Over two hundred years ago, British press and politicians were aghast to see their country influenced by French political imports. The example set by the French Revolution had seen the rapid spread in Britain of radical groups and societies in support of popular democracy, whose members were observed in alarmist reports to be addressing each other as ‘citizen’ and donning red ‘caps of liberty’ in addition to demanding political reform. Defenders of the status quo, like the New Times newspaper in 1819, issued dire warnings that British radicals who displayed the Tricolour ‘shall not stop there in their imitation of French example’.
As popular unrest escalated in nineteenth-century Britain, French example remained both a touchstone for many reformers and a trigger for a panic-prone establishment, which responded to movements for change with military repression and prosecutions for sedition. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see the gilets jaunes’ more recent challenge to the status quo received with similar sensationalist fears of British imitation.
Although the yellow vest’s highest visibility in the UK so far has been its appropriation by far-right opportunists, France’s own ‘yellow vests’ constitute a far more eclectic movement whose power is partly vested in its lack of definition. The multiple discontents involved mean that protestors’ demands are broad and often paradoxical. But the uprising’s undeveloped and frequently chaotic form, and its nebulous but firmly-held central perception of an intolerable status quo, carry clear echoes of Occupy and the anti-austerity movements that spread in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis. Looking further back, to the turn of the millennium, the anti-globalisation movement’s slogan ‘one no, many yeses’ seems to also apply.
Something often overlooked when examining this kind of loose and leaderless protest is that while it may look unorthodox, it isn’t new. Both mass-membership parliamentary parties and the organised ‘A to B’ marches familiar to us from twentieth-century history are only one, relatively recent, way of making one’s voice heard. In both Britain and France, pre-industrial protest was more carnivalesque than constitutional, offering semi-spontaneous and disorderly challenges to issues like privatisation of land, high food prices, and the neglect of popular complaints by those in power. While these protests were appropriate to circumstances where power and resources lay with local authorities and communities, the expansion of both industrial capitalism and liberal democracy saw protest become nationally organised and constitutionally channelled.
Britain has its own rich history of using clothing in protest. Perhaps the most spectacular example of this was the Rebecca riots, in which male farmers and labourers in 1840s Wales captured public attention by opposing road tolls, enclosures, and welfare reform while dressed in bonnets and petticoats, identifying themselves through this costume as the symbolic leadership figure ‘Rebecca’. At Peterloo, supporters of reform again wore French revolutionary bonnets rouges, while Chartists and suffragettes signalled their allegiances with coloured ribbons. Participants in these movements were creative and adaptive, using everyday objects to produce identifying ‘brands’ that were widely and instantly recognisable. The gilets jaunes, similarly, have turned an item which some French citizens are obliged to own into a universal uniform of opposition.
The use of David Lloyd’s stylised Guy Fawkes masks by many in the Occupy movement was another demonstration of the power of symbols for opting in to a movement of generalised antagonism. In 2011, Bahrain’s government banned the import of these masks in a bid to discourage the pro-democracy protests sweeping the Middle East. The New Times in 1819 urged the British government to ban from public display French ‘ensigns of massacre and rebellion, the Bonnet Rouge and the Drapeau Tricolour’, as though the symbols themselves were carriers of revolutionary contagion rather than its expression.
What does the resurgence of pre-democratic modes of protest tell us about current political culture? Partly that the mechanisms and institutions developed under liberal capitalism appear irretrievably broken, giving us as little faith in political representation and accountability as our ancestors had before democracy’s advent. But there is also a demonstrable need for this inchoate insurgency to be accompanied by a more distinct socialist programme; without one, both the mask and the vest are empty vessels that anyone can fill.