The "yellow vests", when France rears up

At a time when in many countries social difficulties, concerns, problems of downgrading, precariousness or downward mobility lead to populism, nationalism and extremism, France gives a singular image: that of 'a society where a social movement is expressed, the heart of which is remote from global trends.

UA social movement mixes various meanings, of varying degrees of sociological level. This is the case here, with players asking for fiscal measures and highlighting their economic difficulties; others, or the same ones, which raise the question of injustice and inequalities; still others, or the same ones there too, who speak of respect, complain of not being listened to, want to be heard and recognized as citizens capable of intervening in public debate.

A social movement always includes a face of light, positive, tending towards counter-projects, possibly carried by a utopia, the promise of a better future, and a face of shadow, defensive, tempted by anger. These two faces can be complementary, support each other. They can also dissociate themselves - violence, hatred, disruptive behavior then prevails over any other logic. This is what we observed in Paris, on the Champs-Élysées, Saturday, November 24, 2018, where "thugs" were defined in their only confrontation with the police: the meaning of action, here , dissolved in violence.

Do not reduce the "yellow vests" to thugs

A social movement should not be reduced to one or another of its concrete expressions, to a singular moment, to a one-off struggle. The events are inscribed, with him, in the long term, in a temporal and spatial thickness. The meanings which are revealed in a given context - here, November 24 - therefore call for an examination which in no way exhaust the question of the meaning of the action, since other meanings may appear in other contexts.

The presence of "thugs" on November 24 in Paris, their clash with the police, does not tell us everything and perhaps even very little about the movement, nor the xenophobic or racist incidents that have been reported to from Saturday November 17 in several situations. It is absurd not to see the forces of evil when they are at work, but it is unfair to disqualify the "yellow vests" because of the violence or the hateful acts and words that may have appeared, possibly aniseed drifts. arising from the festive solidarity of the braziers.

We should know more about the “thugs” of Paris, who seem to have been first of all far-right activists carried by a factious impulse which recalls February 6, 1934, with the anti-parliamentary “Leagues” and the associations of former members. combatants mobilized violently against a power, which itself resorted to force in the context of the Stavisky affair.

It is likely that ultra-left activists "Black blocks" and others, have also intervened - their violence expresses something else, a rage, sometimes also a despair that merits analysis. But these protagonists of violence are on the periphery of the movement, when they are not foreign to it.

Paris stays away

To follow the opinion polls, the movement of "yellow vests" still benefited, Saturday, November 24, from strong currents of sympathy: nearly three quarters of the people questioned showed their sympathy, their understanding. But for all that, they did not mobilize the whole of society: we saw them in the regions, much more than in the city, and the capital remained very little involved. The Parisians in no way seemed to want to give them explicit support. The student youth was not visible. Many professions have stayed away from the movement. The poorest have not made a commitment either.

Some analyzes have contrasted France from below and that from above, that of the periphery and those of town centers, that of the territories and that of the capital. There is some truth in these approaches, and a lesson of the day, of November 24, makes it possible to take one more step: the mobilization, in fact, remained powerful in the region, and weak in the case of Paris.

It is true that it was expensive to make a trip which could also be a little distressing for the provincials who were not used to demonstrating, and who knew very little about the capital; that there was no capacity to organize, as when large unions charter coaches and trains, speak up with representatives of the public authorities to set the course of an event, provide security .

Still, it clearly appeared not a continuum, between an action taking place in the center, in the streets of Paris, and another anchored locally, on the axes and the road junctions, but a distance.

The "yellow vests" did not know, or did not want to mobilize massively in Paris, and they may even be convinced that they have no place near the places of power and money: the Place de the Concorde, the Champs-Élysées. They may have felt rejected from the capital, kept at a distance from the symbolic center - they actually have the periphery left.

The question of political treatment remains

A social movement is not a political force, and if it seems to have had a tropism more on the right and far right than on the left, that of the "yellow vests" did not appear to be politicized - many of the demonstrators are moreover, abstainers. But that does not prevent thinking about the political treatment of its requests.

In the current context, such a treatment was expected by this movement on the side of power, as the classic political system, with the left and right parties, is broken down. If the extreme forces - on the left (France Insoumise) or on the right (the National Rally) - can relay its demands, they are not in a position to ensure their effective escalation.
less in the short term.

As for the unions, which has been discussed including to contribute to a dialogue now desired by the authorities, it must be admitted that they are not involved in the mobilization, even though the actors are putting forward demands that largely relate to the work, underpaid, on employment, insecure, and on pensions. At most, the unions can try to constitute themselves as operators of an exit from the top of the current situation, as in the proposal of Laurent Berger and the CFDT to open a vast discussion articulating the fiscal, social and ecological.

A defensive movement in its demands, and modern in its forms

A social movement is part of a type of society. Here, it is not insulting the actors to say that they are more in the defense of a social and cultural model which has been undone for about thirty years under the effect, in particular, of globalization, with the destructuring of the nation-state and the exit from the classic industrial era, only in the invention of a new model.

Very differently, at the same time as the "yellow vests" were expressed, important demonstrations testified to the force of the demands against the violence against women, falling much more in the invention of a new cultural model.

But from the moment when the social demands carried by the “yellow vests” could be articulated with the action for the environment, everything could change: the exit from the top of the current situation requires such a articulation, and those who, among the "yellow vests", playing this card will bring their struggle into a counter-offensive movement, and not just a defensive one.

The historian Charles Tilly had proposed, in connection with the labor movement, the concept of a “repertoire” of forms of collective action. He thus indicated that each historical period is characterized by concrete methods of mobilization that one finds from one struggle to another. It is clear, from this point of view, that the movement of “yellow vests” corresponds to a new repertoire: if it is defensive, and classic in its meanings, it is particularly modern in its forms. It is mobile, “liquid”, Zygmunt Bauman would have said, and at the same time capable of local roots, it makes extensive and intelligent use of new communication technologies, the Internet, mobile phones and social networks.

In need of structuring and historical reference

Seen from afar, the fight of the “yellow vests” in the region seems to generally call into question road mobility throughout the national territory. Seen up close, it can have more specific issues, and therefore different meanings: one day petrol depots, another large surfaces and shopping centers, sometimes also, when it can be expressed in the city center, symbolic places of central power - prefecture, sub-prefecture - or of taxation - tax center. This sometimes gets out of hand, with for example attacks targeting the homes of members of the majority.

To understand a struggle, a mobilization, it is often done by historical recall and comparison. The movement of "yellow vests" has so far no leader or organization outside of what social networks offer it, with the risk of illusion: it was not enough to call on Facebook to a rise in Paris so that the demonstrators follow en masse.

Without a principle of structuring, the movement did not have its own historical references either. It didn't look anything like May 1968, nor the strike of 1995, and its actors don't talk about it. It is in no way revolutionary, in the sense that it does not aim to take state power.

Finally, several analyzes have insisted on the distinction between the vertical functioning - from top to bottom - of power and the horizontal functioning of movement. The first developed a “com”, an erratic communication, oscillating between the disqualification of the protest, the reference to the ecological transition and the calls for dialogue - but with whom, and how? And he has his sights set on the upcoming European elections, where he would like to benefit from at least part of the green vote

In its highest meanings, the movement reveals a France which is rearing up, which is indignant, which asks to be respected and heard, which would like another social policy, more democracy too. And he's not particularly worried about the next election.

This recalls one of the difficulties for the government to find an exit from the top: the problem is not the absence, as we say today, of "mediations", but the lack of representation in a context where the agenda is not the same on both sides.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 a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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