Fire, flares and tear gas scorched Paris on Saturday night; on Sunday morning, the carcasses of burned cars littered the streets, and graffiti covered the Arc de Triomphe. Smaller, and mostly more peaceful, marches had also played out across the country, where for the past couple of weekends protesters have occupied French toll booths, blocked speed cameras on highways, stopped traffic and bricked up the entrances to regional tax offices.
The demonstrators were gilets jaunes — “yellow vests,” named after the reflective safety gear they wear — who are repeatedly, and incorrectly, described as having “emerged from nowhere.” It is true that their origins are untraditional: In the past, political parties in France, as in the rest of Europe, emerged from old-fashioned, real-life institutions — trade unions produced the Social Democrats, for example, and the church in many countries produced the Christian Democratic center-right. People identified with other people whom they met in clubs, at meetings, in cafes. By contrast, the members of this new social movement, if it can correctly be described as a movement, did not meet in real-life institutions. Instead, they found one another on the Internet, through social media and online petitions that can create new groups and identities from one day to the next.
With their origins firmly in cyberspace, the gilets jaunes aren’t connected to any existing political parties, although several are already trying to claim them. François Ruffin, a “far-left” politician with a vitriolic dislike of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has already appeared in gilets jaunes marches. Marine Le Pen, France's “far-right” leader, has also leaped to their defense, and some suspect her followers — or maybe people with even more extreme agendas — may have been responsible for turning what had been peaceful protests in Paris on Saturday morning into violent riots on Saturday night. But any claims of affiliation are opportunism, because the movement itself has named no leader. It has instead appointed eight spokespeople, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and can’t be characterized as belonging to a single party, or even to a single social group.
Rather than an ideology or a clear philosophy, the gilets jaunes seem to share a set of attitudes, as well as what might be described as an aesthetic. They are angry about the green taxes that have raised gasoline prices, and they don’t like the speed limits on French roads. They are angry more generally, and this is part of why a movement that didn’t exist a month ago became consolidated so quickly: Anger is one of the things that travels quickly on social media, a form of communication that favors emotion; it’s also one of the things that brings people together in a world where trade unions, church organizations and political parties are fading in importance. One of the protestors has declared, “All of you” — meaning the political class in its entirety, far-left, far-right and centrist — “are no longer needed.”
There is an irony here: Macron’s own political party, La République En Marche, also started out as an anti-party party, a haven for people who no longer identified with the traditional political parties. But it was conceived in a political context, and its members took part in elections. As a result, En Marche, which didn’t exist three years ago, is now perceived as part of the establishment it was formed to defeat. French history is full of revolutions overtaken by even-more-radical revolutions, but the speed with which these changes happen now is breathtaking. It may also be the case that political party loyalties, once broken, do not develop again with ease.
Given that new reality, it’s important to find ways to persuade these spontaneous new anti-politics movements to participate in more formal institutions, to join in more formal debates, to take part in the bargains and compromises required in a contemporary democracy. It’s also important to prevent them from being hijacked by people with darker agendas. Nor are these problems for the French alone: Most of the rest of the democratic world is or will face the same kinds of challenges. If presidents, parliaments, existing parties and existing institutions can find ways to listen to them, to incorporate them and change with them, then democracy will survive in the 21st century. If they don’t, it might not.