A Grin Without a Cat? Gilets Jaunes, the Labour Movement, and France's 'Extremes'

In the following interview, independent journalist and Paris resident Cole Stangler describes how politicians and the labour movement have responded to the yellow vests

Is the gilets jaunes movement ‘a Cheshire grin without a Cat’? How have the unions and the parties that before November defined formal politics in France reacted, now the ‘air is jaune’?

In the following interview, independent journalist and Paris resident Cole Stangler describes how the leadership and the activists of the labour movement have responded to the yellow vests, before explaining the different questions that the gilets jaunes have posed for each of France’s ‘extremes’ - Marine Le Pen’s, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s, and Emmanuel Macron’s.

The interview was conducted on Wednesday 12 December, five days after Act IV (the fourth of the Jaunes’ Facebook-organised Saturday demonstrations); it includes a postscript, on Saturday 15th’s Act V.

JHWe saw each other by chance at Act IV, on Saturday 8th, in the sub-bloc organised by the established left-wing groups.

That was the first time I’d been to Paris since the gilets jaunes’ uprising began, and two things struck me. The first was that kilometre after kilometre of the city - from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la République, thirty minutes’ walk to the east - were either shuttered, or covered in plywood, or already smashed. The second was the enormous police presence and, as it transpired, how effectively they controlled the protest, such that the left-wing bloc was unable to concertedly arrive at the jaunes’ own meeting point, on the Champs-Élysées.

Was Saturday 8th something of a turning point; when the police managed finally to govern the symbolically crucial Champs? Did they “win,” as some newspapers were claiming the day after?

CSI don’t really feel equipped to answer whether the police ‘won’ or not, but in terms of the number of protestors, there wasn’t, on Saturday 8th, a drop off from the week before that. It was 136,000 across the country - those are the figures of the Interior Ministry, which has a long tradition of underestimating protests, and we don’t have the exaggerated union figures to balance them out, which is to say, 136,00 is a very conservative estimate.

Several thousands in Paris, and not a significant drop from the preceding week is, I think, in itself significant, when you look at the riots that had taken place over Act III, and the intense security measures. I think these are impressive numbers.

At the same time, it’s true, the police really did want to assert their force on the 8th, and clearly adjusted their strategy after Act III. There were, I think, 2000 of what are called interpellations - not formal arrests, but 2000 apprehended, with a smaller amount brought into police custody. 2000 in single day - this is huge.

The turnout, though, does reveal one of the big contradictions of the gilets jaunes movement, or at least one of its defining characteristics. It has really broad support, but at the same time, it has relatively low turnout figures. Polls showed that 70% of people backed it. It’s dropped a little bit, but it still has 66%. This is one of the things that distinguishes it from other social movements in France.

JHBefore coming back to the state’s reaction to Act V, could you explain a little about the trade union confederations’ changing relationship with the Jaunes? It has seemed that, say, the Confédération générale du travail’s (CGT’s) position has changed dramatically. The General Secretary, Martinez, said in mid-November that they would not march with the movement, due to the presence of the far-right; three weeks after, he’d apologised, and the CGT called for a Day of Action on the 14th. What’s provoked the change?

CSThe CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) was from the beginning sceptical, and has remained sceptical. The CGT, as you say, called for a day of action on the 14th, which Solidaires (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, or Sud) has endorsed.

To stay with the confederations, the actual statement the CGT put out for the Day of Action doesn’t mention the gilets jaunes by name. They talk about legitimate anger and justified demands, to which the CGT add their own - hiking the minimum wage, and expanding the social safety net - but they don’t support the movement in name.

If you read the major recent Sud statement - remember, this is the confederation bureaucracies we’re discussing - they address the gilet jaunes by name, and have put out a call for members to join Act V. It has also put down what’s called a préavis de grève, a strike notice, in the public sector from the 10th to the 31st of December.

When all the unions met last week, on 6 December, before Act IV, at the CFDT’s headquarters, seven of the confederation heads signed a document saying they denounced violence, and called for dialogue; the only union that refused to sign that was Sud.

You’re right though, Martinez has changed changed his tone.

JHWhat’s driven the suspicion? And is it shared by the membership? 66%, 70% - that has to include a huge number of working-class people. Has there been pressure upwards from members, formally or otherwise?

CSBefore 17th November, the movement seemed to be singularly focused on taxes, and the fuel tax in particular - it didn’t seem like a progressive discourse, and that accounts for the some of the reticence, and not just from the labour movement, but also the wider left. I remember asking, in mid-November, a friend from the left if he was going out there, and he replied he wasn’t “going to go march with the fascists”.

There’s been a change in the movement itself. It’s now come to articulate a broader frustration with the rising cost of living, and some demands that are being circulated are more progressive. It’s being led from the base, and the movement has expanded into a larger questioning of the distribution of wealth in the country.

There’s also the popularity of the movement. It’s very high overall, and even more so amongst working-class people; if you go into the polls, they’re broken down according to a socio-professional system, and you can see that they have most support amongst ouvriers and employés - the first tends to mean something like blue-collar workers, the second service-sector employees - which is, together, the working-class.

The CGT have their congress coming up next spring, in Dijon, and Martinez hopes to get re-elected, which is worth weighing as well - they don’t want to be seen as out of touch with what trade unionists want.

Finally, there’s that broad support the gilets jaunes have, where they’ve called upon unions on the local level to organise stuff, and so there are a few cities where they’ve organised together. I don’t want to romanticise it too much; there have been lots of missed opportunities. There was a strike at some refineries in November - there’s a good France 3 programme on it - and you had the gilets jaunes in front of the refinery, camped out, barbecuing, talking to drivers, and then several hundred metres away, the union picket line. They were not really together. There’s a sense of them having common interests, but not working together

JHIf they have missed opportunities at the local and national level, is that due to a diminished confidence after several recent defeats, due to Macron’s changes to the loi du travail last year, which the CGT opposed, but unsuccessfully, and the rail strikes this summer? Or is it something more profound?

CSI think they’re part of it. But, as ever, they want to be careful about which struggles they support, what they think is winnable, and how it will come across to the rest of the population. And remember, at the beginning, this seemed like something that didn’t share their interests, that didn’t actually echo any of their demands - at least, it seemed like that.

I also want to stress, it depends on what level you’re talking. Amongst the confederations, yes, but you have the federation-level groups, and then local-level unions, that have been trying to mobilise with the gilets jaunes. While the gilets jaunes weren’t mentioned in the Day of Action, they were in a communiqué from the CGT’s chemical industries federation, which includes the refinery workers - and they are very important, in terms of being able to blockade the country. That statement mentions the gilets jaunes by name, and says they support them. They feel they have common interests

JHIt is, I think, widely appreciated that there’s a strong anti-party feeling amongst the gilets jaunes. How are the more active tendencies amongst the gilets jaunes appearing to consider organised labour - the idea of trade unions, trade unions as they are, the leadership, and so on? Is it a more tempered view than towards parties?

CSPerhaps it’s a slightly weak response, but it depends on who you ask - this movement is so different, depending on what city it is, and really depending on what day it is. Some people aren’t protesting anymore, some people have joined the movement only recently.

It is true that there is a general méfiance, a lack of confidence in both parties and unions. This really came to light - it seems like it was ages ago, even thought it was only recent - when they nominated eight spokespeople. This was, I believe, after the second protest, when they wanted to introduce some structure, and the government wanted to meet with them. Through a very opaque process, through groups they operate on Facebook, they nominated spokespeople, who were, supposedly, meant to meet with the government.

One of the things that was very important in the nomination process was that they were supposed to be neither union nor political activists. Well, one of the guys that was appointed, it turned out, was a CFDT member, and a journalist, and this very much upset people, who felt like they had been conned in not knowing he was a trade unionist. He got a lot of backlash, and this contributed to a larger backlash against these spokespeople, who now have no support, aren’t meeting with the government, and have, really, no standing.

So there was this, against a person with even union ties, and in certain parts of the country, there’s been a hostility towards working with unions; there’s a BastaMag piece, in which one of the Solidaire spokespeople speaks about this hostility, because, they say, the far-right has a presence.

JHWith all respect to political tendencies that emphasise the progressive potential of “mobs” and “riots”, in my own view - which is, I suppose, a stock Leninist view - such outbursts, whilst welcome and even crucial, are insufficient. There has to be some refining, some disciplining - in other words, some positive relationship with organised labour, and with a party.

As we’ve agreed, I suppose, the jaunes have hardly sought this out, but both Le Pen and Mélenchon have made overtures towards them - have they been effective at all?

CSYou have to draw a distinction between what the various political figures are saying, their media narrative, and what’s actually happening on the ground. It’s really clear to me that this is happening organically.

I’m not trying to fetishise that, to romanticise that, but it really is happening in these diffuse, messy Facebook groups, where people are putting out calls to protests, and then coming out. This is a fact: the role of actual political parties, not to mention unions, in planning these protests is minimal.

It’s something people talk about a lot - who’s going to “recuperer” the movement, who’s going to profit from it, and I think that, from the very way it’s being organised, it’s clear that it’s just not happening soon.

The leaders from across the political spectrum recognise this - that’s not to say they’re not trying to adjust their discourse to better match the movement’s, and they are definitely doing that, from Le Pen, to Mélenchon, and also Olivier Besancenot (a prominent spokesperson for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste_), who has appeared very sympathetic.

Each of them are trying, Le Pen and Mélenchon are trying, and if you look at the polls, it’s clear that the people protesting are parts of “their” electorate. Both of them are trying to appeal to the jaunes, each with their different vision of politics

Macron gave his speech on Monday night [10 December], in which he gave his concessions - on the one hand, you had Mélenchon saying “this isn’t enough,” “this doesn’t address student concerns,” “this is only a fraction of the rage,” and on the other hand, you had Le Pen saying “we need to be discussing the fact of too much immigration, that’s at the heart of people’s anger” - each are trying to impose their vision, all whilst trying to appeal to the movement.

Now that the protests are happening more frequently, I think it’s clearly more Mélenchon’s territory - the fact that they’re protesting more is more in line with his vision of doing politics, which is very much about street protests. He supported Act V, whereas Le Pen is more cautious; even the fact of the Rassemblement National (formerly Front National) supporting a street movement is rare, in their most recent history. They’ve presented themselves as very responsible, on the side of law and order, so this has posed a real predicament for them: how do you support a working-class movement that’s pissed off - their “idealised” electorate - at the same time as supporting cops, and law and order?

This is, ostensibly, the perfect, idealised electorate of the Rassemblement National - the “forgotten white, working-class” and lower-middle class of France, but she gave a statement before Act V, in which she said “maybe the protest won’t take place,” because of the potential state of emergency after the Strasbourg attack - I don’t think she’s happy the protests are going on at all.

JHDuring the 2010 student protests in the UK I remember constantly hearing - and indeed, saying - that damage to private property isn’t, in itself, a negative, that the police’s violence against protestors was far worse, and so on. I didn’t quite appreciate that the logic cuts both ways, and that property damage isn’t in itself particularly progressive, or even politically meaningful. It seems even banal to say that big capital can absorb the costs of a smashed window, a brief interruption of circulation. I walked down a perfectly contented Champs the day after Act IV.

CSAs I wrote in the Nation piece, one of the reasons the government has been so quick to concede is the violence. There’s no question about it.

But, that’s only one element. The movement has broad support, and it’s coming from outside the political and union structures, which the government is used to dealing with - I think that scares them more than the violence, the fact that they can’t actually control the movement. It’s not the fact that a tiny fraction of this movement is getting into confrontations with the police.

JHSomething that that Eriz Hazan said has stuck with me - that “Paris is a battleground, not an actor”.

I didn’t appreciate until recently that centre-ville, banlieue, and couronne périurbaine (peri-urban fringe) are, so to speak, scientific definitions, referring to the number of people in a given area, where they work, and so on. But, of course, they’re heavily freighted terms; let me be crude, and say the centre-ville is wealthier and whiter, the banlieues are poorer, and the places where black and Maghrebian-French people live, and the couronne périurbaine is, well, where the gilets jaunes live.

Is this indeed a périurbaine revolt - the far-outer suburbs coming to the cities, and banlieues staying away?

CSYes, the périurbaine is an important part of this, but equally important, if not more, are the rural parts of the country. A demographer named Le Bras has done a good map about this.

What he’s found is that you can draw a diagonal line across the country, and the jaunes have the most protesters in these really rural areas, one’s that have experienced population decline. It’s there, and the périurbaine, that are the most receptive to the movement - it’s the areas that rely heavily on car transport, are disconnected from the rest of the country, and that rely heavily on state intervention. Unemployment isn’t always officially higher, but there are fewer jobs, and people are leaving.

There have been some exceptions to that - the anti-police violence group, the Comité Adama, of course - but generally speaking, the banlieues have been less involved.

But if you look at the high school protests, which are in part in response to the jaunes, and also kind of taking the opportunity to express deeper frustrations with France’s social model, and with being ignored, some of the high schools that have been protesting are clearly in banlieues - I mean, the infamous video, in Mantes-la-Jolie, was in the suburbs.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, there’ve been high schools that have been supporting the protests. This Tuesday (11th) had big walkouts - 2000 people joined marched in Paris - and hundreds of schools were disrupted. Some of those movements have been in the banlieues.

JHAs I’m sure you’ve seen, there’s a been a vast overstatement of Macron’s popularity in the UK-based press - the idea in a Guardian editorial, that he should return to more popular policies, go back to a more successful period, seems simply fantastical. The centre indeed held with his presidential win, but - again, crudely - more by default than with a clear, mass level of support.

There’ve been desperate-seeming announcements; of increasing the minimum wage via benefits, of de-taxing overtime, and something involving pensions. Beyond these, what resources can a clearly beleaguered “extreme centre” call on? Is it being divided by the jaunes?

CSIs this end of Macron?

It isn’t the end of his base. It’s white-collar professionals, who represent about 20% to 30% of the electorate, but it’s never reached beyond that - Macron never had a majoritarian base. The fact is, to be frank, right now in France, nobody does; that’s what makes politics here so interesting, also frightening. You have these competing blocs, but nobody has a majoritarian bloc right now - whether it’s Le Pen, whether it’s Mélenchon, Macron, or les Républicains.

Macron never had a popular mandate for these politics. To toot my own horn maybe a little bit, I wrote that from the beginning, against some of these triumphant, really vapid takes that were hailing his victory as a victory of liberal values, and a mandate for centrism. He never had that support, from the very beginning.

The thing about the minimum wage raise, he’s funding it through a state welfare program for low-income workers. Workers will get these bonuses, if they qualify for this program called the Prime d’activité. The second policy, the de-taxing of overtime pay - that’s something that Sarkozy had in place, and Hollande repealed, having been a long-standing left wing demand; the unions have never supported it, the left’s been opposed to it, because they see it as a way of damaging the safety net, and it’s true.

On division, this is someone who has spent a great deal of time framing his agenda in terms of respecting European budgetary rules, sticking to the “3% rule”, reducing France’s debt, and long-term deficit and so on, as a way of justifying some of his harsher, more unpopular policies. For someone who’s framed so much of his policy in this way, what he’s doing right now, with these three policies, intended to quell the movement, directly contradicts those principles.

All three of those policies are going to be coming out the state coffers; that’s billions of Euros - it shows he’s more willing to upset and to contradict the leaders of Europe when it comes to their budgetary rules, than he is to force rich people, and employers, to pay one cent - he’s incapable of asking the super rich, or employers, to contribute.

He’s insisted that he is not going to re-establish the wealth tax, which has been a major demand of protestors; he hasn’t shown any willingness to force the rich to pay their fair share, and that’s what I think is driving much of this anger - and until he does so, I think his presidency will continue to get worse.


JHI’ve read this word, “essoufflement” (“breathlessness”), used to describe the state of the gilets jaunes. By all accounts, numbers were down yesterday in Paris - is that because of the tear gas, and police repression more generally, do you think?

Before the jaunes themselves, who met again on the Champs-Élysées, could you give a sense of what happened to the left-wing bloc, who met at St. Lazare, east of the Champs?

CSMy impression was that the police really contained the situation. Everyone was hemmed in at St. Lazare, and people really couldn’t advance.

It was made all the more frustrating because maybe fifteen minutes’ walk away, there was another gilets jaunes meeting point, right in front of Opéra metro. It wasn’t a left-wing meeting, you know, there were several hundred, if not a thousand gilets jaunes there. So you had these two meeting points that couldn’t be linked, in addition to the Champs-Élysées

JHAnd the gilets jaunes themselves?

CSI didn’t go the the Champs-Élysées, but my impression was from looking at images, and reading other journalists’ reports, was that there were significantly fewer people than before. Fewer people, and fewer confrontations with the police. I think the overall numbers were, according to the Interior Ministry, 66,000 across the whole country, which is half of the previous weekend, at the same time.

JHHave you heard any theories explaining this diminution?

CSI think there are a number of factors.

Number one, the police make it very, very difficult to protest, and I think only the most dedicated are going to be joining these rallies. It’s very intimidating to show up there; there’s just a huge display of police. There’s a lot of them in numbers, and they have a very visible presence. In order to get the Opéra meeting point, police were doing very intense searches of people, you had to open up your bag. They patted me down. So, that is really persuasive - that’s been the approach, and it clearly works.

Another factor, which I know sounds silly, is that it was really cold yesterday. In other parts of the country it was raining, and just really bad out.

Then, I think you have to admit that these are in combination with Macron’s reforms - sorry, concessions - announced earlier this week, which I think is a factor. And then, I think, fatigue. It’s hard to keep a movement going, and it’s been five weekends now.

JHOn the unions, Solidaire’s public services branch put down a strike notice, as did the CGT’s chemical industries branch. Have you seen any sign that these might develop into substantial campaigns before Christmas?

CSOn Friday, we had this Day of Action, that the CGT called, and Solidaire supported. Frankly, it was a little disappointing - even the ambience, at least of the big march in Paris, which isn’t representative of the entire country. The march in Paris felt like the same old union demonstration. You had more high-school students, you had a few people wearing yellow vests, and people with signs, in solidarity with them, but I came away feeling that there’d been a missed opportunity. One couldn’t help but wonder, why is the CGT trying to mobilise everyone for the 14th, and not the 15th?

Although, in other cities, it’s a little different. Yesterday, in Toulouse for example, gilets jaunes marched with trade unionists. But, to answer your question, I haven’t seen any major indication that suggest that, no.

JHIt is, of course, hard to remember in more explosive phases of a movement that it will, for sure, end. But, even if yesterday were to be the last protest, Macron’s administration has, it appears, lost a great deal of its confidence. Do you think we’ll see a “leftwards” policy turn?

CSIt sends a signal. This is going to loom over the rest of Macron’s presidency, and I think it’s far from the last time we’ll see an outburst of protests.

But, maybe it’s hard to speculate about his policies. On the other side though, speaking about confidence, it shows that mass mobilisation does still work in France. There’s been lots of doubt, with this government just railroading through all kinds of opposition, saying they “will not be moved” - but the takeaway here is, obviously they can be moved. They were petrified of this.