Over Christmas, I found myself on a family ski vacation in the French Alps followed by a full week in Paris. Since at my stage of life, skiing is no longer advisable, I decided to focus instead on looking into the country's Gilet Jaune (GJ) protest movement that's shaken France to the core.
So, for several months before leaving the U.S., I studied French each day trying to recover the little I retained from 7 years (!) of extended formal French study 3 in high school and 4 in college.
And then, once in France, while my sons, son-in-law, and 4 grandchildren were on the slopes, I studied up on the Gilet Jaunes themselves . I read about them in French newspapers, watched TV coverage of their demonstrations, and tried to join them in Albertville my first Saturday in the country, in the Champs Elysee on New Year's Eve, and in front of the Hotel de Ville my final day in Paris.
As an activist and student of the left, my point was to become a kind of accidental reporter covering a phenomenon that has seen hundreds of thousands of political protestors in the streets across a country whose history since 1789 has given it quasi-ownership rights to the word "revolution."
Dressed in the yellow safety vests that French drivers are required to wear in case of highway emergencies, the GJs are stopping traffic on busy roadways. They're occupying toll booths to allow travelers escape from burdensome fees. Some see them as suggesting a "Frexit" that may mirror the UK's recent Brexit withdrawal from the European Union.
Interviewing those protestors, some U.S. ex-patriots, teachers, and small businesspeople, as well as reading those newspapers and attending GJ protests have all made it clear to me that the Yellow Vests have valuable lessons to teach Americans about overcoming our current political fragmentation. The GJs suggest that it's possible for both left and right extremes of our own political spectrum to cooperate for mutual benefit regardless of positions even on divisive issues like abortion, gun control, immigration, violence and terrorism.
The Yellow Vest Phenomenon
In the U.S. the GJ movement is typically reported by the Fox News right and even by "progressives" in terms of identity politics. It's a rebellion, we're told, against an "eco-tax" on diesel fuel. According to this view, the Yellow Vest rebels are part of a culture war pitting climate skeptics against a government whose vision has been captured by environmental extremists.
Such identification of the GJs with right-wing politics is adopted with good reason. French President Emmanuel Macron lent it credence in his annual New Year's Eve address. There, he identified the Yellow Vests as "hateful" enemies of the state, of Jews, the media, homosexuals, and of law and order itself.
A more comprehensive view however, was inadvertently suggested by an American ex-pat living in Paris. At first, she described the Yellow Vests as "exactly the same as the U.S. Occupy Movement." By the end of the interview, however, she portrayed it as mimicking the Republican Tea Party.
In my assessment, both evaluations are accurate. That is, far from being either predominantly conservative, liberal or radical, the Yellow Vest Movement is an all-sides rebellion against neo-liberal globalism itself. It has brought together forces on both the left and right extremes of the French political spectrum. Le Monde describes them as "retirees, the unemployed, poor workers, small businesspeople, and the self-employed within the gig economy." It's as if the Occupy Movement had united with Tea Partiers.
In terms understandable to Americans, yellow in France has become the new purple with each shade contributing from its corresponding degree of political consciousness. Right wingers like Marine Le Pen see the Yellow Vests as a protest against open borders that allow foreigners to corrupt French culture. Left wingers see it more broadly as a rejection of a globalism that accords free mobility to capital, while forbidding such movement to labor from France's former colonies.
All sides see GJs as repudiating the status quo. And they're working together to overthrow it. Therein lies the lesson for Americans. The lesson is that recognizing broad class interests as opposed to narrow and exclusionary identity-politics can unite normally fragmented citizens against a tyrannous plutocracy that is crushing us all.
The Real Yellow Vest Issues