HIGHWAYS IN FRANCE do not look like American highways. They are free from dramatic billboards and kitschy roadside attractions. Cars here don’t seem to be tools through which identity is expressed — no lifted trucks, no lowriders — except insofar as they reveal that one has at least enough money to buy a car.
My girlfriend Shannon and I have rented an efficient, two-door hatchback for our drive from Lyon to the small town where my cousin lives. We get on the highway in mid-December, about a month after the gilets jaunes movement began in protest of President Macron’s proposed fuel tax. Every Saturday in France since November 17, thousands of people across France have put on high-visibility yellow vests (every motorist in France is required to have one in their car) and marched against the government’s neglect of the French people, especially the rural poor. While the protests began as road blockades, by now they aren’t as incendiary in small towns as they have been in Paris, Toulouse, Lyon, Marseille. But what lacks in crowds is made up for in a slower, knowing solidarity. Every other car we pass has placed a yellow vest on the dashboard to say: nous sommes avec vous, we’re on your side.
Shannon is driving when I open up the glove compartment and am almost shocked to see the yellow vest, limp and neon, just sitting there, waiting to be put to revolutionary use. I ask — the kind of question you ask when you want someone to approve your own thoughts — if we should put it on the dash. Would it be overstepping some boundary? This is a rental car after all, so I can’t even call it my vest. It is, rather, a vest of tourism — precisely what the gilets jaunes stand against! But I risk it. We pass a few cars without incident. Shannon doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal. My heart is racing. I put the vest back in the glove and then immediately feel guilty about it. I take it out again.
The town of Voiron, where my cousin and father both grew up, is an hour north of Grenoble and is famous for its production of Chartreuse, a liquor of distilled wildflowers made by monks and harvested in the mountain range of the same name. On the second day of my visit, my cousin and her husband take us for a tour of all the important sights. The cathedral, the gourmet chocolate shop, Le Grande Rue — a narrow, sinuous, and sloping street, depressingly dark in the late-afternoon winter light. This is the street on which my grandparents once owned an épicerie, the small grocery store above which my father lived for the parts of his adolescence when he wasn’t sent off to live with his aunt in Switzerland, a failed attempt to tame his rebellious ways.
We stand for a while before three storefronts. My cousin isn’t sure which one is the right building. She’s sure it’s one of three: a barbershop, a halal butcher, and a joint called PIZZA PLUS PLUS. The barbers on the other side of the windows laugh at us and wave in a grand mockery, taking us all for tourists. I take a picture of the storefronts (re-enforcing the allegations) and text them to my dad in New York, who responds with his usual take on the English language.
The pizza is the
I can’t believe you
My father couldn’t believe I was there. I don’t believe this was an expression of his excitement, pride, or jealousy. Rather, he experienced some kind of mental disconnect when he tried to picture his daughter, born of his bourgeois New York life, existing in the same realm as the working-class family he left behind in small-town France. That those two realms are part of the same universe, both existing in space at the same time, was, for him, impossible to imagine.
On the way back to Lyon, where we’ll catch the train to Paris, we stop at my aunt and uncle’s house. My uncle is losing his memory and walks around in circles in their suburban house. My aunt is sharp as ever, though blind in one eye, and apologizes constantly for the forgetfulness of her husband.
Last time I saw him I was three years old, and he drove me around on a lawnmower. My dad always speaks about his brother sadly. He wanted to be a farmer, my dad once told me, and became a banker instead — his wife wanted security for their family and was not about to get a job herself. Can you imagine, my dad asked me rhetorically, anything more depressing than being a banker?
Shannon doesn’t speak French, so I listen to my aunt and translate loosely in both directions. I ask her what she thinks of the gilets jaunes. My aunt immediately tells me she supports the movement. The majority of French citizens are not making money, she explains. The middle class pays all the taxes. The public services so revered in this country — health care, education — are crumbling. The government is ineffective. Macron was elected as a symbol of hope for the French nation (many people I speak with make comparisons to Obama), and his failure is felt as a betrayal. So far, I’m following her and in accord with everything she has to say. This is what I gleaned of the situation from American news sources.
The conversation now jumps suddenly to the subject of immigration. I imagine that it does not feel at all sudden to my aunt. She begins, however, with a racist move straight out of a movie about nice white people: “You know, I have an Arab girl who comes to help me with house chores every week, and she’s lovely.” Then comes the unholy but. “But these people just enter our country illegally, get jobs, and how does that leave us? To say nothing of the children of people who live off the welfare of their dead parents — they don’t even live in the country!”
The conversation makes another wild leap, now to the corruption of youth nationwide. She does not feel safe in her home anymore — not with the hoodlums and drug dealers (presumably the same ones whose parents are living off welfare) roaming around the neighborhood and committing violent crimes for what appears, to my aunt, to be out of sheer boredom.
More left-leaning centrists in my family claim to understand the root causes of the movement but cannot stand for the violence: the looting of shops, the destruction of famous neighborhoods, the general sense of disorder that has characterized weekends in France since mid-November. Many good thinkers have pointed out the incredible double standard of judging the movement based on protestor violence — perhaps most eloquently, Pamela Anderson. “[W]hat is the violence,” she tweeted, “of all these people and burned luxurious cars, compared to the structural violence of the French — and global — elites?”
On the way to France, I had stopped over in Dublin and was struck by Ireland’s projected self-image of jolly conviviality in relation to its history of violent revolution. While the pubs were cheerful — patrons drink cheap, delicious beer and mingle in a loud but friendly manner until closing time — I couldn’t help wondering about James Connolly’s Ireland, the 1916 Easter uprising that got him executed by firing squad, and his admiration of the 1871 Paris Commune, the ghosts of which, when Connolly died for his own revolution, were still quite young. Where were these ghosts now?
The Commune — the two months between March and May 1871 when a radical socialist committee took over the government of Paris — casts a shadow over current events. Over a century ago, the people were hungry, tired, paying exorbitant sums in taxes while the rich got protection. They still are. Then, as now, the people were angry. Then, however, unlike now, the movement was not fueled by nationalistic fervor but, rather, the desire to steer France toward a mode of universal thinking and action. As Kristin Ross puts it in her book Communal Luxury (2015), the commune was a movement interested in the importation “of models and ideas, phrases and slogans, from distant lands and from distant times.” The Commune was not governed by nostalgia, but, rather, it was a way of “being intensely in the present made possible by mobilizing figures and phrases from the past.”
Antisocialist propaganda is as strong today as it was in 19th-century Versailles. It would like to convince the people, as Ross puts it in her book, that under socialism “sharing could only mean the sharing of misery.” But, as we can see from a multitude of examples worldwide, capitalism still isn’t working against shared misery.
The Commune’s ideal of a “universal republic” was not, as Ross underscores, a form of nationalism. “The phrase alluded to a set of desires,” Ross writes, “identifications and practices that could not be contained or defined by the territory of the state or circumscribed by the nation.” The idea that governance should come from below, rather than above, could — and still can — be applied to any group of people regardless of what side of a given border they live on.
I wonder about what it’s like to be born white in a country in which the shame of the colonizer is not constantly affirmed by the fact of living on stolen land. Of course, France, like much of Western Europe, did steal land overseas, and a lot of it — Europe today owes its wealth to that theft, and the exploitation of land and people that followed it. But the landscape that determines the French national identity, unlike the landscape of the United States, is land with a history that allows a French citizen to point at and say — however faulty the logic — this is, because it has been, mine.
This sense of rightful ownership produces its own identity crisis in France, rooted in the fear of the outsider. This is a global fear, manifesting all over the place with subtleties traceable to each nation’s distinct historical experience. All over the world, white identity — a device created to justify years of colonization, genocide, and slavery — feels itself to be threatened. But there is no hope, nor should there even be the desire, for a less diverse world.
As long as the nation is considered before the people, its physical and imaginary borders — tools to keep perceived “others” out — will be confused by some as a solution to the problems within. This environment of rigid, and thus violent, borders is ripe for the racialized acts of hatred that have mobilized, perhaps not because of the movement, but along with the force of its public presence. As communard geographer Élisée Reclus said in support of the idea of a universal republic, “[A nation’s] boundaries must be abolished, those limits and frontiers that make enemies out of sympathetic peoples.”
Is it too late for the gilets jaunes movement to become less white? Will its whiteness and its nationalism (two related phenomena) be its downfall? The media has portrayed recent instances of racist, Islamophobic, and antisemitic violence in France as either endemic to the weekly protests, or as merely occurring on its edges — a problem that has been a part of French reality long before anyone donned their yellow vest in public. If the latter is true, is the movement still responsible for this extremist ideology and violence? Whatever the answers to these questions, I cannot imagine, even with such a powerful force for change, succeeding in overturning an economic system that is so deeply linked to racial oppression if it does not include within the movement, from the ground up, all the victims of that oppression.
Outside the immediate vicinity of the protests, the presence of the gilets jaunes in Paris is felt like an exploded balloon coming down from the sky gently in bits. There is graffiti of hashtags, declarations, a date for a protest now past. One parked car in Belleville with a yellow vest on the dashboard. We’d seen this mark of solidarity all over the countryside, but in the city there were few instances of the gesture.
At the bar where we have been in the habit of getting coffee, a few gruff, old white men argue one morning among themselves as the bartender calls an ambulance for a woman just recently hit by a motorbike. The moment becomes an arena for politics — how useless the cops, they declared, how useless the state. The men continue to argue as the woman is taken into the ambulance and driven away.