Since the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) movement, in October 2018, a number of commentators have noted the absence of young people from working-class neighbourhoods. As part of a participatory research project involving young people from 10 working-class neighbourhoods in the Paris region, a roundtable discussion was organized on the theme of the Gilets Jaunes, at the participants’ own suggestion. These young people are high-school students, university students, or in employment. They do not belong to the most marginalized fringes of society, but they are all from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, and half of them are sons or daughters of foreign-born parents. This discussion highlighted divergent positions regarding the Gilets Jaunes movement. Although the participants said they faced the same issues as the Gilets Jaunes, and were “in the same boat,” not all of them identify with this particular movement. Distinctions between the situations of these two groups thus became evident, such as ethno-racial stigmatization in relations with the police, media representations, and heavy-handed repression or contempt in response to movements emerging from working-class neighbourhoods.
Ahmed, 23, lives in Vert-Saint-Denis, Seine-et-Marne (33 km/21 mi. southeast of Paris). He is a student enrolled in a master’s program with work-linked training at Paris‑2 Panthéon–Assas University.
Baptiste, 18, lives in Saint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis (9 km/6 mi. north of Paris). He is in his final (senior) year of high school, where he is studying for a technological baccalaureate.
Hachimia, 19, lives in Pantin, Seine-Saint-Denis (6 km/4 mi. northeast of Paris). She is a student in the second year of her bachelor’s degree in information and communication.
Jeremy, 18, lives in Vert-Saint-Denis, Seine-et-Marne (33 km/21 mi. southeast of Paris). He is in his final (senior) year of high school, where he is studying for a technological baccalaureate (technological sciences for industry stream).
Karima, 20, lives in Corbeil-Essonnes, Essonne (29 km/18 mi. southeast of Paris). She works as a sales representative for a company.
Lisa-Marie, 17, lives in Suresnes, Hauts-de-Seine (10 km/6 mi. west of Paris). She is in her penultimate (junior) year of high school, where she is studying for a general baccalaureate (economics and social sciences stream).
Louiza, 18, lives in Aubervilliers, Seine-Saint-Denis (7 km/4 mi. north of Paris). She is in her final (senior) year of high school, where she is studying for a general baccalaureate (economics and social sciences stream).
Thibaut, 23, lives in Pantin, Seine-Saint-Denis (6 km/4 mi. northeast of Paris). He has a master’s degree in political science.
The roundtable was led by Marie-Hélène Bacqué, Emmanuel Bellanger, Jeanne Dufranc and Bénédicte Madelin as part of the POP‑PART participatory research project. This project focuses on the representations and experiences of young people in working-class neighbourhoods. It seeks to gain a better understanding of the transformations under way in these territories, via an intersectional approach.  In all, it involves some 15 researchers, around 15 educators, facilitators and association leaders, and 100 or so young people. POP‑PART’s research has been conducted in 10 neighborhoods in the Paris region, located in the following towns and cities: Aubervilliers, in the département (county) of Seine-Saint-Denis (7 km/4 mi. to the north of Paris); Clichy-sous-Bois, Seine-Saint-Denis (15 km/9 mi. to the northeast); Corbeil-Essonnes, Essonne (29 km/18 mi. to the southeast); Nanterre, Hauts-de-Seine (11 km/7 mi. to the northwest); Pantin, Seine-Saint-Denis (6 km/4 mi. to the northeast); in the 18th arrondissement (district) of Paris (in the north of the city); Saint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis (9 km/6 mi. to the north); Suresnes, Hauts-de-Seine (10 km/6 mi. to the west); Vert-Saint-Denis, Seine-et-Marne (33 km/21 mi. to the southeast); and Villeneuve-la-Garenne, Hauts-de-Seine (9 km/6 mi. to the north). The project has taken the form of workshops involving 10 to 15 young people per site, resulting in the production of video clips by the members of each workshop. All the participants were then brought together in a process of cross-thematic thinking, which is still ongoing. In addition, the researchers have conducted about 100 individual interviews.
An ambivalent relationship with the Gilets Jaunes
Ahmed : I’m partly for and partly against [the Gilets Jaunes movement]. I’m for it because their demands are legitimate. Unemployment is high, the quality of public services is deteriorating, there are problems in terms of security, health, and housing, the number of homeless people is increasing, and wages are too low compared to living costs. All this is legitimate. On the other hand, I don’t feel concerned in the sense that the Gilets Jaunes’ problems are problems that our grandparents and our big brothers and sisters have always experienced. Everything they’re protesting about—unemployment, insecure and low-skilled jobs, police violence—we’ve always borne the brunt of that. But when immigrants tried to demonstrate, they were told: “You’re not in your country, you can’t do this, you can’t complain. You should be happy to be here.” My father was born in Algeria, he came here when he was 18. He was always told: “You’re not French, you don’t get to speak.” There was this state of mind, we’re not at home, so we keep our mouths shut. However, we [Ahmed and his fellow participants] are French, we were born here, we grew up here, we’re going to stay here, we love France. I have heard racist comments from certain Gilets Jaunes. Why are they pitting themselves against us instead of coming together against a system that puts us all in the same boat? Whether you’re Arab, black or white, we have the same problems. It’s as if they were saying to us: “You Arabs and blacks have had these problems for a long time, but it’s normal, if you’re not happy, go home.” Personally, when I go home, it’s to the 77 [the département of Seine-et-Marne], but I’ve nowhere else to go.
Baptiste: What set things off was the increase in carbon tax on diesel, because the poor have to pay even more. This is a populist movement, with demands from both the far right and the far left. It has resisted any appropriation by political parties. Any leader that speaks for more than about three minutes gets excommunicated. I find it an interesting movement because it shows the differences between people. We are reaching such a point of economic and social asphyxiation that people are coming together in the same movement, but that does not mean that they all agree. On immigration, for example, if you take 10 Gilets Jaunes, there will always be differences. That’s where you have to be very careful. Identifying as a Gilet Jaune does not mean agreeing on ideas, it means being in a state of mind to challenge them. But behind the contestation, you have to bring things to the table. And that’s where the real debate begins. The Gilets Jaunes, for me, is a step towards something bigger.
Thibaut: I agree with you, it’s a state of mind, a posture: to challenge things and get things moving. Demonstrating with the Gilets Jaunes has enabled me to meet people I don’t usually see. Everyday life is socially segmented, the poorest don’t meet the least poor, and the middle classes don’t meet the others. What I think’s great about this movement is that, in demonstrations, and especially in the GMs [general meetings] we’ve been holding in Pantin every Thursday since Act IV [the fourth Saturday of protests, on December 8, 2018], we meet people we wouldn’t otherwise have met. Recently, some taxi drivers told us about their concerns about competition from private-hire vehicles. We work with different groups in Pantin, with parents of pupils, with squatter groups, we’ve helped to make free breakfasts in the refugee camp at Porte de la Villette [on the northeastern edge of the city of Paris, on the boundary with Pantin and Aubervilliers]. There is an overrepresentation of people who are already politically engaged. This is a healthy framework for speaking out, which is something new in participatory and deliberative democracy. My political involvement began in a popular education association, and to see the concrete application of things on this scale, lively and productive GMs, the sharing of experiences, discussions, that’s what the Gilets Jaunes movement is all about. We join forces with other struggles. I regularly take part in demonstrations, or in other activities in the suburbs, and I’m also often at the “cabane jaune” (“yellow shack”) at Place des Fêtes [a housing project in the northeast of the city of Paris]. There’s a students’ union that was set up following mobilizations by high-school students in Pantin. It’s said that some areas of the banlieues are depoliticized, but it’s just that action there takes different forms. That said, in every movement there’s xenophobic behavior and internal contradictions, but from what I’ve seen with the Gilets Jaunes, it’s on the margins. For a long time, we were told that the rural classes that had mobilized were people concerned about cultural insecurity, [with] a fear of the other, a fear of immigrants, whereas we’ve seen that such concerns are in fact very much on the margins. There were two or three demands made by certain GMs regarding migrants, but we talk much more about social problems. There are also difficulties in integrating certain sections of the population. You can see this in Pantin. In the movement, there are racialized individuals, from immigrant backgrounds, but who already have experience of activism. These are mostly people who took part in the March for Equality, who are now aged 55 to 60. We work with the Adama Committee, set up by Adama Traoré’s sister,  which from the outset has led to meetings with the Gilets Jaunes of Rungis [a town in the southern Paris suburbs, home to France’s largest wholesale market] and Saint-Nazaire [a port town on the Atlantic coast, near Nantes in western France], and with anti-racist activists. This creates connections, but it’s still very fragmented. We mustn’t kid ourselves, working-class neighborhoods haven’t really joined in with the movement. This is also understandable because if there had been young people from working-class neighbourhoods when violence broke out on the Champs-Élysées, it would have been a disaster for them.
Ahmed: This is why I say to young people from the projects: don’t go. They’re going to film you, they’re going to take photos, and they’re going to say: “There, it’s the same people, it’s youths from the banlieues, Arabs, blacks, savages.”
Louiza: In this movement, the working classes are not terrribly present. Generally, in the banlieues, there aren’t any blocked roundabouts. In Aubervilliers, there are none, and in [neighboring] La Courneuve there aren’t any either. For me, it’s more about rural areas. One might ask: why is there no mobilization in the banlieues? Unemployment is high, quality of life is low, you might think that the working classes are the worst affected. But as far as fuel is concerned, rural areas are worse off: people need their cars to get to work. We live in cities and most of the time we’re close to our workplace. As for young people from the working classes, if they had been there, their image would have been tarnished even more. With all the stereotypes and prejudices that people have about us, it would have quickly turned sour and we would have been lumped together with the casseurs [violent protesters who cause material damage].
Karima: The banlieues have always been Gilets Jaunes [at heart], and yet in 2005 they were harshly criticized and received very little support. So today I understand why they don’t want to be in the spotlight any more, even though the demands made, in social terms, are exactly the same. Personally, I get the impression that demonstrating doesn’t really have an impact, it’s generally a very good way of letting off steam that can do a lot of good, but nothing more.
Jeremy: I’m for and against it too. For, because it’s good that all this comes out at some point, as the problems have been piling up for several years. This movement has allowed [the Gilets Jaunes] to express themselves in their own way, but it has also gone too far. I wasn’t happy when I saw the damage to the Arc de Triomphe on TV. It’s public services that have to repair that damage afterwards. Construction-site barriers were used as weapons, cars were overturned, all because of interlopers, mainly casseurs.
Hachimia: I’m surrounded by people who don’t necessarily agree with the Gilets Jaunes, and that doesn’t help me feel concerned. You don’t see people from the banlieues in yellow vests. In the beginning, it was about fuel, but my situation and the situations of those around me meant that we were not very aware of this issue; I don’t have a driver’s license, I don’t have a car, I go to work using public transportation. But on the other hand, Ahmed, you’re telling young people not to go and I think that’s a shame. People already have a negative image of the banlieues, so we might as well go to demonstrations, make reports, make videos, and give a voice to those young people from the 9‑3 [the département of Seine-Saint-Denis] who go to Gilets Jaunes events. There are different ways of changing our image and it’s a shame to tell people not to go. The only way I can keep up with events and see something other than the news channels is through short-form media, which give another viewpoint on the action.
Lisa-Marie: It’s kind of the same for me, I came here more to try to understand why there are so many demonstrations, because I don’t feel personally concerned. In fact, I don’t see what I can do. I’m mainly here to hear your opinions. I am more lost than anything else, in fact.
“The real violence comes from power”
Thibaut: At the demonstrations, when I see casseurs, it doesn’t bother me if they smash a bus shelter or a bank. It’s politically thought out. The bus shelter is run by a big corporation. A bank is an emblem of capitalism. As for the Arc de Triomphe, it’s not as if they blew it up—they stood around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and protected it. But we’re moving away from the main subject, which is the other forms of violence that affect us too. The real violence comes from power. In France, there are 90,000 police officers, and we could very well have maintained law and order without blinding people. In front of the National Assembly [France’s lower house of parliament], I saw a hand torn off by a grenade thrown by the CRS [riot police]. It was a young man from Cergy who was 28 years old. The CRS officer who was behind the sgate refused to let him into the Assembly to get treatment. These are images that should not be seen in France, people were shocked. That is real violence, on top of the social violence that has been building up for years. For people who work in factories, retirement’s going to be violent when their back is wrecked and they have health problems.
Baptiste: And the violence of the casseurs is more legitimate than police violence. It conveys a very strong message. If these people are there to cause damage, it is because they are desperate and because the democratic system is a failure. It’s a bit like the French Revolution. The people were not heard, so they took up pitchforks and slaughtered every nobleman they could find. And that’s kind of what’s happening now. When I go to a demonstration, when I see casseurs and when I cause damage [as a casseur] myself, I do that not so much for the adrenaline rush in the moment but rather to change people’s minds. It’s not just a case of smashing things up because you’re young and you want to let off steam on a Saturday. I’m in a handball club, I let off steam on Saturdays, OK? I go [to demonstrations], I take risks, and it’s not just for fun, but because there are real demands at stake.
Ahmed: I completely agree. I’m not with the Gilets Jaunes, but when it comes to the casseurs, I understand them. Of course, I’m not going to say it’s right to smash things up, but I understand them because peaceful demonstrations are all well and good, but that’s not what changes things. Malcolm X was described as a violent man, but we have to understand why. And I don’t want to be defeatist, but unfortunately the people we’re up against really are very strong; their power is strong…
Baptiste: The cops really are a very peculiar entity—their primary aim is to beat up protesters. You have to realize what a CRS officer is. If you want to ensure the safety of the state, you become a soldier, not a cop. I was arrested, but they didn’t take me to the police station, and they didn’t make any record of the arrest. They asked me to empty my bag. They were just trying to provoke me, to find an excuse to force me onto the ground, get two or three punches in, throw me against the bus shelter, and force me to sit down. That’s it. That’s all they were after.
Jeremy: To come back to police violence, OK, the police are there to do their job, but this is violent. And if they want action, they shouldn’t become cops. They should join the army, which is more geared towards defending the country and its citizens.
Louiza: Alongside the Gilets Jaunes movement, there was also the high-school movement, but when Macron made his speech, he didn’t talk about us. We realized that the blockades we organized were useless. So we went to demonstrate, because no one sees us in front of schools. But they didn’t talk about it, they didn’t report on what we were doing. There were strikes, classes were massively disrupted—but we still have baccalaureate exams to take at the end of the year. With the Gilets Jaunes, it’s the same thing, they’re waiting for something in response. The government’s supposed to represent them, we live in a democracy, but it’s not doing very much. That’s why they’re attacking monuments like the Arc de Triomphe. No one’s listening to them, and they want to be heard. So, what do they resort to? Violence. They’ve been silent for too long, and there comes a point when you say to yourself that you have to act, and you act violently. And as long as nothing changes, it’s only going to get worse. They’re not going to back down.
From the Gilets Jaunes to the struggles of working-class neighborhoods?
Ahmed: You see, the police violence that the Gilets Jaunes have suffered, it was the same thing in certain [working-class] neighborhoods. We mustn’t forget that. In some neighborhoods, there have been a lot of deaths. But we’re talking about deaths without mentioning the other violent stories: people who have lost ears, people who have suffered psychologically traumatic events. Imagine you’re taken to the middle of nowhere, where there’s no one around, you’re beaten up, your belongings are taken, and you’re left by the side of the road. Psychologically, that leaves scars. The advantage is that now people might believe young people in the projects, especially of Arab and black origin, when they complain about police violence. They’ll no longer say: “You know, they deserve it, it’s no big deal.” Seeing eyes gouged out, hands ripped off, and all the videos and pictures on TV, I think: “You see that, guys, there are so many people who were subject to this before and we didn’t talk about it.”
Thibaut: It’s good that you’re saying this, because for a long time people in rural areas were pitted against people in the banlieues by saying things like: “You don’t have the same problems, the same living conditions, etc.” Which is true. But when the [Gilets Jaunes] demonstrations first started, you saw slogans like “La police avec nous” (“The police on our side”). Now, you don’t see those any more. They’ve completely integrated the fact that the police, or at least the CRS, are the forces of power. They are there to…
Baptiste: Ensure order is maintained.
Thibaut: And break up any collective struggle. We saw that there were the same watchwords, and that the experiences of these people and people in working-class neighborhoods were very similar. The framing of the so-called riots, the social revolts, in 2005 was the same.
Ahmed: Exactly, that’s right.
Thibaut: When you have neighborhood meetings, to say that things aren’t going well, you’re trying to make things happen in your neighborhood, but no one talks about it. However, once there are a few burnt-out cars and burnt-out public facilities, or when there are clashes between the police and young people, then we talk about it. Most of the protests only turned to shit towards the end. I remember a demonstration supervised by the unions on a weekday in February. The whole demonstration had gone well. Then once we arrived at Place de la Concorde [the large square at the eastern end of the Champs-Élysées], we were teargassed, it was impossible to get down into the subway, and at that moment the cameras were there. They peddle sensational images, of casseurs causing damage, but they don’t talk about peaceful demonstrations. So people question the usefulness of their actions. If I demonstrate quietly, it’ll never work. And that’s something that young people from working-class neighborhoods have long internalized.
Ahmed: Yes, we understood that very early on.
Thibaut: As long as we do nothing, as long as we don’t show our teeth a bit, whether at local level or in the demands made at national level, nothing will change. And 2005 is a perfect illustration of that.
Ahmed: That said, mindsets have changed since 2005. Back then, young people and people in general stuck together. Now, we live more and more in an individualistic world. I’ve noticed something about Adama Traoré’s case, and the case of young Théo, who was raped with a police baton. I actually think people are less involved than they used to be. At that time, when there was an abuse of power, everyone took risks. For example, the 2005 riots involved everyone, law students who were soon to become lawyers… They weren’t saying: “No, wait, I want to become a lawyer. So I’d better not come.” But right now, you’re more likely to hear: “It’s sad, but I’m not going to take the risk. I’m not going to come, I’m sorry.” And now, in the internet age, we share things and think we’re taking action. We share, share, share, all the time thinking we’re activists. Real activism, for me, is about creating a balance of power. I’m not going to get involved in demonstrations, either now or in the future. The other side, they’re too strong. But there are other ways to get involved. We can get together with friends to organize action. We don’t ask for money from the state, we organize ourselves, we contribute 20 euros each and we set up a patrol. […] And to finish, as I said, everything the Gilets Jaunes are going through, and they’re only waking up to this now, but young people in working-class neighbourhoods have been going through the same things for years. I can’t stress this enough. It’s the truth.