The Philosophy of the Gilets Jaunes

A new book on France's 'Gilets Jaunes' movement explores its demands for radical change, explosive social impact – and legacy amidst an increasingly authoritarian French political landscape.

On 17 November 2018, people up and down France gathered to protest a tax on fuel that would hit ordinary citizens in the provinces particularly hard. In order to draw attention to their plight they all wore the yellow high-vis jackets that had been made mandatory for motorists to carry in their cars.

Quickly the movement spread to roundabouts where protesters blocked traffic, and to the metropolises where many travelled to protest for their cause. Riots erupted on the streets of Paris. President Macron soon conceded to the initial demands of the movement. He cancelled the hike in the fuel tax and he increased the minimum wage by borrowing so that the state paid the difference between the new and old the minimum. However, spurred on by elite condescension and by the act of winning concessions, the movement continued and generated a series of demands aiming to reduce inequality and change the structure of French democracy.

The movement also encountered sustained police violence. The protesters in their yellow vests drew attention to the geographical and economic inequalities in French society, the lack of police accountability and the gulf between political decision-makers and the people who will be affected by those decisions. They mounted a challenge to the social contract that has existed between the state and citizens in France since the establishment of the Fifth Republic, but which has been gradually decaying as social bonds have frayed and the state withdrawn from the economic life of its citizens under neoliberalism.

That challenge is the subject of a new book, The Gilets Jaunes and the New Social Contract, by Charles Devellennes, a lecturer in political and social thought at Kent University. Devellennes analyses four facets of the social contract that the gilets jaunes contested: violence, economic justice, liberty and democracy.

For Baruch Spinoza, the point of the social contract is to maximise the citizens’ freedom. Freedom for Spinoza was freedom of the body, which in turn meant freedom of the mind. It follows then that freedom is the ability to gather in public space to collectively discuss ideas and voice your opinions. This was the liberty exercised by the gilets jaunes who marched in the streets of metropolises and who gathered together on roundabouts. However, the repression that they faced at the hands of the police restricted this liberty. Five people lost their hands during the protests, 29 people lost an eye, 344 suffered head injuries and there were hundreds more injuries among protesters, medics, and journalists, all at the hands of the police.

These restrictions on the ability to protest freely without fear of being seriously injured would be bad enough were they the product of a series of political accidents; however, Devellennes argues that this was active government policy. His analysis—that ‘civil liberties and in particular the freedom to philosophise as understood as the freedom to use your body to express your opinions are put under threat by an increasingly repressive French state’—is shared by the gilets jaunes, who fought back against police violence, and poses serious questions for the contractual basis of society.

Devellennes’ argument on liberty has implications beyond the gilets jaunes. He provides an excellent case study of the appointment of Didier Lallement as the Paris Prefect of police during the protests, arguing that this was political, given the heated criticism of Lallement’s record on civil liberties and protest in Bordeaux, where the police had been found by a civil liberties union to have used legal and illegal methods to repress protest. The use of crowd control weaponry, the removal of oversight and the extension of police powers were part and parcel of the transposal of the post-Bataclan state of emergency into law.

Devellennes demonstrates how these changes that took place before the eruption of the movement allowed the repression to occur during it, then explains how extra measures taken during the movement allowed for repression of protest to continue afterwards. His analysis is prescient – the book presumably was written before Macron’s proposed ‘global security law’, which would make it illegal to film or photograph police with the nebulously defined ‘intention to cause physical or psychological harm’.

Devellennes similarly explains how the gilets jaunes represented a challenge to the existing social contract’s conceptions of democracy and economic justice. Rousseau’s idea of democracy as the expression of the general will is invoked to show that the gilets jaunes were a response to a growing democratic crisis under neoliberalism. Their proposal of the Citizen’s Referendum Initiative, which would enable referenda to be triggered on an issue provided it gained enough signatures, was an attempt to reintegrate the people into democratic decision making, as the purely representative model was no longer deemed to function.

Devellennes surprisingly isn’t totally dismissive of Macron’s Grand Debate, his attempt to bridge this gulf between citizens and their representatives. He argues that this could have seen the initiation of a Roussean legislator, a body of citizens that might be able to review the constitution to prevent the degradation of the social contract, had Macron not used the debate cynically to try and take the wind out of the movement’s sails.

After skewering Macron’s beliefs that society should reward the lead climbers (entrepreneurs) who supposedly support those at the base of society, Devellennes argues that the Macronist project is caught in a vice between its right-wing economic libertarian impulses, which advocate the total withdrawal of the state from economic life, and a liberal wing of the project which advocates for a similar organisation of society, but with a redistributive component that gives some money to poorer citizens in the name of justice. He partially attributes these two wings to the ideas of thinkers John Rawls and Robert Nozick, and argues that the social crisis France finds itself in today, where stark inequalities are deemed necessary by politicians, is reflected in the exclusion of economic justice by recent theorists of the social contract.

The gilets jaunes rejected this consensus. An analysis of their economic demands, vague and subject to internal criticism though they were, reveals the blueprints for a moral economy. This isn’t an economy that transcends capitalism, but one which combats rent seeking and in which principles of dignity and fair prices are guaranteed by a more interventionist state.

These demands stem from the gilets jaunes’ class position. One of the particularly useful theoretical contributions of the book is the author’s situation of the gilets jaunes as the ‘small-mean class’ – people at the upper end of the working class and lower end of the middle class in peri-urban France, who have been squeezed hard in recent years. They might own a home, but they are never far from having to sell their car or from their house being repossessed. Devellennes sees his job with this book as building on the work of Carole Pateman and Charles Mills, who saw how women and people of colour had been excluded from the social contract. The small-mean class have in their own way faced a similar exclusion, and Devellennes seeks to address this.

While this class analysis is fruitful, Devellennes sometimes imposes too much coherence onto what was a very messy and complicated movement. He argues that the gilets jaunes were largely apolitical or anti-political, which was true, but nonetheless there were significant left and right wings that can’t be dismissed, given their impact on the movement’s actions and the public perception. He also argues that the gilets jaunes were an entirely national phenomenon and that there was a wholesale rejection of ‘remote elites’ in supranational institutions.

This was not always the case. When police violence got pushed further up the agenda, several gilets jaunes, with the backing of much of the movement, presented evidence to a UN enquiry in the hope of challenging the French state, demonstrating a pragmatism in the face of supranational institutions rather than a blanket rejection of them. This generalisation reveals the perennial problem with analysing this movement – it was leaderless, and consequently so multi-faceted as to make generalising very difficult.

Not all the excursions into theory are that persuasive, either. Sometimes his arguments feel shoehorned into a frame that does not quite fit. Certain analyses could have done without the application of social contract theory. A discussion on Hobbes appears to make an equivalence between occupying a roundabout and state violence before eventually getting to the obvious conclusion that the French state was disproportionate in its response and that people have a right to defend themselves. Equally a digression into the symbolism of knees and kneeling in Diderot and its relation to the gilets jaunes and social contract theory feels unnecessary and confusing.

Devellennes concludes that a Sixth Republic must be founded to renew democracy, and that the police should be stripped back and wealth redistributed. He states that in the event of a second-round runoff between Le Pen and Macron in 2022, he doesn’t think most gilets jaunes will vote for the man whose resignation they vociferously demanded.

There is a cautious optimism in the discussion of a future social contract, but even though the gilets jaunes largely reject the legitimacy of the current crop of political representatives, those representatives remain important for the fate of the country. The only candidate currently running who can come close to bringing about the changes the author thinks need to occur is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose many flaws are well documented, but who has nonetheless found himself a lonely champion of redistribution, a social Sixth Republic and civil liberties amid an authoritarian turn within Macronism and in the face of an increasingly confident Rassemblement National.

The Gilets Jaunes and the New Social Contract is a rigorous and incisive analysis of the movement that rocked France and its implications for society’s contractual basis, but if the second-round runoff in 2022 is between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the author and the movement’s shared vision of a more equal, more democratic society free from police violence may remain an ever more distant dream.

‘The Gilets Jaunes and the New Social Contract’ by Charles Devellennes is now out from Bristol University Press.

About the Author

Olly Haynes is an English journalist who covers radical politics in the UK and France. His work has been featured in Novara Media and Open Democracy.