At the Grassroots of Populism: Yellow Vests, Red Fury

Illustration by  Eddie Stok

Illustration by Eddie Stok


PARIS IS RECOVERING FROM THE FURY OF THE GILETS JAUNES, whose regular Saturday presence has left behind the symbolic weight of their reflective vests, their shared political grievances, and their will to confront the establishment. After nearly half a year, the movement has deflated. Despite the protesters' roaring cries for greater recognition within the national community, only a core faction of the Gilets Jaunes endures and continues to disrupt the “business-as-usual” political process.

While populism has often been associated with strong leadership and inflammatory rhetoric, it is difficult to imagine how the leaderless Gilets Jaunes have resisted any sort of hierarchical leadership—even though some individuals have attempted to take on the role of spokesperson. Yet, their effect on domestic policy has been as disruptive as the presence of radical populist parties in other Western democracies. Their reluctance to define themselves within the political spectrum underlines the movement’s contempt for structured politics, and exacerbates its uniqueness as a grassroots populist movement. While other movements—including Nuits Debouts, whose progressive tendencies echoed Spain’s Los Idignados—maintained a strong attachment to leftist political values, the Gilets Jaunes remain at the periphery of all identification with the left-right political divide. In that regard, it might be the first instance of leaderless grassroots populism in Western Europe.  

The spontaneity of the Gilets Jaunes as a movement and their self-identification as “the people” are perhaps the most significant aspects of the movement’s resilience in the face of increased policing.


Though many of the Gilets Jaunes’ demands are far-reaching, the movement’s strong sense of solidarity and group identity is based not only on shared political grievances, but more importantly, on a general disdain for President Macron. In this, it shares commonality with traditional populist parties whose rhetoric divides the “elites” from “the people.” For the Gilets Jaunes, Macron's policies are catered to the interests of the financial elite, leaving the "real people" to fend for themselves.

The spontaneity of the Gilets Jaunes as a movement and their self-identification as “the people” are perhaps the most significant aspects of the movement’s resilience in the face of increased policing. Here, the lack of leadership has allowed the movement to consolidate and strengthen its identity through the sheer flexibility of the way it has defined “the people” as anyone who feels left behind by specific policies and with a chain of political grievances. Contrary to traditional populist parties, which coalesce around a strong leader, the Gilets Jaunes are a manifestation of the purest form of populist identification, whose collective will remains untarnished by the will of any single person.

While this fluid identity has permitted a vast array of individuals to join the movement, it has also provided the space for disruptive individuals to use the movement as a means to express extremist views. Recent incidents of radical nationalist vandalism have branded the movement with a much more sinister undertone, delegitimizing the movement’s capacity to be anything other than reactionary and disruptive. More significantly, the multiple instances of anti-semitism instigated by members of the movement reveal a deeper and highly problematic notion of “peoplehood,” which seemingly includes only specific factions of French society.

Even though the leaderless nature of the Gilets Jaunes has allowed for all members to have a say in the movement’s identity, it also implies significant internal discrepancy—including the multiplication of outlier demands and a struggle to voice a homogenous political discourse, as seen in the diverse outbursts of nationalism. But, the bottom line is that the Gilets Jaunes’ political grievances are shared by majority of the French population’s concerns over unemployment, taxation and pensions which have been at the heart of the political debate since the 2008 crisis.

Although President Macron revoked the fuel tax in order to appease the dissension, his crack-down on labor laws in January 2017, as well as his restructuring of the wealth tax which now exempts investment wealth and applies only to property holdings, has only furthered the impression that his government is not addressing the issues that the French care about. Despite fewer numbers of protesters on the streets, the movement’s members and sympathizers represent a significant portion of the French electorate. And if French politicians don’t respond concretely to their disaffection, their rejection of the traditional left-right party divide could soon manifest itself in a renewed and more pronounced support for the parties found on the extremes.


This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue

This Is Not An Elections Issue
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