What are "yellow vests"?

Often the categories of social sciences and those of everyday life, politics and media are based on the same vocabulary, which is a source of confusion. This is the case with the expression "social movement", which refers as much to a sociological or political science conceptualization as to current, ordinary uses, when a part of society is mobilized, when a social struggle takes place. news and for example that a strike paralyzes SNCF or RATP.

Et, to complicate the problem, the concepts, the definitions vary from one sociological school to another. From this point of view, we must be grateful to The Conversation for hosting articles that testify to the vitality of the social sciences when it comes to a mobilization as important as that of the yellow vests, while highlighting the diversity of the theoretical orientations of researchers.

In other words, if we want to qualify the action of “yellow vests” as a “social movement”, it is desirable to indicate what we mean by using this qualifier. So, Thomas Roulet and Bertrand Valiorgue, in their article of December 3, refer to a current frequently described as "the mobilization of resources", and whose highest figure was the historian Charles Tilly. From this perspective, a social movement is discontent mobilizing resources to achieve ends that eventually include its institutionalization.

In a different way, for the current to which I belong, with Alain Touraine as its leader for sixty years, a “social movement” is the highest meaning of a protest action questioning the orientations of a social adversary. general aspects of collective life and presenting two sides, one tending towards a project, the other defensive. It should be noted, in passing, that in both cases - Tilly and Touraine - the paradigmatic figure of the social movement is given by the workers' movement.

Does the current mobilization of “yellow vests” include, among others, the singular meaning of “social movement”, in the sense to which I am referring? Certainly real, but also limited.

The two sides of yellow vests

When they ask for respect, the end of contempt or arrogance on the part of power, when they claim to be citizens, that they want to be heard and listened to at the top of the State to make known their sufferings and their difficulties, and that they plead for a renewed democracy, extended, we can admit that the yellow vests are part of the logic of a "social movement" as I understand it.

When they denounce the precariousness, the insufficient income for a dignified life, that they ask not to be left behind by change and reforms, they embody at high level, again, the defensive face of the movement, and much less that of an actor capable of tending towards a utopia or a social counter-project. Other demands do not reach this stage of calling into question the general orientations of collective life, and are of more limited scope, for example when the cancellation of a tax measure is requested.

It happens, as in any large-scale mobilization, that from there, slippages are observed, for example racist or xenophobic. We will simply note here that the heart of the demands is social good, and has nothing to do with questions of Islam, secularism, immigration or ethnicity. The question of violence, on the other hand, deserves our attention.

Violence and social movement

Generally speaking, and this is the main theme of my latest book, violence is the opposite of social movement, at least in the sense indicated above. It arises when the latter does not or no longer manage to exist and be transcribed into concrete action, and transforms into rupture what in a conflict is of the order of relationship, debate and, possibly, negotiation.

Conflict pits adversaries against each other, where violence opposes enemies. But the latter can also be an element of the social movement, a component that is both strategic and expressive. This is even how we must understand, in certain respects, the violence of Saturday 24 November and 1er last December in Paris - without forgetting that there were also some in a few other cities in France.

If we consider the profile of people arrested and sent to justice, the Parisian violence was the result of ultra (left and right), pure thugs or even looters often from the periphery, and rabid yellow vests, perhaps mounted in Paris to do battle with the forces of order, perhaps carried by the insurrectional climate in which they were immersed. This already requires correcting the simplistic image that emerged from the first comments, on November 24, for which it was necessary to distinguish between the "thugs", politicized or not, and the grassroots movement, far removed from violence. But there is more.

To be visible and audible, and to attract the attention of the media, the yellow vests have already come to Paris twice, and tried to demonstrate as close as possible to symbolic places of power. The success, from this point of view, has been in the media impact due to clashes with the police and not so much to a massive presence of "yellow vests", in fact few in number.

Violence is both necessary, or useful, to take center stage, and unacceptable for many yellow vests. There is here an ambivalence of the movement, which is under tension between the importance of their presence in Paris and the inevitable violence that has resulted from it so far. We must analytically distinguish, even if they spawned together, the violence which constitutes the enraged end of the movement, and that which, outside, is the opposite, a sort of anti-movement. And at the same time we must consider the totality of violence in its functional, even legitimizing relationship with a social movement which is in essence, in itself, non-violent or not very violent.

Social movement and political force

A social movement is not a political force, but its actors ask themselves the question of the political treatment of their demands. Some within it may want to turn into a party, a bit like Podemos sprang from the “Indignados” of 15-M in Spain. Others consider that political action can be carried by a party which expresses it, as in the social democracy at the good time of the splendor of the workers' movement, or which directs it in a Leninist fashion.

The yellow vests are far, today, from being able to give birth to a political force of their own, and do not recognize themselves in any party, even if the National Rally and rebellious France are striving, even more than the classic right. , to capitalize on their mobilization. Their initial, limited claims mainly to fiscal measures, were not immediately heard by the authorities, and their demands became more complex and diversified.

But there is no social or political force capable of ensuring its institutional treatment. From then on, they agglutinate in a confusion that political proposals for global change try to reduce to a single formulation.

Referendum, dissolution, authoritarianism and VIe Republic

This is how four trends are emerging, at least.

The first - transmission in political language of the speech of the actors when they chant "Macron resignation!" - is to demand a referendum. Which, in the French tradition and given the circumstances, can only be a plebiscite in reverse: the question would be dictated by the protesters, and the foreseeable result would be the defeat of the president, with key his departure.

The second is a political shaping of the “disengaging” idea according to which we must put an end to the parliamentarians in place. It goes through the dissolution of the National Assembly, and can only lead to cohabitation, since the president remains in place in such a case.

Third trend: authoritarianism, which is beginning to make itself heard. The head of government was then asked for a new prime minister with a strong grip - the name of General de Villiers circulated in certain circles, probably unwillingly. Sometimes still, fourth tendency, it becomes again question of a radical institutional change, and the topic of the "VIe Republic ”then resurfaced.

Therefore, intermediate level fault in the institutional political and social system, the demands of the movement become political projects at the top. They are only likely to succeed at the cost of a prolonged and paralyzing social spasm for the country, encouraged by politicians wishing not to see peace, dialogue and negotiation quickly restore but to bring embodied tensions to life. by the paradoxical couple yellow vests – violence.

A defensive player and ... new

In my definition of “social movement”, this cannot be reduced to an episode, a struggle, a moment; it is part of the historical depth of a type of society, it is its protesting actor. The yellow vests, insofar as one of their meanings is that of the "social movement", fit much more into the type of society which is unraveling than in that which is born - this is what quite rightly says Daniel Behar on this site.

The yellow vests embody, above all, the refusal to bear the brunt of this transformation, they are the defensive actor of a model that began to break down with the end of the Trente Glorieuses. But are the current mobilizations in continuity with others, older, linked to the social movement of the classic industrial era that we are leaving, the workers' movement? Not really. The great struggles of the last fifty years have never been borne by the actors of today, and testimonies abound from people of a certain age explaining that this is for them their very first experience of the world. engagement and manifestation.

However, historical comparisons are rife, including with 1995. Which is not serious, and a source of confusion and ideology. It takes a good dose of intellectual carelessness at some to take advantage of the present situation to settle who knows what accounts with researchers who spoke in 1995 about the mobilization of the time, and to suggest continuity with 2018: the actors of 1995 defended a social model ensuring various guarantees to employees and civil servants; those of 2018 call for fiscal and social measures for the benefit of quite other categories.

The yellow vests movement is new, even though it expresses the end of a world without maintaining any link with unionism or what remains of the working class as such. It is even newer, and on the other hand installed then in a new world, if we consider its forms of mobilization, which combine the use of modern communication technologies, and the physical presence in multiple places allowing coverage of all. National territory.

But technology is one thing, the meaning is another: the yellow vests hardly speak to us of entering a new world where they would have a creative place, including in a world of protest. At most, they plead - as has been said - for a renewal of democracy, and here and there they express a real sensitivity to the theme of the environment.

Yellow vests, what future?

A movement is not a social class, and even less a category or a set of social categories: the "yellow vests" are socially diversified, and therefore indeterminate, some modest, others less, they count among them women. , and not only or mainly men; young people, and "seniors".

They are right not to want to bear the costs of a long transfer of which they have been "forgotten" and "Invisible", to demand social measures in their favor, to demand, also, respect and democracy. But they are not the salt of the earth, and their movement so far does not invent any future beyond what social policies and dignity demand.

It is unfair to see in them an outline of fascism, in the Italian way, because they are not carriers of demands which would give the image of it; it is just as wrong to see them as the protagonist of a new world, because they do not bring calls for cultural, intellectual, utopian, creative renewal - or very little.

Giving in to their demands is both necessary, even unavoidable, and perilous.The Conversation

Michael Wieviorka, Sociologist, President of the FMSH, Maison des Sciences de l'Homme Foundation (FMSH) - USPC

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image Credit: Birdog Vasile-Radu / Shutterstock.com

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