With the so-called “Gilets jaunes movement”, France has gone through a political mobilization which is both “déjà vu” and radically new. The “déjà vu” dimension is linked to the historical tradition of protest and political violence in a country where the representative channels and the intermediary groups are and always have been sociologically weak and politically illegitimate since the 1789 revolution. This French peculiarity has little to teach to other democratic systems which are usually better equipped with instruments of mediation both at the societal and political level. The interpretation of the French “model” is not exportable to other democratic societies.
However, the november-december mobilization teaches a lot about the radical novelty at work within the limits of the observations made at a time the movement is still unfolding.
First, the unexpected social explosion among people who had no political or trade union affiliation and – as far as it is possible to evaluate it at that stage – were depoliticized or uninterested in politics. This indifference to politics was related to status (many pensioners or low income workers), gender (more women than usual), location (countryside, small cities all over the country) and the movement has expressed a strong rejection of all political or social organizations.
Secondly, the protest cannot be characterized as a “social movement” in the classic meaning of the words as there is no well defined social group involved. Nor the farmers or the small companies nor the workers or the small shopkeepers, nor the unemployed but a strange mix of all social groups with low income, low expectations and no future for themselves or their family. A very diverse group characterized by “anomie” or in the words of Albert Hirschman, people who had already chosen for many of them to “exit” and who, suddenly, choose to voice their rage and claims. There is not much in common among this disperate social heterogeneous crowd but social despair and political distrust. Given this situation, which is not uncommon in developped democratic countries, the sudden outburst has taken everybody by surprise.
It is indeed striking how swiftly and quickly the unrest and protest have been aggregated in spite of the geographical, social and political dispersion and isolation. The answer to that puzzle is: social networks. Everything started from a video posted by a woman attacking directly and in rather crude terms the President who became the single target of the protest triggered by the rise of taxes on energy and in particular on petrol . The video became viral and was downloaded 6 million times ! The genial trick was to find out an easy sign of identification both visible, different and immediately available since any car owner must detain in her car the famous « gilet jaune », the security jacket. Actually this rally sign is probably the only element of commonality within this eclectic group of protesters.In spite of poverty, isolation, marginalization, it is obvious that this population is well connected to a virtual word which has become the substitute of traditional social and political organisations. The use of social media by politicians from Trump to Macron or the Five Star Movement in Italy has been well documented but it is the first time that a national mobilisazation without leaders, representatives, program, organization or structure takes place. The only cases previously observable are of a different nature : they were originally used for untertainment (rave parties for instance), could be observed locally (mobilization in Rome or Turin) or remained mainly virtual (Metoo). The French movement reminds somewhat of the protests during the so-called Arab spring where the social networks played a big role among the youngest and more educated part of the protest movement.
A second feature is the role played by women in this mobilization movement as it happened as well in the case of Turin and Rome local gatherings. While still less numerous than men they have played a crucial role in triggering and organizing the protest.
A third factor to be underlined is the complete lack of leadership, the absence of a program (rather a shopping list of the claims of the various groups involved) or of a structured organization, handicapped by internal divisions and visions and the lack of trust vis-à-vis any kind of representation.
A fourth element is the high reliance both for information and communication upon the social networks. It has favored the dissemination of fake news, a strong influence of plot theories, hate speach and hostility vis-à-vis the traditional media considered as part of the “elites”.
All these ingredients can easily be found in any society and will make the functioning of representative democracies much more difficult in the future. The governments in place will be subject to more political volatility, protest and violence as political parties and parliaments are of small help in attempting to catch up the signals from society, in aggregating them, in mediating with government and in finding out adequate political and policy outcomes. Two options might emerge: either to adopt more control policies and authoritarian rule or to identify new institutional instruments capable of channelling the frustrations and rage of part of society. The representative democracy is founded upon a convention which does not work when the basic ingredient making it possible is missing: trust. A new political contract has to be set up and some dose of direct democracy might be part of it as it happened in the aftermath of the first populist movement in the United States at the end of the XIXth century. Democracies are a “bricolage” of heterogeneous elements aggregated over years. 2019 might be a watershed in the ever evolving democratic systems.