The Gilets Jaunes and the Democratic Question

Photo Credit: Agitations autonomes

Editorial Introduction

Act 13 of the Gilets Jaunes (GJ) protests concluded last weekend, and more than 50,000 participants turned out around France. Lively and militant cortèges are still being organized in Paris and the provinces (Bordeaux and Toulouse have been two hot spots) every weekend, and traffic circles and roads are still being blocked (and speed cameras smashed). Despite the fact that Macron did away with the proposed fuel tax slated for inclusion in the national budget shortly after the protests hit a fever pitch in early December, bowing to the GJ’s core early motivation, it is clear that a political switch has been activated among large portions of the French population that will be difficult to turn off. The GJ have even been at the center of a controversial diplomatic spat between France and Italy last week. But what tendencies have solidified in the movement since it exploded on the French political scene three months ago? In many respects, the contradictory features which marked the emergence of the movement remain – its mixed social composition, combination of participants from different political backgrounds, its expressed anger with the ineptitude of technocratic politicians, its tackling of intersecting issues around social reproduction and ecological politics, the persistent appearance of nationalist imagery (tricolores, etc.) and discourses (a proximity of certain sectors of the movement to anti-migrant sentiments) in demonstrations. More promisingly, the yellow vests movement has also produced unexpected encounters: witness the alliances with the comité Vérité et Justice pour Adama Traoré and other anti-racist collectives in France as GJ protesters face ramped-up levels of police violence and legal repression, the high-school walkouts, the establishment of spaces for popular education (see the Club des Gilets Jaunes in Montreuil), in addition to the recent entry of the CGT onto the scene.

The future of the mobilization is undoubtedly open, and fierce struggles over its direction lay ahead. The “counterpower” that the GJ represent is raising unavoidable questions about the democratic nature of political institutions in France. Although it is difficult to talk about the movement as a unitary subject, or even as having a leadership structure, the circulation of cahiers de doléances has allowed for shared demands to be articulated, if only from a subset of participants. Among the 42 heterogeneous demands on the joint list publicized around the moment of Act 3, one in particular has become a crucial slogan on the streets, scrawled on the back of the yellow vests and handmade signs: the establishment of a constitutionally-guaranteed “popular referendum,” or the “Référendum d’initiative citoyenne.” 

The RIC is seen by its supporters as a means towards a more direct democracy, giving citizens greater control over political decision-making. The RIC would trigger a referendum at the local or national level if enough people sign a petition on a given subject. While the RIC has emerged as a unifying demand for a large number of the gilets jaunes – understood as a preliminary political reform, after which other more social reforms could be implemented (and this in its most progressive formulation) – numerous arguments have been leveled against it: that it amounts to a step back from socially oriented demands – wages, taxing wealth, etc – to merely political ones; that this emphasis on the political risks muting the productive class antagonisms that are increasingly pronounced within the movement; or that the evocation of a people stripped of its rights by the establishment play into far-right narratives of autochthonous control.

The recent history of popular referenda has not been an especially favorable one: a similar system already exists in Italy, but there is no minimum wage; in 2005, a majority in France voted against the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), yet it was implemented anyway. How, when referenda are largely determined by complex algorithms in the service of capital, could genuine changes actually be made? The 500,000 signatures collected against Matteo Renzi’s “Jobs Act” in Italy in late 2016 were eventually rejected because it was said the document was “badly formulated,” to name but one example.

In this piece, originally published on December 24, 2018, Samuel Hayat situates the RIC within a longer history of democratic aspiration, whilst outlining the dangers of consensual political thinking.

The Gilets Jaunes movement continues to discomfort those with power – both its apologists and its privileged media interpreters. A movement supported by people who broke into the public space, it is putting awkward questions to the front of stage. It’s not that these questions are new, but that those who govern lost the answers to them a long time ago. Or rather, the institutions through which they govern are broadly based on the repression of these questions, on their erasure. Yesterday, it was the question of taxes, of the correct price of things, the means to live decently, of the moral economy betrayed with pride by the president of the Republic.1 Today, it is that old question of democracy which has returned: why, at root, should it always be the same people who decide, those professional politicians, with their dry language, obscure tricks and explicit contempt for the people. Why couldn’t the people sort matters out themselves, from time to time, at least for the important things? Thus, alongside demands for economic justice, are propositions for a political justice re-emergent: against the privileges of the elected, for a tight control by the people, and in particular for the référendum d’initiative citoyenne (RIC, The Citizens’ Initiative Referendum).

Two Conceptions of Politics

The referendum was one among many of the movement’s demands, but over the course of a couple of days it became its new symbol, a culmination. On Saturday December 15th, while the movement was presented as running out of steam (it had rather been suffocated by an unseen level of repression2), a text was read to the room at the Jeu de Paume [an art gallery in central Paris]. The initiators of the movement demanded that the RIC be written into the Constitution. The media machine then overreacted, letting loose a political agoraphobia – that fear of a people deemed unstable, incapable and dangerous, one of the hatred of democracy’s many avatars.3 Apparently everyone had forgotten that during the last presidential campaign, no less than six of eleven candidates promised the creation of such a referendum, without that causing scandal. But that’s just it: democratization is acceptable as long as it is granted by professional politicians, yet it is seditious as soon as it is becomes a popular demand. Worse, didn’t we see the deputy François Ruffin attribute this proposition to Étienne Chouard, a minor internet celebrity with controversial friends, including those on the far-right, even though it was supported by the leader of Ruffin’s parliamentary group, Jean-Luc Melenchon? Once an anodyne proposal buried amongst [parliamentary] programs, the RIC became the symbol of Fascism on the march [le Fascisme en marche].

This is not a simply a question of the media and of politicians’ inconstancy. It is because the argument touches on something fundamental that the RIC could impose itself so easily and that the conflict around it could take such large proportions. The argument reveals a confrontation, more or less explicitly present since the beginning of the movement, between two conceptions of the political. The one, partisan politics, is centered on an electoral competition for power between professionals of the political sphere. It works through the production of a sense of antagonistic worlds (ideologies), objectified in programs from which citizens are called upon to choose, or risk condemnation to political invisibility.4 This partisan conception of politics appears hegemonic, so that those who refuse it find themselves relegated to the margins of public space. It is the common sense, the natural way to think about politics, of those who live off it: politicians, first and foremost, but also party staff, political journalists, pollsters, political science researchers, of a whole social milieu, which if not homogenous, is at least statistically not at all representative of the population as a whole. All these people know how institutions work, who is from which party and where these parties lie on the left-right axis. In short, they know the codes of professional politics. And it is through these codes that they interpret every political reality, which explains their obsession, since the beginning of the movement, to situate it politically, to make it fit their analytic frames based on professional politics.

But the Gilets Jaunes movement, particularly since the RIC became its rallying cry, has highlighted a different conception of politics, which we might call citizenist [citoyenniste].5 It rests on the demand to deprofessionalize politics, in favor of the direct participation of citizens, aiming to let the authentic voice of the people reign without mediation. The people, on this view, is united, with no partisan divisions or ideologies, an addition of free individuals from whom it will be possible to derive a will by a simple mechanism: asking them a question, or by drawing lots to pick a number of these free individuals to deliberate fairly. It is a politics of consensus, based on an essentially moral conception of the current situation, with sensible citizens on the one hand, and a disconnected elite, often corrupt, overpaid, and privileged, on the other. And just as we can’t make sense of the Gilets Jaunes solely with the tools of professional politics (are they left or right?), a citizenist pays no heed to the commitments of partisan politics: what does it matter to Chouard if [Alain] Soral is far-right, since he claims to be against the oligarchic system and shares his videos? What does it matter to the Gilets Jaunes if the “quenelle” is an anti-semitic rallying symbol, if it can signify opposition to the system? Of course, far-right militants who participate in the movement know full well what they are doing, and politicize their actions in accordance with a partisan politics;6 but this isn’t necessarily the case with Gilets Jaunes who observe these actions and could quite simply not have a problem with them. The citizenist conception of politics, through its basic refusal of the schemas of partisan politics, is not only open to “recuperation,” that key term of party politics: it aims to be taken up, shared, reappropriated, by anyone. In this sense, it is significantly more open than partisan politics, there is no entry fee, no jargon to learn, no game to make sense of. It is, let us use the term, eminently democratic.

Democracy against Oligarchy

It is this point that those in power have failed to grasp: the Gilets Jaunes movement draws its strength from a democratic demand. While professional politics relies on the monopoly of power by a small group, an oligarchy, citizenist politics aims, through the referendum, to give power to anybody, which is to say everyone equally. This is what the terms democracy and aristocracy meant in ancient greece, and which they kept until the 18th century: democracy is the reign of the people acting directly, or at least through citizens drawn by lot; the election, for its part, is the aristocratic process par excellence, giving power as it does to an elite.7 Yet the triumph of representative government and its institutions (elections in particular) was based on the repression of this political possibility, on the erasure of what democracy might mean, an erasure reinforced by the recuperation of the vocabulary of democracy to qualify representative government. Democratic politics were in this way neglected for the benefit of an aristocratic form of government, re-baptized over time as “representative democracy.” That is why the citizenist conception of politics is repressed and barely audible in ordinary times – but it has never entirely disappeared. The democratic aspiration regularly comes back to the surface, as in 1848, 1871, 1936, and 2018: every time there is a movement of general contestation against ruling politicians [governants] and their tricks, in the name of the people. And in each instance, those professionals who live by and for the repression of these democratic aspirations lack the analytic frameworks to understand what is taking place. The Gilets Jaunes movement thus renders one possibility clearly visible: the deprofessionalization of politics, and the move towards a citizen’s reign, in the name of an ideal which is henceforth the common sense of the majority, democracy.

Against this citizen’s movement, who will defend the old politics, that of parties and elected officials? Apart from those who are paid to do so, no doubt very few. For partisan politics is already, and has been for a long time, significantly weakened. First, the conflicts of partisan politics have been blunted down: seen from outside the world of professionals, there is no longer a significant difference between the right and the left, whether in terms of social background or of the nature of the politics they offer. Everywhere, with certain nuances that are indecipherable for the majority, we find the same commodification of public services, the same seductive manoeuvres directed at capitalists to attract their precious investments, the same zealous encroachment on public liberties: excessively arming the police, imprisoning the poor and deporting foreigners. Alongside this neutralization of political conflicts is added the decay of the party as a mechanism for including the mass of citizens within partisan politics: party membership is in continuous decline, just as that of unions, along with all the usual means (including the militant press) of socialization into partisan politics. In such conditions, who could oppose the discreditment of this conception of politics? Even those with power, the professionals of politics, seem to have stopped believing in the possibilities of political action, and repeat with varying inflections that there is no alternative to neoliberalism. Why then defend their game if, by their own admission, there is nothing more at stake? That partisan politics lost its meaning made it possible for a simple economic adviser, a technician ignorant of the uses of partisan politics, Emmanuel Macron, to become minister and then president, repeating, over and over, that he would overcome divisions and refusing to base himself on existing parties – he preferred to create his own, bearing his initials [LREM], an idiotic marketing ploy which would have wholly and immediately discredited him if the partisan system had retained a modicum of meaning and dignity. How could Emmanuel Macron, who only yesterday was boasting that he had put the old system, the old world, on its knees, today call for a mobilization to save that same system and its now meaningless confrontations? This explains his silence, from the impossible position he finds himself in, and the disproportionate use of force against a movement which owes him so much and which is, in many ways, like his inverted image.8

Citizenism and Neoliberalism

For that’s just where the problem lies: citizenist politics draws its strength from a justified dissatisfaction with partisan politics and a long history of democratic aspiration, but also from the rise of the frames of thinking of governmental experts, of all those who want to replace politics with a series of technical measures or policies, neoliberals at the forefront. The Gilets Jaunes movement is opposed to technocrats, but it broadly retains the pejorative conception of partisan politics and its approach to thinking about public action [la manière de penser l’action publique] Citizenism is the democratic counterpoint to Macronism: both of them tell us that we must put an end to ideologies, each reduce politics to a series of problems to be resolved, questions to respond to. Of course it is not the same to say that these questions should be resolved by experts or by citizens through referenda; citizenism certainly proposes a democratization, but it’s the democratization of a conception of politics which it shares with neoliberals.9 The citizenist world is a homogeneous world, populated by individuals who look very much like those of the neoclassical economists: we picture them going to voice their political preferences during referenda just like the economists picture consumers going to the market to voice their preferences, without taking into account the power relations in which they are caught up, or the social antagonisms which shape them.

But as with the economists, this representation of the citizenship is a myth – effective but deceptive, effective because deceptive. The notion of a people who decides through a referendum or by means of delegates drawn by lot covers over the irreducibly conflictual aspect of politics, its warlike possibility [sa possibilité guerrière]. There is nothing new here: the historian Nicole Loraux has already shown how in Ancient Greece this kind of discourse, glorifying the unanimity of the people and the regulated character of its institutions, masked the other aspect of democratic politics, conflict (stasis), which harbored the threat of civil war and thus had to be erased, repressed.10 Far from being an anomaly to democracy, conflict was always present as a possibility, and when it appeared it was obligatory for citizens to choose a party – abstention, a sign of passivity and indifference, warranted the retraction of political rights. By wanting to get rid of parties, in the sense of organizations in competition for power, citizenism also stifles the possibility for the expression of divisions within the city. But political antagonism, conflict, is as necessary to democracy, even to the authentic and deprofessionalized kind, as is the direct inclusion of all citizens.

It is thus a question of saving that which, within partisan politics, is necessary to democracy, and which citizenist politics erases: its durable organization of division in the body politic. This division is necessary because without it, the antagonisms that span society do not find expression or visibility. It is significant that there is no sign of these antagonisms – whether those of gender, race, or even class, as the question of production of inequalities and the wage-relation are absent – in the demands of the Gilets Jaunes movement, which favor the consensual claims of the moral economy.11 It brings into the starkest light the inanity of the partisan system, and denounces with reason the political dispossession instituted by representative government. But the path opened up by the citizenists who have stepped into the breach, with Chouard at the head, through the concentration on the RIC, is profoundly ambiguous. True, they propose a democratization dependant on the deprofessionalization of politics, an old popular aspiration which has never stopped animating resistances to representative government and to the monopolization of power by one cast. We can in this respect recognize and support the innovations which the movement is proposing.12 But the democratization sketched out in the practice and demands of the Gilets Jaunes movement is a consensual democratization: it pits the people against the government, and risks the total erasure of another democratic figure, that of the people against itself. Further, it risks playing the game of neoliberalism, with which the citizenists share the refusal of ideologies and partisan politics.

There is another way, beyond this opposition between a professionalized, partisan, conception of politics and a consensual citizenist one, even if the means to take it remain unclear. The point is to try to deprofessionalize politics without eliminating its conflictual character: in other words, to democratize dissensus. This is what the defenders of the democratic and social republic of 1848 tried to do: to involve the masses in politics, not to get them to vote on such and such a measure, but to realize a class politics, socialism, in the interest of proletarians and against the bourgeoisie.13 The principle was to render social divisions visible, and not to dissimulate them behind some participative apparatus, however democratic it might be. Today, far from disappearing, social antagonisms have multiplied, something which constitutes both a resource and a challenge to emancipatory politics. The old socialist solutions, centered around the question of class, already in 1848 contributed to invisibilizing the question of women and of race, even though the voices existed to put these questions front and center.14 A new emancipatory politics, which remains to be invented, should be based on making the ensemble of relations of domination visible, without hierarchy and by remaining open and responsive to new antagonisms which will inevitably come to light. As it is, the Gilets Jaunes movement, anchored in a citizenist conception of politics, does not seem to be taking this path toward the visibilization of these antagonisms, even as it opens up new democratic possibilities. A renewal of an emancipatory politics must therefore think both with and against this movement, for democracy and against oligarchy, but also for the expression of conflict and against consensus – whether it be technocratic or citizenist.

Translated by Hector Uniacke

This text was first published asLes Gilets jaunes et la question démocratique,” on the author’s website; it was subsequently published on Contretemps.


1 his text follows from a previous blog post, “Les Gilets Jaunes, l’économie morale et le pouvoir.”It owes even more than the last to constant exchanges with the historian Célia Keren whom I thank dearly. Translator’s Note: Hayat’s previous text on the Yellow Vests movement has been translated into English by ediciones inéditos as “Moral Economy, Power, and the Yellow Vests,” ediciones inéditos, December 11, 2018.
2 See, among others, Fabien Jobard, “Face aux ‘gilets jaunes,’ l’action répressive est d’une ampleur considérable,” Le Monde, December 20, 2018, and Mathieu Rigouste, “Violences policières: ‘Il y a derrière chaque blessure une industrie qui tire des profits,’” Les Inrockuptibles, December 12, 2018.
3 Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2009); Francis Dupuis-Déri, La peur du peuple: Agoraphobie et agoraphilie politiques (Montréal: Lux, 2016). See Dupuis-Déri’s recent discussion of the concept of political agoraphobia in English, “Who’s Afraid of the People? The Debate Between Political Agoraphobia and Political Agoraphilia,” Global Discourse 8, no. 2 (2018): 238-56.
4 Pierre Bourdieu, “Political Representation: Elements for a Theory of the Political Field,” in Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 171-202.
5 The term citizenism is taken from the left-libertarian critique of the belief in the emancipatory possibilities of democratic procedures based on the abstract figure of the citizen. See, for example, the 2001 pamphlet “L’impasse citoyenniste. Contribution à une critique du citoyennisme” and the analyses of Alternative libertaire.
6 On the far-right in the Gilets Jaunes movement, see the texts by La Horde, in particular “Un point de vue antifasciste sur les gilets jaunes,” La Horde, December 19, 2018.
7 Bernard Manin, Principes du gouvernement représentatif (Paris: Flammarion, 1996).
8 This point has already been underlined by the historian Danielle Tartakowsky: “Les ‘gilets jaunes,’ un phénomène miroir du macronisme,” Les Échos, December 5, 2018.
9 Whence, moreover, the apparent ease of governmental recuperation of these citizen demands, through through the establishment of decision-making arrangements [dispositifs de concertation], with citizens drawn by lot.
10 Nicole Loraux, The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, trans. Corinne Pache and Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2002).
11 See Stefano Palombarini on this point, who analyzes the Gilet Jaunes as an anti-bourgeois bloc: “Les gilets jaunes, le neolibéralisme, et la gauche,” Médiapart, December 21, 2018.
12 See for example the collective tribune of GIS démocratie et participation, or the the debate with Yves Sintomer and Julien Talpin. An article by Fabien Escalona on Mediapart proposes a nuanced view of the RIC as a democratic innovation: “Le référendum d’initiative citoyenne, un outil utile mais partiel pour enrichir la démocratie,” Médiapart, December 21, 2018.
13 Samuel Hayat, Quand la République était révolutionnaire. Citoyenneté et représentation en 1848 (Paris: Seuil, 2014).
14 Michèle Riot-Sarcey, La démocratie à l’épreuve des femmes: trois figures critiques du pouvoir, 1830-1848 (Paris: A. Michel, 1994); Silyane Larcher, L’autre citoyen: l’idéal républicain et les Antilles après l’esclavage (Paris: Armand Colin, 2014).

Author of the article

is a political researcher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique-Lille. He is the author of Quand la République était révolutionnaire: Citoyenneté et représentation en 1848 (Seuil, 2014)