Yellow Vests: crowd or people? People or populism? Researchers have their work cut out in 2019! In the meantime, the topic is so divisive that many arguments will rage around the Christmas dinner table. For the time being, then, let us content ourselves with a common sense observation: “En marche” or not on the march, France has not been able to escape the global political cycle that has been unfolding over the past few years , not only at election time but also in between elections. Today, this cycle is redefining political boundaries; tomorrow, make no mistake, it will force institutional change.
This cycle has been building up for 50 years or so; the 2009 crisis “merely” served to speed up the process, as have the migrant crisis and terror attacks. The structural causes are the same everywhere; however, they are expressed differently depending on each country’s political and historical characteristics. Understanding the nature of the Yellow Vests, then, is a matter of seeing what this movement has in common with other countries, and what sets it apart. Finally, in terms of method of approach, let us bear in mind that, while these crises all have the same economic components, linked to social and spatial inequalities as well as the impoverishment of the middle class, their sociological and cultural dimensions are politically just as powerful and often underestimated. As such, the Yellow Vests’ demands concern not only purchasing power but also the legitimacy of institutions and of the economic system itself. This brutal rejection of the established political class, combined with the usual demands, can be seen in all democracies in crisis. It is this combination that makes analysis difficult and confounds those in power.
Of the deep sociological causes of western political upheaval, the crisis of confidence in political elites and institutions is the oldest, dating back as far as the 1970s. Its symptoms? Abstention, a lack of interest in parties and trade unions and increased awareness of corruption. In France, 75% of citizens now think of politicians as corrupt; this weakening of legitimacy is also reflected in the World Bank’s Corruption Perceptions Index. However, this distrust of politicians is not to be confused with politics itself, in which two thirds of French people claim to be interested. Among the Yellow Vests, 33% claim to be “apolitical”; of those reporting a political affiliation, 15% claim to be far left, 5% far right, 42% left and 13% right. However, opinion polls remain patchy. The reasons are many, summarised in the Edelman indicator: technological advances and globalisation are fuelling political anxiety that is dividing the population into those categories that benefit from or think they can adapt to change and those that are adversely affected by or afraid of change.
This global crisis of confidence is explained first of all by the fact that growing inequalities have created the feeling that it is always the same people who benefit from the system, irrespective of which party is in power. Furthermore, debt crises are always followed, about five years down the line, by the rise of extremist parties and increased social unrest, with each social class blaming others for “not paying enough”. Lastly, all over the western world, the size of public administrations has led to higher taxes and greater rejection of taxation, also reflecting the difficulty of governing. More dangerously still, according to Hannah Arendt, bloated government creates a “tyranny of the invisible” – i.e. a government that is not held accountable for its actions. Powerless citizens may then prefer – said Arendt as long ago as the 1970s – “seditious action”…
Lastly, distrust – and governments’ inability to measure it – arises from geo-economic divisions linked to growing disparities in regional rates of unemployment, the concentration of poverty, and “metropolisation”. Everywhere you look, the effects of the concentration of wealth, culture and education have won out over diffusion effects… And the more highly concentrated are people in the same category, the more educational and cultural differences grow, and the more elites are physically cut off from reality. In short, inequalities become more visible but are not seen. And social ladders get jammed up at the same time as elites come to resemble each other more and more closely: according to Elise Brezis, 50% of political personnel in OECD countries are recruited from little over 50 schools. Yet Aristotle had warned us: a society’s ability to find an optimal political structure depends on how it recruits its elites.
The result in France? As far back as 2016, Crédoc showed that 51% of French people felt they were facing difficulties that the public authorities and media did not see. This invisibility presaged the “Rabelaisian” nature, highlighted by Peter Sloterdijk, of these Yellow Vests desperate to be seen, to whom the internet has offered the “splendid and tragic promise” that there is no longer anyone in charge, and that, as in a carnival, anyone can be king for five minutes on a news channel… Already in 2016, the categories expressing this “invisibility” were 49-59-year-olds from the lower middle class, who are today blockading roundabouts, with 47% of them claiming never to have previously attended a demonstration. Meanwhile, media hype around suburban revolts has turned this uneasiness into anger in peripheral France – the topic of heated debate around Christophe Guilluy’s book, which pointed out peripheral France’s uneasiness faced with urban metropolises where per capita GDP is 50% higher than elsewhere in France.
Meanwhile, the permanent state of surprise of western elites is in itself an indicator of this cultural divide. In France, the collapse of the traditional parties has only increased it, by bolstering the presidential nature of the regime. One final point: populist leaders have themselves been caught off guard – something that has never before happened with populist movements in Europe. Importantly, this implies that they too are not immune to political wear and tear. Perhaps it will be Viktor Orbán’s turn to be surprised next?
 T. Sollogoub, 2016, Political issues – Where the anger is coming from, Crédit Agricole SA/Economic Research department
 P.K. Blind, 2007, Building Trust in Government in the Twenty-First Century: Review of Literature, United Nations.
 Cevipof, Opinion Way poll.
 Le Monde, 12 December 2018.
 Edelman Trust Barometer, 2015. 74% of French people see technological progress as destroying jobs.
 M. Funke, M. Schularick and C. Trebesch, Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crisis, 1870-2014.
 H. Arendt, On Violence, 1972.
 The number of students from modest socioeconomic backgrounds scoring highly on PISA tests fell from 7.4% in 2003 to 4.9% in 2012 – half the rate seen in South Korea.
 E. Brezis, Globalization and a Transnational Oligarchy, 2010.
 Macron n’est pas Louis XVI, 13 December 2018, Le Point.
 France Stratégie 2016 report: “Since the crisis, living standards have fallen for three quarters of those with the most modest standards, with the decline more pronounced at the bottom end of the distribution. Meanwhile, of those with the highest living standards, one quarter have maintained their living standards. Those with the very highest living standards initially saw their living standards continue to rise, though they have subsequently fallen since 2011.”
 France Stratégie report – Momentum and territorial inequalities.