Month: March 2019

Gilets Jaunes, Acts XIX and XX: The Days When Nothing Much Happened

Gilets Jaunes, Acts XIX and XX: The Days When Nothing Much Happened

March 23 and March 30, 2019. By now the Gilets jaunes demands are well known. Buying power (le pouvoir d’achat). The RIC (see previous post). Action on the climate (which may serve as a way into a new kind of activism for some). Pensions. A 

Gilets Jaunes: “Those who succeed and those who are nothing.”

Gilets Jaunes: “Those who succeed and those who are nothing.”

Act XIX: Saturday, March 23, 2019.  Geneviève Legay, age 73, was part of a small group that attempted to enter an area of Nice that had been closed to Gilets jaunes demonstrators. What happened next is unclear, at least from the video below, but the 

Gilets Jaunes: What is the RIC?

Gilets Jaunes: What is the RIC?

The RIC (pronounced rick) is one of the most persistent demands of the Gilets jaunes. While their other stipulations require changes (and, I would argue, necessary changes) in fiscal policy involving taxes, unemployment insurance, retirement and other issues, the RIC (Référendum d’initiative citoyenne), or citizen-initiated referendum, is a far-reaching proposal that has profound constitutional implications–and not good ones.

We could start with Rousseau and The Social Contract.

From The Social Contract (1762}, Book III, Chapter 15. It continues: “As soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.”

Rousseau drew attention to the dangers of those who are now referred to as the “political class,” who achieve office and then use it to enhance their advantages and wealth. There is a straight line to be drawn from the eighteenth century insights of Rousseau to the RIC in its distrust of elected officials, the so-called “elites” who see themselves as a class above and apart from those they govern. The revolutionary sans-culottes of 1793-94, in their suspicion of those in power as well as their demands for transparency, publicity, and immediacy (in the recall of elected officials or unpopular laws) made distrust a central feature of their politics.[1]

Article 11 of the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic , which went into effect in 1958, authorized the RIP, or Référendum d’initiative présidentielle.  This allows the president to submit to the public a referendum on “any Government Bill which deals with the organization of the public authorities, or with reforms relating to the economic or social policy of the Nation, and to the public services contributing thereto, or which provides for authorization to ratify a treaty which, although not contrary to the Constitution, would affect the functioning of the institutions.” [2]

The two Chambers can jointly request such an initiative, but the referendum was, and still is, under the presidential powers section, and effectively allows the president to bypass the legislature by appealing directly to the people; if the executive initiates such a measure, the president is required to inform each chamber, which then debates the measure.  The RIP was supposed to deal with issues, not personalities; yet many at the time feared that such a measure, with its up or down vote on potentially complex issues, could be used as a plebiscite in favor of an individual leader.[3]

In 2015 the Référendum d’initiative partagée or “shared” initiative, introduced during the term of President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, came into effect.  This RIP (which includes environmental policy) has never been used. It requires the support of one-fifth of all members of both Chambers (that is, 185 out of the total of 925, in both Senate and National Assembly) as well as one-tenth of all registered voters.  (As of 2017, that number was just over 47,000,000.) An online petition has nine months to gather 4.7 million signatures, or one-tenth; the National Assembly and Senate then has six months to examine the referendum, and if they fail to do so, the President of the Republic submits the referendum to a popular vote.  Not only does this version of RIP have many obstacles in its path, but it also seems that it could be killed in one or both houses–or to put it in another, more favorable way, the legislative function of both houses is preserved.

Though the RIC had begun circulating on Facebook and Twitter in different forms, Priscillia Ludosky and Maxime Nicolle (“Flyrider”) presented a definitive formulation on December 13 in a video that quickly went viral:

December 13, 2018: Priscillia Ludosky and Maxime Nicolle, in front of a painting of the Tennis Court Oath of 1789, introduce the RIC.

This video, a statement introducing the RIC, includes the following preamble: “This is the declaration of a people who for forty years have been dispossessed of all that would allow them to believe in their future and their greatness. For forty years, betrayal, lies, and neglect have succeeded each other–president after president, election after election.

Thus we, the Gilets jaunes, demand a lowering of all direct and sales taxes on items of necessity–energy, housing, transportation, food, clothing, etc., as well as a significant lowering of the salaries, privileges, and pensions of all elected officials and high functionaries.

In order to emerge from this urgent crisis of democracy, we want to present to the French people a concrete proposal to modify the constitution by introducing the RIC in all matters.” The four points of their proposal include:

  • A RIC abrogatoire, for the annulment of a particular law;
  • A RIC révocatoire, for the revocation of any elected official, up to and including the president;
  • A RIC législatif, for the proposal of laws;
  • And a RIC constituant, for the amendment of the constitution.[4]

Still to be determined: how many signatures would be required on a peoples’ petition; whether the referendum would be consultative (allowing the Chambers to accept or reject the proposal) or mandatory; the legitimacy of allowing the entire country to weigh in to expel a deputy from one particular constituency; whether the final bill would be again submitted for a referendum; and so on.

Asked about the subject, both Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron have expressed serious concerns.  For Philippe, the RIC has the potential for putting every vote, every decision, constantly into question; Macron suggested that one should not create a “competition” between direct and representative democracy.[5] François Bayrou of the MoDems, in alliance with Macron’s party in the Chamber, supported the partagée referendum currently on the books, perhaps amended; he suggested that the 10% of signatories among registered voters could be lowered; but he did not wish to lose the “parliamentary filter” that came from having the power to initiate the referendum.[6]

In contrast, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the far left La France Insoumise (LFI) introduced a bill in the National Assembly that essentially presented the RIC as presented by the Gilets jaunes, with some minor tinkering (revocation could only occur after the elected official had served at least half his term) and with an even more sweeping constituent role: the people could pass a referendum to convoke a new constitutional convention to write a new constitution entirely, to throw out the Fifth Republic and “re-create a social contract.”  His proposal was buried, with accusations from the deputies that Mélenchon was attempting to take over the movement.[7]

In 1958, many feared the presidential referendum as a cover for a plebiscite; in 2019, it can be seen as a cover for Populism. As Andrew Glencross has noted, populists like Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen love disruption and thus love referendums: “they have the biggest incentive to bypass representative democracy. They ostensibly promote rule by the people directly as an alternative to a cartelized party politics of both the centre-left and the centre-right that allegedly ignores popular concerns.”[8] The attraction of an all-encompassing suspicion instantly elevates any disagreement over policy to “forty years of betrayal, lies, and neglect.”

If we return to Rousseau, it is worth remembering that he stated that “there has never been a true democracy, and never will be,” because of the conditions that had to be met: “First, a very small state, where the people may be readily assembled and where each citizen may easily know all the others. Secondly, a great simplicity of manners and morals, to prevent excessive business and thorny discussions. Thirdly, a large measure of equality in social rank and fortune, without which equality in rights and authority will not last long.”[9]

And Rousseau didn’t even know about Facebook and Twitter.

London, Saturday, March 23, 2019, march for another Brexit referendum
London, Saturday, March 23, 2019, march for another Brexit referendum
London, Saturday, March 23, 2019, march for another Brexit referendum

Header image and Rousseau image from

[1] See the classic Albert Soboul, The Sans-Culottes, trans. by Rémy Inglis Hall (Princeton University Press, 1972; orig. ed., 1968), especially sections III and IV on popular politics.

[2] This site includes amendments to the original constitution:

[3] See Charles G. Cogan, “The Break-Up: General de Gaulle’s Separation from Power,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 27, No. 1 (January 1992): 167-199.  He notes that de Gaulle used the referendum multiple times, including his first brief period in power in the immediate postwar period: in 1945, to end the Third Republic, and another that year to ratify the Fourth Republic; in 1958, to ratify the Fifth Republic; in 1962, two referendums on Algeria, that ended in its independence from France, as well as a third in 1962 to directly elect the president by popular vote, and a final referendum in 1969 over rather trivial constitutional changes; he suggests that the method was favored by De Gaulle, who wanted to be “invested with presidential powers by the French people directly,” pp. 183-184.

[4] “‘Gilets jaunes’: des banderoles réclament un RIC,” Le Figaro, December 15, 2018.

[5] “‘Le RIC ça me hérisse,’ dit Édouard Philippe,” Le Figaro, January 26, 2019.

[6] Loris Boichot, “Bayrou pour la vote obligatoire mais contre le RIC,” Le Figaro, February 24, 2019,

[7] “Le RIC des Insoumis rejeté à l’Assemblée nationale,” Le Figaro, February 21, 2019.

[8] Andrew Glencross, “Cameron’s Flawed Legacy: How Brexit demonstrates the flawed policies of simple solutions,” from Benjamin Martial and Uta Staiger, eds., Brexit and Beyond: Rethinking the Future of Europe  (UCL Press, 2018), p. 26.

[9] Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book III, chapter 4. Edition used: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. by Maurice Cranston (Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 112-113.

Gilets jaunes, Acte XVIII (March 16, 2019): the Yellow and the Black

Gilets jaunes, Acte XVIII (March 16, 2019): the Yellow and the Black

Saturday, March 16.    The 32,300 Gilets jaunes who turned out on March 16 numbered only a few thousand more than the all-time low of the previous week.  They had promised a massive demonstration, with the call of “all of France to Paris.” This planned 

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Fifty Years Later: Part 1

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Fifty Years Later: Part 1

An elderly man is standing in his small notions shop when someone comes in with a full film equipage of camera and sound and starts asking questions.  The old man is sharply dressed in a suit, his World War I medals displayed in narrow bars 

Gilets jaunes Act XVII, March 9, 2019

Gilets jaunes Act XVII, March 9, 2019

“If we stop, we’ll go back to being anonymous.”[1]

Saturday, March 9.  Act XVII of the Gilets jaunes brought out only 28,600 demonstrators throughout the country, with 3,000 of those in Paris.  (In comparison, the first Saturday, November 17, saw close to 290,000 in France.)  But while the mobilization was the smallest ever, it was also the most diverse in its objectives.  A small flash mob gathered at Charles-de-Gaulle-Roissy in protest against the planned privatization of Paris airports.  The Gilets rosesor pink vests, representing medical and child care professionals, expressed concern about the closing of clinics throughout the country as well as changes to unemployment insurance that are likely to affect them negatively.  Other activists, mostly women, came out to march against domestic violence and sexual assault.  There were also protests in cities and towns in the rest of the country.  Bordeaux, the site from the earliest days of persistent and determined Saturday protests, often rivaling in numbers those found in Paris itself (and surpassing Paris’s 3,000 this week), was occupied by a determined crowd of 4,000, buoyed by a performance of “On lâche rien/We don’t give up” by Kaddour Hadadi, known as HK.  

Priscillia Ludosky is one of the leading voices in the Gilets jaunes; she wrote the petition, the initial spark for the movement, against the planned carbon tax on gas and diesel.  For the March 9 event she had called for a weekend sit-in at the Eiffel Tower, beginning on Friday, in order to “install our rond-points (roundabouts) in the heart of the capital, where we will  be visible to all, and heard.”[3] The roundabouts, occupied by small groups from the first days of the demonstrations, rapidly became a symbol of the movement and its close-knit (newly-formed) communities.   The planned sit-in attracted very small numbers and was soon dispersed by the police. On Saturday morning Ludosky blocked the Iena Bridge in the company of the climate action groups Alternatiba and ANV-COP21.

Alternatiba means  “alternative” in Basque, and is a group devoted to finding earth-friendly ways of living.  ANV-COP21 means Action non violente-Conference of Parties 21–with ”Conference of Parties” referring to the nations who signed the Paris climate accords, the 21st such climate conference since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro meeting.  Le Figaro described the two groups as “militant ecologists” and as “specialists in often spectacular mobilizations on the climate.”[4]  Here they linked their cause with the Gilets jaunes with the chant, “Fin du monde! Fin du mois! C’est pour nous le même combat!/End of the world! End of the month! For us it’s the same fight!” (The “end of the month” is shorthand for living paycheck to paycheck.)

The problem of climate change has always been in the background of the Gilets jaunes movement.  The original cause of the uprising, an ill-conceived regressive carbon tax that hit lower incomes much harder than those of the wealthy, was designed to ease, or force, the transition toward electric cars; the French government has set 2040 as the date when gas and diesel cars will be completely phased out.   In criticizing the measure, economist Aurore Lalucq noted that the carbon tax mistakenly assumed that driving was “an individual economic act” that one could choose, or choose not, to do.[5] But of course driving depends on the availability of alternate forms of transportation; many people, forced by high rents to live at some distance from their jobs, have no other options available.  Lalucq is also a spokesperson for Génération-s, a new political party founded by Benôit Hamon, the 2017 Socialist Party candidate for president, which describes itself as “Left” and “ecological.”[6]

Environmentalist Left or Populist Right?  Initially, many observers believed that the movement’s energy would benefit the extreme right Rassemblement national (National Rally, formerly National Front) led by Marine Le Pen. The concern has not gone away; the small turnout this week may simply have allowed the left wing of the movement to become more visible.  The next test at the ballot box will be the elections for the European Parliament, May 23-26. Currently the polls have President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) and Le Pen’s RN at the top.

But in the meantime there is the Great Debate, and what happens on Saturday, March 16.  Macron responded to the Gilets jaunes with a series of face-to-face meetings around the country, organized by local mayors and supplemented by an online space for listing grievances. The Debate began on January 15 and is due to end on March 15; climate marches are scheduled for March 15 (the global demonstration by young people) and March 16, and the Gilets jaunes are hoping for a massive March 16 turnout.  Did Act XVII show that the movement is fading, or did it represent merely a “breathing space,” in preparation for next week’s planned massive rally, as the Great Debate comes to an end?   Le Monde asked this of one of the diehards near the Champs-Elysées, a 67-year-old who promised “all of France in Paris” to give the government “an ultimatum.”[7]


[1.] “Gilets jaunes: coup de mou pour l’acte XVII de la mobilisation,” Libération, 9 March 2019.

[2] Eric Favereau, “Maternité: des fermetures au forceps,” Libération, March 11, 2019,;

Dan Israel, “Derrière les négociations sur le chômage, la crainte des assistantes maternelles,” Mediapart, February 1, 2019.

[3] “‘Acte XVII’ des ‘gilets jaunes’: plus faible mobilisation depuis le début du mouvement,” Le Figaro March 10, 2019,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aurore Lalucq, “La taxe environnementale est devenue la taxe antisociale par nature,” Le Monde, November 9, 2018,

[6] See, for the website.

[7]  “Gilets jaunes: 28,600 manifestants pour l’acte XVII, plus faible mobilisation depuis le début du mouvement,” Le Monde, March 9, 2019.

The Blue Room

The Blue Room

There is a scene in The Blue Room when the protagonist, named Julien Gahyde in the film, pulls back the shutters in the darkened hotel and looks at the sunlit square below.  It’s full of light and life, in contrast to the claustrophobic room in