freelance journalist Harrison Stetler (Paris) gives an insight into the experiences, motives, questions, hopes of Yellow-Vest-delegates participating in the first „Assembly of Assemblies“ in late January.
Below an extract (full text attached).
Martin Zeis, Stuttgart
France’s Yellow Vest Movement Comes of Age
At its first “Assembly of Assemblies” in late January, this grassroots democratic revolt brought together many people who had never participated in politics.
By Harrison Stetler
Harrison Stetler is a freelance journalist based in Paris.
„The danger,” Yanis warned, “is that the constant stream of information becomes its own type of ignorance. It’s very easy to forget the human need to educate oneself, and to forge one’s own opinion. What we need is for speech and debate to free themselves everywhere, that they fill every part of daily life, that everyone express themselves, respectfully of course.”
What Yanis was recalling was his own initial reaction to the eruption of France’s Yellow Vest revolt in late November 2018.
“At the beginning, there was this fear,” he continued.
“The movement had been covered in media as a ploy of the far right and the fascist movement. I hesitated to go at first just because of that. But I finally decided that it was all the more important to go if that was actually the case, in order to not abandon the battle to them.”
When people in his hometown of Montceau-les-Mines, in central France, began to organize town meetings at the beginning of December, Yanis decided to go and scope things out. Yanis was amazed to see that more than 1,000 attended the earliest assemblies in late November and early December. People were thinking and talking about politics in ways they had never done before. For too long, democratic life was little more than the habitual cycle of elections, with citizenship reduced to the occasional vote.
The assemblies continued on a weekly basis. “I realized that something was growing,” Yanis remembers. People were organizing themselves and staying in contact, occupying critical road junctions and protesting. Now, almost two months later, on January 26, Yanis found himself making the roughly 200-mile trip to a village just outside of Commercy, a town in a rural, working-class region in eastern France. Currently unemployed after several stints working in cafeterias in local public schools, the 22-year-old Yanis had been selected by his town’s local committee to attend the inaugural “Assembly of Assemblies” of France’s nascent Yellow Vest movement.
As he would no doubt attest, before this historic convention in Commercy, the Yellow Vests had fallen victim to a familiar trap. Like many other spontaneous and largely leaderless mass movements, the Yellow Vests have been defined and labeled by others.
At first, they were taken to be a manifestation of the inchoate and inarticulate rage of the French middle class. This anger, which had long provided fertile ground for the likes of Marine Le Pen, finally boiled over into street violence and open revolt when Emmanuel Macron’s government announced tax increases on gasoline. Macron had already made a name for himself by pushing through unpopular reforms in the name of “necessity.” Was this just another occasion of the French being unable to take the bitter medicine, this time in order to reduce carbon-fuel emissions?
The dismissal of the Yellow Vests was made all the more easy because some of the worst elements in French society have tried to capitalize on the climate of disenchantment and anger. Some Yellow Vest social-media groups have contained unmistakable echoes of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic conspiracies. Likewise, bands of skinheads have infiltrated some street marches, attacking most recently a group of left-wing activists in Paris during the January 26 day of protest. All of this has given credence to smug talking heads—no doubt with an eye on their checkbooks—who wish to sign the entire movement off as yet another worrisome sign of France’s slide into right-wing populism.
To any honest observer, however, the Yellow Vests’ dynamism and staying power, now going on their 13th weekend of protests at the time of writing, suggested that something deeper was happening. Weekend after weekend, the marches continued and the occupations of roundabouts in rural and suburban areas stood their ground. General assemblies organized on a weekly basis in every corner of France continued to attract people who for years had stood on the sidelines of political life. Teachers and students started to organize and unions began discussing strikes—culminating in a round of work stoppages set to begin on February 5, bringing together Yellow Vests, several unions, and left-wing parties, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise.
France’s battered social movements, fatigued after many retreats before Macron’s steamroller of reforms, started to show new signs of life. (…). — emphasis added