Yellow Vests in a New Social Landscape
Who are they, anyway?
Right after the Yellow Vest movement began in France in November, 2018, requests started flowing in from abroad for explanations. Who were these people? To be honest, I couldn’t answer that question with much certainty. Was the movement nothing but a new populist upsurge, an interclassist mix of small-time business owners, independent contractors, and workers? Was it some sort of rightwing or even far-right backlash? As the government flailed around trying to contain it and finally caved in on the fuel tax issue, I realized there was more to this movement than we’d first thought. To sum up positions in the French ultra-left milieus, there were those whose revolutionary purity prevented them from even approaching the Saturday demos, to avoid the risk, I suppose, of contamination. Others exclaimed that this was an insurrection, or—why not?—a revolution. And still others, including myself, simply joined in because the Yellow Vests appeared to be the “enemies of our enemy.”
As we moved through the successive “Acts” (Act 43 on September 7 was the most recent Saturday demo), I became increasingly aware that the Yellow Vests defied definition. Demands arose simultaneously for both more state—hospitals, daycare, schools, doctors, etc.—and less: fewer and lower taxes. Isolated instances of (anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic) racism made the headlines, and ideological confusion was the rule—from demands to protect small shopkeepers or national industries to French flags slung over shoulders bearing personal slogans. Participants in the often violent demos in Paris and other major cities seemed, as time went on, to have less and less in common with the groups blocking or filtering small-town traffic circles. Despite the diversity, however, certain defining features predominated, foremost among them the absolute rejection of all representation (whether self-proclaimed, labor-union, or other) and of politics in general, as well as the movement’s distinctly rural and small-town roots.
Rather than guessing what led the Yellow Vests to unite around seemingly irreconcilable demands, I focused on their origins and revisited Hinterland,1 a thought-provoking book by Phil A. Neel, who shifts his scrutiny from China to the US to describe what he calls a new social landscape.
A mesh of hubs and corridors
As Neel explains, global logistics are needed to coordinate an incredibly complex network producing and circulating an unprecedented volume of goods. A handful of urban cores or megacities form the nodes or hubs from which international supply chains branch out. Inner-ring suburbs house poorer residents forced out by high rents plus recently arrived migrants (domestic or foreign) employed in low-wage jobs. On the outer fringes just beyond, “logistics-industrial spaces” bring into play new digital technologies and advances in air and sea freight systems. These logistics hubs are dedicated to manufacturing, wholesaling, warehousing, and transportation. Located along transit routes, they are big employers and gluttons for space (to facilitate loading and unloading). This “near hinterland” expands laterally in corridors, along which containers, parcels, unpackaged commodities and unfinished goods are sorted, processed, packaged and transferred to another mode of transportation. Finally, the corridors narrow as they go further from these hubs, until they ultimately reach the rural spaces Neel calls the “far hinterland.”
According to Neel, this very general layout is essentially an international “geography.” For us, it can serve as a tool in identifying and understanding common threads, despite very significant differences between China, the US, and, say, France.
Deindustrialization began in the American rust belt roughly 50 years ago, Europe soon followed suit and, since the 2008 crisis, even China has seen a wave of factory closures. In the post-crisis “jobless recovery,” more jobs and increasing profitability in the service sector have paralleled stagnating GDP growth and rising worker precarity (both un- and underemployed). The income gap within the so-called developed countries continues to widen. Cores and corridors become hubs for wealthy “creatives” and global financiers, while rural regions, including those with some industrial activity (factory farms, massive logistics complexes, power generation, resource extraction, etc.), turn into wastelands; in the “near hinterland,” whole cities slide into poverty while the suburbs, having lost their middle classes, become black ghettos or immigrant slums.
In China, megacities with populations of 10 million or more sometimes cluster to form mega-regions such as Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong. Shenzhen was a medium-size market town surrounded by marshlands until 1980, when it was designated China’s first Special Economic Zone, signaling the country’s opening to the global economy. Migrant workers flooded into the “villages” north of Shenzhen, following the more labor-intensive industries as they spread further and further out from the urban core. Closer in, new industrial zones were upgraded to capital-intensive, high-tech production. In China as a whole, however, certain countertendencies have slowed urban concentration: decades of suppressed migration as well as solid arable land protections. In 2015, China’s population was officially “only” 56 percent urban.
In the US, cities account for 90 percent of the country’s total economic output (in 2011), concentrated in high-end activities—FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate), business services (law firms, marketing agencies), high-tech and other “creative class” professions. Encircling those islands of affluence, a near hinterland of industrial-logistics spaces gradually fades into a far hinterland of agriculture, underground economy, largely abandoned fields, factories, and forests. Economic output in the metropolitan counties is twice that of the near and far hinterland (in 2015). Way out there, the illegal (weed, meth, and opiate production) and shadow (informal but legal) economies account for roughly half of all employment; the other half works primarily in educational services and healthcare, manufacturing, farming, mining, and government-dependent or recreational-dependent jobs. With the demise of productive industries, people increasingly depend on public-sector jobs, which, too, are on the decline due to spending cutbacks.
Industry, more expansive than ever, has reshaped the globe in an unprecedented wave of urbanization. The capitalist mode of production permeates virtually everywhere. Networks of logistics infrastructure stretch across the hinterland; dense at the outskirts of major metropolitan zones, they thin out towards the far hinterland of farms and wastelands. The surplus proletariat distributed along the major corridors depends for survival on economic links with the downtown core. They experience separation, even fragmentation: “Each individual is gradually alienated from all others as the heart of production becomes more opaque, the connection between every node in the supply chain more distant, and the basic infrastructure of the world more complex.”2
How does France fit in?
The urban sprawl typical of the US contrasts with the layout of European cities, characterized by a medieval heritage of highly dense urban cores. Beyond such differences, however, the “new social geography” identified by French geographer Christophe Guilluy is strikingly similar to Neel’s “new social landscape.” Guilluy, often accused of being politically incorrect or even conservative, warned as early as 2014 of the emergence of a counter-society in zones distant from the major urban cores. He proposes a typology contrary to that of the official statistics institute, INSEE, for which 95 percent of the population lives “under urban influence.” France, he writes, is divided in two: on the one hand, densely populated metropolitan zones benefiting from the global economy and, on the other, a fragile, popular, “peripheral France,”3 encompassing smaller cities and towns as well as rural areas. According to his typology, the former account for just under 40 percent of the total population, and the latter, 61 percent (vs. the official figures of 83 and 17 percent respectively).
Guilluy describes a “new reality,” that of ordinary workers, employees, farmers, self-employed, unemployed, young people, pensioners, most of whom get by with less, sometimes much less, than the median income. The conventional distinctions between workers and employees, between manufacturing and the service industries, tend to disappear. Unlike the better-off populations of the megacities or the more recent, extremely poor immigrants of the inner-ring suburbs, the new popular categories, evicted from the production process formerly located in and around cities, live in the “far hinterland.”
As France adjusted to a globalized economy, its major cities went through a bidirectional process of deindustrialization and gentrification. Industry relocated abroad, but also to semi-urban and rural areas, where mass manufacturing sites gave way to smaller production units. As the proportion of white and blue-collar workers in the megacities declined, executives, managerial staff, and professionals moved in to meet rising demand for a highly skilled workforce.
According to recent estimates, two thirds of France’s GDP are generated in the megacities, one third of it in the greater Paris area alone. Like the majority of industrialized countries, most goods and services are produced in just a few large cities. Their economies have over the years specialized in sectors closely interlinked with the global economy and offering a high growth potential: R&D, intellectual activities, management, finance, commerce (logistics and transportation), culture, and recreational services.
The same polarization operates in the job market: demand for labor in the gentrified megacities is dynamic enough, despite the wide inequality gap, to allow for economic and social integration of the immigrant populations living in the inner-ring suburbs. The greater metropolitan areas appear to have lost their middle classes, leaving on the one hand the wealthier categories, whether traditional bourgeoisie or yuppies, and on the other, recent and most likely precarious immigrants. Nevertheless, Guilluy claims, the most integrated or educated households among the latter succeed in moving out of those neighborhoods, forming a “new middle class.” Hence, he concludes, insofar as the liberal social model is capable of adjusting to the emergence of a multicultural society, “inequality works.”
Far away from the most active labor pools, in contrast, many workers live in deindustrialized areas where unemployment is rising and most jobs are low-skill and precarious. The century-long depopulation of the French countryside plateaued in the 1970s, and the rural population actually increased in the years leading up to 2007—often people who could no longer afford to live in or around a megacity. “Suburbanization” on the outskirts of towns created a kind of urban sprawl of shops, services, and small industry. This “peripheral France” was hit particularly hard by the 2008 crisis. Towns lost much of their remaining industry, and only public-sector and home-care service jobs helped offset the deteriorating employment situation. At the same time, the State began shutting down public services in the provinces, such as schools, hospitals, and maternity clinics, even as cafes and shops were going out of business. Real-estate values declined, people had more and more difficulty making ends meet, what with home mortgages, debt and insolvency, and, more immediately, the cost of owning a car to commute long distances to work.
Growing rural discontent first boiled over in late 2013. Trouble broke out in western France over major layoffs in a food processing plant and a new “ecotax” on trucks. Gantries were demolished in protest, and workers started demonstrating alongside employers, farmers, and truck drivers in a clearly interclassist movement known as the “Bonnets Rouges” (red caps). For once, revolt was brewing, not in the region’s major cities, but in small and medium-size towns and the countryside. The trigger was downsizing, the ever more frequent layoffs in recent decades decided by companies too small to afford workers the protection of government-sponsored restructuring plans.
The gap continued to widen, not just between economic categories but also between regions. The mobility in the globalized megacities and surrounding immigrant neighborhoods contrasts with the relatively sedentary conditions, generally imposed rather than chosen, in the far hinterland. Public transportation is poor or nonexistent there, and commuting by car can consume as much as a quarter of the minimum wage. In areas where industry has been all but wiped out, an executive will move his family to another county, whereas a working-class family can at best afford to move to an adjacent area with at least some employment.
Then the Yellow Vests sprang up out of nowhere.
On Saturday, November 17, 2018, some 120 thousand to a million people donned yellow vests and turned out to protest a tax hike on gas and diesel fuel. Interestingly, the geography of Yellow Vest participation over subsequent weeks echoed the changing social landscape described by Christophe Guilluy four years earlier, as well as Neel’s far hinterland. Unlike the Bonnets Rouges, this time the movement spread throughout France, with the exception, initially, of the wealthy megacities and their inner rings of suburbs. It was most massive in what has been baptized the “Diagonale du Vide” (or ‘empty diagonal,’ so called for its low population density), a swath stretching roughly northeast-to-southwest through central France, but also more broadly, into the distant suburban and rural areas where cars have become a vital necessity. A demographer, Hervé Le Bras, has compared the number of Yellow Vest demonstrators (official police figures) to the total population in each of the French administrative départements; his map shows that the smallest, least populous départements had the largest proportion of Yellow Vests.
The Yellow Vests are not so much desperately poor as they are economically precarious, meaning that any change—in the cost of fuel, for instance—can signal disaster. Lacking reserves, they are, in their vast majority, proletarian, whether they recognize their class identity or not. Workers in small or medium-size companies, low-level civil servants, unemployed or pensioners, they most often pay taxes and earn less than the median wage, although too much for eligibility to State benefits. Even though their description of themselves as “the people” or “citizens” and their demand for “real democracy” recall earlier interclassist movements in France and elsewhere, their class composition is not essentially interclassist.4 In fact, Yellow Vests frequently undertake actions jointly with strikers, who are in many cases their coworkers. To cite just a few examples: strikers, including numerous Yellow Vests, blockaded an Airbus subcontractor near Toulouse; Ford-Blanquefort strikers marched with Yellow Vests in Bordeaux, and together they occupied a Ford dealership; Yellow Vests helped strikers filter trucks entering an Amazon site in northern France; workers at logistics company Geodis in the Paris area have since the beginning joined Yellow Vest demos and “beautiful blockades” (sic!), as well as striking against their warehouse.
Beyond fluorescent vests, the movement found unity in its participants’ social and economic conditions at the far hinterland of capitalism’s changing landscape, slaving away to make ends meet. This new geography challenges the traditional image of the industrial working class. It is time we looked more closely and realistically at what defines the proletariat in today’s “developed” countries, where most of us here live, work, and struggle.
Now, as the leaves turn yellow in France’s countryside, Saturday’s demonstrations made a strong comeback: a cop car torched, tear gas and flashballs, more wounded, more arrests. The Yellow Vest movement’s field of action had apparently shifted over the summer from the rural traffic circle to the city and, in addition, participation was far from massive. Political groups and the labor unions are making inroads, seemingly undermining the movement’s anti-representation, anti-political identity. Yet the Yellow Vests have repeatedly proven their ability to surprise, so rather than writing their obituary, I’m impatient to see how the Fall “rentrée” unfolds!
- Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict, Reaktion Books, 2018
- Hinterland, p. 47.
- La France Périphérique: Comment On A Sacrifié les Classes Populaires (Paris: Flammarion, 2014).
- See also "Gilets Jaunes, quel est votre métier?," Episode 2 of "Sur les Gilets Jaunes," Tristan Leoni, May 2019.