Gilet Jaunes: Mobilising to Challenge the Political Order

Across France people have been donning yellow vests (gilet jaunes) and taking to the streets to protest their government. To those outside France it may appear as just another year of French people protesting. However, the mobilizations have not been organised by labour unions nor established political groups. Instead, the signs are that many of these people are neither unionised nor have they ever publicly demonstrated before.

A key narrative of these yellow vests is that they are ‘apolitical’ and that their mobilisations are neither ‘left’ or ‘right’ nor aligned with a particular political party. At the same time fascist, monarchist, left-wing, right-wing, and anarchist symbols, amongst others, have appeared across the different sites of mobilization. However, attempts to politically categorise the movement from the outside, in news media and their commentariat, have failed. Attempts from the inside, by established right and left-wing individuals and groups, to claim to represent the movement have also been actively rejected, failing to establish a hegemony. As yellow vests note ‘the movement is a polyphony’.

Who are the yellow vests? Why do they evade political categorisation? Is it a political strategy or are normative political categorisations inadequate? Where do categorisations come from and who has the authority to define them and their adequacy? How do social theorists engage with mobilisations that challenge normative categorisations and their political order? A political order stymying the ‘emergence of a world society better for all’ (Hart 2010), but a challenge to it. One that the commentariat claim risks the re-emergence of a political order more akin to the ‘old regime of world society’? (Hart 2002).

Plurality and Commonality

Online petitions and conversations over the summer of 2018 followed by acts of blockading, culminated in November 2018 with the beginning of marches and protests across France. These have been taking place each weekend in cities and towns across the country. Each of this series of weekends has been dubbed Act I, Act II etc and continued into late December 2018. These mobilizations led the French government to make a number of pledges that address some of the (~44) demands made by people who mobilized during these Acts. Writing this in January 2019 it is noted that further physical mobilizations are planned to take place in various new forms. For example, on the weekend of the 26-27th of January an ‘assembly of assemblies’ took place in Commercy, where yellow vests from across France, including seventy specific regional delegations, gathered. In the meantime, occupations of roads, roundabouts and public spaces continues, as well as the meeting of individual assemblies. Variations on the yellow vest mobilizations have also since appeared in multiple other countries, including environmental protest in Belgium adopting yellow vests, the red vests in Tunisia, as well as unreported mobilizations in the UK. Additionally, smaller red vest break-away counter-factions of the yellow vests have recently emerged.

The yellow vest mobilizations, primarily made up of marches, walk-outs, blockades, occupations, civil disobedience and property damage, have been cumulatively dubbed gilet jaunes: the ‘yellow jacket/vest movement’. This has been due to people attending wearing yellow hi-viz vests. The majority of people in France have easy access to them as it is mandatory to keep them in every vehicle. This is so that drivers are visible in the case of their vehicle break-downing at the side of the road. In the context of mobilisations, they have increased wearers visibility, but in terms of indicating a perceived social break-down.

Major news media and their commentariat initially reacted with hostility to these mobilisations outside of any particular political party or union organising. Attempts have been made to caricature the yellow vest mobilization as anti-environmental, due to a new higher tax on fuel being an initial catalyst. However, protestors have articulated that they are participating in these mobilizations for broader social reasons, arguing that the fuel tax was a tax on the poor not a means of averting climate change. In this sense, by contrast to a labour protest, the early Acts of the yellow vests bears some comparison to ‘consumer protests.’ A historical example being the Gin Riots of 1743 in London, against an additional tax placed on gin, as gin was perceived by the political and religious elite of the day to make the working classes lazy. A contemporary example being the ‘bread protests’ against rising food prices in Sudan in 2018. However, the later Acts of the gilet jaunes have since developed differently from these examples.

My interest is in the categorical and social order and structure of the yellow vests, in terms of its participants ‘reframing and realignment of their categories of identification’ (Eidson 2017), specifically in relation to the order and structure of the movement.In doing so, I also play off of the concepts of ‘communitas’ and ‘antistructure’ (Turner 1995), which tend to characterise that which is not organised in a familiar way, in relation to the established order. As a yellow vest notes:“If the movement is heterogeneous, it is at the level of ideas, beliefs, but [also] at a deeper level… [we] share a common trait, a sort of negative commons, namely, that [we] are nothing, superfluous, that that which was once celebrated as the middle class, the evanescent triumph of capitalism, was also the first glory to be abandoned to the rubbish bin, when the violence of the system is all that remains.” (Gavroche, 2018)

Hence, whilst there is plurality there is also commonality in claims of disillusionment with the political establishment as well as the political-economy more generally. Nonetheless, I am interested in listening to those who have donned yellow vests and understanding their movement and their mobilizations as structured in their own right. Hence, I do not presume them to simply be a disintegration of what is familiarly considered structured.

Act I mobilizations per capita in France by David Montgomery (Citylab, 2018)

The Emperor has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s popular fairy tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ the gist is that the commoners finally see that, for all the gold and glory, the emperor is flesh and blood like them, naked and vulnerable like a baby. I propose that this story resonates with the context of the yellow vests in France. As the French people across the country saw their President, Emmanuel Macron, lavish gold, through tax cuts, on the wealthy, they demonstrated that when mobilized, they could bring the formal structure of France to a halt and resist being dressed in normative political categories. At the same time turning the anonymous neoliberal garb of the hi-viz vest into a burning mobilization of riotous resistance. Their President ultimately conceded multiple demands, but still sat in his gold-plated furniture to address the nation, showing yet again to the yellow vests his naked alienation from French civil society.

This story brings together multiple theorizable aspects of the yellow vests’ mobilizations. These are: (i) whether the yellow vests emerged as a form of ‘antistructure’ to the political order, based on prior experience and through developing ‘communitas’ in their mobilizations online and offline, (ii) whether the yellow vests reflect an emerging global phenomenon (in relation to Occupy, Arab Spring etc), albeit with historical precedents, as a form of ‘default democracy’ (Graeber 2018), (iii) whether the yellow vests are a ‘return of life to public space’ as a realization that the status quo is not invulnerable nor is the normative political structure the only way to democratically realize a better future, and (iv) whether a contemporary iteration of class consciousness, beyond normative left-right politics, can be realized in place of the identity politics of the left and right under neoliberalism.

These are all possibilities suggested by communications with participants in the yellow vest movement, as well as online writings and video documentation. My interest in these possibilities draws me toward asking ‘how does social science critically participate in people spontaneously mobilising to challenge the political order?’ And what does this say about our own ‘alignment’ and ‘framing’ of social science.

The social scientist

Any theorisation and commentary on the yellow vest mobilizations is inherently part of framing the political categories and organisations that may ossify as new acts emerge. In this sense, participation by economic anthropologist David Graeber in discussions in France around the yellow vest mobilizations have sought to reflect how much the political “ground [is moving] under our feet” with the “complete failure of conventional categories” (2018). Hence, the normativity of politicians, journalists and the commentariat has meant they have largely been unable to grasp the movement or have been conversely hostile. Therefore, in visiting France and participating in mainstream TV broadcast and newspaper articles, Graeber has also been a part of the shaping of the identity of the yellow vest movement by critically deconstructing inadequate categories of identification. At the same time attempting to reflect the claims of horizontal organisation and the emergent nature of identification amongst people dubbed the yellow vests.

Addressing this challenge empirically is of critical importance to theory around identification, categorization, social organisation and, critically, universalism in social science. Otherwise social scientific theory is left alienated from realities that contravene the dominant hegemony of thinking around these themes: In a world where,

“…only those closest to the means of money-creation are in a position to employ the language of universalism… any political claims as based in particular needs and interests, tended to be treated as a manifestation of identity politics, and in the case of the social base of the gilet jaunes, therefore, cannot be imagined it as anything but proto-fascist.” (ibid).

Furthermore, Graeber notes that,

“…we are dealing with a new common sense about the very nature of democracy [and] About the only class of people who seem unable to grasp this new reality are intellectuals. [However,] there is a role for intellectuals in these new movements, certainly, but it will have to involve a little less talking and a lot more listening.” (ibid)

Thus, social anthropologists – like myself – are perfectly situated to take on this challenge, as we are well versed in listening, paying attention to unfamiliar categorisations, whilst taking into consideration their contestation. In other words, social anthropologists are methodologically focussed not on testing subjects against pre-established categorisations or taken-for-granted idealogical frameworks, but instead on listening to people and creating representations that grasp both the complexity but also the everyday lived context of unfamiliar modes of identification and categorisation.


One way to address a temporal collective identity referred to as gilet jaunes is to build on the theoretical architecture of Eidson et. al. (2017). Not through a thorough and thick description of the micro and macro elements of a given and fixed society. Instead, to establish the “principles through which possible bases of group formation, or simply aggregation, are constituted”. Whilst not being the production of an exhaustive ethnography of a group, it does address “the making and unmaking of groups” (ibid).

Identifying the principles of the mobilization of people in France in late 2018 and 2019, enables an insight into the development of a collective identity, rather than imposing an identity on them. Based on establishing what has been and will be involved in this process, in terms of how people engage in categorization around identity, an analysis of the “activated categories of likeness, distinction, and solidarity, located within any one of a number of possible frames” can be made (ibid 340). In doing so, the parameters of the gilet jaunes can be established through attention to identifications people have moved through and the specific forms of relations involved, whether syntagmatic, taxonomic, or paradigmatic.

This theoretical framework is of particular relevance as it allows an addressal of the ‘bases of identification’ and how, for example, “paradigmatic relations may be transformed into syntagmatic relations and vice versa” In other words, as the yellow vests resist static categorisation as the political ‘ground under our feet is moving’, so this approach allows an addressal of how, for example, categories of identification amongst them can be compatible or incompatible overtime depending on their ‘frame’. (ibid 346)

Therefore, I am not interested in naively seeking to pin down an authoritative new political categorisation of the collective identity of the yellow vests. Instead, I am interested in identifying principles of collective aggregation and mobilization, and to trace key shifts between the certain types of relations that have underpinned this process. In doing so, revealing ‘yellow vests’ not as based on new categories yet to be properly labelled, nor on old categories yet to be squeezed in to the correct box. Instead, understanding gilet jaunes as principled aggregation, highlighting how collective identity (i) moves through conversation between emic and etic elements, (ii) moves through physical aggregation and (iii) moves in relation to general categorizing issues as highlighted in Eidson (ibid).

Categorisation and Authority

The positivist approach to categorisation is the idea that one category must be more positively true than the others. As an academic then it is my job to tinker with past categories to progressively update them. Social anthropology problematizes and rejects this premise. Methodologically speaking, it does so by rejecting ‘arm-chair’ methods of philosophizing ideal categories. Theoretically, it does so, by recognising that an academic’s perspective is a perspective, or a textual rendering, informed by the specific questions asked and the specific moment of their asking.

One way of proceeding in light of this, has been to take ‘native’ categories seriously, as a valid theoretical perspective. However, the problem then arises of who, or which ‘native’, has the authority to designate the ‘native’ category. Graeber notes, that this way of addressing categories is stuck in a conundrum, between whether to use “authoritative views” or “native categories” (2015: 33) and their overlap. He renders this situation as a wider confusion between conceptual categories and cultural categories and between comparing the two. He then effectively rejects this whole confusing and problematic formulation as part of the problem.

Graeber proposes that this confusion can be avoided by starting from the premise that the world is not entirely knowable (epistemic fallacy), nor necessarily coherent. Different people know and construct different knowledge; they have different epistemologies. Furthermore, epistemologies are entangled with the capability for different people to have different power over and through others (ibid 23-29).

In line with this, I am not interested in establishing what the most authoritative native category of who the yellow vests are, nor in justifying my own authoritative one. That is an exercise in shoring up one authority over another and thus maintains the established power relations surrounding a political categorisation. Instead, I am exploring the principles underpinning the making of these categories and the tensions and struggles between and within different authorities.

But categories should not just be understood as theoretical, descriptive or intangible means of communication. They are one part of the amalgamation of different factors leading to how something aggregates. It is not that an act is made in the image of how it is idealised. However, depending on the authority, this is often attempted making certain categories more real by certain authorities trying to make the world reflect their category or make it fit.  Different authorities try to enforce their category into reality and keep it there, by leveraging whatever strategies and resources they have. What does it mean then in the case of the yellow vests for them to generally resist any authoritative category?

In sum, categories are used by people in multiple ways with varying coherency. Hence, I am not interested in focussing on representing other people’s lives or telling you the authoritative story of who the yellow vests are, but communicating what I can learn through participating with and listening to people who mobilize in yellow vests and bring a critical anthropological perspective to it.

Between Civil Society and Governmental Citizen Consultation

It is often proposed that ‘civil society can contribute to democratic and effective governance’. To take this proposal seriously, I consider the yellow vest movement in light of the ‘Citizen Consultation’s for tomorrow’s Europe’ and its recent iteration as France’s ‘National Debate’. My contribution as a social scientist is in highlighting what the problem being faced here between gilet jaunes mobilizations and consultative approaches to engaging ‘civil-society’ in decision-making.

To summarise the problem: On the one hand there is polyphonic movement drawn from civil society in the form of the yellow vests and on the other hand there are people elected to represent them in the form of President Emmanuel Macron and his government. One has demands for reforms and one has policies for reform. Neither are in agreement. The ‘Citizen’s Consultation’ and its recent adaptation by the Macron government as the ‘National Debate’, in light of the yellow vest movement, claims to address this disagreement. The yellow vest movement rejects the principal relations of this consultation. Therefore, the problem is this gap.

My approach is to attentively pay attention to this gap. In doing so, my purpose is not to pre-prescribe nor prioritize criticizing one of any number of techniques that may or may not result in effective governmental or economic reform. Instead, my interest is in techniques of reform and revolution that make sense to ‘civil society’. Then, to examine what the principal relationships are, by which technical reforms make sense. From eye-balling the gilet jaunes mobilizations the principal relationship that has emerged in the gap between yellow vests, as part of civil society, and their democratic representatives, is one of a lack of politically shared ground; the gap.

My approach to this is four-fold; First, I use anthropological fieldwork to listen to why the ‘old’ political ground did not suffice for yellow vests and how it collectivised as a movement, with a principal relation being the successful rejection of leaders and representatives. As part of this, I also listen to what the ‘new’ political ground is, on which or toward which the movement strives. Second, I do this in light of the ‘citizen’s consultation process’ and listen to why it fails to address the political ground of the yellow vests. Third, I embrace social science vocationally, as seeking to work toward a better world for all. In doing so, such a research project would inform organisations intent on governmental and economic reform on the principal relations for engaging participants from an active ‘civil society’ movement such as the yellow vests. Specifically, to recognise that their organisation’s categories of authority or ‘older political ground’ may not make sense. Seeking to engage civil society in social reform involves attention to what shared ground is emerging, rather than seeking to make one’s organisation’s engagements with and actions on behalf of civil society, conform to pregiven categories.

Extracts from an unsuccessful research proposal written in December 2018

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