The “Yellow Vest” Movement in France, Populism and the Danger of Fascism



Editors’ note: We received the following contribution from a reader. Since the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement in France is significant, we thought it important that people have access to an understanding of this movement, and where things could go. While the reader alerts us to the dangers that fascists seize on this movement toward their aims, it is important to recognize that the future is unwritten.

We really encourage readers to engage with the following from Bob Avakian: from his talk last summer, Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution, a Q&A clip on the rising fascist trends across the world; and the orientation captured in his 2011 statement on the Arab Spring in Egypt, on what is sorely needed at such times of upsurge and ferment.

The “yellow vest” movement that exploded unexpectedly last November plunged France into more intense political turmoil than Western Europe has seen in many decades. It’s marked by the particularities of French society and somewhat unique. Yet it’s very much a manifestation of the same economic, social, political, and ideological changes driven by the workings of the global imperialist system that are roiling every country. As such, it’s full of lessons.

The movement arose and remains based in people who consider themselves “lower middle class”—small-business owners and their employees, tradesmen, health workers, early retirees, etc.—in towns and small cities geographically and socially remote from the capital. The industrial jobs many small towns used to depend on are gone. So have many of their inhabitants. They moved to Paris and the country’s few other big cities where globalization has brought some good-paying jobs and lots of gigs serving the better off.

These people have found their lives increasingly centered on their vehicles as health care and other services, local stores, and public transportation vanish in vast rural areas. The spark that set them on fire came from President Emmanuel Macron’s edicts reducing the speed limit on rural roads and especially hiking diesel fuel prices. People who ordinarily live without much sense of community were called together by social media. With little organization and few recognized leaders, they gathered in supermarket parking lots and then paralyzed traffic by occupying roundabouts and blocking strategic roadways, wearing yellow safety vests. When the police began destroying their encampments, and seeing they had broad support among working people in general, the yellow vests began to “occupy” Paris and regional capitals every Saturday, often trashing symbols of power and wealth, fighting pitched battles with police and sometimes beating them back, seeking to take over parliament and other main government buildings, and even threatening to bust into the presidential palace and forcibly eject Macron.

Over time the movement’s demands evolved to include “fairer” taxation, “decent living standards” for all, and the holding of citizen referendums to determine major government policies. Still the most surprising thing is the contrast between the ferocity of the struggle on both sides and the movement’s limited aims that, instead of radical change, harken back to the way France used to be, or at least was supposed to be.

So far, the police rubber bullets, stun grenades with deadly shrapnel, beatings, and point-blank teargas spray have injured thousands of protesters. At least 17 have died, 21 lost an eye, and 10 a hand. The extent and level of officially ordered bloody repression is common against oppressed people in places like Palestine, Egypt, and Bangladesh but seldom aimed at predominantly “white” crowds in Europe.

The movement has persisted in the face of that because it’s driven by something much larger than its demands—a bitter sense of injustice, a resentment that people like them “don’t count anymore,” a need for dignity instead of feeling looked down upon by those at the top of a society who unfairly refuse to share the wealth. People are willing to take risks because they consider that what they call “the system” has become illegitimate and refuse to accept it anymore.

But the real system is not just a government of “the rich” and their politicians. France is ruled by representatives of French capital and what it needs to survive by amassing ever greater amounts of capital. The situation the yellow vests are revolting against was created by rapid development of capital itself on a world level, including increasingly intense globalized capitalist competition. This is tearing apart the old social fabric in country after country, making them unrecognizable to their inhabitants. In Western Europe, it’s undermining the social democratic “social contract,” established amid the post-World War 2 political turmoil, in which people accepted subordination to capital’s needs in return for a secure basic standard of living and the expectation of better days for their children. Social changes have challenged the traditional values that held society together and hollowed out the civic institutions that structured people’s lives, from the Church to trade unions. This has major consequences for how people are tempted to think, including what they consider a just society and political legitimacy. These are among the factors at work in the rise of fascism in continental Europe, the popular appeal of Brexit in the UK and, of course, much of the social base of Donald Trump.

This doesn’t at all mean that the yellow vests are fascists. But when a movement proclaims that its goal is a “revolution,” the content of that has to be judged differently than, say, strikes against pay cuts. In fact, its stubborn and self-proclaimed “non-ideological” character signals a problem: it welcomes the participation of everyone who supports its demands, including open fascists, and in the name of that “unity” refuses to take a stand on today’s major dividing-line issues in France: whether new immigrants should be welcomed or drowned; whether people from immigrant backgrounds and others should be confined to housing project ghettos, brutalized by the police, and kept at the bottom of society; whether women exist to be sex objects and mothers, and people of non-traditional gender orientations should get rights or beatings; stepped-up French intervention in West Africa and the Middle East; and whether or not the planet should be saved from environmental catastrophe. Some people from other social movements have flocked to the yellow vests, but this movement stays aloof.

As for “share the wealth,” that’s a reactionary slogan. The wealth of France, like all imperialist countries, was not created mainly by the generations of hard work of “the French.” It first came from the slave trade and hideous plantation slavery in the French Antilles, and the centuries-old and ongoing pitiless plunder of French neo-colonies that enabled France’s current top-ward position in a globalized economy and a world divided into oppressor and oppressed countries. The objective question is: stand with the people of the world and ultimately humanity, or cling to the relative and petty privileges that come from being considered part of “the people” in an imperialist country and stand with “your” ruling class as part of its efforts to unite “our people” against the world’s peoples and other imperialists. Populism tends toward nationalism, and this is where imperialist-country nationalism takes people.

Without overthrowing and uprooting this imperialist system, no country anywhere can become a place fully fit for human beings. Otherwise, people will never be free to fully satisfy their desires to escape the confinement of stultifying conditions, subject to the rule of money and the disdain of their “betters,” spending their lives in enforced backwardness, and forbidden to take part in transforming a hateful world and bringing into being a truly new one where everyone can realize their potential as full human beings as part of the collective emancipation of humanity. The movement’s biggest problem is not where it came from but its own extremely limited horizons. It represents an outlook that can’t break capital’s hold on society, and capital’s objective needs make the movement’s aims impossible to realize.

The objective political context makes this even more dangerous. A powerful part of the old political mainstream has embraced the fascism long espoused by the politician Marine Le Pen, at this point Macron’s only real political rival. Among yellow vest figures calling for an “insurrection,” one of the most prominent is counting on fascist sympathizers at the top of the military. Unlike the yellow vests, the fascists do have a realizable program: a different, fascist form of capitalist rule that claims to embrace yellow vest demands. The more France is embroiled in crisis, the more a fascist solution could become acceptable to a now divided ruling class. This situation, more than the yellow vest movement itself, explains why the Macron government feels its survival is at stake. What comes out of the current political crisis is not going to be up to the yellow vests.


It is important first to make clear what, in basic terms, we mean when we say the goal is revolution, and in particular communist revolution. Revolution is not some kind of change in style, or a change in attitude, nor is it merely a change in certain relations within a society which remains fundamentally the same. Revolution means nothing less than the defeat and dismantling of the existing, oppressive state, serving the capitalist-imperialist system—and in particular its institutions of organized violence and repression, including its armed forces, police, courts, prisons, bureaucracies and administrative power—and the replacement of those reactionary institutions, those concentrations of reactionary coercion and violence, with revolutionary organs of political power, and other revolutionary institutions and governmental structures, whose basis has been laid through the whole process of building the movement for revolution, and then carrying out the seizure of power, when the conditions for that have been brought into being—which in a country like the U.S. would require a qualitative change in the objective situation, resulting in a deep-going crisis in society, and the emergence of a revolutionary people in the millions and millions, who have the leadership of a revolutionary communist vanguard and are conscious of the need for revolutionary change and determined to fight for it.

As I emphasized earlier in this talk, the seizure of power and radical change in the dominant institutions of society, when the conditions for this have been brought into being, makes possible further radical change throughout society—in the economy and economic relations, the social relations, and the politics, ideology and culture prevailing in society. The final aim of this revolution is communism, which means and requires the abolition of all relations of exploitation and oppression and all destructive antagonistic conflicts among human beings, throughout the world. Understood in this light, the seizure of power, in a particular country, is crucial and decisive, and opens the door to further radical change, and to strengthening and further advancing the revolutionary struggle throughout the world; but, at the same time, as crucial and decisive as that is, it is only the first step—or first great leap—in an overall struggle which must continue toward the final goal of this revolution: a radically new, communist world.

Bob Avakian, BAsics 3:3


Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution

A speech by Bob Avakian
In two parts:


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Q&A: The rise of fascism & struggle in international communist movement.

A Q&A following the speech: Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution.

A Statement By Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA
February 11, 2011


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