Media Rebuttal: The #YellowVests movement is not ‘nihilism’

Ben Wray

David Jamieson finds media coverage on BBC, The Guardian and Bloomberg of the Yellow Vests movement in France has at best misunderstood what is really going on, ant worst deliberately misconstrued what is a rational response to national crisis

THE Yellow Vests movement, initially against a tax increase on fuel but transforming into a generalised revolt against the French government and state, faces a slew of misinterpretations from the media.

The movement has engaged peaceful road blocking as well as demonstrations, but recent days have seen growing clashes between some Yellow Vests and the police. 

As has become commonplace with the rise of mass social movements and the growth of political forces outside the ‘centre ground’ in recent decades, media narratives have focused on the supposed lack of political perspectives of the Yellow Vests.

“Professionals in causing disorder”

Inevitably this includes the claim that the actions of the movement, especially when it moved from civil disobedience to direct confrontation with the police, are promoted by secretive agents betraying the original aims of the movement. French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner called them “professionals in causing disorder”, who they claimed had infiltrated the movement and begun causing violence.

This claim has a very long lineage among European establishments. Indeed, in rightwing histories of the French Revolution, the idea of ‘outside agitators’ hijacking a French movement for reform is an essential item.

The media picked up on Castaner’s claims, and began disseminating them uncritically. On Sunday and Monday (2-3 December) as violence escalated, BBC News 24 correspondents and presenters made repeated claims that groups of “professional rioters” had infiltrated the movement. No shred of evidence was ever presented of this. No explanation waas given for which conspiracy was paying the rioters money (as the phrase ‘professional’ clearly implies).

Facebook or class anger?

Another claim made on BBC News 24 by a correspondent in Paris was that “this is the French insurrectionist tradition meeting Facebook”. This is a quaintly dated claim, Facebook now being almost 15 years old, and France being rocked by mass protest on a yearly or bi-yearly basis in all those years.

A Bloomberg article makes a series of hyperventilated claims that Facebook is practically the sole instigator of the mass movement. It mocks Yellow Vest demands made on movement Facebook pages as incoherent. Perhaps most complacently, it argues that the increase in the cost of fuel is “not a major outrage”.

“…The government’s decision to raise taxes by 7.6 cents per litter on diesel and 3.9 cents per litter on gasoline. This isn’t a major outrage. For someone filling a 50-liter tank with diesel every week, the hike means 15.2 euros ($17.3) a month…,” the Bloomberg article stated.

This simply underestimates the extent of impoverishment of French citizens in recent years. Shortly before the protest movement emerged, a report by the French aid charity Secours Populair found that one in five French people could no longer afford to eat properly, and 59 per cent felt their material standing had diminished. The base of the movement comes from deindustrialised parts of France, which have been left to stagnate in recent decades. The kindling was all there, the fuel tax increase simply lit a match.

Nihlism, or social movement intelligence?

In a relentlessly pompous article about the Yellow Vests, Guardian writer John Lichfield raves against the “random, hysterical hatred” and “nihilist detestation of democratic institutions and symbols of success and wealth” of “blindly angry people” destroying “some of the smartest streets of Paris”.

But there is already ample evidence that significant parts of the movement are politically conscious and articulate actors. And the ultimate proof of the rational nature of their activities – they are winning.

The fuel tax increase has now been suspended for six months by French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. That could well mean it’s gone for good, but the French Government are too vulnerable to admit this.

Only the masses can resolve the French crisis 

President Macron himself vowed he would never bow to public pressure against his ‘reforms’: largely attacks on public provisions and workers’ rights. Now he is besieged on all sides by a convergence of antagonists around the Yellow Vests – including school students, trade unions, anti-racist groups and groups of emergency workers from ambulance drivers and firefighters to even some Police units. Macron’s popularity, already at an historic low ebb, has now crashed completely with 76 per cent now disproving of the president.

Some in the movement are already rejecting this gesture. One told a French TV channel: “Our demands are much bigger than this moratorium. They’ve got to stop hitting the wallets of the small earners. We want a better distribution of wealth, salary increases. It’s about the whole baguette, not just the crumbs.”

None of this means that all the protestors hold identical or coherent politics, or that there is no threat from the far-right attempting to take control of the movement’s narrative. But the demands for the end of the government, for wealth redistribution and a total rethink of the social order now cover the streets of French cities. And that is the very opposite of ‘nihilism’.

Picture: Thomas Bresson