2019 05, D. Desjeux, January to March, The « yellow vests » in France

2019 An anthrological deciphering of the yellow vests in France

2019 02 An anthropological reading of yellow vests by its material culture

Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne (Paris Descartes University)

Last book published in 2018, The anthropological perspective of the world. The inductive method illustrated, Peter Lang (on the rise of the global middle class)

All the analyses in newspapers, radio and television have shown that the movement of yellow vests is socially and politically heterogeneous. And yet the movement was supported for a long time by nearly 70% of the French people. The anthropological study shows that behind social heterogeneity, material culture reveals a community of practice and problems to be solved specific to the least privileged middle class in France and in the world. The analysis presented here is based both on observations made in living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms or gardens in France, China, Brazil or the United States since 1990, and on audio and visual reports presented since November 2018. From 2011, with the rise of forced expenditures, we were able to observe what I called “the crossover of the global middle classes” (https://consommations-et-societes.fr/2011-04-d-desjeux-classe-moyenne-mondiale-le-chasse-croise/) of which the yellow vests are, in part, the result.

The movement of the yellow vests is symbolically linked to a material object, the mandatory fluorescent yellow safety vest, the price of which can vary from €3 to €7. Its symbolism is simple and strong: it has to do with being more visible when you are at the roadside with your car following an accident or breakdown.

Fear of breakdown and fear of an accident in life, such as unemployment or marital separation, are at the heart of concerns of the lower middle class with a “tight” and irregular income, of which the yellow jackets, in all their diversity, are an expression. The threat of a breakdown is present for most family budgets, the balance of which often depends on the existence of one or more loans. The most critical breakdowns concern four objects: the washing machine, which determines the organisation of domestic life; the refrigerator, which helps to manage food shopping; the boiler, fuel oil, gas or wood, which provides heating and hot water; and finally the car, without which some people would not be able to go to work, drive children to school and their leisure activities, do their shopping and fill their shopping carts.

All these uncertainties, which translate into unforeseen expenses, constitute a common foundation for the political and social heterogeneity of the yellow vests and the French who identify with the movement, or at least did so between November and December 2018. Consumption, daily life and positive self-image are constantly threatened by the energy costs (petrol, diesel, gas, and electricity) on which heating, hot water, cars, garden maintenance, DIY practices and communication technologies depend. Food costs, although they have fallen on average in the household budget from 27% in 1960 to 15% today, weigh much more heavily on the lowest incomes. Conversely, housing costs as a share of the budget have risen from 8% to 20% in 50 years, and can reach 50% for the lowest income households. Digital communication accounted for less than 1% of the budget in 1960, since it was almost non-existent except for television and fixed telephone. It now averages 8% and rises to 17% for the budgets of the poorest, with computers, mobile phones, tablets, television and game consoles.

When a particular expenditure by low-income lower middle class consumers exceeds the average of the population, as a percentage of the overall household budget, this is the indicator of socially constrained expenditures, a term which is somewhat broader than the term “fixed expenses” used by economists, who do not take into account the pressure of children, the importance of digital networks or the feeling of social rejection when some feel they cannot keep up with the general consumer movement.

This pressure is very visible in the living room, which in the 1960s either did not exist or represented a more formal room, the “sitting room”. It is the place which since the 2000s has been the site for the concentration of a large part of the screens used by the television family for video games. There is the “fitted sitting room”, with the sofa, the library and the television furniture, bought on credit. A wood-burning fireplace insert has often been installed to save energy. For single-parent families, the living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom may all be one room.

Since 2000, the general consumerist dynamic that began in the 1920s in the United States and 1950s in Western Europe has moved from West to East, with the rise of a new global middle class that represents nearly 2 billion people today and is likely to number 5 billion in about 30 years. It is mainly found in Asia and South-East Asia, with China, India and Indonesia, but also elsewhere with Brazil, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Turkey and Israel. Between 2000 and 2008, soybean prices exploded because the Chinese middle class began to eat meat, which directly affected pork production costs in France. Changes in consumption and lifestyles now determine changes in society, from production to distribution, in the use of goods and services and their effects on pollution, global warming and the risks of war.

The reversal of various forces within globalisation (rather than globalisation being new, since it has existed since the beginning of humanity) gives one possible meaning to the claims of the yellow vests, who wonder what will happen to them in this immense uncontrollable maelstrom, with increasingly limited and expensive mobility.

We understand this hesitation when we are aware that the new social contract must take into account four major contradictions that seem insoluble: that of increasing purchasing power and at the same time of more economical consumption, of supporting companies for them to produce more value while using less fossil fuels and raw materials, of reducing the tax burden and government spending while at the same time improving the quality of administrative services, that of greater local autonomy without this leading to higher spending by the State, or to more exceptions being granted for building permits which contribute to so-called natural disasters, or to speed limits on fatally dangerous roads.

Paradoxically, the solution to all these problems does not lie so much in a “lack of democracy”, when we witness the number of municipal or association meetings, general assemblies or citizens’ conferences that have been held throughout France for several decades, or its corollary the “contempt of the elites”, but rather in a lack of method – one which would make it possible to increase the negotiation capacities between the actors to lead them to construct acceptable compromises, as is done in Scandinavian countries or in Germany. The ecological emergency, international competition and the authoritarian populist threat may lead the French to accelerate this learning process, which otherwise requires at least a generation.

2019 03, The global dimension of the feeling of exclusion of the middle classes.

Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne (Paris Descartes University)

Between 2000 and 2010, the world experienced a silent revolution: that of the rise of the upper global middle class from 200 million in 2000 to 560 million in 2009[1]. In less than 10 years, commodity prices, agricultural commodity prices including soybeans and especially oil prices have exploded. In 2007, the price of a barrel of Brent oil was around $140. Today it is around $70. This revolution echoed the first consumerist revolution of the mid-18th century that emerged in England when coal became the new energy power, replacing thousands of years of human use of bioenergy.[2] The global middle class as a whole numbers almost 2 billion people in 2019.

This class comes mainly from Asia and Southeast Asia. It represents the new world class of consumers, who live in the city, large or small, visit supermarkets, equip their kitchen, bathroom and living room, buy screens by telephone, tablet, computer or television, and, for some of them, drive a car. It is becoming one of the major determinants of changes in factory and service production, store distribution and sustainable development. Consumption is the new global driver of modern societies[3]. The movement of the yellow vests in France is partly the result of this global phenomenon. It represents the social segment that is excluded from access to basic services and consumption.

The yellow vest movement mobilises both original protest practices, such as the occupation of roundabouts, and others found in many social movements around the world, such as the occupation of central squares in cities. Digital social networks allow a double occupation of space.

The first spaces are peri-urban, with roundabouts. This is a space close to shopping centres, refined oil storage facilities that determine mobility and motorway tolls that symbolise commuting between home and work. The tax on diesel, the yellow vest, the speed cameras, and the toll booths all represent the constraints of mobility. The roundabout is the symbol of this more or less diffuse concern, of this impression of going around in circles.

The roundabout becomes the new gathering place for those who found themselves without social ties or work, unemployed or retired. This is the village’s new café where people “bring something to eat”. It is a mixed place but reproduces the classic gender division of tasks with the woman in charge of the cooking and the man in charge of the fire. The brazier provides heat fuelled by pallets from factories or supermarkets. People pitch their tent there. A shelter is being built there, as in the ZAD development project areas.[4] There is a nomadic side with a strong local presence. “Visible minorities” are virtually absent. The places and objects chosen by the yellow vests resonate with their daily life, which is more about economical consumption and costly mobility than production and work.[5]

The second occupation of the space is urban. In this respect, the yellow vests are in line with the new urban social movements, which no longer focus on places of production but on places of mobility and power, such as Zuccotti Park in New York (2011), Tahrir Square in Cairo (2011), Taksim Square in Istanbul (2013), Yitzhak Rabin Square in Tel Aviv (2018) or the Place de la République in Paris (2016).

In 2018, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées, two major battlegrounds, symbolise places of power. These are places that are more a part of the national French tradition, the one that demonstrated for De Gaulle in May 1968, than of the social French tradition that is found between Denfert-Rochereau, Bastille, République and Nation. The red flags have disappeared. The French flag and regional flags occupy the space. Bourges was chosen because it is in the centre of France. It also brings to mind Joan of Arc, who came to fetch King Charles VII to crown him and then set out again to conquer France. The themes of the demonstrations evoke Robespierre and the decapitations, a symbolism which is close to the ultra-left. The Phrygian caps symbolise both freedom and the Reign of Terror between 1793 and 1794.

Symbolic places, everyday objects, signs of history that symbolise liberation and violence, bring out composite imagery that makes it possible at the same time to unify a heterogeneous social movement and to free oneself in the imagination from the very strong constraints of daily life. It is imagery close to the universe of populist movements. The term “populist” is used here from a descriptive point of view, referring to an ideology that opposes the people against the elites by directly appealing to the chief saviour, the one who will deliver them from all the institutional and organisational burdens that make the reality of life in society, i.e. companies, administrations, unions, associations, political parties, and the media. There is also an anarchist side, i.e. the fact that it is without a leader, which brings to mind the social movements of the late 19th century. This return to societal earth divides the yellow vest movement, which must choose between organising itself politically, or even participating in the Grand Débat[6], or continuing to occupy symbolic places for weeks or even months with only anger as its driving force.

[1] D. Desjeux, 2011, https://consommations-et-societes.fr/2011-04-d-desjeux-classe-moyenne-mondiale-le-chasse-croise/

[2]D. Desjeux, 2012, https://consommations-et-societes.fr/2012-11-d-desjeux-conference-de-fermeture-au-1er-colloque-de-sociologie-de-lenergie-a-toulouse/

[3] D. Desjeux, 2018, The anthropological perspective of the world, Peter Lang

[4] Zone d’aménagément différé – an area selected by the state for a development project. The term ZAD is often used in the context of resistance to such development, such as occupations.

[5] https://consommations-et-societes.fr/2013-brisepierre-gaetan-delbende-marion-desjeux-dominique-la-consommation-econome-un-enjeu-ideologique-ou-un-comportement-sous-contrainte/

[6] A programme of public consultation initiated by the French President as a result of the Yellow Vests protest movement.

2019 05 The global middle classes between territory, access to consumer goods and national imagery – the case of yellow vests in France.

Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne (Paris Descartes University)

Last book published in 2018, The anthropological perspective of the world. The inductive method illustrated, Peter Lang (on the rise of the global middle class)

In the world of social science and humanities research, the topic of the middle class has long been a taboo subject, with concentration instead focussed on the working class, to which a messianic role has been assigned since Marx. The issue of labour and production has been at the heart of most macro-sociological analyses. Since the 2000s, the world has experienced a long invisible revolution, that of the rise of the global middle class, consumerist, urban and mainly Asian, in China[1], India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea.[2]

The two main signs of the importance of this “global class” were the explosion in the prices of raw materials, energy and proteins such as soya, on the one hand, and the tripling in ten years of the world’s upper middle class from 200 million to 560 million between 2000 and 2009, on the other. It had taken about 250 years, since the great coal-based energy revolution in England, northern France, Belgian Wallonia and the German Ruhr in the mid-18th century, to reach this figure. In ten years it tripled. Consumption is becoming the main “driver” of geopolitical transformations, with the emergence of a new competition at the top of states that is being organised at the same time around the Pacific and within Eurasia, and increasingly accelerated changes in daily life around digitalisation in particular. At the global level we are witnessing the “crossover of the middle classes”.[3]

This global transformation will have repercussions in many cities around the world, where the new middle-class lives, and to the very depths of the most remote countryside, those of territories perceived as representing an exile.[4]

The movement of the yellow vests is emblematic of this shock wave. It is expressed through a very concrete space related to mobility – the roundabout – as well as through certain objects, some of which break down and undermine the balance of the household budget, and through imagery which expresses both the violence of exclusion and a strong demand for inclusion through consumption and therefore through an increase in purchasing power.

Metaphorically speaking, the roundabout represents the bar, the village café, but in a mixed version, even if we can observe from the television reports that the classic gender division of tasks is partly reproduced there with the men handling the fire, around the braziers, and the women taking care of cooking.

The roundabout also means the alliance between sedentary people, those from the village or small town, and nomads, following the “zadist”[5] model, around a temporary, mobile and precarious habitat. There are mixed young and old, people looking for social ties because they are unemployed or retired, and yellow vests at work as employees, self-employed or small entrepreneurs. It is the middle class that is looking to “buy cheaper, consume less and do things themselves” on a daily basis.[6]

It lives with a permanent concern, that of an accident of life such as separation or unemployment, but also that of a breakdown which will unbalance a budget already weakened by the large share of forced expenditures related to housing, energy, digital products and mobility. It can unexpectedly affect the car, the boiler for heating and hot water, the washing machine, the refrigerator or the freezer at any time.

Living under a permanent sword of Damocles explains, on the one hand, the imagination expressed through the appropriation of urban territories that symbolise power which is perceived as oppressive and monarchical, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, a prefecture, or the reconquering of France by the people, for instance in Bourges, where Joan of Arc is the warrior symbol in the service of Charles VII.

Symbolic places, everyday objects and signs of history that symbolise liberation and violence bring out composite imagery that makes it possible at the same time to unify a heterogeneous social movement and to free oneself in the imagination from the very strong constraints of daily life. As Stéphane Rozès wrote in 2009, “the middle classes which will join working classes by switching, in the face of the contingency of their social future driven by the prevalence of finance over the economy, to ideological anti-liberalism”.

Paris, 12 March 2019

[1] Dominique Desjeux, “La révolution mondiale de la consommation alimentaire : l’émergence d’une nouvelle classe moyenne chinoise”, OCL, 2012 ; 19 (5): pp. 299-303.

[2] Rachel Heiman, Carla Freeman, and Mark Liechty, 2012, The Global Middle Classes. Theorizing Through Ethnography, SAR Press

[3] Dominique Desjeux, 2011, “The crossover of the global middle classes, or consumption as a vehicle of analysis of the new world order ”, in D. Desjeux, 2018, The anthropological perspective of the world. The inductive method illustrated, Peter Lang

[4] Christophe Guilly, 2000, Atlas des fractures françaises. Les fractures françaises dans la recomposition sociale et territoriale, l’Harmattan

[5] This French term refers to the practice of occupying areas where development is planned. These areas are known as ZAD (zones d’aménagement différé).

[6] https://consommations-et-societes.fr/2013-brisepierre-gaetan-delbende-marion-desjeux-dominique-la-consommation-econome-un-enjeu-ideologique-ou-un-comportement-sous-contrainte/ in Fabrice Clochard, Dominique Desjeux, 2013, Le consommateur malin face à la crise. Tome 2, le consommateur stratège, l’Harmattan, pp. 255 – 274