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PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 01: A protester is wounded by a water canon as they clash with riot police during a 'Yellow Vest' demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe on December 1, 2018 in Paris, France. The third 'Yellow Vest' (gilets jaunes) rally in Paris over increased fuel taxes and leadership in the government today caused over 150 arrests in the city with reports of injuries to protesters and security forces from violence that irrupted from the clashes. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

| Interview: Rob Orchard |

A protester is hurt by a water canon in clashes with riot police in Paris during a gilets jaunes demo on 1st December 2018

Twenty years ago, French geographer Christophe Guilluy started work on a map marking out the borders of what he called ‘peripheral France’. “These are the rural places and small towns that are furthest away from the big globalised cities – Paris, Lyon, Toulouse…” he says. “This is where the majority of the French working classes live: in the least economically dynamic places, which create the fewest jobs. Until recently these people were integrated into the economy but that is no longer the case. They have low incomes and their place in society is very fragile.”

When the first gilets jaunes demonstrations began on 17th November 2018, sparked by a new green tax on diesel fuel, Guilluy studied a map showing the location of the rallies at roundabouts across the country where protesters gathered wearing hi-vis jackets. “This map was the same as my map of peripheral France,” he says. “These are exactly the same places. This increase in fuel taxes sparked an uprising but the underlying social fragility does not date from November 2018, it dates back 20 or 30 years. It is the effect of an economic model that no longer allows the working classes to be economically integrated.” Despite France’s increasing prosperity in recent decades, claims Guilluy, the wealth is not being shared and is concentrated ever more strongly in the big cities. “The revolt in France is completely linked to this disconnect,” he says.

“It was like they’d just discovered a lost tribe in the Amazon wearing yellow vests”

France was not supposed to turn out this way. “We believed that the international division of labour would enable us to move into a society where everyone would have highly skilled jobs in the service sector,” says Guilluy. “But it was a dream that did not become a reality. The reality is that the industrial jobs went to China and India and were not replaced and today we have an economic model that only creates very precarious jobs for the working class.”

On 1st December the gilets jaunes held further demonstrations across France. Airports in Nantes and Nice were occupied, toll-booths were blocked on main roads across the country and a motorist died after crashing into a barricade erected by gilets jaunes outside Arles. In Paris, an estimated 75,000 protesters took to the streets. The majority marched peacefully, but around 3,000 ran amok, smashing windows, setting fire to cars and fighting with police. They stormed and vandalised the Arc de Triomphe and smashed a statue of Marianne, the symbol of France. More than 130 people were injured and over 400 arrested: the government of Emmanuel Macron blamed extreme left- and right-wing infiltrators for the violence and promised to identify them and bring them to justice.

“The idea was that the movement could be de-legitimised by showing that it was violent,” says Guilluy. “But it’s basically a peaceful movement. At the beginning it was very widespread and very dispersed across peripheral France. It was then sucked up by the big cities, where it was politicised and became a little bit violent – and less representative of the population.”

Guilluy says that the demonstrations came as a total shock to the country’s leaders. “The elites have forgotten about the French people,” he claims.
“The French intelligentsia was astonished by the gilets jaunes movement. It was like they’d just discovered a lost tribe in the Amazon wearing yellow vests – except that in this case the tribe is probably the majority of the country.”

Guilluy had met with Macron when Macron was the minister of the economy under former president François Hollande. “I showed him my map of peripheral France and I told him, ‘That’s the problem,’” says Guilluy. “He told me, ‘OK, I agree with you, that’s the problem.’ His solution was to boost big cities – the ‘thing that works’ – and to rely on a version of the trickle-down effect to sort out inequalities. But this strategy works less and less well because big cities, whether it’s Paris, London or New York, are becoming the medieval citadels of the 21st century. They are closing in on themselves. The slogan of Paris is ‘Paris, open city’. A city can’t be open when it costs €10,000 per square metre to live there.”

“Macron is very young, he has not achieved great things in his life so he needed to reinforce his image as Jupiter”

On 5th December, Macron cancelled the planned fuel-tax rise, but the gilets jaunes demonstrations continued. On 10th December, he gave a speech to the nation, watched by 23 million people, in which he promised to increase the minimum wage and said that he understood the gilets jaunes’ anger and upset. The conciliatory words of the man the protesters dubbed the ‘president of the rich’ were undermined by the setting of his speech: he addressed the people while sitting behind a gold-edged desk topped with golden ornaments, in a gold-lined room in the Élysée palace.

Why would a man who had surfed a newly created popular movement to the presidency have such a tin ear when it came to addressing protests against inequality? “Because he has a problem of legitimacy,” says Guilluy. “Macron was created in six months by the media. The journalists loved him, he was cool and nice, he seemed like them. But he is very young, he has not achieved great things in his life and so he needed to reinforce his image as Jupiter [Macron is regularly referred to as ‘Jupiter’, the king of the gods, for his magisterial style]. That’s why he overplayed the role of monarch president.”

The gilets jaunes protests continued every Saturday throughout the winter and on 9th February 2019, the word ‘Juden’ (‘Jews’ in German) was daubed in yellow paint on a bagel bakery on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris, on the same day as gilets jaunes were protesting in the capital. On 16th February, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse as he left an apartment building in Paris. Protesters in yellow vests called him a “dirty, shitty Zionist” and screamed “France is ours” at him. Anti-Semitic chants referencing Macron’s former job as a banker at Rothschild were also heard at some rallies.

“The elite has said that the gilets jaunes movement is racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic,” says Guilluy. “Obviously, there are racists and anti-Semites, all of which exist in the working classes. But there is the same percentage of racists and anti-Semites in the bourgeoisie, they are just much more discreet.”

The gilets jaunes, as a leaderless movement, was also criticised for not having clear objectives. “You have to understand that just because the elite does not have the solution, it does not mean that the people do,” says Guilluy. “But it’s clear that a society is only viable and solutions can only be found if we reconcile the people with the bourgeoisie. And for that, we must stop insulting the working classes every day. If I say to you, ‘You’re anti-Semitic but let’s have coffee together,’ it’s not going to work. We won’t be able to have a dialogue. The starting point is to try to come to terms with one’s own people. The political and economic model is not sustainable if we do not integrate the majority.”

Guilluy sees similar tensions playing out across the West. “The British people have not disappeared – this is bad news for the British elite. The French people have not disappeared either. What is interesting is that people use what they can to say ‘We exist’. In France, they donned a yellow vest. In Britain, they voted for Brexit.”

Though the size of the regular gilets jaunes protests decreased significantly in the first months of 2019, Guilluy does not believe they have ended as a force. “The new working class of the 21st century has just been born. The movement can ebb and flow and take different forms, but it will not disappear,” he says.

“Like it or not, the gilets jaunes and the Brexiters exist and they will still be there in 100 years. Short of demanding independence for Paris and London, the political and cultural elites will have to learn to live with the people. It will be difficult, but it will be very good news for democracy!”

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