Gilets Jaunes: the genius of the yellow vest

The new symbol of France's 21st-century protest movement had its origins in a then-controversial law passed by another President

While politicians, journalists and intellectuals argue over the possible causes of the current protests in France, perhaps another way to examine the crisis is to ask an obvious question: why the yellow vests?

Thousands of protesters wreaked havoc throughout Paris on Saturday. As smoke and tear gas engulfed some of the wealthiest arrondissements of the city, restaurant owners closed their shutters, sightseers rushed back to their hotels and hardened window-shoppers stayed at home. “We’re used to the trade unions and the political parties protesting”, a waiter told me, “but this is different”.

The yellow vest story was born out of controversy, but began well before the current unrest. Ten years ago, a freshly elected Nicolas Sarkozy was determined to reduce France’s high road accident rate, and passed a law requiring all motorists to carry high visibility vests in their vehicles.

At the time people raged at the 135€ fines given out by police for lacking a gilet jaune, and yellow vests became a controversial topic. Some people refused to buy a gilet, while others overtly displayed them on the back of car seats to avoid getting pulled over. The whole debate blew over in a couple of weeks, and millions of high visibility vests remained in France’s glove compartments for years. 

Fast-forward 10 years to October 2018 and the yellow vest has made a surprising comeback. Within a few weeks, an online petition against fuel tax has blossomed into one of the strongest protest movements in years: les gilets jaunes.

We will never know if the first vest was worn out of political discontent or compliance with Sarkozy’s safety regulations, but it was not long before thousands of protesters were wearing the fluorescent garments – opposing anything from immigration laws to taxes, and inequality to mandatory vaccinations.

Although it seems impossible to untangle the movement’s message, its hi-vis emblem is effective. It is a clear means of identification, and gives the illusion of a united movement. Normally worn by figures of authority – police, security guards, traffic wardens – it is a means of symbolically taking back control from the powers-that-be.

But more than this, the yellow vest’s history in France gives it a specific meaning. An object that was initially forced upon citizens has united most of France’s opposition under a single flag (something French political parties have been trying to accomplish for decades). 

One could argue that rising inequality has made increased social unrest inevitable in late 2010s France. However, the movement would not have grown as fast or lasted as long without such a fitting symbol.

Whether the current situation will lead to constructive policy change, the rise of an enduring new movement or indeed anything at all remains to be seen. In any case, it is unlikely that Emmanuel Macron will be thanking Nicolas Sarkozy for his 2008 road-safety policy in the years to come.

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