With the second anniversary of the gilets jaunes (GJ) uprising approaching, I virtually sat down with some participants to look back at a revolution that could have happened, the violent response of the police and the increasing restriction of civil liberties in France.
I virtually sat down to talk to a group of young activists from Montreuil (Paris suburb) who joined in the early hours of the movement, witnessing the moment when the regime almost fell in late 2018. They talked about the people in the gilets jaunes (GJ) movement, the uprising, the left’s hesitations, the struggle against the far right, and the political and police response. Here is an edited version of our conversation, divided by topics.
This conversation was part of research for an article by André Kapsas on police and judiciary repression during the GJ movement, which was published by Jacobin.
What was the Movement About?
Youri* remembers that he was in the Drôme region in South-East France and that tags everywhere were calling for mobilisation on the 17th. “I didn’t know at all what it would look like, but there was a lot of agitation, so I decided to go to the local roundabout that was being occupied.” He remembers the GJ as a moment when „people started coming together, talking their daily problems and unwinding the thread, finding the source of their anger, of their living conditions. More and more, they were approaching the roots: the state, the system, capitalism. I’ll always remember my first twenty minutes on a roundabout with the GJ: they start talking about gas prices and twenty minutes later they’re already talking about the revolution, asking themselves whether that’s the solution. That really left a mark on me.”
Antoine was in Commercy, in the Meuse region, in the East, when it all started: “We organised some popular assemblies, and also organised the assembly of all GJ assemblies in January 2019. When it comes to forms of protest, they were much more radical, much more spontaneous. They were so strong as to launch a real insurrection, stronger than all the activist networks could ever dream of. When it comes to demands, there was no substitution, no either / or, no dropping of demands on the tax cancellation and purchasing power in favour of greater demands like the system’s abolition. There was rather an accumulation of demands. The core of the GJ movement were people concerned by purchasing power, having troubles making ends meet. Then people went further, with demands on democracy, on referendums. In Commercy, there were also municipal demands, demands to end tax evasion.
Where people revolutionary, anti-capitalist? There were definitely such discourses among the GJ, from people within the core. Ideas to end the capitalist system were welcome by many, but that wasn’t the main idea from Day One. You can’t really divide demands. Myself, I consider myself like a GJ, and I can say that in the movement, the idea that “end of the month, end of the world – same fight” was well understood.
GJ were often depicted like far-right rednecks listening to techno on parking lots while barbecuing, some kind of image of a stupid France, but this struggle against a tax went way further, it was about the organisation of power, the structure of society, about who should pay for the ecological transition. This tax was really about a punitive ecology, against poor people, a ‘class ecology’, and people saw through it. It’s not reactionary to fight against an injust tax.
So there was this consciousness, at least in Commercy, that purchasing power was the starting point, about the hard living conditions and the problem of making ends meet at the end of the month. That was never replaced by anything. There was also the RIP (Référendum d’initiative populaire – referendums that could be triggered by petition), that was more global, but otherwise it was mostly about those ‘bread and butter issues’.
At first, economic elites (the ‘patronat’, the bosses) were not really targeted. The GJ had another relationship to small bosses, entrepreneurs, craftsmen and craftswomen, who were often involved in the GJ, so they didn’t see the big bosses as a target at first; it was more the political elites, denounced as corrupted. Demands against the big bosses and corporations gradually came; not from outside, but rather from leftists who were inside the movement. It was a result of those meetings on roundabouts, not a manipulation, but rather a spontaneous development.
Louise: yes, it came after several months, when there was more targeting of the big bosses, and also a greater involvement with the strike movements, also with the ecological movement.
Antoine: there was a development going on, through intense exchanges, as people not only shared their experiences as activists, as trade unionists, when there was concrete solidarity, those were organic developments, not higher-level meetings. In Commercy, there was a huge defiance towards trade unions, towards any organisation, other flags, a great fear of manipulation and recuperation. Trade unionists were well received as participants, though.
This whole situation illustrated the growing distance between the left and popular classes during the last 30-40 years. There was a huge gap between people who didn’t speak the same language anymore. I remember the deep sadness of seeing a friend, a 50 year-old worker and trade unionist, who had taken part in all strikes in the last decades, feeling violated on the roundabout, because he was so starkly criticised. He felt that he had fought for this his whole life, yet he was being rejected because of his hat from the trade union. That changed after November-December, as there were many more meetings, during the whole year, and up to this date.
Revolt or Revolution?
Louise: “I went to the second protest, on November 24th, because we had seen quite incredible images from the previous Saturday, and I wanted to see for myself and talk to people in order to form my own opinion. And not just listen to what the media were saying back then, talking about the Yellow Vests as middle-class, white, rather far-right. There were very few of us from the left-wing circles here in Montreuil to be mobilised.”
Next to Invalides we bumped into a group of about a hundred GJ who had just come in and didn’t know Paris. My friend and I had taken plans for this purpose and we passed them around. Some of them had megaphones and tried to lead, but they didn’t know where the Élysée (presidential palace) was, nor how to get there with all the cop blockages. We had yellow vests in our bags but we didn’t put them on at first, as we were still rather suspicious, but then we did put them on because it was easier to talk to protesters that way, otherwise they were suspicious.
What was the most surprising was the relationship to the police, in the first weeks, when people were calling on the police to join them. And also they were negotiating with the police. And the reaction of the police was also interesting. They were completely confused, they weren’t reacting the same way as during the Loi Travail protests (in 2016) or radical left protests. It was a whole other reaction, with police officers asking us ‘Please, mademoiselle, please, monsieur, stay on the curbwalk’, delicately picking us up, it was really surprising. The cops didn’t know what to do, they didn’t dare to repress. And the demonstrators were also astonishing, with some of them just standing in front of police trucks and stopping them with their hands.”
There were already barricades. People were just building barricades. I talked to many of them, they were at their first demonstration ever. They weren’t even hiding their faces. They just started to throw cobblestones, completely unmasked! Mostly those were 16 to 18 year-old teenagers and people over 60, together. I talked to many of them, some had voted for the Rassemblement National (far-right) and we met many people who supported the Union populaire républicaine (anti-EU, populist, conspirationist).
Youri: “I went back up to Paris soon before December 1st, as we knew that it would be very intense there. Some other activists and I, we were stunned by the lack of support in the capital and its suburbs, so we met up in Montreuil beforehand in order to start something in our neighbourhood. That’s where I met Julien and Louise, and we’ve been in the Montreuil gilets jaunes up to this date.”
“On December 1st, I don’t know if the police is so repressive yet, because they were completely overwhelmed. According to me, that was our window of opportunity, something even bigger could have happened. Because that’s the moment they also understood that it was an insurrection, and then they put everything in action to crush it. On December 8th, they were overwhelmed as well, but everything was in place, not just the police repression, but also their media machine. This is the week from the 1st to the 8th that needs to be studied to understand what happened.”
Julien: “The Triumphal Arch issue was the perfect pretext for politicians (on December 1st, protesters stormed this monument and took it, causing some material damages). The barricades looked problematic, but it wasn’t that bad, whereas there was a huge media campaign during the next week on the vandalism of the Triumphal Arch. They did a crazy agitation they whole week on the Arch, on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on the tags, the damages. There was a great media operation by the government to delegitimate the GJ, present them as breakers. And it all served to legitimate the repression for the next week, with the deployment of the BAC (brigade anti-criminalité) and, later, the BRAV (brigade de répression de la violence).”
Louise: “What was really interesting among demonstrators was that they felt completely legitimate to demonstrate. The barricades, and the violence, it was all a fully natural violence, people didn’t ‘learn’ how to do that, they were just outraged that the police wouldn’t let them go to the presidential palace. They said, ‘We have the right to go so we’ll do everything to pass’. I was stunned to see people just throwing cobblestones, without being …, like, trained,” she says laughing. “For them, it was just so logical!”
Julien: “It was crazy, we could just go through the whole Paris as a wild demonstration, I had never seen that before, and never saw it again. It looked like the State had vanished, the street was ours, we thought we were hallucinating, that the cops would just come in at some point. But they didn’t. We went from the Champs-Élysées to Place de la République (5 km), like an hour and a half, without seeing a cop, or just a car coming and then escaping. It was a feverish atmosphere, but things didn’t really materialise…”
Louise: “It was an insurrection, but the issue was that people didn’t know the city, the buildings, where to go. We were next to the Stock Market, or the public TV, that could’ve been interesting to seize, but people were really focused on the presidential palace. So it was an insurrection, but there was no strategy, even if we had the streets to ourselves.”
Youri: “I thought it was the revolution. It was the best opportunity in my life. I thought the fire would grow even more. But it turned out more to be a revolt, a failed insurrection, something in between. I think it didn’t turn out to be a revolution because some key social groups didn’t come out at that moment, like the middle classes and the youth, especially in the cities. And also the poorer classes with a migration background. Not especially during the demonstrations, they were there, but they didn’t get involved in between the Saturday demonstrations, that were more like demonstrations of force. But the in-between, that’s when something revolutionary was happening, according to me, but in the cities, there was almost nothing happening, that really damaged the movement, there was a desertion of the urban classes.”
Assessments and Lessons Learned
Julien: Some things really changed, the spread of certain tactics, like the issue of violence. There has been an evolution in the relationship towards police forces. At first, people were rather in favour of the police, calling on the police to join them, but within two months they had all understood the violence used against them. There was an instinctive reaction to regroup and to rethink violence as a legitimate mean to respond. I think this is something that the GJ movement has changed.
Youri: This is a turning point. Maybe I’m looking at things from an international perspective. It’s the peak of an intense political moment. Even if the GJ were not always part of previous movements, it’s the result of developments starting in 2016 and before. Suddenly, the movement became wider, more popular, and also more dangerous. We also saw a bunch of weak points of what would be a contemporary revolutionary movement, our weaknesses were laid bare open.
Julien: There was an opening, an opportunity, that the radical left failed to seize.
Youri: It showed weaknesses in the organisation of radical organisations, and also traditional ones. The GJ movement is an important moment of political recomposition, as well as a period of incredibly intense politicisation. Just like in all insurrectionary moments, there was a crazy wave of politicisation that will be felt in the next years. There is an enormous amount of political work to do, that needs to include an abandonment of some dogmatic positions by some groups.
Antoine: As Julien said, perspectives on violence changed, and even on direct action in general. It’s something that’s more associated with the autonomous left, libertarian left, with civil disobedience movements in the last years. Not just about forms, but also about the content, as a practice, a real pratice without intermediaries.
This leads to a further delegitimisation of intermediate bodies, like trade unions, who have the role of buffers between institutions and society. This was not just about the inability of these bodies to seize the real identity of the movement, even if I must say that some trade unions helped a lot on the local level. It was also about the State going from neo-liberalism towards the police State, a shift that has continued with the pandemic.
The last point was the question of the local. There was a re-politicisation of the local, of neighbourhood issues, and this has continued during the pandemic through solidarity networks. We’re in a process of a constant reshaping of forms. For a while, assemblies were used, now we’ve moved on. There’s a constant effervescence, and that has been created by the GJ in many places where there was nothing happening. It’s hard to have a full assessment, because there are so many places about which we don’t have much information, we don’t know about the results of all those roundabout GJ groups. For the moment, there is no strong interlinking between groups. It’s all under the radar. We need to know more about this reality to go further.
What about the Fascists?
Julien: “We shouldn’t negate that there were fascists among the GJ. There were organised fascist groups that came to the demonstrations in Paris, those were enemies that had to be kicked out, but then there were reactionary elements, stereotypes, that had to be dealt it through discussion, not through violence.”
“We could see that national symbols, the Marseillaise, could have a revolutionary effect, a really galvanising one, but it also has an exclusionary effect for many people. It scares some. I think that was a mistake of the movement.”
Louise: “I remember, on December 1st, the first big barricade that was set up, there were organised far-right groups that were there. There were images of that, they did a lot of propaganda with that, they put their flags everywhere. And that also played a role on the involvement of the radical left, which then came in later, rather together with the Antifa to kick out those fascist elements.”
Julien: “And those fascists, they were wearing the yellow vest, whereas a lot of leftists, like the antifa, had a lot of trouble to adopt the yellow vest, even when they were kicking out the fascists. That created a weird image.” Louise: “Yeah, especially the Black Bloc, some people were a bit worried, not knowing about who were those people in black.” Youri: “Yeah, that kinda looked like the Black Bloc attacked the GJ”, whereas it was more like the antifa attacking fascists, and they did it well.”
Louise: “Yes, I agree with Youri, the left, or at least the radical left, intervened really late. And mostly during the demonstrations, the clashes, but they participated really little during the weeks. Leftists were suspicious, and also there was something about those activists not wanting to do the ‘dirty work’, you know, during the winter, standing on the roundabout and talking with ordinary citizens. Who wants to do that? Not many…”
Julien: “We could really see that among people with a migration background, the people from the quartiers populaires (densely populated neighbourhoods, mostly suburbs where working-class people live, mostly coming from former French colonies), the youth being like ‘Hey, wait, aren’t they racist?’ That was a factor that really maintained a distance between the GJ on the one hand and the left, and radical left, and the working classes with a migration background on the other. That also has to do with the regime’s strategies, targeting some elements of a movement. Just like the discourse about ‘breakers’, there was a discourse about ‘fascists’.
Youri recalls the incident with French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who “received anti-Semitic insults from one person at a GJ protest, but then they talked about it on the media for four days, saying that all GJ are anti-Semitic. That really did some damage.”
“The GJ was well cleaned up of fascists. There was a period of 2-3 weeks of clashes in Lyon and Paris, after the Paris fascist group ‘Les zouaves’ had attacked a GJ anti-capitalist group (from the Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste) . There was a strong reaction by the antifascists, together with people from the cites, who went on a mission to kick those people out at demonstrations.”
“But it was also a debate about the movement in general, we had a lot of discussions in Montreuil about Islam, conspirationism, but that’s not the same thing as straight-up organised fascists. Organised fascists were progressively kicked out from the movement.”
Youri: “There was still a non-negligible part of the movement that was rather inclining towards the Rassemblement National (RN, far-right), on some roundabout there were fights, some split in two groups on the same spot, with a more left-leaning and a more right-leaning one.”
Julien: “On December 1st, and then especially on December 8th, there’s a real toughening of repression, and that has an impact on both the attitude of the GJ who continue to protest and on the composition of the crowd. Crazy things happened, such as the Black Bloc getting an ovation on the Champs-Élysées, scenes impossible to imagine. More leftist people, more determinate, joined the protests.”
Louise: “We could see a change in the chants and in the relationship to the police. When it started to repress more harshly, people stopped chanting ‘La police, avec nous!’, it was more anti-cop chants.”
“What mostly changed in early December, especially on December 8th, when repression was more brutal. Those were things that we already knew, I wasn’t surprised, but there was a big contrast with the previous weeks. I was rather surprised they hadn’t used all their usual techniques in the previous demonstrations.
What changed things was when the Détachements d’action rapide (DAR) were put in action. They were much lighter and made rapid interventions. And then in March they created the BRAV (brigade de répression de la violence) who was on motorcycles.
What was specific about police repression at that point was that it was against everyone. It didn’t matter if you wore a mask or not, they were just breaking skulls, shooting flashballs everywhere. Then ‘Black Bloc’ tactics spread, people wore more masks, to protect themselves from shots, gas, and also camera monitoring. But nowhere in the demonstration would you feel safe.
At first, when it was more like riots, we were stronger, we could disperse, but when we came back towards more organised forms, like marches. And then they were just shooting on everyone.
I had a personal experience with the DAR and it’s really impressive. It was happening before, but those could real trap people on a street corner and beat them up badly, and even just release them afterwards. It was more about fear, about punishment.
But there were also many arrests, an incredible number of speed trials each Monday with those arrested on the previous Saturday. And unfortunately, there were many tricks on how to defend yourself against the police, against the judiciary, that were not known to many people in the GJ. I went to some trials and it was quite crazy.
On March 16th, there was a big meeting of GJ in Paris for a demonstration, there were barricades everywhere, with the police trapping us on the Champs-Élysées. With a group of about 30, we tried to break the blockage in a side street, thinking it was heavily equipped, and thus slow, CRS (the usual anti-riot forces), but then they started running towards us, catching the first line. And we were unlucky, because we were alone, with no camera to film. The presence of journalists can sometimes be helpful, but there were none.
They hit me for 5 minutes, insulting me as a ‘bitch’, a ‘little whore’, they cracked open my friend’s skull. Luckily, they messed up their arrest papers for me, so I was released after the arrest. They’re groups that are made for interventions, jumping in and beating up people, so they transferred us to another unit, but they didn’t do the arrest papers. By March 16, just having a mask, or protection goggles, would be enough to get sentenced, under this article about “gathering with the intention of committing violence”, which was used against pretty much anyone. But luckily they didn’t do the arrest papers with the list of the things I had on me, so I could get rid of them on my way to the cell. I only had to stay for 48h and then they had to release me.”
Julien: When you look at the profile of those people who were maimed (lost an eye, a hand), about ¾ of them were first-time demonstrators. Some of the people who lost an eye had never been to a demonstration before. This whole idea that radicals were targeted is not true at all. Many were from the countryside, just came to the demonstration and lost an eye or were beaten up.
Louise: I think the goal was to dissuade, that’s how I saw it. From what I could see, and also from all the people I was detained with. There were also different intimidation techniques. They also tried to gain access to mobile phones, to get information about the organised groups, they put a lot of pressure on this goal.
Julien: A big change also was when they started to do a lot of controls ahead of the demonstrations. Starting from December 8th, the police was controlling all the toll booths leading into Paris, and already at 8AM on Saturdays they would have arrested thousands of people. And also at train stations, or before the demonstration in the streets. That was completely new. And that’s why they were accusing everyone with this article about “gathering with the intention of committing violence.” It was enough to have a jack in your car to spend 48h in arrest. They were just arresting everyone. And then there were prosecutors who were insisting on keeping people for the full 48h to prevent them from going to the demonstration, even if they had no evidence against them, which is completely illegal.
Louise: There were also prohibitions to go into some areas of Paris, even for some people who were actually working in Paris, they would be banned from those areas.
Élise: I think that starting from December 8, it wasn’t only about dissuading, but also about containing. They were under pressure after all these images of Paris burning, all this mess. March 16th was the last demonstration in Paris when we thought that we could overwhelm the police, bypass their whole set-up around the Champs-Élysées. And that’s when they put in the BRAV, and it made it hard to escape the format of a march with a predetermined itinerary. It wasn’t possible to go out and target some institutions. It was about dictating the proceedings of the demonstration.
Louise: What also played a role in that is when they started to play out the good GJ versus the bad GJ, when some GJ accepted to register demonstrations. That was especially in Paris. Then they were the good demonstrators that would not be repressed so hard and keep to their pre-agreed march, while others could be smashed, they were the Black Bloc, the breakers.
Antoine: Another important point was the penal repression, there were 400-450 people sent straight to jail, and another 600 deferred jail sentences; 1000 in total. Without counting all the suspended sentences. It’s thousands. It’s astronomical! For months and years, we have hundreds of people in prisons all over France. The only possible comparison in the last 50 years in France are the 2005 riots, the uprising in the banlieues. Back then, there were also thousands of arrests and about 800 jail sentences.
It’s crazy, especially in a context where there is no strong structure to help those help, there are enormous psychological traumas. This huge incarceration is not medialised so much. Police violence has become a big topic, judiciary repression has also been covered, but there’s almost nothing about penal repression.
We’re seeing an authoritarian shift, or rather an extension of authoritarian methods that were previously used against working-class neighbourhoods. There is now a generalisation of methods developed in a post-colonial context.
From the colony to the quartier populaire and into city centres
Antoine: what is important to underline is that the first activist group to call for joining the GJ mobilisation was the Vérité et Justice pour Adama committee (a committee set up to seek justice for Adama Traoré, a young Black man killed by the French police in 2016), together with antifascists and a queer liberation group. This is highly symbolic: those were the first ones who dared to jump in and join the movement.
They were the first to produce powerful analyses of the link between the GJ movement and the quartiers populaires, far from radical leftist ideological purity. They saw the link between police repression in the colonies, against migrant populations in the quartiers populaires and the repression of the GJ, seeing that there was no coincidence, but rather an extension of authoritarian practices.
Julien: This logic of hitting, going in for the contact, to shoot, and to aim for physical punishment of individuals: those are all colonial practices. This is more similar to what happened during the war in Algeria, during repression in Guadeloupe, when the prefect would simply give the order to shoot into the crowd with live ammunition. This is a different logic from classic crowd control which aims at containing a crowd and limiting damage. Now, this is the new norm. We can see it with current protests by high school students (lycéens), as soon as the police is blocked, they just charge in and beat everyone up. This is rather new.
Antoine: The German weekly Der Spiegel, which can hardly be called radical, not long ago talked about France as an „authoritarian Absurdistan“. Myself, I’m afraid to go to demonstrations nowadays, in Paris, Marseille, Lyon or elsewhere. On Tuesday, there’s a demonstration in Paris against the new legislative proposal ‘Loi sécurité globale’ to increase police control. They even want to forbid the filming of police interventions, even though that played a huge role in raising consciousness about repression during the GJ movement. The GJ movement empowered a lot of citizens, with many people becoming ‘their own media’, and closely documenting police violence, with media closer to the action. That has discredited even more intermediary bodies like mainstream media, replacing them with citizen media closer to what is happening on the ground. That has been one of the big victories of the movement.
It’s important to go to the demonstration on Tuesday, but I’m freaking out. I’m afraid it will be a massacre.
Julien: „What is freaky is the noise. Now, we know the noise made by different weapons, and when we hear those specific smacks made by flashballs, we don’t know who they’re targeting and the crowd freaks out. I remember lying down on the ground at some demonstrations as bullets were flying. You don’t know where it’s coming from, you can’t do anything.“
„I wouldn’t say that the police repression now is fully generalised. I think there’s a distinction between good and bad demonstrations. During the recent demonstrations against a reform of the pension system, you could see police showing a lot more restrain than usually. So there’s a duality where there are demonstrations organised by the intermediary bodies like trade unions during which the police shows more restrain, even when being provoked, and then there are other demonstrations when the police can freely maim and beat up demonstrators. It’s as if they wanted to show a nicer face during the trade union demonstrations, pretending that the police is not violent and that the GJ only got what they deserved.“
Louise: It’s true, but then, I also noticed that there was a huge concentration of police at the trade union demonstrations, marching in front of the crowd, preventing it from starting anything. We couldn’t move at all, there were thousands of cops. It seemed like there was more cops than demonstrators.
Julien: It was beautiful!
Louise: Yes, so many encounters, and it continues! Sure, the groups have become smaller, but it’s still happening, in Montreuil and elsewhere. It is transforming, it is taking new forms on the local level. And you could see the changes: when the pension reform protests started, we could see the trade union coming to see the GJ straight up, the teachers came, they were coming to assemblies to ask to join. Now it’s more local, like municipalism.
Julien: Yeah, there is a giletsjaunisation of activism in France.