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Yellow Vests… and Beyond!

Key words: Yellow vest, civil organization, ecology, social justice

A yellow vest is what you use in a critical situation on the road in order to be seen and as an alert for the drivers prompting them to be careful and to slow down. In recent months it has become the symbol of a large movement of protest in France. A “Hey! We exist!” alert, from people, until then invisible? Despite the heterogeneous characters of the demands of the demonstrators Saturdays after Saturdays there are underlying claims and aspirations to be heard. They are probably not directly the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, Pope Francis engages us to listen in Laudato si’ (no. 49). Yellow Vests are obviously not the poorest, they rather belong to the lower middle class, always on the verge of falling into poverty. These claims and aspirations are nonetheless not disconnected from the double cry of Laudato si’.

The protest initiated in the Fall has developed into two types of demonstrations. Groups of people occupied traffic circles, slowing down the traffic and establishing on a 24h basis a place of meeting, debating, but also of festive celebrations and active solidarity. Starting mid-November 2018 and still going on at the end of May 2019 (although obviously fading away) marches gather people every Saturdays in some cities including Paris. They are initiated on the social networks and voluntarily ignore the usual way of French social movements protests (a trade union or a civil organization calls for a demonstration, declares it to the Police and negotiates with the authorities the itinerary). These Saturdays marches have been marred with violence and confrontations with the riot police. Impacting images have gone worldwide. Most of the Yellow Vests are not violent and for a large part their voluntarily “unorganized” way of demonstrating allows radical and violent groups (like the Black Blocks) to infiltrate the marches. Nonetheless, on one side we have seen Yellow Vests sympathetic to violent acts because it is obviously what prompted some political response from the government and on the other side we have seen problematic attempts to discredit the movement by reducing it to violence. Without denying that there is a real issue here, it is important to not lose sight of what is going on with this complex social movement.

What prompted the Yellow Vests movement was a tax on gasoline. Presented by the government as an ecological tax aiming at discouraging the use of cars in an effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, it was felt as profoundly unjust by a significant part of the population living in rural or suburban areas with no public transportation and for which using a car is not optional but a necessity. This is obviously an acute reminder that no ecological transition is possible without social justice. Ecological taxation is surely a way toward achieving the ecological transition but it must not increase social injustice. For example, a tax on gasoline is unjust when it puts the burden on those who have no choice in their means of transportation while kerosene for planes allowing urban people to fly low-cost for their vacations is still ridiculously low taxed. “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (Laudato si’, 139).

The gasoline tax was only a starter. Its suppression in December did not extinguish the fire of the protest which was simmering for a while. Among the recurring complains is the feeling of contempt, disdain, and disregard which a significantly large part of the population is experiencing from those they call “the elite”, those “in charge” especially at the political level. A feeling of being ignored and left out. Globalization and digital revolution are a real threat for those who see jobs fading away and public services disappearing, meanwhile their low wages mean difficulties to make ends meet. Very often baby boomers (a generation very highly represented in the movement of Yellow Vests) express anxiety about their future and the future of their children and grandchildren who, they are convinced, will have a lower standard of living and less social protection than them. 

Two reflections come to mind from these observations when recalling some of Pope Francis teaching. First, the “throw away” culture (Evangelii gaudium 53) we are living in is producing exclusion at various levels and not merely at the bottom of the bottom of the society. When so many people feel disregarded, this reveal how much economic, political, and social participation, which is an important element of the Common Good, is broken down in our Western democracies and need to be reinvented. The type of populist response that we see growing in France and in Europe is obviously an illusion. The challenge to work on something else is all the more urgent. Second, even if the Yellow Vests themselves are not articulating an analysis at this level, it seems rather obvious that the consumerist society is in a dead end. “I consume therefore I exist in the society!” is the implied moto of a consumerist society and of the type of capitalism addicted to economic growth that goes with it. The Yellow Vests ask for more purchasing power and at the same time for more social and personal recognition. But the promise can never be fulfilled and it is only more frustration that is generated. A frustration that is a good motor for material and economic growth (people always want to buy more) but detrimental to the care for social relations and to the care for our “common home”. As Pope Francis highlights, “obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction” (Laudato si’ 204).

What the Yellow Vests movement also emphasizes is a strong desire for more social life and more solidarity within a society which becomes day by day more individualistic. Testimonies coming from the gatherings at the traffic circles, which for some of them lasted several months in the cold winter, tell us repeatedly about experiences of concrete building of social relations. People confessing suffering loneliness and solitude in their life (single mothers, retired persons, etc.) are enthusiastic about what they encounter in these improvised places of socialization: solidarity, space where being listened without being judged, friendly atmosphere, a kind of family,… Reading many good investigations about who are the Yellow Vests and what are their stories, one is very impressed at the level of loneliness in our society and at the yearning for a type of social connections that consumption and social media will never fulfill (even if social medias have played a decisive role in the development of the movement). There is definitely something here about the “culture of encounter” (Evangelii gaudium 220) Pope Francis is so keen to promote as the antidote to the “throw away culture”.

Social and ecological justice, culture of encounter rather than throw away culture, moving out of consumerism: these themes of current Catholic social teaching are especially actual in the French context marked by the Yellow Vests movement. No doubt that such an analysis would fit as well the situation of many of our Western democracies marred by deep crises.