This article was written by Mathilde Goanec and originally published by Mediapart.fr on July 1, 2019.
Translated from French by Joshua Richeson.
The text has been minimally edited.
Last month some 650 Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) gathered for a meeting in Montceau-les-Mines, in the heartland of France. Although the movement has struggled to unify and has fewer participants than before, the strength of its local mobilizations and its slow progression toward municipalism were on display.
In the streets of Montceau-les-Mines, dozens of cars with license plates from out of town were parked bumper to bumper and spilling onto the sidewalks: Gilets Jaunes from all over France had come to the department of Saône-et-Loire to participate in their third “Assembly of Assemblies” on June 29-30, after the first one in Commercy in January and the second one in Saint-Nazaire in April.
Although the police, too, made rounds in the neighborhood Saturday morning, they kept their distance from the Pouloux Sports Complex where the event was being held. The night before, the prefect himself had come down to inspect preparations and found nothing amiss.
A huge concrete block, a few posters about the RIC (référendum d’initiative citoyenne, or Citizens’ Initiative Referendum) and two yellow flags waving at the end of the street were seemingly the only signs to guide visitors. But from the open windows of the gym where the first general assembly of the day was taking place, you could hear the familiar chant — “We are here, we are here!” — that for seven months of massive protests people have started singing at the drop of a hat in defiance of Emmanuel Macron.
Dwindling numbers on the streets
The 650 participants were delegates mandated by 250 roundabouts or assemblies to participate in the debates. Some delegates, including two from the hills of the Diois region in the Drôme, had started driving as early as 3 or 4 a.m. to get there on time. “We’re fighting for the climate and purchasing power, but then, as Gilets Jaunes, we’re burning a ton of gas!” one delegate, Françoise, joked.
The size of the assembly was the same as it was in Saint-Nazaire two months earlier. This movement, which has been pronounced dead dozens of times, has not died. In the streets, one Saturday after another, in smaller numbers, or during local actions covered rarely or not at all, the Gilets Jaunes have been tending the fire they lit last November and continued to do so under the early summer sun at this national meeting. With a humble recognition: “We call for departmental or regional assemblies, because here, we still only represent a minority of the movement, and that’s too bad,” one of the participants said during the plenary session.
Nor did anyone contest the fact that the roundabouts have dwindled just like the number of active Gilets Jaunes. “You must take into account the police pressure we experienced, the wounds, the fines, and for some, prison,” Thérèse Bénétreau, delegate from Eymoutiers, in the Limousin, warned. “We’ve been losing an insane amount of energy for six months now trying to get around repressive laws.”
In the neighboring city of Limoges there had still been a roundabout until recently. “It was destroyed. Our friends set up their trailer in a parking lot, and the police called for a bulldozer. Our friends had started a little community garden in a median flower bed that served no one, and the police crushed their beans, their tomatoes, their salads…”
In Eymoutiers, haymaking season has kept others busy working full-time, Bénétreau pointed out to explain the reduction of troops. Françoise added that in the equally agricultural Diois region, seasonal workers have also gone back to work. “Last week, during the demo, there were 50 of us, and we’re used to having 200 march. I came back home feeling hopeless. Seeing that we are still here, numerous, in Montceau-les-Mines, gives me hope again.”
The “Magny” group, the organizers of this assembly named for the site of their occupation in Montceau-les-Mines, are among the most resistant. Each week, several dozens of Gilets Jaunes meet up in a general assembly, which has so far been spared the wrath of local authorities. “The mayor’s office is buying social peace by pretty much leaving us alone,” Pierre-Gaël Laveder, one of the pillars of the group, laughed. The organization, therefore, was on point; no one entered the site without being registered as either a delegate, observer or journalist.
Solidarity food trucks, book buses and large tents to host workshop discussions formed a kind of mini political summer camp surrounded by farmland. A burning sun bore down on everything, pushing folks to cluster together under the trees in search of a little shade. At the back, a few tents were planted in the grass, but most participants were staying with local Gilets Jaunes who made their beds or back yards available, or put up a hammock in the trees, for the night. “We’re getting the royal treatment at Rosa’s place,” Bénétreau assured, swiping on her phone to show photos of her host’s house.
And despite the “wish tree,” brought from Commercy, and the stage set up for the evening concert, the atmosphere was serious and the unrelenting discussion continued into the night as groups reworked their proposals, shared contact information and built regional networks by exchanging numbers and email addresses.
The Gilets Jaunes had two days to reflect on five topics in workshops before voting in a general assembly. “In Lyon, we marched for the climate and found ourselves walking with people who are pro-Macron,” one delegate recounted, during the discussion about possible convergences. “That went over terribly. For a hundred of them, however, there were a thousand of us, and that strengthened the movement. We can’t abandon our label, we come as we are, with our demands.”
One woman, aware of a drop in morale, pointed out:
We were born in the shit, we’ve had our noses rubbed in it, and we’ll die in it. The ‘degrowth’ pushed by some is something we’re already subjected to, and there is a kind of beauty to it… But we’re all heading more or less quickly towards collapse, and it will be more or less painful depending on what you have to lose. Those are the people that we need to try to find, to touch. It won’t necessarily be in the streets but rather in your networks, depending on your approach and your interest. We’re not forcing anyone.
Not elves, but revolutionaries!
One delegate from northern France, Alain, spoke up from the other side of the circle to explain that convergence has already been practiced in his region for months, with civil disobedience now in view. “We are open to all actions for the climate, and I think that the Gilets Jaunes are contributing to the radicalization of activists on this issue.” Which did not stop another Gilet Jaune from Pau from complaining: “We go to the young folks’ climate demos Friday, but nobody does the same for us Saturday. So that’s really getting old…” Yet another delegate made a similar observation: “Our problem is that we feel isolated.” In Coutras, not far from Bordeaux, the Gilets Jaunes seek “the right tool” for getting involved in related struggles without stretching themselves too thin.
The relationship with the media, on site, was similarly ambivalent. Although journalists were invited, they were not quite welcomed. Not even the “yellow autonomedia” teams who were covering the event and took to the microphone in a general assembly to complain about not being able to film or record the debates.
As one participant from Paris explained, after yet another discussion about the media’s presence in a workshop, “The rules of the game, with the Gilets Jaunes, are that each assembly is sovereign, and just because the organizers told you ‘yes,’ this doesn’t mean that the Gilets Jaunes in attendance accept your presence here.” Afraid of being tracked and monitored by the government, and deeply angry with the dominant news organizations, the delegates exhibited a mistrust that rivaled what they suffered last winter and this spring, when the movement was regularly pounded by the majority of the media.
A similar ambivalence was apparent when the discussion turned to the subject of the RIP (référendum d’initiative partagé, or shared initiative referendum) — a proposal by the government on how to decide on the privatization of Paris airports. During a workshop on the issue, one participant lamented:
This movement is becoming a headache. We’ve got to deal with Macron, a nitwit who doesn’t want to listen to us. We can take power by force, storm the place with bayonets, but we don’t want to. It’s the politicians who want the RIP and the risk for manipulation is real, but at this point, it’s an opportunity for us.
Though not the RIC, which is still stubbornly championed by many Gilets Jaunes, the RIP is better than nothing, and the possibility of fighting against privatizations with an embryonic form of direct democracy is appealing. During the general assembly, the idea of lending support as a movement by helping to collect signatures and promote the referendum was adopted without difficulty.
Other debates were markedly more heated, such as the one about the fight against capitalism, which raised the tension and tried the patience of facilitators who wore themselves out at the microphone asking for silence and trying to let speakers speak in turn. The statement elaborated in the workshop was judged too soft by some, while others, a particularly small minority, still believed there should be mention of a potentially “virtuous capitalism.”
Then, Fabien, from the Var, lost his temper and declared, “We don’t have time to make improvements! This is an emergency! We’re facing the sixth mass extinction of species! The Gilets Jaunes aren’t a bunch of Keebler elves, we’re a fucking revolutionary movement!” Cheers and applause erupted across the assembly.
Unable to agree on a detailed text, the 650 delegates committed to voting yes, with a large majority, in response to the question, “Must we exit capitalism?” Likewise, the answer to the question of inviting “movement figures” to the next meeting was affirmative, on the condition that they be mandated by a group. So far, the meeting of rather compatible, nationally known characters like Priscillia Ludosky, Maxime Nicolle and François Boulo has not happened, as the latter two have haughtily snubbed the assembly process.
Similar scuffles had already taken place in Saint-Nazaire and Commercy. There, observers had noted a rather large presence of veteran activists from the radical left, which was troubling at the time for an assembly that was still quite politically diverse. In Montceau-les-Mines, it was less clear-cut, but the “roundaboutists” seemed to have regained the upper hand over the more opportunistic “assembliests.”
Above all, as it shrinks, the whole movement has shifted. Luc Gwiazdzinski, along with Bernard Floris and the Gilets Jaunes of the Crolles roundabout, near Grenoble, collectively wrote a very moving book, Sur la vague jaune (On the Yellow Wave). “The movement matured quickly,” he assured. “In six months, we saw debates go from a gas tax to unimaginable topics! The roundabout folks and the activists forged ties, from below, at the base. Ecology, the climate, the defense of public services — these are all now common positions.”
Libertarian municipalism as horizon
Although there has been improvement in the speaking process and in the exercise of direct democracy, even on the larger scale of 650, numerous delegates were worried that they have been going in circles. Two calls had already been diffused after Commercy then Saint-Nazaire. A third would come out for validation by local groups at the end of the weekend. “We warned of the risk of bureaucratization during the previous assemblies of assemblies,” one Gilet Jaune shouted out from the bleachers of the gymnasium, reminding the assembly that at its core, the movement was built by local and autonomous groups.
Conversely, Laveder of the Magny group, who had never hidden his affiliation with La France insoumise, was close to losing hope: “If at the end of the third assembly what we propose doesn’t get presented to someone at the top of government, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep doing this.”
One glimmer of hope may be “municipalism.” The subject was tackled at Montceau-les-Mines during a reflection on “local citizen assemblies” and could very well feature at the center of the fourth assembly of assemblies this fall. Many Gilets Jaunes are thinking about local government, ready to “leave the vest behind,” as Elisabeth, delegate from Commercy, where the Gilets Jaunes have already been experimenting in that direction, explained.
The type of municipalism being discussed by the Gilets Jaunes is the one developed for example in Saillans, in the Drôme, but also under consideration, albeit with some caution, is Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism and anarchist modes of organizing. A young delegate from Montpellier named Daniel participated in the Indignados movement in Barcelona before leaving for Greece and then Mexico to study communalism. “Hyper-presidentialism is ancient history. What we want to try to defend is the idea of fighting where you live, hyper-local, in the most diversified way possible. And that idea is very gilet jaune.”
In the Grésivaudan valley, where a series of roundabouts were still valiantly resisting, as Gwiazdzinski pointed out, the Gilets Jaunes of Crolles have been testing out, day after day, “a metropolitan site” that siphons off the population around Grenoble. “It’s on a manageable scale, that’s the whole thing with working at the local level. But it’s not enough. I myself, for example, could be interested in national office…”
And so the Gilets Jaunes move to and fro. In Crolles, they fight alongside the unions and even the Grenoble mayor’s office against the privatization of dams. Elsewhere, they invade a supermarket, or a fast food restaurant, before the eyes of a dumbfounded clientele.
Others “go underground” and as a group of 150 climb Mont Gargan, in the Limousin, to ring the bell in the ruins of a chapel. Some have taken back the tollbooths, like in Toulouse and Avignon on June 22. Some are seriously planning to disrupt the next G7 in Biarritz, to meet near Beaumont-sur-Oise near Paris in support of poor neighborhoods, or to break up the Tour de France this summer.
In Paris, Gilets Jaunes can be found supporting the undocumented Gilets Noirs (Black Vests), the Blouses Blanches (White Coats) on strike or the Stylos Rouges (Red Pens), a teacher’s movement. Scattered, often invisible, but everywhere.
Author’s note: I spent two days in Montceau-les-Mines and I was able to sit in on several workshops as well as the general assemblies, apart from those in which future “actions” were being decided.
Most of the Gilets Jaunes refuse to give their last name, which explains why they are rarely mentioned.
Mediapart is an independent French online investigative and opinion journal created in 2008 by Edwy Plenel, former editor-in-chief of Le Monde. Mediapart is published in French, English and Spanish.