The fight for democracy in the deep countryside
On the 12th December The Guardian published an article entitled ‘If you want to understand the Gilets Jaunes you have to leave Paris’. The article had little by way of analysis, devoting itself to a standard ‘look at me I live in France’ one up man-ship. The ostensible topic, the Gilets Jaunes and questions concerning why now, who and where – surely the key questions – were largely ignored or under-developed.
I too live in France, about 800 kilometres from Paris: in South West France. My department is one of the poorest in the country. Moreover, even within this department, the area where I reside is backward in a developmental and progressivist sense: there are no motorways, the towns are little more than villages, there is little by the way of hospitals, work or facilities and, despite its fantastic natural beauty in the shade of the Pyrenees, the towns display an obvious air of poverty, unemployment and civic decay.
Support for the Gilets Jaunes is everywhere. One in two cars display some sort of yellow vest on their dash. In the conversations at local bars, in the anger and ferocity filling the language of placid individuals, in the complaints of small shop-keepers and finally, in the Christmas newsletter from the mayor of my village.
It’s an anger that’s has been building for a long time. The two lane main road from Auch to Toulouse has been blocked by strikers, farmers or truckers, on a dozen occasions in the last two years. Two months before the initial protests in Paris, a worker at the local hardware store spent 10 minutes listing to me all the complaints which subsequently informed the protests.
But more evidence of the long-standing anger now exploding is contained in the prolonged, spontaneous, entirely local and informal guerrilla campaign targeting French radar speed cameras.
A campaign which means that, currently, it is estimated that nearly three-quarters of the radars across France are out of service.
In my department, only one out of twenty-seven is still intact and that remaining one has been wrapped in state plastic bags to avoid ‘citizen decommissioning’.
The figures are staggering nationwide: 18 radars are out of service in the Alpes-Maritimes, 18 in the Var (out of 21), 60% in the two departments of Eure and Seine-Maritime, 25 out of 34 in Tarn-et- Garonne, 14 out of 15 in Cantal, 20 out of 30 in Allier, half in Indre, Morbihan and Nièvre, 19 out of 34 in Eure-et-Loire, 25 out of 27 in Côtes-d’Armor , 10 out of 16 in the Cher, 16 out of 33 in the Yonne and 40 out of 57 in the Gard.
In Nord-pas-de-Calais, the Voix du Nord counted at the beginning of December 5 intact radar out of 70, in the Puy-de-Dôme only one remains from 22, in Dordogne 3 out of 24. In the Alpes de Haute-Provence they are all out of order, 18 out of 28 are in Haute-Loire, 14 out of 27 in the Landes, 19 out of 23 in Dordogne, 10 out of 21 in Mayenne, 33 out of 44 in Oise, 22 out of 24 in the Channel, 10 out of 27 in Haute-Saône – one of the least affected departments with Corrèze (5 out of 21). Most of these have been destroyed with a combination of metal grinders and tyres filled with petrol.
The Gilets Jaunes’ demands are based in part around driving. In a lot of ways their struggle is a struggle for movement, basic movement, entry level requirement movement like getting to work; the movement required to live in the most immediate sense. This is the social world of practices and everyday actions. It is not the world of globalist abstractions.
These demands for movement concern police speed practices lowering the speed limit for revenue raising, and of course the price of diesel. The war against the speed cameras informal, spontaneous, uncoordinated, is the fight of the social world against the state noose, a desperate desire to breathe. Yet the demands of my very local group (composed of the small local town and surrounding villages) include the following as well: ‘No to the carbon tax for individuals, yes for polluters. Really force manufacturers to provide us with products that are not overwrapped, more ecological, more intelligent. Coherent and efficient public transport in our countryside’.
Yet they are also demanding reversion to 75% minimum inflation indexation of wages allowance for disability pensioners; revision of retirement and taxation brackets. True increase in purchasing power without help from the SS. Political will to cancel tax evasion. Suppression of privileges for the elected and their home. Tax transparency. Possibility of visibility of expenditures of all state agencies by taxpayers.
In other words, these are the demands of an impoverished populace in rural locations, currently reliant on cars and with little income. As the local mayor put it in his strongly worded Christmas newsletter, an abandonment of rural areas in the service of the profit from excessive recentralisation and the ideologically led development of metropolitan centres.
Now the Gilet Jaune have emerged into public view via Television and the abstract world of global news; now, for the last ten weeks, there have gathered on a unprepossessing roundabout down the road, a tiny group of somewhere between 10 and 16 people waving Gilets Jaune banners and wearing yellow vests.
The two local gendarmes stand quietly watching these people hand out flyers, barbecue their lunch on an overturned oil drum and encourage motorists honking their support. It’s freezing cold across the bare landscape of clay fields. For the most part the Gilets Jaunes on this roundabout are middle aged men, though there is a regular stream of both women and some younger men. All of them are dressed in multiple layers of cheap clothing and every time a car passes, (this is not a heavily trafficked road), they leap and run to them calling and yelling for support, not in an aggressive manner but with enthusiasm and energy. And this is the same throughout the region.
On a recent trip of forty five minutes I encountered 7 of these roundabout protests. All were bigger, some have set up tents, many decorated with the French tricolor; all of them have BBq’s blazing, all of them exhibit a friendly fervour as if they have suddenly discovered they are not alone. They offer passing motorists demands clearly printed locally, some of which mirror wider demands, some which are particular to the area. Many of these roundabout groups have strong female contingents and youth presence. Evidence for this wider support is everywhere: the local farmer who lent them his field adjacent to a roundabout so the Gilets could erect a cabin for cups of tea. Trucks honk continually, cars too, three quarters of the cars have yellow vests on their dashboard or trailing behind. In every village houses are decked with yellow vests dangling from windows or nailed to doors and this is repeated all over France as even a cursory glance at Gilets Jaunes Facebook sites confirms. Motorways are being blocked, not continually but steadily, all over the country, either by groups of protestors or truck drivers or farmers.
Nor is this support simply confined to what could be loosely termed working class people. Support, at least in my area, covers everyone, working and middle class people alike. It includes for instance the woman PA for a managing director of quite a big company; a woman who, despite having worked at the company for 16 years, is still being paid what is colloquially referred to as the ‘smic’, the minimum wage.
Indeed almost all the people around here are paid the bare ‘smic’ no matter what their qualifications, something true of 80% of provincial France. Another woman described as basically running a large storage facility, performing all admin, doing the accounts is, despite her university degree, similarly only earning ‘smic’. For this middle class social capital she travels almost two hours a day.
All complain constantly about taxes; uniformly they claim to have nothing left at month’s end. These are all real examples and along with that there exist other more pernicious impositions draining their income. The common practice concerning Public holidays for instance; many of which in France fall on Tuesdays or Thursdays. In such circumstances, companies will commonly announce a compulsory closure on the intervening Monday or Friday; in the process making what is termed in France a ‘jour de pont’: a week end bridge. Of course, workers don’t get paid for this compulsory bridge. If they want to be paid they take it as part of their annual leave.
In this area, the Gilets Jaunes ARE the social world, all the people and all the world. And because they are so diverse their protests didn’t begin with the certainty of ideology, or a traditional political affiliation or indeed any wild ideas concerning ‘the correct organisation of the working class’ or the purity of the race. Things are far too serious for that.
The people protesting at the local roundabout are, in effect protesting on behalf of the being-ness of their entire social world. Further, as proved by the endless YouTube/Facebook posts, the spontaneous actions of these people are simultaneously mirroring actions, ideas and perspectives appearing all over the entire rural world of France, everywhere outside Paris.
The Gilets Jaunes is the revolt of France Profonde – the social world of Deep France, defined as:
an expression used originally by Parisians to designate the provinces in opposition to Paris. More generally, it refers to the most remote regions of France, without urbanization and rooted in tradition. It can have a pejorative connotation depending on the context.’
The hint of class prejudice in the final line is crucial. Paris, even before it was the nominated as the single globalist city for France, for long before that, Paris has sneered at and despised Deep France.
Simply by its existing, Deep France is in revolt against globalisation and therefore against Paris and the French state. But it is something else that really terrifies and disgusts Parisians of all political persuasions, left and right, concerning France Profonde. France Profonde is also a revolt in the name of something positive, a vision of France as a place of equality, a place of valued parts, not one single globalised whole no matter how pure.
What’s more, Paris knows that, whether it be the industrialised North or the rurality of the south, it is this ragged positive vision, shared at the level of personal and communal being-ness which unites the Gilets against the state.
Deep France is more a feeling and a meaning in common than an ideology. Which is why it is ragged and uneven and hybrid and diverse. As it should be.
This is the vision contained in the dirty flags that strew the country roundabouts or the dirty scraps of yellow vest, poking from an upstairs window.
And if this positive vision were encapsulated in abstraction, then it is through their vision of equality, fraternity, equality and liberty, the three words that best reflect the contradictions and truths within their own lives. A slogan which encapsulates for them what they are, what their world is and why it needs to be protected. It is a demand both from them and in protection of their lived experience. And this is why it is not xenophobic nationalism, indeed not nationalism at all. It is far too particular, far too local far too concrete.
This is why the term ‘those left behind’ is yet another silly liberal metropolitan designation. If the Gilet on my roundabout wanted to be in Paris they’d have been there a long time ago. Lots of people they know already are. What these people are doing instead is standing up for their culture, their own place and their own understanding both of what it means, and of their place in it. They are here because they want to be…who they are.
And that’s why the Gilet movement won’t go away. The concrete nature of their demands reveals a concrete understanding of their own lives, of its meaning and their place in their own particular space.
Round here, all over France, Deep France, the people, the Gilets Jaunes are being strangled and having trouble breathing — on Facebook they are saying so:
This situation is becoming unsustainable. Unbreathable even. When I see our dear president. That some have elected, who is mocking people who are at 40 € / week (see less like me and so many others) saddens me. Really and sincerely. I’M 27 years old. For 8 days I’m at 0,32 € on my account. I (on) live with 550,93 € of RSA a month. No, I’m not ashamed to talk about it, I’m not ashamed at least. I have been in the family for several years. With some financial participations when I can and when I get to find an interim mission or just a simple job, no matter what nature. Next month I have to find a housing. But with 550 € I do how Mr President? Rent around my house is at 400 € minimum for 17 m2… 150 € for (on) Live 30 days? My phone package, loads (water / elec), my tobacco (because yes as we report it some smoke) and to finish the food of my cats and mine. It’s just impossible. Currently my fridge is empty, I don’t know how I’m going to do the end of the month I even wonder if I shouldn’t go search in the trash and put aside my dignity (I’ll probably have the face masked and hooded so don’t stop me thanks, I’m not a breaker).
The worst part about this is that I say that not to complain or ask for money or anything. I say that because there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are worse than in my case. And it saddens me. Really and sincerely. It makes me nightmares, no longer finding sleep.
I don’t know if this post is of great use, I just needed to say what I had on my heart because it weighs me. I needed to express myself a little bit and I thought here would have been the best place. It may be possible to raise awareness of people who do not understand why we are fighting and that we all have a different perspective.
You will forgive me for the few mistakes and the few provocation in this letter.
It is the concreteness of their demands coupled with the materiality of their sociality upon the street and at the roundabout which contrasts the Gilets Jaunes so markedly with the shiny abstractions of Paris: Macron, Austerity, the EU, the banks, the globalisers clustered around him, ideologues of both Left and Right; Paris, a culture of symbols and representation in all its shapes, tasks and forms.
Macron the president of abstraction, conjures another abstraction: ‘the national debate’. His acting out of this new simulacrum makes him even more hated and despised. In turn, he and the French state become increasingly puzzled. The authorised television culture, the mainstream media and the government (who can tell them apart?), are increasingly paralysed by this revolt. The globalist world strikes back on a cultural level: gathers philosophers in the person of Bernard Henri Levy; it poses questions of radical sixties chic symbols like baby boomer Cohn Bendit, all the time not realising that among the Gilets, these are two of the most hatred individuals in France. The only answer global France has to France Profonde in fact, is more police violence and more abstract representation.
Seven weeks after the supposed abandonment of the diesel tax, diesel prices start creeping up again and the state believes people won’t notice. In everything Macron says, week after week, he manages to somehow insult the people, even as he’s claiming to listen.
And yet, despite this constant shiny tv propaganda which isn’t working, the truth is somewhat different. Slowly, slowly, the struggle for breath that drives the Gilets Jaunes, is, week by week, immobilising Macron and the state.
And the Gilets Jaunes are achieving this reversal entirely with their particularity – their list of demands, because these demands are lived demands – lived in the demonstrations, lived in their own communal particular, lived at work, month by month.
Every week the Gilets demonstrate and every working week they return again to experience the conditions that fuel more demonstrations, more communication, more determination.
In the weekly spaces of appearance: the Paris demos, the roundabouts, the newsletters and the conversations, the Gilets Jaunes find their own meaning in common; a meaning which unites everyone, which transcends ideology. And this meaning in common is what makes it easy to tell a real Gilet.
Abstractions like ‘reform’, ‘revolution’, ‘working class’, ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘reformist’, ‘popularism’, ‘boufs’; essentialist categories like race, identity, workers, nationalists, fascists, troublemakers, blah blah, these names and the actions they perform, are from a disappearing politics, a twentieth century politics of neat forms, endless demarcations, barriers, issues; most of all a Twentieth Century politics of removal, representation and calcification.
This language and this thinking no longer fit the Gilets. For them, it is a hollow formal language describing neither their social being-ness nor their life.
In the best quote of the entire 10 weeks, one said:
How can I think about the end of the world, I can barely think to the end of the month.’
France Profonde is coming together and is finding its own meanings and social power and they are doing this by being with each other in action together. It is they who are getting stronger, weekend by weekend and the paralysed state which is diminishing, even as it does nothing, even as nothing changes; even as its police force blind a twenty year old women in one eye. Even as forty seven people die or are badly injured.
Copyright David Studdert 27/1/2019
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