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Can the Yellow Vest Movement Remake French Politics?

The protests have included both right-leaning rural white voters and the diverse urban districts. That almost never happens.

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images

As hundreds gathered at the St. Lazare train station Saturday morning for “Act Four” of the so-called Yellow Vest protests, police patrolled the surrounding streets, conducting searches and identity checks. Observers crowded around a group of officers who were holding one protester, clad in a yellow vest, to the ground. “Shame! Shame!” one woman chanted at the police, as she filmed on her phone.

The diffuse Yellow Vests movement that has rocked France began in mid-November in opposition to a fuel tax aimed to curb fossil-fuel emissions. Since then, it has transformed into a fierce denunciation of Emmanuel Macron, “president of the rich,” as these protesters and others call him, criticizing his right-leaning economic policies in this famously labor-friendly country.

The leaderless protests defy categorization, but have been overwhelmingly white and working-class, dominated by those from the provinces who reject not just Macron’s pro-business reforms but what they perceive as his arrogant, elitist attitude. The media has fixated on the far right’s presence: reports of demonstrators chanting homophobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic slogans, or an early incident where protesters forced a Muslim woman to remove her headscarf. That has proved to be more of a vocal minority than the core of the movement, but far-right figures, from French firebrand Marine Le Pen to Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, have trumpeted the movement as an encouraging sign of anti-“globalist” popular protest.

The crowd at St. Lazare, however, challenged that depiction. Railway workers gathered alongside feminist groups and anti-racism activists from the low-income, ethnically diverse Paris suburbs, or banlieues: an aggregation of disparate, angry parts, united by little more than their shared rejection of Macron. Among the many questions raised by the Yellow Vest movement, this one is perhaps the most intriguing: Will it manage to unite such disparate political groups? Although the alignment seems unlikely to last, the past month of protests hint at what a true class consciousness might look like, unimpeded by France’s persistent rural-urban divides or racial prejudice.

The Yellow Vests developed out of small-town economic discontent. But rural areas are not the only parts of France affected by economic hardship or Macron’s reforms. In fact, the poverty rate in the Paris banlieues often exceeds that of the provinces; in certain banlieues, unemployment among young people stands at 40 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally, and many of Macron’s cutbacks, notably to public housing, disproportionately impact the urban poor.

The banlieues’ frustration with the French state is nothing new. Since the outset, French commentators in particular have compared the Yellow Vest demonstrations to the riots that broke out in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005, after two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré—of Tunisian and Mauritanian origin, respectively—were fatally electrocuted while trying to escape police pursuit. The ensuing violence prompted the government to declare a state of emergency and arrest 6,000 protesters. The 2005 rioters’ demands—an end to police brutality and discrimination against France’s black and Arab populations, the descendants of postcolonial immigration—have gone largely unaddressed.

Now, groups from those same banlieues are trying to navigate their place in the new popular indignation: to shed light on the economic plight they share with rural France, to draw attention to the racial undertones of banlieue poverty, and to undermine the right’s ability to claim the movement as its own. The result is a remarkable moment in which right-leaning white country dwellers and the diverse, urban poor find themselves, at least in theory, on the same streets.

“We realized that the Yellow Vests’ demands were our demands—purchasing power, increased fuel prices, not being able to make ends meet,” Hassan Ben M’barek, who runs the Collectif Banlieues Respect, told me.

“We can at least recognize that Macron succeeded in bringing together all the different forms of anger, bringing them into the street. So we can thank him for his arrogance, his lack of respect for the people,” Youcef Brakni, a spokesperson for Justice for Adama, a banlieue-based group that denounces police violence, added sarcastically.

That might be true. But economic hardship in the banlieues has a decisively racial dimension not faced by the white working class that initially started demonstrating in November. According to a much-cited 2015 study, a job applicant with a name perceived to be Muslim or North African is four times less likely to be hired than an applicant with a traditional French name.

The role of racism in perpetuating economic inequality has long been a source of division in debates over class struggle. This is particularly true in France, which likes to see itself as colorblind. Because racial statistics are banned, policies designed to address inequality, especially in urban areas, tend to ignore the impact of racial discrimination. The banlieues’ involvement in the Yellow Vests protests, then, raises important questions about whether or not decades of economic resentment, coming to a head under Macron, could be the start of a true class-consciousness, without the racial divisions that generally put the white rural poor and non-white urban poor on opposing sides.

“So many of my friends told me not to show up because the Yellow Vests were a far-right group,” a 22-year-old Muslim woman who marched with Justice for Adama, but asked to remain anonymous, told me on Saturday. “But that’s a total lie—look around! It’s the media’s way to discredit the movement,” she said. She was marching alongside Mamadou Camara, 34, whose brother, Gaye, was killed by the police in January. “We saw that the racists are in the minority, and we know that this can’t take place without us,” he told me. “It’s time for us to show up, we can’t just stay in our neighborhoods and not speak out.”

Although the question of police brutality might seem distant from the Yellow Vests’ initial, predominantly economic list of demands, the robust police response to the past four weeks of protest has brought the issue forward. Earlier this month, an 80-year-old woman in Marseille died after being hit with a tear-gas canister. On Saturday, two journalists were injured after police fired Flash-Balls at the crowd; 8,000 police officers were deployed in Paris on Saturday—89,000 nationwide—using teargas indiscriminately, more as a means to disperse crowds than as a response to violent provocations from demonstrators. Last week, as protests spread to high schools, footage of police forcing a group of students in Mantes-la-Jolie, a Paris suburb, to kneel with their hands above their heads prompted outcry.

For Camara, the current uprising creates an opportunity to show that those moments—perhaps seen by the general population as exceptional, tied only to the current chaos—“are the daily reality in the banlieues.”

Édouard Louis, a prolific and internationally known young French author who has written extensively about the perils of rural poverty, expressed similar optimism that the Yellow Vests could open new avenues for cooperation between the urban and rural poor. “We’re seeing people who have been excluded from traditional social movements, we’re hearing the voices that we typically don’t hear,” he told me on Saturday. Contrary to standard practice in French protest movements, he stressed, influential unions have not played a role.

Louis, who grew up in rural France, marched with Justice for Adama—which is named after Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man killed by police in 2016—on Saturday. The convergence of grievances against Macron, he argued, could create dialogue between left and right, urban and rural, to show that far-right xenophobia—as a reaction to economic hardship—is misplaced. “Behind the far right are people who suffer, whose livelihoods are precarious, and who struggle to find the language to explain why,” he told me.

But while opposition to Macron drew otherwise distant populations to the same streets on Saturday, that common outrage has yet to translate to collective action. Reports from the demonstrations showed protesters denouncing not just Macron’s economic reforms but relaying right-wing misinformation about the Marrakech Pact, a global deal on migration.

“Politically, I’m not sure that it will be very effective,” Nacira Guénif, a sociologist at Paris 8 University, said of the temporary alliance. “On the one hand it’s interesting that Macron crystallizes all kinds of anger, but that’s exactly why the agendas—if we can identify any—are very difficult to bring together.”

For Louis, that only confirms the need for the groups on the left—and from the banlieues—to assert themselves, even if it means “creating a movement within the movement” to “win the war of words.”

“People are always searching for ways to explain why they suffer,” he told me. “Do they suffer because of migrants, because of minorities? Or do they suffer because of capitalism, because of the violence of our governments, because of the violence of Macron?” For some of the banlieue activists, at least, these Yellow Vest protests offer hope that, finally, right-leaning rural voters will decide that it’s the latter.