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From the Field

Holding Their Own: Gilets Jaunes’ Occupation of Public Space

The Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) movement that emerged in France in the fall of 2018 was striking by dint of both its reach and its duration. An ethnographic survey conducted in southwestern France shows that this success was in part due to the organizational, symbolic and social resources offered by the occupation of traffic circles and the construction of shacks.

The Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) movement started with a national day of blockades and demonstrations organized on November 17, 2018, in various locations across France, to protest the increase in fuel prices, and more generally the decline in purchasing power. [1] According to the French ministry of the interior, it involved around 287,000 participants in total. Some 10 months later, the movement was still going, revised and reconfigured, not just in terms of its spatial distribution but also in terms of the number, characteristics, and demands of its protagonists. Numerous testimonies show that the people who got involved on November 17 did not anticipate action going on this long. Rather, they thought they were participating in a fairly brief mobilization, or did not see themselves joining in any follow-up to the initial mobilization. Why, then, has it endured? How can we account for the reconfiguration of this movement over time, on different social scenes and in different forms? This paper shows that the occupation of traffic circles and shacks quickly became one of the vectors of the movement’s longevity.

Moreover, driven by a “feeling of injustice” [2] shared by a section of France’s working classes and the lower fractions of its middle classes, this movement has also acquired public visibility and political force through its keyv means of action: on the one hand, blockades (of roads or industrial premises); on the other, demonstrations targeting places of power. Within these dynamics, traffic circles (roundabouts) were first used as gathering places for the setting-up of blockades. But many of them very soon became living spaces, which had to be occupied and managed. The Gilets Jaunes have largely organized themselves through “traffic-circle sociabilities.” [3] In focusing on these places, this paper aims to describe the practices and social relations that have defined them as a driving force of this movement, which sought to put “social justice back at the heart of public debate.” [4]

Our analysis is based on an ethnographic survey initiated in December 2018 on two traffic circles located in a small town in southwestern France (which we’ll call “Treyssac”), where we conducted regular observations of Gilets Jaunes occupations and actions. We went to Treyssac at least once a week, enabling us to vary our observations according to the day of the week and the time of day. In parallel, we conducted comprehensive interviews with participants and collected various written materials (leaflets, minutes of meetings, etc.).

Treyssac has a population of less than 10,000 and is located several tens of miles from a large urban area, where many of its residents work. Its unemployment (18%) and poverty (19%) rates are higher than the national average. In Treyssac, Emmanuel Macron and his La République en Marche party came first in the last presidential election, in 2017, as well as in the European Union elections in 2019, while the surrounding localities tend to vote more for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party (formerly known as the Front National).

The Gilets Jaunes participants we met on occupation sites were mostly middle-aged (between 40 and 55 years of age), often employed as manual workers (in the case of the men), in construction, transportation, heavy industry, and as clerical or care workers (in the case of the women), notably in the fields of health care, home services, and sales. Participants also included people employed in what are referred to in France as “intermediate professions”—e.g. social workers, medical technicians, paramedical staff—and self-employed individuals. Alongside them were retired people and people with disabilities that make it difficult to work. Other participants had dependents with disabilities. Moreover, many respondents mentioned problems accessing the labor market because of a disability. A number of trade unionists helped to manage the occupied sites. Most of the participants we met lived in the small towns and villages in the vicinity of Treyssac. For a significant portion of them, this engagement was their first active participation in a social protest movement.

From traffic circles to shacks: occupation for the duration

On November 17, 2018, following calls on Facebook groups, public meetings and leafleting campaigns, the Gilets Jaunes of Treyssac and its surroundings met in the early morning on the parking lot of a supermarket and decided to occupy four traffic circles. This first day of action garnered between 2,000 and 4,000 participants, the exact depending on the source in question (local press or organizers). One of these meeting points, close to a major road, was quickly identified as the movement’s main site in the area. This first day was perceived by many as a turning point, in the manner of a revelation. Many testimonies highlight the unprecedented possibility of talking about living conditions with others, which transforms the way people look at themselves and at society: “November 17, for me, is about being open about precarity,” said one social worker. These gatherings, for their protagonists, were perceived as moments of solidarity and fraternity between people who did not know each other before. In this way, a protest against a tax or the expression of general discontent were transformed into a demand for dignity, and even a profound questioning of the political elites and the issue of political representation.

Very quickly, the main site of action was occupied day and night. In the first few days, a tent set up in the middle of the traffic circle served as a shelter. Banners bearing slogans and demands with regard to purchasing power and political representation were put up: “Who’s eating our money? Macron…”; “How do you live on minimum wage? Survival level!”

Figure 1. Banner displayed on the first traffic circle to be occupied in the area

The rhyming slogan on the banner refers to the relative fortunes of those at the top and bottom of the wealth scale, and can be roughly translated as “Golden balls at the top, noodles again at the bottom.”

© Sylvain Bordiec and Antoine Bernard de Raymond.

Around mid-December 2018, after President Macron announced measures responding to the Gilets Jaunes’ demands, the occupied traffic circles were evacuated by the gendarmerie (police). Some participants believed that the traffic circles should be abandoned in favor of the regular Saturday demonstrations, already ritualized in the form of successive “Acts.” [5] Others, on the contrary, urged their fellow participants “not to give up now.” The 20 or so people present opted to move to a plot of land several miles away, on a secondary traffic route in a neighboring locality. This spot, situated just down the road from a traffic circle, was private land graciously made available to them by the landowner. At the same time, on another traffic circle, another group also decided to continue their occupation elsewhere, in this case on a field adjacent to the previously occupied traffic circle. In both cases, the choice to move to private land meant they were able to protect themselves, for a while, from evacuation. These relocations close to traffic circles made it clear that occupation—and not just blockade action—had become crucial to maintaining the fighting dynamic.

Furthermore, the nature of the occupations changed following these relocations: from this point on, they were envisaged in the long term rather than the short term. More specifically, the change of location was an opportunity to construct a “permanent” building, and a rota was organized to ensure the site was occupied at all times. The aim was to set up a habitable space where it was possible to sleep, eat, and meet. On the first of the reoccupied traffic-circle sites, the participants set about building a shack (dubbed the “Maison du Citoyen”, or “Citizens’ House”) from wooden pallets and tarpaulins, while on the second a truck’s trailer was raised up and an awning added. Both sites were once again adorned with protest banners and placards, as well as French flags and emblems of the two groups.

Figure 2. On the first occupied traffic circle, tents and tarpaulins

The banners read “Crooked politicians – all out!” and “President of the rich.”

© Sylvain Bordiec and Antoine Bernard de Raymond.

Dealing with and standing up to the authorities and the population

Prolonged occupations involve power relations with the authorities, even when they take place on private land. If the mayors of the two communes concerned display a benevolent neutrality towards the Gilets Jaunes, relations with the gendarmerie and the sub-prefecture, responsible for monitoring the sites and encouraging their abandonment, oscillate between negotiation and conflict. Thus, when the specter of eviction becomes clear, the Gilets Jaunes sometimes confront the gendarmes physically, and the latter proceed to arrests and police custody.

The demography of the mobilization helps to explain the shift from blocking actions to occupations. If, in the first days of the movement, the number of participants and the number of gatherings organized all over the territory complicate the interventions of the forces of order, the decrease in the number of participants and the decrease in the number of places of gathering make the blockades more difficult to organize and facilitate the individualization of the police and judicial repression... [6] Even if it is not reduced to it, the passage to an occupation movement has a strategic dimension.

Beyond the public authorities, relations with the local population play an important role in the occupations, as they cannot continue without the solidarity of others. This solidarity can be manifested in a symbolic way (yellow vest placed on a car dashboard, horn blasts) or materially: from November 17, the support of the public is doubled by donations of money and food made on the occupied sites. In the same way, to hold the occupation, the Gilets Jaunes need pallets to build shelters, firewood, generators, etc. All these things come from donations, either from participants in the mobilization, or from people expressing their sympathy.

However, the Gilets Jaunes must also guard against malicious acts. In Treyssac, they explain that an attempt was made to poison them during a food donation and that they no longer accept any cooked food. The occupants are sometimes subjected to insults, threats, or even more, and must organize themselves to ensure their safety. This is one of the reasons why they have to organize a permanent presence. The nightly episodes of burning of Gilets Jaunes’ shacks, reported in the press, reinforce this idea.

Occupation as a resource: action and solidarity

The most obvious explanation for the rapid transformation of the mobilization into an occupation movement has to do with the constraints of a “directionless” movement (in two senses: no clear plan, and no clear director). Without a formal procedure for selecting participants or an official hierarchy, a movement like the Gilets Jaunes can only with difficulty control the actions of those who claim to be part of it. Organizing occupations can then keep participants mobilized, as much as possible.

Figure 3. Under the awning, a place of conviviality

© Sylvain Bordiec and Antoine Bernard de Raymond.

The fact that the participants benefit from a permanent place for their reception helps to give substance to a collective. Moreover, the places of occupation facilitate the organization of actions, whether they are blockades, “open toll” operations or demonstrations. As an influential figure in the “Maison des Citoyens”, an entrepreneur involved in a social movement for the first time, says: “If you lose your point of support, it’s over, you can’t do anything more.” While the Gilets Jaunes of the “Maison des Citoyens” usually go to the Saturday demonstrations in the regional capital, this place serves as a starting point for carpools. Thus, the Gilets Jaunes of Treyssac arrive together, gather under a banner mentioning their city, and represent “their” territory during the big Saturday demonstration. On their side, the people holding the other traffic circle of the city organized every Saturday until the end of March in Treyssac a “citizens’ march.” The walk passes through the occupied traffic circle, a stopover allowing to share a moment of conviviality. Finally, the occupied sites can serve as a place of debate and deliberation to discuss the follow-up to the movement, to structure the claims and political objectives through “Citizens’ Assemblies.” [7] In addition, they also organized events—for example, the screening of Gilles Perret and François Ruffin’s film dedicated to the Gilets Jaunes, called J’veux du soleil (“I Want Some Sun”)—and reported on debates that had taken place elsewhere, in particular during initiatives for the national structuring of the movement. As in other contexts, the occupation of public squares reflects strong aspirations for political horizontality [8] with, in the case of the Gilets Jaunes, a marked rejection of the figure of the leader. [9]

Irreducible to protest actions, the occupations engage other forms of experience, linked to sociability and precarious housing. Co-presence on traffic circles and shacks allows for the experimentation of original forms of solidarity and deliberation, which tend to make occupied places into public squares. [10].

Grouping forces: shacks as magnets

For everyone, occupying the cabins requires producing biographical availability, setting aside specific time to compete with other social constraints (work, family, etc.). This capacity to free up time for occupation is differentiated according to the characteristics of the people. In addition to the fact that, depending on these characteristics, people are not present on the traffic circle at the same times of the day [11] nor on the same days of the week, any traffic circle or shack occupation distinguishes a “core group” from other less present participants. The people forming the first circle of the occupation contribute to defining the tone of the occupied site and condition the choice of the less regular participants to settle on this or that traffic circle.

In the two sites observed, family logic plays a role; couples and siblings are frequently present. Conversely, for some people experiencing social isolation, the presence and exchanges at the shack allow them to symbolically find “a family.” If the role of pensioners in the occupation of traffic circles has already been described, it is also necessary to underline the equally important role of people with disabilities.

The continuous occupation of the cabins generates task sharing, which is inseparably a task of sharing. This sharing is unevenly formalized and stabilized. On one of the sites, the participants set up a management chart for the “posts,” assigning responsibilities to one or two people deemed competent in one or more areas—construction, shopping, managing the group’s pooled fund. Other tasks are designated to be shared by all participants - tidying up, washing dishes. Gilets Jaunes unable to comply with these collective expectations are subject to being called to order or asked to leave. Occupation is the work of people who have a place to win and then keep. The most physically and mentally costly places are those of the Gilets Jaunes who sleep on the site, endure the cold nights, the insults of motorists and the fear of aggression. Costly, these places also provide the greatest symbolic gratification, since the other Gilets Jaunes owe it to them to be able to enjoy these places permanently.

Figure 4. Temporary accommodations, which must resist bad weather

© Sylvain Bordiec and Antoine Bernard de Raymond.

One of the aspects most frequently emphasized by the respondents to explain the intensity of their involvement is the fact that they “met people from all walks of life”; “people I would never have met without the Gilets Jaunes. While they have in common the fact that they now reside in the local area, their residential trajectories differ. In this respect, three groups can be distinguished: “locals,” who have always lived in the local area; “metropolitan outcasts,” often from the middle classes and who have arrived in the area in question recently, forced out by the increase in real-estate prices in the nearest large regional city; and the “outsiders” or “non-locals,” generally from the working classes and who have come from another French region. The different kinds of contact between these people with different trajectories is perhaps one of the main reasons for the movement’s longevity. The retired and the younger people talk about their lives and the future of the movement in the heat of a brazier. Stable workers listen to unemployed people talk about their family and health problems. “Locals” make friends with more recently settled people. “Left-wing” trade unionists and right-wing sympathizers spend several hours in close proximity. While, as the weeks go by, some of them nevertheless move away from the occupied traffic circles, others cling to them. For these individuals, the occupation is a happy transformation of the lifestyle. The shack can become a “home,” and the idea of having to leave it unpleasant.

With the centrality of occupation practices, the norms organizing collective life (sometimes explicitly codified during meetings) calibrate individual behaviors and participate in the definition of what it means to be a “good” Gilet Jaune. The consumption of alcohol is a key object of the regulation of the life of the shacks. Explicitly prohibited on one of the traffic circles held by a couple and several women, it is allowed on the other traffic circle but sometimes gives rise to excesses, following which some people are “invited to leave.”

Beyond lifestyles, the need for the shacks to hold so that the movement can hold (and vice versa) is a matter of inextricably individual and collective concerns. These Gilets Jaunes thus reveal the affective springs, the aspirations of fraternity, the felt lack, or even the previous absence of relational supports, motors of the hatching and then the continuation of the movement. One hypothesis can be put forward here: the occupations of the traffic circles do not only have a strategic dimension, they are also part of the social ecology of peri-urban areas and small towns and contribute to recreating a form of social centrality to which many participants in the movement feel they no longer have access.

Reputation forces: shacks as showcases of commitments

The sociability of the occupation of the traffic circles makes it possible to build a sense of belonging and to maintain the cohesion of the group. But the shacks also play a role of showcase and representation of the mobilized group to different audiences. Believing that they are unfairly treated by the traditional media, the Gilets Jaunes occupying the traffic circles try to give a good image of their movement to various third parties. First of all, banners installed near the shacks invite people passing by to stop and chat, or even join the movement, which sometimes happens. Exchanges with the press are considered both vital and subject to specific control. Some refuse to talk to journalists while others agree to speak, hoping that their testimonies will give an image of the Gilets Jaunes that they believe is more faithful to “reality.” For the occupiers, the possible inflections of their reputation also pass by the impulse of socioeconomic initiatives. The aim is, in particular, to diversify the activity of the occupied places and, by the same token, to diversify the types of visitors. This allows the motivations and demands of the Gilets Jaunes to be put forward to third parties and to show a capacity to elaborate solutions to problems of purchasing power and economic organization. Finally, the occupied sites can play a role as a sort of “social support desk,” with individuals sometimes spontaneously showing up at a shack to ask for help in solving a personal problem. [12]

Figure 5. Welcoming third parties – “Don’t hesitate, we can offer you a coffee, water…

© Sylvain Bordiec and Antoine Bernard de Raymond.

***

If the Gilets Jaunes movement has often put forward the motive of anger, even resentment towards the elites, this mobilization, in its dimension of occupation and invention of public places, also responds to an aspiration to solidarity. However, holding a traffic circle or a shack is not self-evident and requires resources and skills. In any case, it can be noted that when the maintenance of an occupation offers in return the possibility of “holding together” the mobilized group, this makes it possible to continue to carry out actions, to organize deliberative practices and to experiment with original forms of community life and solidarity. The observation of these practices is essential to understand the effects of the movement on its protagonists and, consequently, to grasp what can happen politically with the Gilets Jaunes mobilization.

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To cite this article:

Antoine Bernard de Raymond & Sylvain Bordiec & translated by Oliver Waine, “Holding Their Own: Gilets Jaunes’ Occupation of Public Space”, Metropolitics, 3 May 2021. URL : https://metropolitics.org/Holding-Their-Own-Gilets-Jaunes-Occupation-of-Public-Space.html

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