On 17 November 2018, the first demonstrations of the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) took place on the streets of Paris and other French cities, accompanied by road blockades in 3,000 locations across the country mobilizing around 300,000 participants. The initial trigger of the protests was an increase in the tax on diesel fuel proposed by the government of E. Macron, compounded by newly announced speed restrictions on national roads. The protests started as a spontaneous set of locally organized mobilizations, coordinated nationally via social media. Wearing a high-visibility yellow vest was proposed as a protest symbol since, by law, French motorists must keep such an item in their car in case of an accident or breakdown. The movement reached its peak in mid-December 2018, at which point President E. Macron withdrew the proposed increase in fuel tax and announced an increase in the minimum wage. Weekly demonstrations and road blockades, however, continued throughout 2019 – though with rapidly falling numbers of participants – until the confinement measures imposed in the spring of 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kipfer (2019) proposed to call the Gilets Jaunes protests a “movement phenomenon” – a collective mobilization straddling revolt and social movement (drawing on Thörn et al., 2017). Its sociology and geography were unlike any of the recent social mobilizations the country had witnessed. Drawing on the work of French researchers from a variety of disciplines, I first briefly introduce the sociological composition and grievances of the Gilets Jaunes mobilizations. I then focus my intervention on their novel, dual spatiality, before critically reflecting on a particular socio-spatial reading of the mobilizations which found a widespread echo in the French public sphere: that they expressed the revolt of “peripheral” France against “metropolitan” France. That narrative, while seductive, is characterized by over-simplifications and a misleading spatial determinism which researchers should be wary of.
The Gilets Jaunes and their grievances
The emergence of the Gilets Jaunes mobilizations has puzzled French social scientists and commentators (AOC, 2019; Confavreux, 2019; Jatteau, 2019). It was neither driven by the organized labour movement (Royall, 2019) nor by social groups involved in previous waves of street protests such as students, farmers, or young non-white residents of deprived “banlieues” (Kipfer, 2019; Le Goff, 2019). Analyses of the sociological composition of the mobilizations showed that participants may be broadly classified as working-class and lower middle-class (Arsinée et al., 2019; Guerra et al., 2019a): manual workers, low-paid service sector workers, public sector employees (e.g. in health and social care), independent artisans, small business owners and small farmers. They were not the poorest nor the most socially excluded in French society: many were employed (often, though, on low wages and part-time or precarious contracts), or in receipt of a pension; many had a car or owned a modest property with a mortgage to pay. Most of them, however, reported struggling to make ends meet. The active involvement of women was noted (Della Sudda quoted in Mormin-Chauvac, 2019), as well as the predominant ‘whiteness’ of the participants and relatively limited presence of residents from the ‘ethnicized’ and often stigmatized “banlieues” of large French cities.
The initial focus of the Gilets Jaunes’ anger was the increase in the “green” tax on diesel fuel, which was viewed as unjustly falling on the shoulders of ordinary citizens, as captured by the slogan: “They talk about the end of the world while we [worry] about the end of the month” (Le Goff, 2019). Their grievances were rapidly broadened to denounce fiscal injustice (triggered by the abolition of the ‘Tax on Very High Incomes’), decreasing purchasing power, declining public services, and the perceived disconnection of the political elites from the plight of ‘normal’ workers. A list of 42 demands (whose exact origin is unclear) was published at the end of November 2018, asking for more fairness in taxation, redistributive welfare measures (Sebbah et al., 2018; Guerra et al., 2019a), a more direct participation of citizens in national politics, and the resignation of President Macron (perceived as the “president of the rich”).
It is worth noting that this bundle of heterogeneous demands simultaneously called for “more state” and “less state” (Lichfield, 2019). In that context, some connected the movement to a long French history of anti-tax and anti-elite revolts since the 18th century (Spire, 2018; Noiriel, 2018, 2019). Others saw it as the expression of a ‘populist’ economic discourse described as ‘producerism’ (Guerra et al., 2019b, drawing on Ivaldi and Mazzoleni, 2019): the ‘moral economy of the Gilets Jaunes’ (Hayat, 2018) was indeed centred on the fair reward of hard work, the protection of the most vulnerable (though mitigated by critiques of ‘welfare-dependent’ populations), more taxation of the richest and less taxation of ‘normal’ workers. Early opinion polls revealed a high level of public sympathy for the Gilets Jaunes among French society (65-75% of the population), though much more pronounced among lower and intermediary socio-professional categories than higher ones (Rouban, 2019). The French government subsequently organized a national public consultation to gather citizens’ opinions about taxation, the State and public services, democracy and citizenship, and the “ecological transition” in early 2019. Small cuts in income tax and the pegging of low pensions to inflation were announced in the spring – limited concessions in the face of a wide-ranging set of grievances.
The spatiality of the protests
The spatiality of the Gilets Jaunes mobilizations combined two different types of sites. Firstly, hundreds of makeshift occupations and blockades were set up in spaces associated with (auto)mobility. These included motorway toll barriers, access points to large cities and major infrastructure such as ports, the parking lots of suburban retail parks, and the thousands of gyratory roundabouts which dot the French road system in peri-urban or exurban areas. The choice of such spaces is related to the heavy dependence on car mobility of millions of French households (David, 2018; Fourquet and Manternach, 2018; Le Bras, 2019; Boyer et al., 2020b), following several decades of a dual process of ‘metropolization of jobs’ and ‘peri-urbanization of residence’ (Pech, 2019). The appropriation of the gyratory roundabout (rond-point) to express public discontent has been particularly commented upon. Roundabouts epitomize Augé’s “non-places” and a certain homogenization of the landscape. Their occupation gave a visible presence to anonymous, isolated citizens (Depraz, 2019) and generated unexpected forms of encounter, sociability and solidarity (David, 2018; Bendali et al., 2019; Bernard de Raymond and Bordiec, 2019; Gwiazdzinski, 2019).
Secondly, the protesters took their grievances to the centre of Paris but also of metropolitan regional capitals (such as Toulouse, Lyon or Bordeaux) and smaller towns. City centres were the theatre of weekly Gilets Jaunes demonstrations which attracted tens of thousands of participants in the first weeks of the movement – some merely marching on Saturdays, others also involved in the blockades outside the urban cores. Protesters thus shifted from the exurban ‘road’ to the urban ‘street’ (David, 2018; Kipfer, 2019), by occupying the central public spaces of cities which symbolize regional and national economic and political power. These Saturday marches did not follow the rules of organized demonstrations. In some cases, after the majority of the crowd had dispersed, violent actions erupted, led by small groups who built barricades or damaged state buildings, banks, offices or restaurants. Such acts were met with a heavy-handed response by police forces. As the weeks went by, a vicious circle of widespread popular defiance, radicalized anger and police repression ensued, with several dozen protesters or peaceful bystanders injured by rubber bullets and stun grenades. The mainstream televisual media repeatedly displayed images of defiant crowds marching in urban settings and chanting “anti-system” slogans, of burning objects and acts of violence against (and by) the police. Those media often under-reported the subtler dynamics at play outside of city centres: what happened there was covered in the written press by journalists (Aubenas, 2018; Harding, 2019) or researchers (Challier, 2019; Coquard, 2019) who spent time carefully observing and listening to the voices coming from “La France des Ronds-Points” (see also the documentary film J’veux du soleil ! by François Ruffin and Gilles Perret).
The novelty in the spatial dynamics of mobilization of the Gilets Jaunes movement is thus the articulation of Saturday demonstrations with thousands of small group actions, roundabout occupations and blockades across the territory – including France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean (Noiriel, 2019). This combination ‘added to the movement’s longevity and unpredictability, allowing it to confront symbols of power while multiplying points of contact between various social spaces and movements’ (Kipfer, 2019: 221). In some localities, temporary links were forged between Gilets Jaunes and other activists, e.g. labour organizers, climate change and antiracist campaigners (Kipfer, 2019). The spatial dynamics of the Gilets Jaunes – a ‘bottom-up’, locally-rooted yet nation-wide mobilization – would not have been possible, however, without the help of social media technologies, in particular Facebook groups (Le Goff, 2019; Bornstein, 2019; Boyer et al., 2020a).
Peripheral France and its “forgotten inhabitants” versus metropolitan France and its “globalized elites”? The rise (and fall) of a seductive narrative
The dual spatiality of the Gilets Jaunes mobilizations was captured by one line of interpretation which rapidly gained traction in media and public discourses: the movement was deemed to represent the revolt of “peripheral France”, a mass of previously invisible citizens who blocked the country’s roads and erupted into the public sphere of Paris and large cities to express discontent against the politics of the ‘metropolitan elites’ deemed to have abandoned them. This narrative is rooted in the arguments developed by an independent geographer, C. Guilluy, whose polemical books (2010; 2014; 2019) seemed to have forecast the Gilets Jaunes protests. Guilluy argues that France is characterized by an economic and territorial fracture: a growing disconnection between 15 metropolitan areas well integrated in, and benefiting from, globalization (which he calls the “new medieval citadels”) and the rest of the French territory. This “peripheral France” encompasses peri-urban and rural areas, small towns, and medium-sized cities suffering from economic decline (covering 60% of the French population). For Guilluy, this territorial divide leads to a socio-cultural and political fracture, expressed by the rising share of the vote, among the population of “peripheral France”, for both far-left and far-right parties which advocate a break with the model of an open, globalized economy and society (Caldwell, 2017). Guilluy’s scapegoat are the metropolitan elites (2019), whose symbolic support for urban multiculturalism, he argues, contrasts with their neglect of the marginalized (and mostly white) working class of ‘peripheral France’. The Gilets Jaunes mobilization was thus deemed to be an expression of the latter’s alienation, resentment and desire to be visible (Guilluy, 2018). This appears to be supported by arguments heard on the Gilets Jaunes frontlines, where the quest for recognition, respect, and consideration by political elites was often mentioned (Lichfield, 2019; Mucchielli, 2018).
Yet many French social scientists have criticized the simplistic binaries, sweeping generalizations and partial lack of evidence which underpin this analysis (Gintrac and Mekdjian, 2014; Béhar et al., 2018; Delpirou, 2018; Depraz, 2018). Some stressed, first, that the initiators of the Gilets Jaunes movement were mostly from the region around Paris and other metropolitan areas (see the blog of geographer S. Genevois; and Delpirou, 2018; Blavier and Walker, 2020). Second, critics challenged Guilluy’s analysis for its spatial determinism and its conflation of the spatial and the social: ‘by making the characteristics of a space the keys to explain the social, the geographical approach is under the threat of a temptation to confuse correlation and causality, to make the place where a social category is located a cause’ (Charmes, 2014: np). The ‘fragility’ of a territory does not necessarily imply the fragility of the social groups which reside in it, and vice versa (Grandclément, 2016). Socio-economic divisions cut across metropolitan and non-metropolitan territories at a much finer scale than the ‘peripheral/metropolitan’ binary suggests (Pech, 2019). “Peripheral France” contains a diversified economy (Delpirou, 2018) and mix of social groups whose situation differ widely (Cusin et al., 2016; Enzo and Molenat, 2016; Charmes, 2019), although the partial decline in public services, retail and socialization spaces is indeed an undeniable source of discontent (Algan et al., 2019). Conversely, ‘prosperous’ metropolitan areas concentrate two thirds of French households under the poverty line (Da Silva, 2016), and in recent years, inequality has increased on average more within large metropolitan areas than between these areas and the rest of the territory (Pech, 2019).
More broadly, scholars have shown that the link between France’s apparent territorial divide and voting patterns is not straightforward (Charmes, 2014). In the first round of the Presidential Election of 2017, 46% of the votes for the far-right National Front party came from the core of large urban areas, against 21 % from small towns and rural areas (Gilli et al., 2017). One cannot, thus, so easily talk about a backlash of “peripheral France” to make sense of the Gilets Jaunes. Fiscal injustice and socio-economic inequalities are much more central to understand their grievances than territorial inequalities per se (Sananes et al., 2019).
The Gilets Jaunes in a global context
As Kipfer (2018: np) pointed out, the Gilets Jaunes movement ‘defies any static political-geographic account of the relationship between political action and sub-, ex- or peri-urbanization (the processes that have produced spaces that in Euro-America are often seen as basing point of right-wing populism)’. The heterogeneous social composition of the Gilets Jaunes, and the ambiguous nature of their demands, make it challenging to determine their political colour. They received support from political and intellectual figures from the far left to the far right, as grievances were selectively co-opted by both sides. While some analysts emphasized the presence of slogans associated with the far right (e.g. anti-migration), others have argued that these were not prominent (Guerra et al., 2019a) and that the movement’s demands shifted towards classical, “left-wing” social issues (Boulouque, 2019). The mobilizations did include far-right activists (Higgins, 2018; Kipfer, 2019), but large-scale surveys showed that participants professed various political allegiances from left to right – and more often than not, none: many did not vote in previous elections and expressed distrust towards political parties and state institutions (Le Lann, 2018; Foucault et al., 2019; Froio et al., 2020). Consequently, it is fraught to compare the Gilets Jaunes mobilizations either to a reactionary movement such as the Tea Party in the USA or Pegida in Germany (Froio et al., 2020), or conversely to see it as a ‘left-wing revolution in the making’ (Amable, 2018).
If anything, the movement demonstrates that recent, (partly) urban revolts are neither the exclusive property of “progressive” social movements nor of far-right activists, but cut across political divides. It also forces us to rethink oversimplifications of progressive vs. reactionary/populist, urban vs. rural, left vs. right – and more broadly to question the apparently simple links between socio-economic and territorial divides on the one hand, and social and political mobilizations and behaviours on the other (Delpirou, 2018). Political events such as the Brexit vote in the UK or the vote for xenophobic parties and populist leaders in the USA, Italy, Brazil or India have often been interpreted as protest expressions by the marginalized populations of ‘peripheral’ or ‘left-behind’ places, while ‘large cities in the most prosperous areas are portrayed as strongholds of multicultural coexistence and liberal democracy’ (Rossi, 2019). Yet in many countries, right-wing authoritarian or populist movements have drawn significant support ‘from the very urban elites that once served as their political foils’ (Weinstein, 2019), as discussed in the case of India, the Philippines, Brazil and Turkey in this journal’s Spotlight On Political Geographies of Right Wing Populism. Future research on the relationship between protest movements and social and territorial inequalities should therefore concentrate on improving our understanding of the fine-grained diversity and heterogeneity of the complex ‘territories’ where revolts unfold. This means avoiding an over-romanticization of the progressive potential of the political leaders and populations of large cities (Rossi, 2018), better engaging with the complex dynamics at play in territories ‘beyond the metropolis’, and avoiding sweeping generalizations in international comparisons of apparently similar social and political mobilizations.
Claire Colomb is Professor of Planning and Urban Studies at University College London (Bartlett School of Planning). A sociologist and urban planner by background, her research interests include urban governance, policies and politics; urban social movements; and comparative planning systems and cultures
This essay was inspired by a round table on “Left-behind Britain” and “France Périphérique”: challenging representations of social-territorial divides in convoluted times, organized by the author at University College London on 6 June 2019 with the support of the UCL Cities Partnerships Programme, UCL Festival of Culture, UCL European Institute, French Embassy in the UK (Fonds d’Alembert). Thanks to the participants for their insights, and to Francesca Artioli, Aeshna Badruzzaman, Sanjay Srivastava, John Tomaney and Liza Weinstein for their helpful comments on this essay.
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