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The Yellow Vest struggle to reinvent democracy in France

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
Richard Greeman, a Marxist writer and activist best known for his work on Victor Serge, reports from France
Issue 2651
Yellow Vests at the Assembly of Assemblies earlier this month
Yellow Vests at the ‘Assembly of Assemblies’ earlier this month (Pic: Reporterre)

The massive, self-organised social movement known as the Yellow Vests held its second nationwide “Assembly of Assemblies” earlier this month.

Hundreds of activist groups from all over France each chose two delegates – one woman, one man – to gather in the port city of St. Nazaire.

Local Yellow Vests hosted 700 delegates at the St. Nazaire “House of the People.” The three-day series of meetings and working groups went off without a hitch in an atmosphere of good-fellowship.

A sign on the wall proclaimed, “No one has the solution, but everybody has a piece of it.”

Their project – mobilise their “collective intelligence” to reorganise, strategise, and prolong their struggle. Their aim – achieve the immediate goals of liveable wages and retirements, restoration of social benefits and public services. Tax the rich and end fiscal fraud to pay for preserving the environment. And, most ambitious of all, reinvent democracy in the process. Their Declaration ends with the phrase, “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” I often wonder if they know who coined it.

Yellow and Green Unite and Fight

Particular attention was paid to the issue of the environment, reaffirming the popular slogan, “End of the week. End of the world. Same logic, same struggle.” It rhymes in French. The Assembly called on people to “take up a conflictual stance against the present system in order to create, together, a new ecological, popular social movement”.

This shows growth from the original Yellow Vest uprising, which began as a protest against a hike in taxes on diesel fuel imposed in the name of “saving the environment.” Less well known is that only 17 percent of that tax was earmarked for the environment.

In any case, French president Emmanuel Macron rescinded it in an early attempt to pacify the movement. Since then, the Yellow Vests have tentatively converged with environmental groups. Many poor and working class Yellow Vests can’t help seeing them as bourgeois on bicycles unwilling to struggle directly against the establishment.

Who said an unstructured autonomous movement of ordinary, not well-educated people, could not come up with strategies and tactics?

So their call for unity is also a challenge to the environmental movement – “Join us in the struggle for social equality and be ready to fight the whole system.” Brilliant! Who said an unstructured autonomous movement of ordinary, not well-educated people, could not come up with strategies and tactics?

Voting at the Assembly of Assemblies

Voting at the ‘Assembly of Assemblies’ (Pic: Reporterre)

“No one has the solution, but everybody has a piece of it.” This was the basis of direct democracy in Athens, from which the Yellow Vests have also borrowed the idea of choosing representatives by lot.


The Assembly of Assemblies reaffirmed the Yellow Vest founding principle of keeping clear of political parties. Also of leaders. To my mind this is genius. Every popular mass movement I have participated in over the past 60 years has been co-opted by the establishment or crushed. Leaders set up an office, try to raise money and gain access to power, end up compromising.

They treat rank and file activists like a mailing list and the power and dynamic of the mass movement melts away.

Instinctively, the Yellow Vests seem to have assimilated the profound criticism of representative democracy that goes back to the 18th century and was applied during the 1871 Paris Commune. There delegates were given limited mandates, subject to instant recall, regularly rotated, and paid at workers’ wages. The Communards also called on other cities to rise and link up as a federation. This is the Yellow Vests’ modus operandi.


This critique of representation explains the Assembly’s attitude toward upcoming elections for the European Parliament. Fear of being manipulated for political purposes is strong. Last month Yellow Vests at a Paris demonstration recognised a Yellow Vest who had just declared her candidacy, apparently in the name of the Yellow Vests.

Yellow Vests are organising to keep the movement going

Yellow Vests are organising to keep the movement going (Pic: Reporterre)

They were furious and yelled at her until she withdrew, shaken. Ugly, but a necessary example to anyone else who would rather be a politician than a Yellow Vest.

The Assembly, far from calling for a Frexit, reached out to social movements in the other countries of the European Union in a call to come together and struggle against its neoliberal policies.

The Assembly saw no point in voting in this sham election. As everyone knows, the European Parliament has no power or even visibility.

Moreover, it limits the deficit spending of its member countries, thus making it illegal for France to finance the social services and environmental reconstruction people are demanding.

Restructuring and Reflection

The Assembly of Assemblies coincided with Act 21 of the Yellow Vests’ struggle. It brought out only 23,400 people – government count – across France, the lowest number so far. Small wonder after five straight months of bloody repression. The police were as usual out in force, and they stopped and frisked 14,919 people according to the Paris Prefecture.

After 21 weekly battles, many of us are too tired, too scared and/or too old to continue “running with the bulls” through the streets dodging gas canisters.

We thought we were off for a sprint. In fact we were involved in a marathon and we need to prepare ourselves

“We thought we were off for a sprint. In fact we were involved in a marathon and we need to prepare ourselves,” admitted one speaker.”  We need to vary our tactics, refine our goals, organise our democratic structures better for the movement to last. The weekend’s Assembly tried to face this challenge.

Among the new tactics was a call for a huge nationwide protest against the increasing repression being imposed by the Macron government, the liberation of all those in jail, whether Yellow Vests or in other “criminalised” struggles and refers directly to the oppressed North African and immigrant communities in France, whose 2005 youth rising was brutally put down.

Macron’s Response – Propaganda and Violent Repression

In contrast to these deliberations, the Macron government delivered the results of its official “Great Debate”. This was a publicity stunt at a cost of 12 million Euros to showcase the President articulately answering questions from selected audiences.

France’s elected monarch concocted this “Debate,” whose limits were set in advance. Taxing the rich and the corporations was off the table.

The results were unsurprising – the French want “lower taxes, no cuts to services”. Asked if the “Great Debate” was a “success for Macron and his government,” only 6 percent of those polled by BFM-TV answered “yes.” Another poll revealed that 35 percent of French people still approve the Yellow Vests, down from 70 percent last December, while only 29 percent approve of Macron.

A Yellow Vest says, Marx was right

A Yellow Vest says, ‘Marx was right’ (Pic: Photothèque Rouge /Martin Noda.)

PR aside, the Macron government’s real answer to the Yellow Vests has been brutally stark – slander, violent repression and strict new laws limiting the right to demonstrate. Macron and his ministers have publicly denounced the Yellow Vests as “antisemites,” “fascists,”  “a hateful mob” and terrorists.

This vicious caricature, echoed endlessly by the media, is designed to dehumanise the protesters so their demands for dignity and justice can be ignored.

Since November 2018, when the Yellow Vest movement sprung up, the government has unleashed unprecedented police brutality. It has used military grade weapons against unarmed demonstrators, provoking hundreds of serious injuries. This violence has been repeatedly condemned by human rights panels in France and the European Union.

Government Violence At Last Exposed

On Saturday 23 March, as president Macron was visiting the Riviera, 73 year old Geniève Legay joined the Yellow Vest demonstration at Nice to speak out against this repression. Interviewed on local TV she declared, “We are here to say we have the right to demonstrate. We will leave this square when we choose. I’m not afraid. I’m 73 years old, what could happen to me? I’m fighting for my grandchildren.”

Moments later, police commander Souchi ordered his heavily armed riot police to charge the peaceful group in which Geneviève Legay was standing. She found herself on the ground surrounded by riot cops, bleeding profusely, with a cracked skull and broken ribs. She is still in hospital with serious injuries.

According to the president of France, as a fragile elderly person Mme Legay should have known better than to go to the square in the first place. But, as her TV interview makes clear, Geneviève Legay knew she was risking her life to defend the democratic freedom to demonstrate.

Police entered her hospital room, where Mme Legay was alone. They repeatedly tried to get her to admit that a “cameraman” had pushed her down, but when she repeated that it was a policeman, they stopped taking notes.

Meanwhile, videos of the attack were all over the Internet. The Public Prosecutor was obliged to affirm police involvement.

Discussing strategies and tactics

Discussing strategies and tactics (Pic: Reporterre)

There was a deliberate official cover-up of this attack. The person in charge of the investigation, Hélène P, is one of the policewomen who pressured Mme Legay in her hospital room.

Hélène P is none other than the partner of commander Souchi, who had shouted the order to “Charge! Charge!” at the peaceful group in which Mme Legay was standing.

This scandal has finally broken official silence on French police brutality.

What About the ‘Violent Vandals’?

The Black Bloc and other casseurs (“trashers”) are certainly guilty of property damage on a fairly significant scale. But as far as I know they have not wounded, blinded or crippled any human beings. That to me, but apparently not to the French media, is a significant difference. I have never eaten at Fouquet’s restaurant, and I’m sure they have insurance.

My problem with the Black Bloc at Yellow Vest demonstrations is that they never get arrested or struck by flashballs. Dozens of videos show masked, black-clad guys with crowbars smashing banks and trashing stores in plain sight. No one ever stops them. Why?

A certain number of casseurs have been spotted as police provocateurs, infiltrating the demonstrations, smashing stuff, and then being exfiltrated through police lines. This is an old tactic designed to spoil the image of a demonstration and justify violent repression.

Europe is full of angry young men, self-styled anarchists, deeply invested in fighting the establishment by smashing its symbols.

I’d like the Black Bloc much more if they would fight the cops

The cops leave them alone and concentrate on their main mission – brutalising the crowds of ordinary demonstrators. Moreover, the Black Bloc folks are more likely to kick the shit out of the cops who try to stop them than are high-school kids, parents with children, and old folks. I’d like the Black Bloc much more if they would fight the cops, instead of using us as human shields.

“Libertycidal” Legislation

Macron’s new “anti-casseurs” laws will legalise and set in stone the repressive practices used against the Yellow Vests. They will be permanently available to his successors, for example Marine Le Pen.

They have nothing to do with actual casseurs and everything to do with making it nearly impossible to demonstrate.

Expulsion means being put in danger says a Yellow Vest protester

‘Expulsion means being put in danger’ says a Yellow Vest protester (Pic: Photothèque Rouge /JMB)

For example, if you are a small-town Yellow Vest and take the train to Paris on a Saturday, you are likely to be stopped several times between the station and the Champs Elysées.

If you have in your backpack Vaseline, eye drops, ski goggles, a bicycle helmet, a face-scarf or God forbid a gasmask, you can be arrested, brought to summary trial, and convicted the very same day for being part of a “group organised for the purpose of destroying public order and obstructing the forces of order”.

If you insist on a real trial with lawyers, they will gladly hold you over in jail. But if you’re not at work on Monday you’ll lose your job and meanwhile who is minding the kids? And if you eventually get to demonstrate and the demonstration leads to property damage, you may be made legally and financially responsible.

You may be placed on a list of dangerous people and barred from demonstrating again.

The chilling prospect of turning these absurd police-state practices into law is what brought pacifists like Geneviève Legay out into the streets. Interviewed in hospital she declared, “I am determined to carry on the fight. It is ever more necessary to do so when you see the anti-democratic drift of this government. The Yellow Vests support me and I will continue supporting them.

“I am not going to stop fighting to defend our rights, as I have for 50 years, and to struggle against state repression whatever form it may take.”

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