A Year of Yellow Edges
Gilets Jaunes protest at Place de l’Etoile, Paris, 1st December 2019. Photograph by Olivier Ortelpa via Flickr (cc)
by Susanna Crossman
Roughly one year ago, on 17th November 2018, an impromptu French national protest was held against fuel tax. On Facebook, the instigators said: Put your fluorescent jacket on your dashboard. They called that day Act I. Three hundred thousand people demonstrated wearing yellow jackets. Over two hundred were injured, another two hundred arrested. A woman died. Over the following weeks, yellow spilt into grey winter months, roads were blocked, barricades were built. One Act every Saturday. A yellow scenography. At weekends, they blocked cities, villages and towns. Spontaneous and populist, without clear leaders or organizational allegiance, accused of fascism and gratuitous violence, the Gilets Jaunes movement was born. A lambent, disorderly, cadmium course. The roots and meaning of this movement were difficult to define. Born from crisis and urgency, digital networks and peri-urban space, the Gilets Jaunes defied previous models of political unrest. For months France tilted, unbalanced. Yellow.
Michael Ondaajte writes, “Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border we cross.”
Aureolin. Banana Yellow. Cadmium.
24th November 2018. Act II
The first time I saw the Gilet Jaunes was on a Saturday afternoon. I’d promised my eldest daughter to take her for hot chocolate. When we reached a roundabout on the outskirts of our provincial French town, huddles of protestors dressed in fluorescent yellow safety jackets, picketed exits, paced the roundabout’s edge. The rain was pouring. Against a backdrop of carwashes and out-of-town supermarkets, black smoke coiled into the sky. Blazes made from wooden pallets lit up a concrete overpass, illuminated the muddy verges. On some wasteland, a makeshift shelter had been built from a fringed parasol and a pop-up tent draped with old tarpaulins. Everything was stuck together with tape. Protestors brandished placards painted with: Act II. As we approached the roundabout, cars were checked for a Gilet Jaune. I already heard on the radio that a fluorescent yellow jacket placed on the dashboard was a sign drivers supported the movement. “What are they doing maman?” my sixteen-year old daughter asked, “Why are they wearing yellow coats?” “Who are they?”
Gargoyle Gas. Golden Poppy. Canary Yellow.
15th of December 2018. Act V
By December, photos of Paris burning were all over the international press: Paris overrun by this violent yellow storm, inarticulate crowds wearing gilets jaunes. The New York Times described, “an extraordinary venting of rage”.
Yet, at the roundabout, a neighbor calmly handed me a yellow leaflet with the Gilets Jaunes’ demands: the return of wealth-tax, higher pensions, Macron’s resignation, the dissolution of the National Assembly. Handwritten and photocopied on citrus-colored paper, the leaflet quoted George Orwell, “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” That week, French philosopher Cynthia Fleury said on national television, the movement was a sign of the end of capitalism, a protest against inequality.
Christmas Yellow. Daffodil. Dandelion. Golden Poppy.
Since the 1890s, the term yellow journalism, has been used to designate media that exaggerates facts and rumors, and uses sensationalist headlines. From the beginning, the Gilets Jaunes movement attacked journalists, members of the “dominant media”, verbally and physically. In le Monde (14 January 2019) Alexis Lévrier debated how the press was seen as the enemy of the Gilets Jaunes movement who preferred Facebook. Lévrier pointed out the mirage of democratic horizontality promised by the social network.
The Class Debate
In early 2019, the Gilets Jaunes movement announced Act XVII. Analysts of the crisis opposed France’s metropolitan elite and peripheral social groups abandoned by globalization, geographically alienated. Bodies and lives ignored. The latter stated they would do anything to resist. The former described the Gilets Jaunes as barbarous, brutal, uneducated grunters who opposed everything but had no articulated political demand. Yet, in February many nurses and staff I worked with in hospitals had become Gilets Jaunes. “I am ready”, one female colleague told me, who had a previously been involved in union movements, “to go to Paris to fight for equality, to take part in the next Act.” In French ‘un acte’ is a philosophical notion opposing power.
The French writer, Edouard Louis, an early supporter of the Gilets Jaunes, said the movement expressed the voice of the unheard, revealed the broken bodies of the invisible. Many of the participants had never demonstrated before, were taking to the streets for the first time in their lives. He wrote, “There are different ways to say: I am suffering”.
Peridot. Royal Yellow. Safety Yellow. Saffron.
The Yellow Jacket
Since the start of the Gilets Jaunes movement, one of the only unifying factors has been its name: the ‘gilet jaune’, a garment, a colour, a yellow high-visibility safety jacket. High-visibility, visible from the Old French visible “perceptible” and the Latin vibilis, “that may be seen”. Yellow is the most luminous colour on the spectrum. Daffodil, chiffon, saffron, topaz. Yet, the color has conflicting symbolism. In Europe, historically yellow is linked to cowardice and deceit, but a yellow ribbon can also be a sign of hope.
The jacket itself tells another story. Bourdieu considered clothing to be socially shaped. In France, law requires, that every car owner carry a yellow jacket in case of emergencies. This meant anyone, immediately, could become a Gilets Jaunes, and – in our age of instant gratification – join the revolution without thought or reason.
Yet, costumes also reflect ideology, and yellow jackets are associated with working class industries, maintenance workers on construction sites. Policemen and emergency teams managing crises, wear yellow high-visibility clothes.
In this sense, the yellow jacket protects from danger, signals crisis and commands authority. The jacket has made the unrecognised pain of the forgotten official, known, validated, visible.
A Jacket Question
During the Gilets Jaunes movement, I often debated if I should place my yellow jacket on my dashboard, and show my symbolic solidarity. Yet, the obligatory nature of this “rebels uniform”, reminded me of autodafe, repressive revolutions, and the Reign of Terror, during the French Revolution. It felt polarized and dictatorial. At work, colleagues and patients said they put their jackets on their dashboard to protect themselves, and made jokes about being lynched by Gilets Jaunes.
Saffron. Maize. Naples Yellow. Neon Gold.
Whilst researching this essay, I read that an American, Bob Switzer, invented high-visibility clothing. While recuperating from an industrial accident, he developed fluorescent paint. He made the first item of hi-vis clothing from his wife’s wedding dress, transforming an object of celebration and long lasting union into one indicating crisis and danger. The link between Bob and the Gilets Jaunes is perhaps at this edge, between a breakdown of various traditions and a visible sense of urgency.
The unrest spread to schools. A lycée movement ran in parallel, a protest against educational reforms. One day, I found myself in a waiting room with my eldest daughter. She had just started at a French state boarding school. I hadn’t seen her all week and when I heard the words ‘barricade’ and ‘marches’, my ears pricked up. Overnight, she had become politicized.
She said, “At 7:15 we installed the ‘blocus’. I learnt how to attach chairs and bins together with zip ties. University students came with flyers, explaining what to do in case of arrest, they wrote lawyers’ numbers on our arms. The lawyers belong to a defense organization”. She told me, “I opened an Instagram account and had 3229 visits in 3 days, and 500 followers in 24 hours”. She said the educational movement was pacifist. But, the university students told them to cover their faces with hats and scarves if the police arrived. She said her student movement had been hijacked by what the French call ‘casseurs’. The same people who had hijacked the Gilets Jaunes. That week, six people wearing balaclavas had broken into the school kicking down doors. The teacher had locked the pupils inside the classroom.
Listening to her words, in the waiting room, I was torn between deep-rooted a parental fear she might get hurt or be manipulated, and my pride in her skills to stand up for her rights, to revolt.
Sizzling Sunshine. Titanium.
Statistics on Deaths and injuries
In March 2019, following seventeen weeks of protests, official statistics from the French Interior Ministry showed that during Gilets Jaunes demonstrations, 3,800 people had been injured (2,200 protestors and 1,500 police) and 11 people had died (8 in car accidents). Buildings had been destroyed, the Arc de Triomphe vandalised. Edouard Louis claimed Macron crystallised class tensions, by calling the less fortunate: ‘slackers’, and “ those who are nothing”. Louis said Macron “put that violence in people’s bodies.”
The Yellow Jersey
In France, the other nationally recognizable symbolic yellow garment, is the yellow jersey worn by the leader in the Tour de France cycle race. Since the 1930s, the yellow jersey has designated the outright leader of the race. Here, yellow is gold, yellow is the body’s utter victory.
Highlighting and Fear
As I was writing this text, I took a yellow pen, I highlighted words and sentences from newspaper articles. The words made a fluorescent flurry, a repetition: violence, protest, division, unheard, horizontal, us, them, extreme right-wing, elite, forgotten. In one article on the Gilets Jaunes, Gilles Dowek, a data science researcher, wrote about their communication on the Internet, the disparate voice of the individual, and the declining use of compression algorithms, which allowed us to synthesize ideas, join together, make sense of what is happening.
The Gilets Jaunes movement invoked this sense of a powerful space without form. Something out of control.
Icterine. Jasmin. Lemon.
Philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes that without the defined space of the house “man would be a dispersed being.” The Gilets Jaunes’ political action was physically and ideologically situated at intersections, junctions, tollgates, between urban, rural and online spaces. Traditionally activists march in lines in the street, and occupy symbolically charged city space. During their Acts, the Gilets Jaunes attacked prominent spaces of power, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées, Le Foquet’s restaurant where Sarkozy had dined. But, the Gilets Jaunes main territory was on the edges of town, in the shadow of supermarkets, fast food restaurants and retail centres. By the roundabouts, the Gilet Jaunes did not march in the center of the road following well-trodden, traditional paths. They stood, together, around the yellow edge. This circular island was the new agora, a public space where protestors – who could only afford to live on the outskirts of town – created their own assembly. The Gilets Jaunes are on the circumference, a liminal, in-between space.
Canetti evokes the river as a symbol for the demonstrating crowd, “tributaries come from various districts to feed the main stream”. Rivers, he writes, “have an impetus which seems inexhaustible and which, because there is never a time when it is not being fed.” Yet, rivers have banks and the river is a symbol of an orderly movement under control. The Gilet Jaunes movement was more comparable to a flood. It kept going over the edge.
“L’art de…” A Question of French Revolutions and Aesthetics
During the lycée and Gilets Jaunes movement, I often thought if my daughter had grown up in Britain, she would not be learning to protest in quite the same way. Anglo-Saxon pragmatism focuses on action, whereas French culture concentrates on how and why things are done. Since the French Revolution, the French have protested aesthetically. The May 1968 revolution was described “as much about poetry as it was about workers rights”. In the New Yorker, Richard Brody writes that “the deep and passionate aestheticism of daily French life is… far more than just a visual, auditory, carnal, or culinary expression of joie de vivre; it’s a joie de penser.” In this sense, we can observe that despite cross-party attacks of the Gilets Jaunes lack of clear demands, the movement has developed its own culture, symbols, vocabulary, and revolutionary use of space and time.
Historically, in Europe, yellow has been the color imposed on the excluded, people designated as marginal. In certain Medieval European cities, prostitutes were made to place yellow flags on their shoes. In the 12th century, lepers had to wear yellow and given a rattle or clapper so people could see and hear them coming. The Nazis enforced yellow stars to be worn by people of Jewish origin.
Certain painters, such as Kandinsky, developed theories that colors have essential, universal values. But, Michel Pastoreau, a world expert on color, writes, “color symbolism is always cultural. The symbolism changes with space and time.” In Islam, the yellow color of gold symbolizes wisdom. In China, the color is culturally associated with happiness and glory. I originally wrote this text on yellow paper, and wonder how much of symbolism we inherit, even while it is moving. It feels like trying to catch water. I try to find the origins of the political yellow. Surprisingly the Gilet Jaunes were not the first.
The First pre-Fascist French Yellow Movement
From 1899 until the outbreak of World War I, the Mouvement des Jaunes was a French union movement created in opposition to ‘red’ socialist or communist groups. Historian Zeev Sternhell describes it as a “precursor of reactionary pre-Fascism in France.” The leaders defended the French worker and French production and were anti-Semitic. In 2019, prominent French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, was verbally attacked for being Jewish as he walked past the weekly Gilets Jaunes protests in Paris. Although the Gilets Jaunes are not an anti-Semitic movement, Jean-Yves Camus, an expert in French political extremism, wrote, “as there’s no leadership in the movement and no stewarding of the demonstrations, you are free to do it.” On 9th December 2018, six Gilets Jaunes pleaded guilty of their affiliation to an extreme right-wing ultra-violent group, the GUD.
The Etymology of Yellow
The origins of the word yellow come from the same Indo-European base as the words gold and yell. Yellow is linked to that which is bright and gleaming, but also something that is crying out. The populist, untethered nature of the Gilets Jaunes movement led to manipulation and infiltration by extreme-right wing groups. Yet was a volcano, and its voice must be heard. As Susan Sontag said: “Most serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness.” One day, I asked a French colleague who supports the Gilets Jaunes, why she thought the movement used the yellow hi-vis jacket. She answered, “It must have been a co-incidence at the beginning. But now, at last, it allows us to be seen.”
In November 2019, as I complete this essay, Act XXXXXI is taking place. My eldest daughter has now joined Extinction Rebellion. She tells me she has discovered that when it comes to demonstrating, what is most amazing is the feeling of unity. “When everyone shouts, you sense the rage. You feel like your voice is the loudest thing in the world and everyone can hear it.” She says, “But you have to trust that someone is leading you somewhere. Because you fear that the crowd will turn”.
In North-West France, in Caen, a building has been taken over by the national collective of Gilets Jaunes. Described as a laboratory of participative democracy, it is called La Maison du Peuple, The People’s House. Similar centers have been opened across France in Nantes, Saint-Nazaire and elsewhere. A National Assembly has been held with 800 representatives of Gilets Jaunes, described by the organisers as “a whirlwind of the ideas circulating on the roundabouts, in occupations and during demonstrations.” The Gilets Jaunes have voted to participate in the general strike planned in France on 5th December, walking hand-in-hand with the unions. Yet, the movement still refuses to define a leader, preferring direct democracy, giving individuals a singular voice. Inside The People’s House, they are preparing for anniversary demonstrations, everyone wears high-vis jackets. Outside, hangs a large bright yellow banner. Moving this way and that, it is caught in the gusts of wind.
About the Author:
Susanna Crossman is an Anglo-French fiction writer and essayist, winner of the 2019 LoveReading Very Short Story Award. She has recent/upcoming work in Neue Rundschau, S. Fischer (translated into German), Repeater Books, The Creative Review, 3:AM Journal, The Lonely Crowd and more. Nominated for Best of The Net (2018) for her non-fiction, her fiction has just been short-listed for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. Co-author of the French roman, L’Hôpital Le Dessous des Cartes (LEH 2015), she regularly collaborates on international hybrid arts projects. Currently, she is showing the multi-lingual prose film, 360° of Morning, with screenings and events across Europe and USA. She lives in France. @crossmansusanna.