American University

Yellow Vest Protests in France by Joe Bodnar

The Yellow Vest protests mark a period of disruption in France’s long, disordered history with liberal democracy. Galvanized behind the symbol of high-visibility jackets, the Yellow Vests mobilized a catch-all consensus against the status quo in France, against the elites, against the legitimacy of elected officials, political parties and the government. These populist forces have bent Macron’s Jupiterian presidency. Macron has made concessions, started a listening tour in the form of a great debate, and will likely be forced to hold a referendum. The Yellow Vest movement will not collapse the Fifth Republic or correct the long-term drift of French democracy, which is challenged by unstable political parties among other things. However the movement has shown, as argued by Yascha Mounk, that a consequential segment of France is prepared to trust a populist movement over existing democratic institutions. 

After eleven weeks of Yellow Vest protests, Macron reflected on his time in office saying, “I learned a lot from those twenty months. It scarred me.” Those scars are evidence of his ascent. Macron’s leverage to the presidency was the collapse of traditional French parties. Parties act as instruments of mediation and association between citizens and the state. Their interplay fosters fundamental democratic norms like tolerance and a common purpose. The fall of party democracy gives rise to populism and its associated authoritarian tendencies. Jan-Werner Muller, of Princeton University, argues that “parties represented diversity; party systems symbolized unity.” 

Macron pulled a “coup d’etat against the party system.” In 2017 the traditional power holders of the Fifth Republic, the Socialists and the Republicans, no longer related to their bases. The record-breaking unpopularity of Francois Holland, the incumbent Socialist president, left the Socialist party all but irrelevant. The left has since unraveled, only two leftist parties currently poll over five percent. Following the scandal ridden presidential candidacy of Francois Fillon and an uptick in far-right appeal, Republicans also suffered losses and division in 2017. Republicans now promote a “new page” for the “new right.” Macron’s movement Republique En Marche ran to the uninhabited center, promising revolution. His victory in the presidential runoff and majority in the National Assembly reflected the exhaustion of the party system and a rejection of far-right nationalism while imitating a mandate to lead. 

Macron’s presidency no longer resembles a mandate. In office, he continued his intended creative destruction of French politics through policy reforms, which have largely benefited the wealthy and bolstered his image as “president of the rich.” These policies were incubated and implemented in rooms with little connection to the population they affect. Despite holding a majority in the National Assembly, En Marche lacks local roots that enable policy concerns to filter up from the people. When Macron passed a fuel tax in late 2018, those who felt unrepresented acted out Facebook rants on streets across France. 

Twelve weeks into the protests, Le Monde reported from Valence that the city looked “as if we were at war.” Macron’s initial blunder of not recognizing the gravity of the Yellow Vest movement allowed its momentum to build and form a disruptive front with favorability ratings above any political party. Radical Yellow Vest protestors took aim at the symbols and institutions of the French state, blocked roads, and burned cars. Police responded with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Demonstrators now wear eye patches with targets on them to accentuate this police brutality and claim victimhood. Nearly a dozen people have been killed and thousands injured during the protests. Recently, En Marche proposed a bill to ban “particularly serious” threats to the public. Critics argue the bill contains “authoritarian” measures.

Inside the chaos, violence, repression, and blame are greater threats to liberal democracy. Populism has proven able to run through the modernization-induced fractures in the left’s common interests and through the breaks in the right’s common values. This threat, as demonstrated by the Yellow Vests, undermines the legitimacy of democratic institutions. The presidency, the senate, and the constitution have been challenged. Political parties, regardless of their sympathies for the Yellow Vests, are seen as part of the problem. The validity of representation has been called into question by those pushing for referendums to be held regularly. 

Radical Yellow Vests have also targeted the press and pluralism. Journalist and TV crews covering the demonstrations have been repeatedly assaulted by protestors who reject media coverage as fake. Anti-establishment forces have generated “demand for alternative narratives” and weaponized social media. Le Monde’s reporting shows Facebook groups “constitute the backbone” of the Yellow Vests. These Facebook groups allow news to come from “the people,” unfiltered. People have filled with these pages with lies, conspiracies, violent videos, and racist comments. The Associated Press writes that “France’s most notorious anti-Semitic personalities have been seen at the forefront” of the protests. The subversion of the press and growing reach of propaganda undermines inquiry, reason, and the ability to debate. Anti-pluralism is a rejection of the liberalism that allows democratic systems to stand. 

The Yellow Vest movement is more likely to dissolve into “individualistic resentment” than become a perpetual or fatal threat to French democracy. Its horizontal, leaderless structure has already led to divisions between radical Yellow Vests and those willing to work inside the political system. However, the resentment will persist, leaving conditions right for a more sustainable and powerful populist insurgency. Macron’s great debate may prove a part of the remedy, as he stands, talking to local officials for six hours at a time laying the type of roots necessary to be sufficiently reactive to the public. As things are, though, Macron seemed prophetic when he wrote in his book Revolution that France needed to prepare “for upheavals the contours of which we cannot today apprehend.”

Photo by: Christophe Petit Tesson at European Press Photo Agency


  1. Gwenyth Szabo

    February 27, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post, and it is a very sophisticated analysis of the disintegration of political parties on the Left in France and the populist response. Your mention of accusations that Macron is the “president of the rich” reminded me of Piketty’s paper called “Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right.” Piketty notes a shift in elites voting for the Left, where intellectual elites have transitioned to voting for the Left, while business elites remain voting for the Right. I think it’s worth discussing the Left’s shift away from representing the working class, who now feel underrepresented and are vulnerable to populist appeal because the Yellow Vest movement reflects this lack of political representation as well as the collapse of political party system, which you addressed.
    Are the Yellow Vests justified in their protests? Benoit Hamon argues in an interview that the Yellow Vests’ protest is the only way to get Macron’s attention. I agree that Macron’s policies were created in a vacuum unrepresentative of the population, but without parties as a mediator between representatives and the population, how is the population supposed to get attention? I think it would be worth mentioning the various definitions of populism because it’s possible, apart from the radical rhetoric injected into the protests on social media, the Yellow Vests could be perceived as those left out of the political party system speaking up.
    Finally, I appreciate that you mention the disintegration of both the Right and the Left as well as the radicalization on both sides of the dispute. I think it would be worth including that the populist threat to French democracy could originate from the Left or Right, for populism has no affiliation, as we’ve seen with Macron’s separation from his party.

  2. Alec Wood

    April 16, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    I wanted to briefly focus on one aspect of your blog post: the radical strains of the yellow vest movement. Last winter, from around mid-December until the beginning of January, the Conseil économique, social et environnemental (Cese) created an online consultation platform to capture the opinions of citizens “yellow vest or otherwise” on the following six subject areas: (1) social inequality, (2) fiscal justice, (3) regional inequalities, (4) purchasing powers, (5) citizen participation, and (6) ecological transition. The most popular contribution called for the abrogation of marriage equality in France. It’s hard to say if this truly represents the motivations of the yellow vests; however, it potential highlights how the yellow vests are not unified. Like you suggest, I believe this may reveal how many have joined the movement merely to air their own grievances with the French state and traditional parties.

  3. Leslie Schmuldt

    May 7, 2019 at 10:25 pm

    Your mention of the movement as populist really intrigued me. Can a protest be called populist, or is populism confined to a political party and/or leader? An interesting development of the movement is the National Rally’s attempt to take credit for the manifestation. The gillets jeunes have adamantly refused to align themselves with this populist party. The movement itself defies labels, classifications, and demographic categorization. In true French fashion, the movement includes citizens from all walks of life who are dissatisfied by many and diverse aspects of French society. So can we really call the movement populist? Certainly it espouses some populist rhetoric (anti-elitism) and some members do support populist leaders and ideas. But is the entire movement like this?

  4. Rex Lee

    May 8, 2019 at 1:30 am

    I agree with your statement that the yellow vest movement is not a fatal threat to French democracy as a whole, but instead may only be a national manifestation in the broader context of anxieties, fears, and anger over neo-liberalism and globalism. It is from this movement that sows the seeds of populism. However, I argue that populism may not necessarily be the greatest threat to democracy. Instead of asking ourselves why populism may ruin democracy, we should ourselves how our system has failed to allow populism to rise. In the end, populism rises usually in periods of economic downturns or political instability. There are reasons for populism and they usually stem from failures in the current system. If the common argument of populists is that the establishment is out of touch, is it not true if millions begin supporter the populists? In the end, the blame should lie on the current politicians for losing the faith of the people in the first place. The first steps to ending mass waves of populism, such as the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and even the rise of far-right parties in Eastern Europe, is not through destroying or limiting populism, but by eliminating what is causing it. The current neo-liberal world order has failed the West, as we have seen by the millions of disgruntled citizens in the UK, America, Canada, and in this case, France. Thus, it is time to reconsider it, rather than solely blaming populism.

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