new hardcore clashes in Paris. A funny Saturday was, at the beginning of January, when people used a pallet truck to smash open the front door of the ministry of the government spokesperson Benjamin Grivaux.

Since the beginning, the only political answers to the movement are denial and frightening post-truth answers, which challenge the understanding of anyone with a minimum of intellectual honesty. The police clampdown worsens every week. Now, the yellow vests not only risk to loose a hand or an eye because of riot guns and grenades (with thousands of injured people, some of which victims of war wounds say the hospital staffs), but also risk suffocation. By their unheard amount, concentration and composition, the chemical weapons the police now use can no longer by called “tear gazes”. The gazes that are being used since the 13th of April cause suffocation, burns, non-stop vomiting, consciousness loss. Many kids or elders passing by are also hit.

All these things are quite new to French leftists, and far from the usual, almost traditional, protests the militants are used to, like trade-union-like ones or Occupy-Indignados-like ones. It is uneasy to protest side-by-side with persons that are sometimes politically or socially far from us. For these different reasons, unsurprisingly, the trade unions are very reluctant and, until very recently, seldom called to protest with the yellow vests or, at least, to a supporting strike.

Moreover, except the black bloc, this level of violence is completely unusual to most pacifist leftists and syndicalists, whose order service usually get along with police forces to supervise the protests (and, as I saw in December 2018, sometime block the tail of the procession to let free rein to the police for repressing the yellow vests that are at the front!). The trade-unions called to protest for May Day, but Philippe Martinez, the president of the CGT, had to sneak out because he was scared by the violence of the police clampdown!

Since the beginning of the movement, I finally observe the idea that pacific protests are ineffective gradually spreading in circles that I knew to be pacifists, with a higher violence level tolerance than before. The yellow vest sum it up in the saying: “no breakers, no 20h” (20h refers to the evening news in France). This shift is perceptible in a growing part of the population, despite the unanimous condemnation of violence in the media by the whole Paris intelligentsia (which is very annoyed by the Saturday chaos in its streets), main-stream personalities, journalists, and politics.

Happily, the few extreme right-wing people who took part to the first demonstrations either gradually stopped to mobilize or gradually tempered their opinions by an osmosis phenomenon that, fortunately, occurred in the company of people from other political sides. Very unlikely, according to the caricature the media tried to picture them, within a few weeks, the movement resulted in people to unite in favor of social justice, whatever their political background was, and for the introduction of direct democracy measures in the constitution like the unanimously claimed Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC). Their first 42 claims of the beginning of December were enlightening. Weeks passing, as the goals of the movement got more clearly defined, left-wing militant started to join the popular movement. Interestingly, even if most of their claims are social justice ones, they still often refuse to be politically labeled as left-wing, in order to exclude nobody. The no banner principle is still strictly applied (except for the yellow ones, and the anarchist ones maybe).

The time many leftists and ecologists took to enter in motion (for those that did it) is at the same time wise, and an error. Of course, waiting and observing, when we face an uncertain situation, is wise. But this is also a strategic error, because timing is strategic. And I am the first to recognize my error. Opportunities do not necessarily occur twice. The repression arsenal of the power grows weekly bigger and bigger. Drones, new authoritarian laws, semi-lethal weapons, more powerful chemical weapons (forbidden by the Geneva convention, and used against our own population, what a joke!), urban tanks, chemical marking of the demonstrators with synthetic DNA in the water canon, automatic face recognition with AI, psychological techniques for terror, censorship and targeted arrests in collaboration with Facebook…

This is also an error because we let the others do the toughest job, in the darkest of the winter. And finally because when you miss the departure, it is difficult to catch-up the train. It would be a shame that the French left miss the revolution they have been expecting for ages, isn’t it?

I noticed something of interest for us, that was little commented (but fact-checked) among the huge feed of daily news. Among all the arbitrary arrests, the government targeted and sued ordinary people (who sometime got months of jail) who, in Facebook comments, naively encouraged or called to block refineries and (for a retired man) to blow them up if the government didn’t give in the people’s claims. This means the government is very afraid of that kind of blockage, which can paralyze the country within a few day. It can be quite fast, as we have only a few refineries in France.

About this, the government did a master stroke in Novembre 2018 just after the first protest. They postpone their new tax on heavy trucks to avoid the truck drivers to join the yellow vests. Indeed, the drivers know how much the country depends on them, and know how to block easily all the country’s large retailers and fuel supplies. Their protests are usually very efficient and listened to by the power.

Radical ecologist could strengthen movements like the yellow vests and use them as levers. If they do not directly serve the ecological movement, on one hand they serve social justice, with is always desirable, and on the other hand, they also destabilize the techno-industrial system by blocking supermarkets, breaking multinationals front stores, cutting roads and borders, or blocking oil refineries. In December 2018, the French power was surprised and destabilized by the breadth and the strength of this movement, and this is the kind of weakness we are looking for to generalize in the future.

While gentle ecologists pacifically parade in useless climate walks, at the same time, yellow vests are having violent assaults with the police in other areas of the city, breaking bones, loosing eyes, hands, and for some of them, dying. As radicalists, given the choice, we should know were the battle takes place and not to be late.

This is of course a brief and incomplete account of the yellow vest movement, whose forms are very diverse and shape-shifting.

2 thoughts on “Understanding The Yellow Vests Movement and Its Stakes From an Ecological Perspective”

  1. While some of the analysis here is correct, the fact remains that leftists and “ecologists” or environmentalists are not at all the same. The forest and its trees don’t care if the trees are being killed by the left or the right, or by the rich or the poor, nor do the animals and other plants that depend on the forests and trees. The environmental and ecological harms are the same regardless of who’s doing the harm.

    Additionally, the left is just as ecologically destructive as the right. For example, I get as much if not more resistance when I raise the human overpopulation issue to leftists than when I do to people on the right. Leftists don’t want to give up driving any more than right wingers do. Etc.

    “Environmental justice” is a perfect example of illegitimate conflation of leftist issues with environmental ones in that advocates for this issue call it an environmental issue, which it is not (it’s strictly a social issue). That’s not to say that it’s not a legitimate issue, because it certainly is. But if our priorities are the natural environment and all that lives there, we can’t get bogged down in environmentally and ecologically irrelevant social issues, and we can’t have them watering down our issues.

    Maybe this is all just a pet peeve of mine, but illegitimate conflation of environmental/ecological issues with social ones, and conflation of leftists with environmentalists, has been bothering me for decades.

  2. To say that social issues are unrelated to environmental destruction is wrong. Feminist struggle, for example, is inextricably linked to the issue of overpopulation. When women have reproductive control and freedom from coercion, they on average make ecological choices. This is why patriarchy is an environmental issue. Similarly, the US military is the largest polluter on earth, and global trade which enables mass theft from third world nations (mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) is simply another form of organized exploitation as slavery was. The current wave of migration is caused by this imperialism (economic, military, and political). Racism and xenophobia are inextricably linked to the destruction of the planet.

    If we define left as anti-capitalist, than the left has a mixed record on environmental issues. Most large anti-capitalist projects have failed on the ecological front (at least partly due to being engaged in a cold or hot arms race with western societies). Similarly, most environmentalists have failed to demonstrate solidarity with anti-racist and feminist struggles.

    Traditionally many leftists have looked at the natural world as nothing more than “resources” to be exploited to enrich and improve the living standards of human beings. But this is increasingly anachronistic. Leftists with any sense are beginning to incorporate a deep ecological consciousness, as they are incorporating feminism and anti-racist principles. Effectiveness comes in taking the best of all of these movements and moving forward in synthesis. Those who are not doing this should be critiqued and bypassed.

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