Can you hear the gilets jaunes sing?



I'm feeling romantic about the gilets jaunes. It's probably partially due to the remnants of my standard winter televisual fare of the French Open followed by three weeks of the Tour de France. All those ruined castles.

A protester carries a French flag as he takes part in the annual May Day protests on 1 May 2019 in Paris.(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Feeling misty-eyed about people who are being tear-gassed is a little declasse, if the more centrist media outlets are to be believed. I'm supposed to hate the Yellow Vests. But to me their behaviour is ... well, it's classy, in the true sense of the word. These working class people are supposed to shut up and sit down and take what they're given. That they refuse to do so is breaking all the rules.

What is romantic about people rioting in the streets and causing havoc? Is it not irresponsible to refuse to join the chorus of hatred at these upstarts who should just go get a job, stop creating chaos? These people who without fail have taken to the streets every Saturday for nine months?

Well, no. That would assume that getting back to work when there isn't enough work, that going on as if everything is just fine when so much must change, that pretending that the wineskins don't need changing when you know that the seams have split in multiple places, is the sane and rational response. It would assume that your insistence that society begins functioning for people rather than for personal profiteering is irrational.

Well, blame Les Miserables, but to me, a motley crue of people who encompass the entire political spectrum standing as one is very romantic in such a divide-and-conquer age. It's actually a bit bloody miraculous. That they are standing up to Emmanuel Macron, ex-investment banker and now French President, and the austerity tactics of a failing economic system is cause, yes, for alarm. Violence is always alarming. But it's cause for celebration too, if you happen to love the idea of a fair society and people fighting for its return.

For years we've watched the tech sector move fast and break things. We were encouraged to applaud it, even, until it began to dawn on us that the things it was breaking were affecting workers and that many of those breakages took from the commons of entire industries in order to line the pockets of a few. The same old story.

Well, the gilets jaunes are a social disruption. They are a people who are not taking austerity as the foregone conclusion of a class of people whose greed is boundless and whose bellies are never filled. What began back in November 2018 as a camel-back-straw-snap when Macron's government brought out a carbon tax on fuel that would punish the hardest those least able to afford it, in a France whose public transport system has been cut back so that cars are even more necessary to get to work, has continued unabated now for nine months.


"What is more romantic than people who have been told by those who hold all the legal and economic cards that they should just hustle, getting up Saturday after Saturday and taking to the streets to be tear-gassed?"


Yes, there is something romantic to me about that. What is more romantic than resilience in the face of powers and greed and corruption so vast that they so easily create a kind of helplessness, so that you just lie down and take it and focus on your next opportunity for a piece of digital gig economy bread when the next TaskRabbit $10 job pops up to compete on?

What is more romantic than people who have been told by those who hold all the legal and economic cards that they should just hustle; people who live in the most socially isolated, community-deficient and emotionally straining time of our species' history, who have so much to be scared of and so much to give up on and so little of the community we are wired to require, getting up Saturday after Saturday and taking to the streets to be tear-gassed?

Yes, I see the people being violent. But that's nothing compared to the million common violences they and we navigate every capitalistic day. Beyond the barricade of the status quo propaganda of the media, I can actually hear the people sing. It sounds beautiful to me.



Sue StevensonSue Stevenson has had political commentary, essays and short fiction published in Eureka Street, Southerly Journal, The Big Issue, New Matilda and Independent Australia. She is an unironical hugger of trees and a bit of an anarchistic lover of the mystic. She blogs sometimes, when the ME allows.

Main image: A protester carries a French flag as he takes part in the annual May Day protests on 1 May 2019 in Paris.(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Sue Stevenson, Yellow Vests, France, gilets jaunes



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I couldn't agree more Sue and am waiting, rather unfortunately I feel, for the Saturday marches to begin in Australia. We tend to be a little slow in reacting but the necessary stimulus has been given by the recent federal election and the move by this government to shore up the wealth of the few at the expense of the many. I am left to wonder what color is chosen for these marches. It certainly won't be blue or red, perhaps Green?
Tom Kingston | 01 August 2019

In many ways a complex article, and disturbing. This article, at least superficially, appears to endorse violence to achieve social justice as if it was the only way. For change solidarity is needed, marches and protests;these do not equate to violence. There are numerous examples of non-violent moments bringing about social justice. We should always be seeking the 'other way' rather than romanticizing the bloodbath of the French Revolution and the decades of turmoil that followed it.
Kevin | 02 August 2019

Tom - I was thinking, what about a combo of red and blue and green to cover the spectrum? But then that would be brown, wouldn't it, and that's not at all the direction we want to go in :) Kevin - I totally get where you're coming from. Your comment reminded me of an online convo I had over a decade ago where I was waxing lyrical about the people busting through their division and conqueredness and coming together to make the required changes into whatever the new version of things will be. Someone asked me if I was ready for the violence that would come with it. I was offended (in the everyday sort of offence that was taken pre-2010 or so) that he took from my words the idea that violence was a foregone conclusion. But since then, watching the way nothing changes while the rich get richer, I wonder how if he isn't right and whether it can be avoided even while I am repulsed by it. The form of violence the Gillets Jaunes seem to be generally practising is on property, whereas the French State is teargassing actual bodies. But perhaps that sort of violence is unavoidable when you start playing against the big boys. For such a disparate group of people to come together and stick together has got to be a bit terrifying to the State apparatus. Sometimes I wonder if us Australians are even capable of doing such a thing, we've become so Murdoched and pitted against each other. I hope not!
Sue Stevenson | 02 August 2019

I am with Kevin. France is in need of economic change. It has very high chronic unemployment (a problem for many of the gilets jaunes) and I think Macron is trying to pursue that. Yes, for people living outside the Peripherique life can be hard, but I think improving the economy and reducing unemployment are goals Macron is trying to address (unlike Sue Stevenson I think that he is well qualified) as have his predecessors. It is not easy, but the gilets jaunes would be beneficiaries. They are entitled to protest. But the movement seems beyond that. There has been repeated vandalism and violence , often by people masked. The cost to France of this has not been negligible. It seems that Macron has sought to negotiate with them but there is no clarity about what they want except for Macron to resign. Well. there was an election 2 years ago, and Macron was a clear winner. In June, Geraldine Doogue interviewed the French philosopher and political activist, Bernard-Henri Levy. He described the gilets jaunes as "nihilistic". I note that Sue Stevenson is an environmentalist. The gilets jaunes movement started in protest about a rise in diesel prices to combat environmental problems from diesel. There seems inconsistency in her approach here. It also shows the difficulty in really addressing environmental issues. I think the romance has gone too far.
William Frilay | 03 August 2019

Thank you Sue. Your article about the Yellow Vests Movement in France reminds us that - romantic or not - all too often when people seek justice, they often need to take strike action and protest in the streets to get justice. Like Kevin, I think it upsetting that those seeking justice frequently need to take such action, but all too often those in power will continue to exploit people and expect that those exploited will submit However, this does not mean that those seeking justice necessarily want to indulge in violence or justify it. It would be nice if humankind could avoid bloodbaths like the French Revolution but tragically extreme exploitation can cause desperation which often leads to catastrophic results. Apart from the conquests of our First Nation Peoples, Australia has had little bloodshed, however, the discussion on this article reminded me of Henry Lawson's 1891 poem "Freedom on the Wallaby" about the breaking up of the Barcaldine striking shearers' camp by armed police. I think his last stanza describes the sentiment of those seeking justice: "We'll make the tyrants feel the sting O' those that they would throttle; They needn't say the fault is ours If blood should stain the wattle!" Britain was probably able to avoid a situation like the French Revolution because, as Labour Lord Roy Hattersley states in his book "John Wesley - A Brand from the Burning" , it had a social safety valve that was not present in France. This was the presence of key monied people who had a sense of justice and supported poor people by funding kitchens and clinics and promoting the formation of unions and the Chartist Movement. Ironically, they were supporters of the Liberal Party in Britain which was more truly liberal than the one in Australia.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 03 August 2019

Pshaw, Kevin! Violence? What violence? Who has been killed so far or even injured, other than the rioters, with the forces of the French anti-terrorisme gendarmerie, all pumped up and ready to strut their vulgar muscularity on the streets of Paris? THAT's the real obscenity and thousand times worse than the conflagration of Notre Dame. Come to think of it, whose side would Our Lady be on? "The mighty will be toppled from their thrones", proclaimed this lowly woman, who must be turning in her grave at the thought that Macron attended a Jesuit school! And a beautifully crafted, spirited piece, Sue!
Michael Furtado | 04 August 2019


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