To Explain, to Understand, or to Tell the Gilets Jaunes?


Since November 17, 2018, every Saturday, protesters have demonstrated in the centers of major French cities. They call themselves the Gilets Jaunes. While the movement’s initial intention consisted in blocking roundabouts and roads in rural France in response to a proposed increase in the tax on diesel fuel, it has now turned into a large-scale social movement, for which the only rallying code has been the yellow vest, an item made mandatory in all vehicles and symbol of the ever-increasing constraints on car drivers.

How to qualify the Gilets Jaunes? As a movement? As a label? Should we simply decide to use the wording “Gilets Jaunes” without any effort to render more intelligible a social phenomenon that is resolutely particular? Certainly, the strictly causal explanations for the irruption into the public space of militant crowds and “moral entrepreneurs” (Becker 1973) are unsatisfactory. Politically unreadable and largely co-engineered by the media and new technologies of information and communication―such as social networks―the phenomenon of the Gilets Jaunes disrupts institutionalized forms of militancy, which had been codified at least since the beginning of the twentieth century in French laws about public demonstrations. What the Gilets Jaunes bring to the fore is the way in which unions and political parties have abandoned their traditional respective roles: their previous mission was indeed to make the State understand and manage the claims and motives of protest. The Gilets Jaunes, through their critique of representative democracy, proved the end of an institutionalized form of social protest, of a type of social agitation that had been historically managed by unions and political parties. They have unexpectedly invented a new militant practice that is largely amateur-based. Last January, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière explained that the explanation for why people move is the same as why they do not move[1] (Rancière 2019). Dealing with social agitation is like dealing with a mystery, a divine surprise in History. However, rather than invoking such mysticism in social movements in general, we ought to consider their nature.

It is because of its radical opposition to the past that the movement of the Gilets Jaunes is so little intelligible to most people. Talking about the Gilets Jaunes is inevitably a challenge because it always more or less entails the question of speaking “for” or “in the name of” people who in fact refuse to be represented. This is all the more so because with the extension of the phenomenon since November 17, 2018, the strictly protesting aspect and the demand for specific political reforms have ceased to justify protest. The longer the movement has lasted, the more general the demands of the protesters have become. Around February 2019, the main motive driving protesters into the street became simply their desire to be visible, to reappear and to signify their presence in the public space (Cohen 2018). It was soon no longer so much a question for the militant populations to demand the return of the wealth tax or to protest against an increase in the diesel tax than to simply show themselves, to be visible and thus regain a lost public space. Should the sociologist’s voice and analysis stop there? Certainly, since the Gilets Jaunes also reject any form of “representation” or authority that would speak on their behalf, even if this authority is legitimized through a vote or academic pretensions.

Since it would be senseless here to try to “explain” the Gilets Jaunes or “understand” them, we will simply “tell” them, focusing on what this phenomenon renews in the practice of militancy, and how social sciences can examine it. To “tell” means that the narrative will follow the chronology of the generalization of the motives for mobilization. First it is key to study the ways in which the movement emerged and to recognize some of its accomplishments. The Gilets Jaunesmanaged to place social justice at the center of their claims―an achievement that no other movement had accomplished in the last thirty years (Confavreux 2019). The robustness of this mobilization for reasons of social justice was quickly proven. Once this was done, the protest turned into a general disavowal of the prominence of the State in the political status quo the Fifth Republic established. The argument against fiscal injustice has hidden a deep criticism of the State and an intense desire to conquer public space by people who felt they were kept in the shadows by precariousness and the economic order. Being visible in a dark landscape: isn’t it the primary goal when people wear a yellow vest?


From angry drivers to insurgents

Two factors can explain the mobilization of the Gilets Jaunes: First a disappointment with fiscal policy that is linked to a proposal by the government to accelerate the carbon tax increase with a tax targeting diesel fuel; secondly, a rejection of the policy aimed at changing the structure of the wealth tax. The first measure is rooted in an ecological agenda, the second in the desire to incentivize investment in the French economy based on Macron administration’s belief in the trickle-down theory. The amounts involved and the concomitance of the two reforms has given an impression of a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest (Piketty 2019). This transfer is in stark opposition to the “moral economy” of the working classes (Palmer Thompson 1971, Hayat 2019), a form of instinctive wealth management that requires, among other things, that citizens must participate in the public good proportionally to their own wealth, leading the richest to pay more taxes. On the contrary, the carbon tax and the reduction in the wealth tax carry over to middle-class and poorest households a larger part of the contribution to the public budget.

Are the Gilets Jaunes far-right demonstrators? This question engages two consequences. It explains the media’s hostility towards the Gilets Jaunes (Poels and Lefort 2019). Indeed, the support of the media for the movement is difficult to establish. Since the beginning of the phenomenon, mainstream media and 24-hour cable news TV channels have been accused by the protestors themselves to build a distorted image of what the movement really is. According to some Gilets Jaunes testimonies, mainstream media have hidden the non-violent essence of the movement, and dealt with protestors as if they were illegitimate, at times portraying them as racists, angry, and stupid protestors. It’s not clear whether such attitudes were adopted by mainstream media based on the belief at first sight that the Gilets Jaunes represented the far-right people of France.

The Gilets Jaunes movement started as an anti-tax mobilization. Such mobilizations are known to federate a rather right-wing crowd with a rudimentary militant experience and very critical of the media. As the carbon tax project was justified by the ecological imperative, the movement’s pioneers were rather disqualified in the media as climate-skeptics. But, it is nonsense not to differentiate between anger towards a new tax and fiscal incivism, i.e. the refusal of taxation on principle. Even if a majority of people are critical of taxation, they are not against taxation in its principle, and they clearly demonstrate a strong support for the state and for public administration (Spire 2019).


The Gilets Jaunes are more than angry car drivers

Here, we need to speak about the French and their cars. Analysts have often simplified the debate. The status of the automobile has been evoked as a primary explanation for the mobilization. This rationale constitutes an obstacle to understanding the deeper meaning of the Gilets Jaunes protestation. Indeed, other important influences must be examined, for example the anti-tax motive. Moreover, while Parisians are indeed as concerned as people from outside Paris by increased expenses related to the automobile (Delpirou 2019), few of them have joined the Gilets Jaunes. Although aggregate distances travelled by car are less for them, Parisians spend on average more time in their cars than non-Parisians. To those who advance that the Gilets Jaunes are a rural movement of angry people, we must object a second argument: today, 92 percent of the French territory operates within areas that are under the influence of at least one city.

Another trend in the analysis of the movement has been to restrict the understanding of the militant group as merely so-called “peri-urban.” Peri-urban populations are the result of municipal policies implemented in the 1980s and 1990s. They live in the immediate proximity of medium-sized towns, in suburban housing developments, mostly comparable to the American Levittown of the fifties, and are traditionally contrasted with the populations found in the banlieue who usually dwells in larger and older flats. In France, financial mechanisms facilitating home ownership, such as relaxed lending conditions, have generated an urban sprawl completely unique in Europe. While certainly composite, peri-urban France represents a social ensemble and a particular slice of French society. However, we should not too quickly assign a contesting power to this segment of the population. Although criticized as unattractive and ecologically aberrant―since peri-urban areas are where the automobile is necessary―they also create more jobs than urban areas and wages are higher there than in urban centers nationwide (Delpirou 2019). It is therefore illusory to limit Gilets Jaunes’ anger to a rejection of fiscal policy, just as it is inappropriate to restrict an understanding of the Gilets Jaunes as a group of motorists from peri-urban France.


The roots of French durable poverty

To understand French poverty, we must examine the liberalization of labor and workers’ destabilization. The Gilets Jaunes’ complain that poverty is rooted in the dynamic of labor markets that started at the end of the 20th century and resulted in considerably impoverishing a whole social class. The direct effect of labor market flexibility is that the burden of market uncertainty rests on the shoulders of employees (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999). From the point of view of internal flexibility, fixed hours concern fewer and fewer employees, and only half of French employees in 1991 admit that their timetable is the same every day (Bloch-London et al. 1994). The real significant evolution relies in subcontracting, which has doubled its participation in industrial turnover between 1974 and 1991. It is through subcontracting that a new functioning of the labor market emerged. This movement of outsourcing considerably increases the share of small establishments in employment.

In parallel, the position of employees has weakened considerably as a result of flexibility. First, temporary jobs flourished from 1985 onwards. Temporary employees, trainees, and short-term contract employees have gradually filled the labor market. From 500,000 “precarious workers” in 1978, they reached the million in the 1980s, constituting 9 percent of all employees in 1996 and representing a total of 1,600,000 people. In addition, part-time work developed strongly in the 1990s, allowing flexibility to maximize peak hours. These contracts and forms of atypical employment have had a major influence on the gradual disappearance of jobs with marked timetables, increasing the segment of the population that worked more or less five days a week, when the number of employees working exactly five days a week fell. All these reforms have enabled companies to generate significant productivity gains, to the detriment of employees (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999).

This throwback to the 1990s is fundamental to explain the current situation and legacies of a social situation that has deteriorated since the end of the twentieth century. Workers’ groups representing the poorest fraction of employees and retirees suffer unsustainable social insecurity. Due to powerful economic constraints (Duvoux 2019), their hopes for improvement in the long term are very weak. For the poorest, it is no longer a question of “falling” into poverty, as it was before, and of living it like an accident. Moreover, poverty has become a perennial trap from which it is not easy to leave. In 2017, 49 percent of working-age people under 30 did not have permanent employment (three youths in ten) and, among young workers, the situation has been even more striking. Perspectives for improvement for those trapped people are getting weaker and weaker.


Participants, not representatives

It is not easy to define the identity of a heterogeneous militant group like the Gilets Jaunes. The first striking conclusion is indeed that this large militant population is mixed. Their mobilization is original in that it is not linked to a specific professional group. The other important point is that the diversification of the movement occurred as the movement itself developed. Undeniably, the “black blocks,” violent protestors wearing only black clothes and black masks in order not to be identified or to be assigned to a particular political label, began to infiltrate the movement as early as December 2018. The latter are neither culturally homogenous nor culturally unified, even if the partisans of this militant technique share a political aesthetic about action in the urban space (Boidy 2018).

It is also difficult to trust that Gilets Jaunes’ representatives can sum up the political or social orientation of the movement as a whole. Maxime Nicole, Eric Drouet, Priscilla Ludovsky, Jerome Rodrigues or Ingrid Levavasseur were indeed quickly repudiated by the different factions within the Gilets Jaunes, when they came forward as representatives. In addition, the regional representatives that were named on the Internet quickly lost local support. A survey conducted by the Elabe society for the Institut Montaigne between December 2018 and January 2019 shows that among the 10,010 respondants, 21 percent (2,083) call themselves “Gilets Jaunes” (Lazar 2019)This has helped define the movement’s profile as the survey indicates that people who self-identify as Gilets Jaunes generally come from rural areas, small towns of less than 2,000 inhabitants, cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants, or the outskirts of large cities. 57 percent of them are employed, 26 percent are blue-collar workers, 21 percent are salaried, and 17 percent receive a small pension from the government.


Gilets Jaunes and trade unions in crisis

The Gilets Jaunes movement is part of the trade union crisis, which dates back to the 1990s, and can be explained by the general weakening of labor defenses in neoliberal economic policy. However, declining union membership throughout the second half of the twentieth century has not settled the crisis of social criticism, even if de-unionization is the main symptom of the weakening of labor. The number of members in the main French unions halved once between 1976 and 1988 and once again between 1988 and 2010, with a particularly impressive loss of memberships in the CGT federation (metal production), which had been the heart of social critique in France. Another way to show that unions have become less influential is through the decline in the number of strike days, which dropped 25 percent in five years, from 1975 to 1980. This trend continues today with another 20 percent loss between 2008 and 2015. It is clear that new business organizations based on flexibility do not favor investment in a union organization. For example, increased workers’ mobility contributes to de-unionization.

The unions joined the Gilets Jaunes movement through an inter-union statement that had little effect. The lack of representation among the Gilets Jaunes and their demands for participatory democracy are an obstacle to the unions weighing in. Unions’ main strength is their militant network that is capable of coordinating actions. With the Gilets Jaunes, unions have been supplanted and overtaken by a robust use of social networks. President Macron, a figure highly disputed by the Gilets Jaunes, has not helped the unions either to play their role (Yon 2018). The public consultation he organized with them on December 10th after consultation with the Minister of Labor, left no trace in the President’s speech that same evening. But even more than their absence, it is the incompetence and the deficiency of the unions that the movement of the Gilets Jaunes revealed. Indeed, the protests have allowed some workers from companies such as Total (flagship company of the French energy sector), to benefit from an exceptional bonus. Moreover, the government cancelled the measure that had triggered the protests in the first place, i.e. the increase in fuel taxes. This constitutes a great victory that was acquired without the support of the unions.


The French State response to the call for participative democracy: the Great Debate

On January 15, 2019, to respond to the wishes of the Gilets Jaunes to participate more in the democratic process, President Emmanuel Macron launched a large national consultation called “the Great National Debate” (Grand Débat National). An array of local institutions and local councils were responsible for writing in grievance books the recommendations and wishes of the French population for improving their daily lives. The idea was to enrol in the democratic process rural areas and to find out the claims of the French, even those who are far from urban centers. In addition to local committees and local deliberative assemblies a platform was created on the internet to gather an even greater number of testimonials. This governmental initiative didn’t satisfy the Gilets Jaunes, as they perceived the Great National Debate as a communication campaign by the government rather than an effort at democratizing public life.

The government’s main response to the Gilets Jaunes’ call for more representative democracy has been the organization of this large-scale, web-based national debate to bring forward reform proposals from the militants themselves. What is striking, however, is the way in which this response has been marred by many problems. We must begin to note that a specific and neutral institution exists in France to address this kind of situation. The National Commission for Public Debate is the competent organ, but the government took charge of the organization of the debate. This caused some doubts as to the neutrality of the initiative (Courant 2019).

Surveys reveal that the average profile of participants in the debate and reflection generated by the Great National Debate is quite different from the average profile of the Gilets Jaunes. For example, the average Grand Débat participant is a 60-year-old man, retired, from a rather comfortable background, and who has a university education. If the claim of representative democracy and citizen engagement brings together most Gilets Jaunes, the deliberation settings established with the Great National Debate did not entice the Gilets Jaunes to participate, although sixteen thousand grievance books were produced. In addition, almost two million (1,932,881) contributions were submitted online. The government has been solely responsible for exploiting this data. The government can choose to be opaque or transparent about it.

The Great National Debate is a perfect illustration of the “presidentialist” drift in the French regime. The proposed return of a previous form of the wealth tax was indeed particularly popular among the Gilets Jaunes. But Emmanuel Macron was strongly opposed to it. Following neoliberal logic, the government’s spokesperson, Benjamin Griveaux, refused to engage in any reform, and instead endorsed the neoliberal profession of faith made famous by Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative.” Was the Great Debate a diversion tactic on the part of the government to build a peaceful form of protest and contain the wrath of the Gilets Jaunes and their desire for representative democracy? Certainly, the Great National Debate and the smaller-scale “great debates” that followed in schools upon the initiative of the Ministry of Education worked to create a peaceful space of protest and thus make violent demonstrations or protests illegitimate.

Recently, the Gilets Jaunes movement had their first anniversary. One year after the movement started, it is still not easy to say what could be the outcome of the phenomenon. Social anger is still there, and the movement is still varied, rallying very diverse political and social groups. Sociologists are therefore condemned to dissatisfaction, as Jacques Rancière pointed out. There is no reason to justify this movement, nor to speak on behalf of its protagonists. The general claims testify to the great social and cultural diversity of the militant forces. There is also much to be said about the violence that drives this movement, the violence of the demonstrators and that of the “blacks blocks,” who have looted and degraded public facilities, but also police violence. As a consequence of the weekly protests, there are currently 11,000 people in custody, 3,000 people on trial and 1,000 people sentenced to prison, an unprecedented crackdown on a social movement.

What does this movement bring for social sciences? First, it provides yet another example of a movement without a leader―“a movement of reasonable crowd” (Cohen 2018)―which seems to have become the norm for social movements in the 21st century, as opposed to the 20th century when social movements were centered around specific leaders. The Gilets Jaunes endorse a strong role in the public space, which becomes an actor in itself, as the whole movement has been about controlling and regaining it. The core of the Gilets Jaunes is comprised of a population that has been neglected and kept out of the public arena. They are the poor and those absent from the media and  from the representative institutions of the Republic.

The other, perhaps more important, contribution this movement makes for social sciences is that it enables an in-depth study of the mechanisms of digital coordination. Several research teams have examined the issue and a conference will take place at SciencesPo Paris in early 2020 on the topic of the role of social networks in the Gilets Jaunes movement. This is not the first time that activists invest new information and communication technologies― the Arab Spring being the first example. However, in the case of the Gilets Jaunes, social networks may have replaced all other coordinating bodies, giving a real momentum to the movement. There are many possible methods of semantic or network analysis that can account for the roles of social networks in such a phenomenon. Like traditional methods in political science, numerical analysis will not produce a set of causal explanations able to accurately depict the movement, but they will make it possible to model it and make some aspects more intelligible and some features more salient. For the rest, there is not much to expect from the elucidation of the great mystery of how crowds are encouraged to sometimes break the course of History.


Benjamin Tainturier graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay in Quantitative Sociology and Demography, and from ESSEC in Media and Digital Economics. He is currently a PhD student at the Medialab of Sciences Po Paris, under the supervision of Dominique Cardon. His work is dedicated to the ways in which online interaction and coordination can help researchers in analyzing social movements, for example in, « La liberté e-limitée ? Structure et générations dans le réseau des militants libertariens français sur internet », Quaderni, 2018/3 (n° 97), p. 69-87.




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[1] « L’explication des raisons pour lesquelles les gens bougent est identique à celle des raisons pour lesquelles ils ne bougent pas. »

Demonstrators with yellow vests (“gilets jaunes” in french) protest against the increase of fuel cost, excessive living costs | Shutterstock
Published on January 16, 2020.


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