How to take back our streets: lessons from 10 months of resistance in France

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This is a translation of the article ‘Comment reprendre nos rues‘ from the Cerveaux Non Disponibles website. They can be followed on Twitter via @CerveauxNon

Over ten months, the Gilets Jaunes movement has managed again and again to surprise: to surprise the authorities, the police, the media, public opinion. And even the GJs themselves! Apart from determination and a burning desire for change, what has really changed the landscape of social struggle in France is the new reality of totally decentralised and autonomous actions. Blockades, occupations, demonstrations, disorder. So many possibilities that can no longer be found in the standardised world of trade unions, opposition parties, NGOs and other well-established structures.

As protests step up again after the summer of 2019, the field of possibilities seems even more vast. Much more vast than the authorities and the media are saying. But if we are to make waves again, perhaps even bigger ones, we need to think about strategies of struggle, whether that be for the demos which lie ahead or for other kinds of actions. Here are some suggestions and observations which could usefully be developed and fleshed out. Please note that these suggestions are from a clearly insurrectional, even revolutionary, perspective. Since so many GJs (and other citizens) have been calling and hoping for this for several months now, let’s dare to think about it calmly. A sort of manual for “acting like a primitive and planning like a strategist”, as recommended by the poet and resistance fighter René Char.

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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

This has always been the case but is becoming more and more blatantly obvious in France: it is important, even crucial, to take to the streets in pretty large numbers if we are to succeed in staging actions which actually bother the authorities. This does not mean that any huge demo is, per se, a success. The climate marches have shown us over recent months that you can have tens of thousands (or more) in the streets and still not bother the government and the economic powers. On the other hand, if you want to overwhelm an increasingly aggressive police presence, which directly engages you and is increasingly mobile (with motorbikes), you need thousands of people.

The moments that have really scared the authorities over these last months have always been when the balance of power in the streets has tipped towards the GJs because of their numbers. Even with the massive human and material resources at their disposal, the police were unable to control the anger of thousands of protesters, in different parts of town, for the duration of several hours.

The most striking example of this was surely during Acte 23 of the revolt (Ultimatum 2). Following the authorities’ impotence during the first Ultimatum of March 16, they mobilised a huge police presence to prevent any disorder. The Ultimatum page posted, at the last minute, several meet-up points. The GJs who went to these points were, unfortunately for them, met by dozens of riot cops. Nothing could be done. Except that on that same day, there were so many GJs in Paris that a big “authorised” demo got underway at Bercy. There, again, the police had seen this coming and decided to split the demo up into lots of small sections which they could control more easily. But this didn’t work because the march was so huge and determined, to the extent of breaking through several police lines to regroup.

Finally, taking to the streets in large numbers is also a way to protect those who have decided to take action (and not necessarily violently, but in civil disobedience). By their presence, with their bodies, thousands of protesters, even without taking direct action themselves, can help to make a protest really effective and a problem for the authorities. This is how the “front of the demo” emerged a few years back in France. We could also take the example of the revolt in Hong Kong, where this strategy has been taken to an incredible level and where the presence of “basic” protesters is essential for the front-line protesters.

One of the major challenges for the weeks ahead is therefore to achieve turn-outs of the same massive size (or greater) than in November and December. And this is completely possible. Virtually nobody who took part in at least one act of the GJ protests has today been won over by the government. If some of them have disappeared from the streets, it’s due to weariness and/or fear (of police brutality and arrests) rather than because of any change in their opinion on the social and economic situation. Indeed, the numbers of potential resistance fighters are surely even greater than last year. GJs only have to look around themselves: who today is satisfied with Macron and his world? Who isn’t aware of the climate and social crisis? Each of us has to persuade our friends and loved ones to get out into the streets for the upcoming protests.

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PLEASURE AND IMAGINATION

What is most striking about GJ demos today is their repetitive, unchanging quality. But what actually made the movement a success was its capacity to create, to be innovative with its occupations of streets and towns. New songs, new ways of mobilising, new economic blockades (eg: the Champs Elysées). It even had its own language distinct from the norms of social struggle: you can make fun of the succession of “acts” and “ultimatums”, but the GJs have created their own calendar, their own battle terrain and their own way of gathering. When they occupied the roundabouts, everyone found that peculiar. Same thing when they took over motorway toll booths. And same thing again when they decided to head into town centres every Saturday. And when the new songs came along, it was like a minor victory. The creation of a new space for self-expression, exchange and action.

Those in power have always tried to blinker the population and make it think that nothing is possible, apart from expressing your anger through elections or institutionalised struggles (trade unions, political parties, NGOs..) But the reality is very different. Life is a huge playing field. And so are towns and cities.

Nothing annoys the authorities more than people who enjoy coming together and resisting. They do all they can to make protests unpleasant, whereas they can provide the chance for meeting people, for feeling alive, for having fun… Everything they will never know in their comfortable little bourgeois lives. It is therefore important to bring joy, madness, fire and life into the streets. To smash their dream of greyness, to enjoy ourselves but also so that other citizens want to join us. So that they understand that what is happening is not just about burning cars or banks. So that the revolution has its heart not in destruction, but in encounters, complicity, exchange and constructivity.

LESS TELEPHONE, MORE SOLIDARITY

It is important to have photos and videos of what is going on in the streets, notably at the most insurrectional moments and especially when police are being violent, to bear witness to these realities which the authorities try to conceal. But today too many people have got into the habit of whipping out their phone for every burning dustbin or, worse, for the smallest police charge. These people are still part of the movement, in solidarity with it, yet they don’t realise that by filming with their phones they are quitting the ranks of protesters who are capable of actually doing something. They are physically present but can no longer take action. They become spectators. How many videos have we seen of someone being maltreated by the police where nobody is helping them, although dozens of protesters are filming what’s happening? This isn’t about passing judgement and awarding good or bad scores. Each person is free to do whatever they want, not least on a demo. And it is totally understandable to want to film a crunch moment. But you need nevertheless to analyse the phenomenon in a general way and see what it implies for the protest as a whole. And from that vantage point we have to acknowledge the problems with this tendency and be aware that it serves the interests of the authorities because it makes the protest less pro-active and less cohesive. Not forgetting that the videos are sometimes used in evidence against protesters accused of misdemeanors.

It is therefore time to put away your phone and actively take part in the next protests. This could take various forms: singing, running, graffiti, banner-making, keeping other protesters informed, suggesting actions. So many things that the brain stops doing when it sees the protest via the screen of a phone.

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DIVERSITY AND RESPECT FOR PRAXIS

It is important to consider the place and degree of combative action on protests which see themselves as insurrectional. This question is highly complex and sensitive because nobody has the right to set out a precise limit to the moral rightness of combative actions. We all refuse to go along with the framing imposed by society which regards all illegal action as immoraL. It goes without saying for many of us that a Fouquet’s restaurant on fire is no worse than a boss who lays someone off to increase his profits. But this doesn’t mean that smashing or burning is necessarily appropriate for the struggle and for advancing the revolutionary cause.

While we should take care not to condemn a protester who has broken the law, we should also not veer off in the opposite direction and applaud, de facto, all acts of damage or violence. At some moments, in some places, vandalising street furniture or shops or attacking the police can turn out to be strategic mistake and play into the hands of the authorities.

Damage or violence are in no way a yardstick for assessing the success or otherwise of a protest. In either way. Offensive actions are merely tools to reach goals which are more significant than the immediate outcome of a torched car or a ransacked bank.

In a society governed by images and appearance, where the authorities rely on illusion to persuade us that they have everything under control and that there is no alternative, these offensive actions make sense when they help shatter that illusion. It works when whole areas of Paris seem to have slipped out of the authorities’ control despite the deployment of thousands of cops and troops. But to achieve this, it is necessary to create the conditions conducive to such a situation.

It must also be borne in mind that offensive action and rebellion can take very subversive forms without necessarily being violent. Thousands of people on the Paris ring road, on the tracks at a station or occupying a government building can also hurt the powerful.

So let’s refuse to label protesters as violent or non-violent. Only those who fear change have a vested interest in this totally artificial separation. This classification (stigmatisation) is merely a tool for domination. Violence is not immoral in itself. Even the history books sing the praises of resistance fighters who fought evil. Fought in its true sense. In the violent sense.

Act 23 of the Yellow Vests in Paris

ADAPTING TO REAL TIME

In the face of the new strategies for “maintaining law and order” with highly mobile and aggressive police units, it is more than ever necessary for protesters to pay attention and adapt rapidly to situations. In Hong Kong when the police line becomes too dangerous in front of them, the protesters don’t just stay put. Very quickly, the demo moves elsewhere. It is very difficult to take decisions collectively in these situations, especially in a totally horizontal movement without leaders, but it works. And often it is better to take the decision and move rather than remain static for fear of making a mistake.

We should also bear in mind that sometimes confrontation with the cops does not make strategic sense. When the balance of power is clearly tilted in their favour, it is sometimes better to think about alternative solutions which allow protesters to continue to occupy the space, to blockade, to be on the offensive. The police are not our objective. They are the tool of the authorities which can stop us from reaching our objectives. Focusing on them can sometimes stop us from creating more beautiful and constructive moments of struggle.

MORE ON THE GILETS JAUNES

Crushing freedom in Saint Jean du Gard

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Anyone who has been following the Gilets Jaunes’ struggle since November 2018 will appreciate to what extent France is slipping into 21st century neoliberal-style fascism.

From the sheer physical violence of the state’s attacks on protesters, through its draconian use of bans on protests and “pre-emptive” arrests, to the cover-up and denial of what is happening by politicians and their tame media, the situation is truly alarming.

We can expect more evidence of this in coming days when the full force of Macron’s Reich will be deployed to prevent any signs of dissent against the G7 summit in Biarritz, in French-occupied Euskadi.

But to understand the extent to which this authoritarian cancer has riddled French society from top to bottom, it is instructive to look at what has been happening in recent weeks in the little southern village of St Jean du Gard.

The place is hardly a hotbed of radicalism. However, this year a local group has been active opposing the imposition of Linky smart electricity meters and generally challenging the right-wing mayor, Michel Ruas.

The astonishing thing is that all they have been doing is handing out leaflets – mainly at the weekly market, which has been held on Tuesday mornings for a thousand years.

Incredibly, the mayor passed a law banning all leafleting for a year. Even more incredibly, the authorities from the Gard department have backed up this totalitarian gesture by sending in cohorts of cops to enforce it and to threaten those who stand up for their basic freedom of speech.

An update from local campaigners on Tuesday August 20 reported that the morning’s market had again been targeted by Macron’s uniformed thugs.

A week previously, there had been a call-out for supporters to come from around the area to challenge the year-long ban on all leafleting (unless “authorised” by the mayor/dictator Ruas) issued on July 31.

But on August 20 there was just a little Stop Linky stand as there has been every week for months.

When a woman campaigner held up a photocopy of the mayor’s new Nazi-style law to show a passer-by, the zealous gendarmes decided a ‘leafleting’ offence had been committed and tried to fine the woman.

This aggressive move shocked everyone present, but the cops weren’t finished there and not only kept pursuing the woman but used force against those trying to defend her from them, pinning people violently against a wall.

They also turned on passers-by who remonstrated with them, accusing one disabled person using a crutch of possessing an offensive weapon!

Say campaigners: “These measures are unacceptable and revolting. We are therefore calling for a protest on Tuesday August 27 from 9am at the market of Saint Jean du Gard”.

International solidarity with the freedom fighters of St Jean du Gard!

¡No pasarán! 

UPDATE AUGUST 26. VICTORY FOR CAMPAIGNERS! MAYOR FORCED TO CANCEL LEAFLETING BAN!

Green and yellow: our common struggle against liberal-fascism

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Here is a quick translation of an important piece on the French lundi matin website, close to The Invisible Committee. Radical ecologists call for a convergence with the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement in the struggle against the neoliberal system which is destroying the living planet.

[Photos : Nour]

For more than five months now, hundreds of thousands of people in every corner of France have been fighting against the neoliberal steamroller represented with such singular brutality by the Macronist regime.

This revolt, which began on the roundabouts, places of conviviality and self-organisation which at times looked quasi-insurrectional, is part of a history of revolutionary uprisings which have interrupted the course of the prescribed order.

It is a simple fact that the intensity and surprising staying-power of this revolt were born from moments of shared experience, from what you could call the ungovernable “commons”.

In a space which was supposed to be occupied only by the icy waters of the Economy, bearing its gifts of subordination, atomisation, resignation and silence, in a space where we were only supposed to be able to hear the chattering of those in power, of experts and of journalists, long-silenced voices made themselves heard.

It was no surprise that the first repressive measures were aimed at destroying this conviviality by evicting roundabouts, demolishing protesters’ cabins and making it impossible for them to block roads or experience shared empowerment.

Stubborn Yellow Vest resistance was countered by repression of rare violence: Zineb Redouane was killed in Marseilles by a grenade fired by the police; dozens were mutilated, hundreds locked up and thousands charged.

On top of this there was the ultra-aggressive and arrogant propaganda war waged by a media which was almost unanimously against the rebels. After the insults and contempt, after the ferocious repression, after special new laws, they now want to make it acceptable to use armed intervention against demonstrators. To be clear, they want nothing less than to be able to fire on the crowd with live ammunition.

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Emmanuel Macron, basking in his historic mission, is going about a reorganisation of the forms of government. In doing so, he is carried by a surge which has come from far away and is sweeping the world: the extension of the fascist elements of neoliberalism.

Unlike historical fascism, this global project does not want to rule the whole world by means of the State, but instead by the Economy, to which all state institutions must be subservient.

We call this approach to governing “liberal-fascist”. It is not fundamentally about state control but about economic control of the world and of our lives in the fanatical aim of pulling into its grasp every single being, every single thing and everything around them.

They will use force and violence against all the runaways and nobodies who resist their world.

Beyond the level of mere words, what real difference is there between Salvini’s Italy and Macron’s France? Does not each of them let thousands of migrants die at sea, when they are not locking up them en masse in detention centres, while criminalising hospitality?

Aren’t they both engaged in the destruction of the last remnants of social protection and public services, in the pauperisation of the working classes, in the destruction of solidarity?

But that’s not all: nobody can pretend not to know that this insane acceleration of capitalism which they are pursuing is also leading to the collapse of our means of living, to the poisoning of earth, water and air, to inevitable climate chaos with unprecedented consequences.

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The breathtaking impact of this series of disasters, both existing and to come, has opened the way for new perceptions and realisations in our relationship to the world. And these have led increasingly huge numbers of people to take action, from ZAD eco-camps to climate protests. More and more eco-activists are turning their backs on political parties, those crumbling temples to their leaders’ blatant career ambitions, and are looking elsewhere for answers on the scale of the challenges we are facing.

This deep change in awareness has also seen a renewed attention to words, to what they show us and what they hide. Thus, more and more people are refusing to use the word “Anthropocene” to describe this age of environmental devastation which just gets worse from decade to decade. The term suggests we are all equally responsible and a preferable one is “Capitalocene”. We have to properly identify the systematic and all-embracing force behind this disaster: it is capitalism and its forms of government.

Everywhere we are witnessing a profound crisis in political representation; with the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes like those of the new eco-movements. The happy flip-side of this crisis is the emergence of new communities of struggle, experiments in our ways of inhabiting the world. But here, the question we have to ask is the following: do we seriously think that it is enough to protest for the climate on A to B marches; to launch petitions; to “raise the awareness” of governments? Can we keep on ignoring other forms of revolt which are suffering the brutal violence of the State? Can we really just aspire to be governed a bit better?

Certain organisers of climate marches last autumn now admit it: they “messed up”. And they find themselves a few days later in a police cell like a common Yellow Vest. Too politically inoffensive, trying at all costs to find the vaguest lowest common denominator at the expense of strategic innovation, drawing up lists of grievances for the attention of the authorities rather than challenging the institutions of power. Now eco-collectives are telling us it is time to rebel.

We definitely need to reaffirm communal ways of living; mutual aid, sharing. We need to experiment with new kinds of solidarity and hospitality. And we need to take care of our ways of being in relation to the world. But aren’t these affirmations also, at one and the same time, negations of the dictates of the Economy? As “ecologists”, how can we not confront those who want to rule us in its name?

It is urgent to forge alliances against the disaster which, for the moment, is identified with Macron.

We invite you to join the meeting of environmental organisations and Gilets Jaunes which will be held on Wednesday April 24, from 7pm, at the Théâtre de l’Echangeur in Bagnolet, Paris.

Calls have been made for Saturday May 4 as a day for re-taking the roundabouts, streets and squares, with shared Yellow Vest banquets. Eco-activists should also take part.

Some eco-yellows.

Original article

More Gilets Jaunes articles

Organic radicalism

“This is a turning point in history!”

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Make no mistake, the Gilets Jaunes are in this for the long haul.

Today, April 13, was the twenty-second successive Saturday that they have taken to the streets in huge numbers to revolt against President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal regime.

Five months on, there is still the energy, determination and critical mass to bring about a major change in the course of modern French history.

Each new round of police violence, each new draconian piece of repression, each new sneering dismissal of the yellow “mob” by right-wing politicians, just seems to give the uprising a new burst of energy.

The Mediterranean city of Montpellier was not the main Yellow Vest event in the south of France for Act XXII – all eyes were on Toulouse, where a massive turn-out was met with police violence and teargas.

But, remarkably, some 5,000 people turned out in Montpellier to support the Gilets Jaunes cause and condemn the brutality with which they have been repressed.

This is where the real strength of the movement can be seen – in the scores and scores of protests held in cities and towns all over the country week after week, which are hardly even noticed on the national, let alone international, level.

The Gilets Jaunes hold protests in Montpellier every week, but this time they were marching alongside the French human rights league LDH (Ligue des droits de l’homme) and various local associations, trade unions and left-wing political groups, such as France Insoumise.

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As people gathered in the warm spring sunshine on La Place de la Comédie in the historic centre of the Montpellier, Yellow Vest Nathalie told me this coming-together was a good thing.

“We need this convergence,” she said. “There needs to be lots of us out there”.

Fellow protester Charlotte agreed, saying: “At the start the Gilets Jaunes didn’t want to work with other groups, but now they realise we have to come together”.

A few metres away, Jean-Luc told me the same thing: “It is very important that the struggles converge, because it’s only that way that we’ll win.”

The huge protest through the streets of Montpellier featured all the diversity and energy for which the Gilets Jaunes have become known.

French national flags waved proudly as clenched fists were raised to the sound of The Internationale, as broadcast by the CGT trade union’s lorry. Later they switched to The Clash.

A feisty young woman beat ferociously on a drum and people sang and danced to the now-familiar Yellow Vest songs about the reviled Macron.

“Work, consume and shut your mouth!”, came the ironic chant. “Don’t watch us, join us!” passers-by were urged.

When the protest arrived back at the Comédie after its second tour of the city centre, it was met with applause from a small group of Kurdish protesters who had gathered there.

The respect was returned by the Yellow Vest protests. “Tous ensemble!” they shouted. “All together!”

The police presence this time around was minimal, except when there was an important public building, or the rail station, to be protected.

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Montpellier is the seventh biggest city in France and has expanded rapidly in the last 20 years or so.

But while the sprawl of new business development around the city has brought in a degree of superficial wealth, the underlying issue of poverty has not gone away.

Valérie told me she had been waiting for the last seven years for something like the Gilets Jaunes movement to explode.

She added: “I am a single mother, I work, and I work just to survive”.

Fellow protester Lucile said it was “scandalous” that her elderly father had seen his pension reduced.

Even petrol prices were going up again, despite the respite earned by the first wave of Gilets Jaunes protests back in the autumn.

I asked protester Pascal whether he thought the Gilets Jaunes uprising could succeed in its aim of bringing about radical change to France.

He said: “We haven’t got any choice. If we fail, it’s slavery”.

He said time was on the side of the Yellow Vests and they knew it, which was why the protests kept on going and going.

This same point was made by a placard suggesting that the protests had only just begun – there were only another 160 Saturdays before the end of Macron’s presidential term in May 2022.

Stressed Pascal: “People realise that this is our last chance. This is a turning point in history”.

Jean-Luc said: “It’s a very big movement, the Yellow Vests, which has lasted five months and is going to keep going.

“Macron is never going to resign. The only way out is the dissolution of the national assembly.

“And we need more than that. We need the end of the fifth republic, we need different ways of representation – delegation, direct democracy.

“That’s going to be a revolution, if we move into a sixth republic”.

Valérie was also confident that success lay ahead. She said: “This is the first social movement which has lasted.

“I knew, even back in January, that it would go on at least until the European elections. There will always be another good excuse to keep going!”

Lucile said she could no longer put up with the contempt shown by Macron or the violence used against protesters.

“People go on a protest and are beaten up by the police and it doesn’t shock anyone. That’s what shocks me!”

She was less sure than the others I spoke to that the Gilets Jaunes movement would ultimately triumph against the raw power of global neoliberal capitalism.

But she added: “Days like today give us back some hope!”

Report by Paul Cudenec, a member of Shoal Collective.

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Only another 160 Saturdays of protest to go before the Gilets Jaunes see the back of Emmanuel Macron…

For more Yellow Vests reports see our Gilets Jaunes page

Organic radicals: new site launched

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A new website has been launched which challenges “to the core” the thinking of the industrial capitalist system.

It presents the ideological alternative of an “organic radicalism” which it sources from a wide range of thinkers, past and present.

This philosophy, it says, is based on the idea of a living community, a social organism consisting of “horizontal relationships and exchanges between free human beings, rather than on sterile hierarchy”.

The site explains that it rejects the industrial capitalist view of nature as something to be exploited, commercialised, dominated or relegated to second place behind an imagined human priority.

“For us, humankind’s interests cannot be separated from the wider interests of the natural world, because we are nothing other than an extension of that world.

“We reject notions of economic growth or technological advance as any kind of worthwhile basis for society and propose instead a world founded on the healthy values of respect for nature and other creatures; simple but joyful living; an appreciation of inner and outer beauty; a sense of communal responsibility and belonging”.

In its Q&A section it defines the “orgrad” position as an evolution of anarchism.

But it adds: “From our perspective, contemporary anarchism does not go far enough in its opposition to industrial capitalism.

“In the same way as other leftists can become stuck within the broader capitalist mindset, merely seeking greater equality, individual freedom or self-management within the context of capitalism and the state, so do too many anarchists base their vision of the future on the industrial society created by and for capitalism.

“Orgrad also proposes a holistic world-view, based on organic belonging to community, species and nature, which is considered unacceptable by many contemporary anarchists, due to the influence of modern ideologies appropriate to capitalism.

“To be clear, orgrad has no interest at all in the dead-end narcissism of ultra-liberal identity politics”.

The site stresses that organic radicalism is firmly anti-fascist, defining it as “a left-wing, internationalist, humanist, universalist, anti-racist, anti-state, anti-imperialist, anti-militarist, anti-authoritarian ideology”.

The organic radicals website is at https://orgrad.wordpress.com

The email contact is orgrad(at)riseup.net

Roadblock!

 

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Report by Paul Cudenec of Shoal Collective.

There weren’t too many hi-vis jackets in evidence when we arrived at one of a series of roundabouts on the “rocade”, the ring road, at Alès in south-east France on Tuesday March 19.

Would there be enough protesters to pull off the roadblock that had been agreed at the previous night’s meeting of the Gilets Jaunes assembly at the trade union HQ in the former mining town?

I needn’t have worried. It was just that the 6.30am meet-up time had been a little too early for some, and a steady flow of people soon arrived. There were 30 or so at this point.

A dark blue gendarme van arrived, toured the roundabout but didn’t stop and disappeared again. They weren’t going to interfere at the set-up stage, it seemed.

Suddenly, Yellow Vests started streaming off the roundabout towards a side road. They were heading towards a large white van which had just pulled up.

The doors were flung open to reveal that it was packed full of road-blocking material – palettes and tyres, mainly huge lorry ones.

This was all quickly carried, or rolled, to the edges of the roundabout. Some Gilets Jaunes headed off down the ring road towards the next junction.

Before long, this stretch of dual carriageway was blocked from both ends. The operation was remarkably efficient. These people knew what they were doing!

As the morning rush-hour got underway, the blockade, part of a national day of action to coincide with a trade union strike, firmed up even further.

There were enough Gilets Jaunes, easily more than 100, to send a second group to block another roundabout a few miles down the road.

At the original site, the filtering operation came into effect. This was made easier by the use of trolleys borrowed from a nearby supermarket, weighed down with tyres and decorated with yellow cardboard fists.

Someone driving a flat-bed truck loaded with old tyres, apparently on the way to the dump, decided to make an impromptu donation to the Gilets Jaunes cause, creating an impressive heap of rubber on the roadside.

Ordinary car drivers were not allowed through the road block. If they stopped to ask, they were given directions for an alternative route.

However, doctors or nurses on duty were allowed to pass if they could prove who they were. Ambulances and firefighters had the automatic right to go through the barricade.

Every time one was seen, or heard, approaching, the call went out – “pompiers!” – and people rushed to pick up the palettes and roll aside the supermarket trolleys until they had passed, taking care not to let any uninvited traffic through in their wake.

Although car drivers were obviously inconvenienced by the ring road being blocked, and had to take the long way round, they were not the real target.

The aim was to block the economy, in the shape of the heavy goods vehicles which are the life blood of capitalist commerce across Europe.

When lorries – or certain lorries, anyway, as there were some complicated criteria that I never quite grasped – approached the blocked section of road, they were not turned away but invited to enter.

Some of them took a bit of convincing, with Gilets Jaunes standing in front of their vehicle or blocking their way with some of the ample supply of tyres.

But others were more than happy to pass through the blockade into the stretch of road sealed off at both ends by the protesters, where they would have to remain until the end of the action at 8pm.

I was a little surprised by this, until it was patiently explained to me that this amounted, effectively, to a day off for the lorry drivers.

They could phone their boss, report that they were blocked in by the Gilets Jaunes, and spend the day sleeping in their cab, sitting in the sun, drinking coffee, chatting with other drivers or protesters, or whatever. And be paid for it.

When we see a HGV branded with the name of some foul capitalist business, it is too easy to forget that the man or woman driving it is not part of that business, but a victim of that business and can be a willing accomplice in a struggle against the world which that business represents.

After six hours of the blockade, there was no space for any more lorries and disappointed drivers had to be turned away at the barricades.

I took a walk down the blocked stretch of dual carriageway, which was essentially now a lorry park with a narrow central lane for emergency vehicles.

More than fifty lorries had rolled into the Yellow Vest net – mostly French ones but some from Poland, Hungary and Romania. Quite a haul!

There had been a lot of talk at the Monday night assembly about the possible reaction of the police, who had previously used tear gas to clear a roundabout and against a town centre protest.

People were advised to bring protective masks, goggles and so on and were armed with information on solicitors and arrest support.

So it was slightly surprising that when the Police Nationale first turned up at the action, they exchanged smiles and handshakes with some of the Yellow Vests.

I asked somebody about this. “It’s because they’re local police, they’re from here,” he replied. “They’re friends, family members even. One of the Gilets Jaunes is a retired cop, in fact!”

Later the gendarmerie, part of the French armed forces, also turned up and were surrounded by a huddle of Gilets Jaunes.

Something termed a “negotiation” took place and the “forces of order” went on their way. The local paper, Midi Libre, reported later that the authorities in Alès said they did not, on this day of national action, have enough policing resources available to dislodge the blockade.

THE GILETS JAUNES

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The sunshine revolution

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3,000 Gilets Jaunes gathered in the countryside near Nîmes in southern France

Report by Paul Cudenec of Shoal Collective.

Saturday March 16 2019 will probably go down in history as the day that Macron and his government gave up waiting for the Gilets Jaunes movement to fade away.

Huge numbers of Yellow Vests packed the Champs Elysées in Paris for Act 18 of their revolt and were immediately attacked by police.

But they had come ready for a fight, for a revolution even, and took the offensive against the armed forces of the regime, despite all the tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, grenades and armoured vehicles.

Police were pelted with stones and repeatedly forced to retreat, in an eight-hour battle in the boulevard that has long symbolised chic Parisian affluence.

The rabble that had invaded this inner sanctuary of wealth wasted no time in trashing boutiques, eateries and banks, leaving them inscribed with their own philosophical reflections on the state of French society.

To the general consternation of the Parisian media and political elite, they even laid waste to that tiny minority’s spiritual home, the swanky gourmet restaurant Le Fouquet’s.

There was also much one-per-cent outrage over a video showing protesters in Black Bloc mode being cheered by others wearing the usual hi-vis singlets.

All of the lies peddled for months by the government were falling apart. No, the Gilets Jaunes movement had not faded away to insignificance. No, there was not a clear divide between the “extremist vandals” who broke windows and the rest of the movement. It was all just different aspects of the same uprising.

Interior minister Christophe Castaner declared afterwards that there had been no Gilets Jaunes in Paris that day, only 10,000 “casseurs” or vandals (there were at least ten times that many protesters, in fact).

This rhetoric allowed him to, again, completely brush aside the reasons behind the revolt and instead focus on a hard-line repressive strategy, firing the Paris police chief for not having ordered enough violence and announcing bans on protests and unspecified action against prominent Gilets Jaunes spokespeople.

A couple of days later the government announced that the army would be deployed to “protect public buildings” in France, a decision greeted with alarm and derision even by rivals on the conservative right.

Big shows of “strength” are tell-tale signs of an underlying sense of weakness, and the regime’s aura of authority had suffered as badly as the shop windows of the Champs Elysées.

* * *

Hundreds of miles away from Paris another huge crowd of Gilets Jaunes had gathered together, in completely different circumstances.

The occasion was a pre-release screening of the first film to be made about the movement, the documentary J’veux du soleil (I want some sunshine).

The local Gilets Jaunes at Dions, in the Gard department of southern France, appear in the documentary, made by Gilles Peret and François Ruffin, a well-known MP for the left-wing France Insoumise party.

Ruffin’s documentary Merci patron! (Thank you, boss!) was a massive box office hit in 2016 and fed into the mood of popular revolt of the Nuit Debout movement.

This was an outdoor event, as are so many such occasions in this Mediterranean corner of the country – in any case, no village hall or cinema could have accommodated the 3,000 people who turned up!

The giant inflatable screen had been installed in a manade, a ranch, on the rural plain north of Nîmes, surrounded by the vineyards which dominate this famous wine-producing region.

Before the film showing – which was after sunset, of course – there was a concert of the Spanish gypsy-style music that is very popular in these parts.

The culinary focus of the event was a “giant paella”, for which tickets had to be reserved in advance, but there were also plenty of food stalls and a “buvette”, an outdoor bar, where you could acquire a plastic beaker of local red wine for ninety-something pence.

The event as a whole was free, as might be expected for a political movement that is, above all, the voice of those with no money.

I took the time to look around me and to try to sum up the kind of people who were present. I was struck by the fact that it was impossible to do so.

Obviously it wasn’t “everyone” who was there (there was a serious overflow of the massive makeshift car park as it was! ) but this was certainly a cross-section of “everyone”.

These were the people you see everywhere here – at the market, sitting outside the cafés, or attending other general concerts or social events.

They were of mixed age and sex. There was nothing about the way they looked or dressed that marked them out as part of any particular “scene”.

That, perhaps, is the role played by the yellow vests worn by about half the people present – it represents the spirit of shared identity which unites these people and turns them from a collection of individuals into a whole.

This was a theme which cropped up again and again in the film, which is a kind of road movie in which Ruffin and Peret call in on Gilets Jaunes occupying roundabouts across France, from the Somme in the north to the Mediterranean coast.

People had been suffering in life but keeping it to themselves. They felt personally responsible, ashamed even, to struggle to pay the bills and feed themselves or their families.

Then the Gilets Jaunes appeared. They were accessible, friendly, and ready to talk. You didn’t have to pass an ideological examination to be allowed to take part in their revolt. You didn’t have to dress in a certain way or eat the right sort of food. Nobody even asked you how you voted at the last election.

Lonely and desperate people, spat out and cast aside by the capitalist consumer society which has taken hold of France, had suddenly rediscovered the community from which they had been separated.

In the Gilets Jaunes movement they did not just have political comrades, but friends. A new family, even. The hours spent on the roundabouts together had built solidarity, warmth, love.

J’veux du soleil is a powerful documentary because Ruffin allows himself to fade into the background and lets the Gilets Jaunes speak for themselves, with a frankness and intimacy that is rarely seen on camera.

The film intersperses these interviews with clips of Emmanuel Macron. The effect is stunning – the empty slickness of the neoliberal poster boy is the complete opposite of the raw honesty of the featured Gilets Jaunes.

The footage shows the arrogant “centrist” president, from his position of ultimate power and privilege, dismissing protesters as “people who are nothing”, as “lazy”, and as a “hateful mob”.

At the Dions screening, I was clearly not the only member of the audience who found Macron’s feudal contempt for the revolting peasants hard to stomach. His words were all but drowned out by a huge chorus of boos every time he appeared.

There were bursts of applause for particularly well-chosen words from Yellow Vests from elsewhere in France and great cheers of approval at the video of Gilets Jaunes famously smashing through the front gate of a government building in Paris with the aid of a construction vehicle they had borrowed from some nearby roadworks.

There was an outbreak of dancing at the end, too – the film draws its title and its sense of jaunty yet bittersweet optimism from a 1992 song by the group Au p’tit bonheur.

There were also, I was told later, plenty of tears – not just tears of sorrow for all the lives crushed by the dictatorship of money, but tears of joy for the renewal of hope in resistance.

THE GILETS JAUNES

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