Over a span of 13 months, the Yellow Vests have mobilized citizens throughout France and beyond, bringing direct democracy back into public discussion. Like other new forms of grassroots mobilizations, they have refused to name leaders and formalize their structures. Who are the Gilets Jaunes (or the Yellow Vests) and what do they want? The question – asked by The Guardianin February 2019– captures the increased uncertainty over (collective) identity in the digitally-mediated contemporary social movements. The movement itself has drawn heavily from populist rhetoric to legitimize their demands. “Our objective is to give decision-making power back to the people, by the people, for the people”, explains one of the movement’s call for action in Saint Nazare (our translation and emphasis).
A bone of contention: who are “the people”?
A central trope of populism, ‘the people’ promises to be a simple and inclusive, yet highly potent message calling upon disparate individuals to recognize themselves in the plea of the movement. Like Occupy’s slogan – ‘We are the 99%’ – ‘le peuple’ can be easily personalized – and each individual story of injustice becomes a reflection of the collective experience. But how can populist rhetoric work for grassroots mobilizations? Populist discourses revolve around the opposition between people and their elites, and highlight the injustices faced by the former because of the latter. In providing a simplistic and polarizing picture that positions ‘honest’ people against ‘devious’ elites, populist rhetoric offers a culprit to those who feel deceived as well as a sense of shared experience. In French, the rich semantic ambiguity and connotations of ‘le peuple’ make it a suitable resource to articulate populist discourses. ‘Le peuple’ can refer to the civic or the ethnic nation; to the commoners or the folk; to the individuals present in a certain place; or, to the citizen body as a whole. More importantly, in the French tradition, ‘le peuple’ gains its meaning in opposition to two other terms: the bourgeoisie and the government. As such, it has an anti-elite and anti-establishment ring to it that echoes populist rhetoric. While political and technocratic elites have become the Other of ‘le peuple’, the latter is the French Republic. Indeed, the recurrent references to Marianne and to the slogan ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ in the iconography and the repertoire of the Gilets Jaunes frequently invoke the history of the French revolutions of 1789 and 1848 and representations of ‘le peuple’ taking power back from the elites.
Take the case of former boxer Christophe Dettinger. During the protests in early January 2019, images of him hitting a police officer have gone viral. Before surrendering to the police, Dettinger chose, in the only manner appropriate for someone of ‘le peuple’, to post his confession on “the people’s” channel, YouTube:
“I am a regular citizen, I work, I almost make it to the end of the month, but it is complicated. I protested for all the pensioners, for the future of my children, for the single women… I am a Gilet Jaune. I have the anger of the people in me.”
Within a day, an online fundraising to help Dettinger cover his legal expenses raised more than 100,000 euros. The viral nature of the fundraiser only served to reinforce the idea of ‘le peuple’ as a multitude, as a majority. Soon, however, the fundraiser became a bone of contention: “the rule of law, the republic order must be respected”, the French foreign affairs minister explained , “there is a real suffering among a part of the Gilets Jaunes caused by the uncertainty of the future, but this does not justify violence”. With a quick turn of phrases, the minister put Dettinger’s claim to representing ‘le peuple’ in doubt, for it was only ‘a part’ of the Gilets Jaunes who seemed to bear the responsibility for violence. Furthermore, it was not just the policeman who was attacked, but the Republic itself. Within hours, two equally viral counter-fundraisers appeared in support of the police. Symbolically, the two gathered even more money than the first, suggesting that Dettinger and the Gilets Jaunes he claimed to represent remain but a part of the citizen body.
“The people”, the container and the content
Indeed, as the debates over the Gilets Jaunes continued throughout early 2019, another event destabilized the movement’s identity as ‘le peuple’. This time, the challenge came from another citizen-led and digitally enabled mobilization. While smaller and more episodic in nature, the Foulards Rouges (the Red Scarves) voiced their disapproval of the violence marring the weekly protests. Positioning themselves as ‘the majority’ who had stayed ‘silent’ throughout the previous weeks of protests, the Foulards Rouges organizers explained : “300,000 Gilets Jaunes at the height of the mobilization. This is 1% of the electorate. This is not the people!”.
As the Gilets Jaunes returned to roundabouts and the streets week after week, the ‘exceptional’ character of their mobilization began to wear off. Media coverage became increasingly drawn to the spectacular. The defacing of the Arc de Triomphe in December 2018 and the anti-Semitic incidents of February 2019 were dissected and commented upon by social actors. In an article to Le Monde ,a French writer reminded the audience of the necessity to question who speaks on behalf of the ‘nation’ and for what purposes. Deploring the exclusions and excesses of some of the protesters, the article warned: ‘Dear Gilets Jaunes, we are all the people’.
The mobilizing power of ‘le peuple’ remains under question. While able to stir up emotional reactions, the central concept of populism remains highly contested. Particularly in the context of a social movement, which unfolds over longer periods of time, this contestation is bound to create trouble. In fact, in the long run, ‘le peuple’ may end up working against a movement’s goal of bringing in as many new people as possible. In the case of the Gilets Jaune, ‘le peuple’ initially worked in an inclusive manner, allowing the movement to call upon both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum. Yet, this did not last for too long, as soon ‘le peuple’ turned into a contentious identity. Dissent within the movement and the various politicians jumping on the bandwagon of claiming ‘le peuple’ for their own agendas placed disagreement at the heart of the public debate, further casting doubt on the very idea of ‘le peuple’. Populist rhetoric lends itself well to grassroot mobilization discourses albeit in a limited manner: it offers a container but no content. As an empty signifier (Laclau, 1996), ‘le peuple’ remains an elusive discursive strategy likely to shift from an inclusive to a conflicting resource.
A version of this article has appeared in Dutch in the Sociale Vraggstukken.