The Yellow Vests and the re-politicisation of French politics

What is the meaning of the Yellow Vests? Having executed its ‘Acte 19’, le mouvement des gilets jaunes has proven itself more than a flare up of citizen frustration, containable within the Fifth Republic’s order. The emphasis of mainstream media coverage on the greenwashed fuel tax obscures the point. Calls for a Sixth Republic and the re-entry of direct democracy into public discourse, debates about the ‘insurrectionary character’ of the movement, the possible re-problematization of the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, all point toward an authentic political event.

From the outset, the Yellow Vests’ allegiances were contested by the political class, confusing the meaning of the movement and leading to accusations of apoliticality. But there is much to make us think that the movement accurately symptomizes the essence of the current political sequence. The character of both its actions and its demands demonstrates not the ‘apolitical’ quality of the movement but rather the de-political character of both the French state – against which the movement’s force hammers – and the politics-as-usual of liberalism’s electoral rituals and parties. The Yellow Vests’ ambivalent relationship to both far-left and far-right political parties is of equal significance to state-directed rage.

We should first assert the radical politicality of the movement. If we accept Alain Badiou’s definition of politics as ‘collective action, organised by certain principles, that aims to unfold consequences of a new possibility which is currently repressed by the dominant order,’ then the movement is nothing but political. To call this movement apolitical rather points to the fact that the exact political character of the movement cannot be subsumed within the dominant order of state and parties – viz. capitalist democracy.

To better understand this, we must recognise why ‘politics’ as it is practiced today is ‘de-politicised’. Alessandro Russo defines politics as different from the state. He argues that the state is in fact apolitical in character, being merely ‘the monopoly of violence plus the control of the various systems of hierarchical rituals that structure the society.’ Left alone, the state, with no inherent rationality, maintains order, oversees rituals. Political action intervenes on this, injecting a rationality into the state in the form of prescriptions for social transformation. (Russo argues that these are fundamentally egalitarian prescriptions.) Thus, politics is ‘rare’.

Historically, it was the role of the political party to politicise the state through intra- and extra-party democracy. But the political character of the party itself – as the Chinese new leftist Wang Hui has noted – is in crisis, having experienced a de-political drift since the end of the Cold War, not just in the defunct socialist bloc:

A multi-party system presupposes that each party has a specific representative character and political values, for which it will fight against its rivals within the parliamentary-institutional framework. However, as the character and values of the parties become increasingly indeterminate within a broad macroeconomic consensus, real democratic politics disappears.

For Wang Hui, liberal representative parliaments have ceased to become less the peak expression of civil society, or ‘the rose of democratic life’, and have become instead a means of managing the affairs of state and maintaining national security.

That the leftist press – at least in the anglosphere – can express cautious sympathy for the Yellow Vests alongside the right-wing’s claims ‘to be part of the movement too’ reflects this obliquely. Read through Wang’s analysis, the political class’ scramble and its attempts at instrumentalization – who are the true representatives of the Yellow Vests? – are not essentially a contest of political values. The noise is rather an attempt to reassert the representativeness of a political class now in crisis.

The early demand by the Yellow Vests that the non-voting/blank/none-of-the-above ballot be recorded in electoral statistics clearly indicates that the movement’s thrust aims at a re-politicisation of a de-politicised French state. Humble as it appears, this prescription points to the source of the larger malaise – the un-representative character of representative liberal democracy. A decade later, we can better understand Alain Badiou’s argument regarding the meaning of Sarkozy’s victory: namely, that electoral rituals had become merely a part of the state’s functioning, less a transformative event than a governmentality:

Preferences are duly recorded, in the passive manner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes any embodiments of dissenting political will.

One preference that is not recorded in the French system, of course, is the non-preference or, put another way, the preference for a system other than that of the electoral seismograph. We can couple with this the movement’s rejection of traditional negotiation structures, including the vanguardism of the union movement. We here in Australia should be familiar with the limp betrayals of a union movement reduced to a state appendage. If Wang speaks of a ‘state-party’, perhaps we should speak of a ‘state-union’.

Nor is all the rage for Macron – Macron, demission! – aimless head-toppling. Macron is a proper antagonist of the Yellow Vests because he is the technocratic centrist par excellence. Macron’s non-affiliated status vis-à-vis the old parties, his public servant’s ‘expertise’, his rhetorical disdain for old-style politics – all those features of his ‘revolution’ can be read as their opposite: the peak, in fact, of a sequence of depoliticisation.

Technocracy is a suitable complement to a depoliticised French state. Indeed, what else has the EU project become but an attempt at blunting what force resided in parliamentary democracy while maintaining the high ground of democratic rituals? What does it mean when that weakened force occasionally reasserts itself? Witness the humiliation of the Greeks, the sovereign confusion of Brexit.

Macron is not only the mask fallen from the face of French political life but also from the face of centre-left representatives the world over: the old ‘socialist’ parties in Europe, the Clintonist Democrats in the US, Britain’s Blairites, even Ruddite ‘me-tooism’. (This curious feature of the Kevin 07 campaign embodies well Wang’s point about the essential indistinguishability of liberal-democratic parties.)

It will be a boon if the Yellow Vests give new, highly pejorative meanings to the terms ‘centrism’ and ‘centrist’ in public discourse. If they manage to problematize intractably the coupling of ‘left’ with ‘centre’, it will be a remarkable achievement, a revelation of the properly incoherent character of the epithet ‘centre-left’. This space is not Left, but a neoliberal managerial governmentality, more at home within the capitalist consensus than certain right-wing parties: witness the renewed conflict between capitalism and the ‘moral economy of society’, now awakened in the torn ideology of the American Right. What sequence of history are we in where the leadership of the ‘Left’ party of a two-party system is the more arch defender of capitalism’s legitimacy?

This is the new meaning of ‘centrism’: a word not for a certain sensible political persuasion, not for a balancing of Left and Right, but for the subtraction of politics – as far as possible – from the ritual tasks of state administration of the economy. For the subtraction of all positive disorder from negative order. It is the politer way of saying that ‘There Is No Alternative’. It is TINA refined and stabilised. In the case of Macron, it is party-less neoliberalism with a handsome human face. (Let us hope that the Macron experience also delivers a vicious blow to the politics of charisma, of which the US Democrats could take note.)

It is thus highly significant that the Yellow Vests’ early circulars developed into none other than the present radical calls for popular democracy and a Sixth Republic. This is the natural outgrowth of its horizontally democratic character and it points toward a possibility: the re-politicisation of the French state, perhaps the break-up of capitalism and democracy itself.


Image: Gilets jaunes demonstration in Avignon photographed by Sébastien Huette

Ben Kunkler

Ben Kunkler is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His poetry, criticism and non-fiction has been published in TEXT, Rabbit and Overland, among other publications. He was the winner of the 2016 Affirm Press Prize for his unpublished manuscript, "Frankness."

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