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Breaking Out of the Margins

Aurélien Delpirou
Joe Hayns
Roberto Mozzachiodi

The yellow vests protests aren’t just a clash between Paris and France’s left-behind provinces. Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax lit the fuse of a far wider sense of inequality.

Protesters walk towards a police line on the Champs-Elysées during the yellow vests demonstration on December 8, 2018 in Paris France. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Over recent days the gilets jaunes mobilization has been the subject of an exceptional degree of media coverage. With journalists on the lookout for the merest sign of trouble, various well-known media figures have followed one after another on the TV and the radio, bringing with them their partial analyses and interpretations of the movement.

Naturally, each has sought to validate their own theory of the French state and society, and certain terms have flourished. “Jacquerie” — designating peasant revolts in ancien régime France, and used by [hard-right commentator] Éric Zemmour since mid-November — has been adopted by part of the regional press. On Europe 1, Christophe Guilluy all but rejoiced at the revolt of “his” peripheral France — what Olivier Giesbert more bluntly called “that France” — while Nicolas Baverez spoke about the revenge of the citizens at the bottom.

Beyond its symbolic violence and its condescension, this narration — endlessly repeated urbi et orbi — doubtless says less about the gilets jaunes than the social and spatial imaginations of those who are voicing it. Since deeper inquiries into what exactly is going on in this movement — taken with a certain analytical remove — have not yet appeared, it seems useful to deconstruct a number of the pre-existing assumptions that have saturated public debate.

Here we hope to unpack four of them, organized in terms of the oppositions, respectively, between town and country; between town centers and peri-urban peripheries (couronnes périurbaines);  between bobos [“bourgeois bohemians”] and the popular classes; and between privileged metropoles and those areas that state intervention has neglected. These caricatures stop us from understanding what is going on; and taking our distance from them is the first step towards a better understanding of what is driving the ongoing movement and what is at stake therein.

Paris Against the Provinces?

As indicated in a secret service memo, aired by the press, the initiators of the gilets jaunes movement mostly originate from Île-de-France [the region around the capital], and more precisely from its most urbanized area, the Paris agglomeration. For good reason: the Île-deFranciliens are as concerned as any of the French about the costs of running a car; while they use their cars a little less and drive slightly shorter journeys, they spend on average seventy-five minutes of every day (!) in their vehicle, as against a forty-five-minute average for those in rural areas. The time thus spent largely offsets the lower costs of transport, thus explaining this revolt’s genesis and rootedness in the region around Paris.

More broadly, the majority of researchers judge that the urbanization of France is already complete; 61.5 million people, or 92 percent of the population, today live under the influence of the city, following urban habits and lifestyles. The rural way of life — as a backdrop, a social aspiration, and a value system — has never disappeared, and even been revalued in recent times. But the roots of the great social and spatial fractures are now urban. Indeed, large cities are at once both privileged sites of the concentration of wealth, and of fixed points of poverty: in France, two-thirds of households living below the poverty-line live in dense, urbanized areas.

It would, then, be mistaken to analyze the gilets jaunes movement as a jacquerie of disadvantaged, poor, rural populations, as against fortunate city-dwellers. On the contrary, it reflects the multiplicity of regional and functional inter-dependencies across vast metropolitan areas, in which the fragments of dense cities are juxtaposed; with stratified residential areas, both depressed and revitalized towns, natural and agricultural areas, shopping centers, business parks, logistical poles, and so on. The automobile is often the necessary condition for accessing these different spaces and the diversity of resources they offer (for maximal access to these “métapoles,” as François Ascher called them), and this is precisely the reason why the car served as the trigger of the gilets jaunes’ demands.

Town Centers Versus the Peri-Urban?

Following a number of media interventions from various of the movement’s charismatic figures, the gilets jaunes were rapidly framed as the “left behind” inhabitants of the peri-urban fringes. Undoubtedly, dependence on car transport increases with one’s distance from to the city center. Peri-urban life — life in the suburban peripheries — leads to longer trips and increased use of vehicles. This situation is neither inevitable nor the result of mere chance.

Partly, it owes to the strong encouragement of peri-urbanization in the 1980s and 1990s — after the decentralization of urban planning — by mayors who were anxious to develop their municipalities by any means. This left peripheries in a dispersed state, with shopping centers, major public services, and residential areas each separated one from another. This dispersion of the urban fabric which, in terms of its size, is unique in Europe, has also been promoted by the central state via the proliferation of private ownership schemes. Rather than clumsily attempting to co-opt [récupérer] the movement, national and local elected officials might better start by accepting some responsibility for it.

Another impetus comes from the personal motivations for starting both households and businesses in the far-outer suburbs and rural fringes. These reasons are multiple and complex: moving away from the city center is always the result of choice and constraint. All recent surveys highlight the fluidity of residential trajectories, and the diversity of the social patterns of the inhabitants of the outer suburbs. This contradicts analyses that define the process in terms only of “relegation” or “sedentarization.”

Suburban France is not a zoo! It is plural, active, alive. It creates more jobs than city centers, including in highly skilled sectors. As among the charismatic representatives of gilets jaunes, the outer suburbs include established business owners as well as workers escaping social housing, small commerçants attracted by the relatively low land and real-estate prices, as well as public-sector employees moving closer to their workplaces, retirees looking for a peaceful living environment, as well as young executives who need housing adequate to their family planning. At the national level, peri-urban residents have a higher annual median income (€20,975) than inhabitants of city centers (€19,887), according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE).

The danger is that despite their vitality and diversity — and even in their “maturity” — outer-suburban areas’ dreadful reputation persists. Since the 1990s, in response to the political injunction for sustainability, they have been analyzed almost exclusively through deprecatory prisms: of threatened urbanness, car-dependence, social-spatial secession, environmental unsustainability, and even architectural and natural ugliness (including one TV station’s 2010 coverage of “Ugly France”). These alarmist, guilt-inducing visions have fueled a sense of anger among elected officials and residents of these territories, of which the gilets jaunes are an expression.

Bobos Versus Proles?

The social dimension of the gilets jaunes has largely been passed over in silence by the media. Anecdotal accounts and the first field surveys tend to show that most of the people actively involved in the protest come from the middle class, and the more established (consolidées) sections of the popular classes: nurses, social workers, school teachers, lower- to mid-level state administrative staff, technicians, commercial service employees, accountants, and so on.

These so-called “intermediate occupations” account for one-quarter of all the employed, a figure which is growing. Their income and purchasing power have been fairly stable over the last two decades, though they’ve remained very sensitive to fiscal policies and cyclical effects, including fluctuations in fuel prices — which, as we know, lit the fuse for these protests.

Yet it was only that, a spark: the burden of automobile expenses has been stable since 1990, unlike, for example, those related to housing (which are constantly increasing, especially in city centers, and for less well-off households). Fuel and fuel taxes represent only a quarter of car expenses, a much lower share than insurance and maintenance. Thus the uprising seems to be more deeply rooted in a double sense, of a generalized weakening of purchasing power, and the social injustice of tax burdens imposed on households by the government.

What’s more, the 20 percent of non-driving France has remained ignored. They are not reducible to the [imagined to be wealthy, liberal] bobos of the metropoles; most of them instead come from young households, without qualification or employment, unable to afford the costs of owning a car, and therefore entirely “captive” to public transport.

However, what brings differentiation among the popular classes is whether those concerned have access to a stable job, for which having access to a car is very often a necessary condition. These households count among the intended recipients of the mobility aid measures hurriedly outlined by the government; but all the signs are that they have not participated much in these demonstrations.

These announcements may have, [for the government] a counterproductive effect on the gilets jaunes’ movement, several representatives of which have indicated their refusal to be treated as “assisté,” or as benefiting from state welfare. This discourse has also been taken up by some national political figures, like Laurent Wauquiez (leader of the [conservative] Republicans): a strange position, which at once decries social redistribution towards the most precarious families, while demanding more spatial redistribution towards the most disadvantaged territories — as if these existed in-and-of themselves, apart from their populations.

Privileged Versus Abandoned?

Finally, several commentators have analyzed the gilets jaunes movement as the result of two-tiered policy-making, which systematically favors dynamic metropolitan areas to the detriment of the rest of France. The concentration of land-use planning resources in large cities has indeed been a marked trend over the last twenty years, which have thereby benefited from major urban renewal projects in the embassy- and town-hall districts, in the centers (railway stations, trams) and in the nearest peripheries (remade as competitive poles).

And yet this evolution took place after five decades of so-called territorial rebalancing policies, which were designed to contain the development of the Paris region, and to revitalize the “French desert” by way of decentralization. Moreover, directed interventions continue to be made in favor of rural areas, against the structural handicaps which have disadvantaged them in territorial competition. It is, rather, the “in-between spaces” of small and medium-sized towns and, to a lesser extent, the fringes of agglomerations, where public intervention has taken place haphazardly, leaving large gaps.

These territories do not, however, languish in a situation of political and social abandonment: they enjoy a high level of representation in Parliament (much higher than the suburbs of large cities, for example); administration and development structures whose capacities were reinforced through recent legislative moves; numerous citizens’ initiatives and even, despite growing constraints, significant levers of funding (European Union aid, planning contracts, tax-exemption schemes, and so on). The real problem is that they have never been the subject of ad hoc policy making. Public intervention in peri-urban areas has thus focused on combating urban sprawl, at the risk of neglecting the spaces thereby affected.

Transport policies offer a striking illustration of this oversight: historically designed to improve the accessibility of centers and to open up the banlieues, they are less effective in terms of supporting individuals’ movements in the outer peripheries. In small and medium-sized cities — which are far from all “losers” of globalization — solutions are still too often copied from those implemented first in metropolitan areas, without adaptation to local contexts. Thus, rather than engage in a victim-contest, the challenge is to create the conditions in which innovative policies can be formulated and implemented able to reconcile local residential choices with economic constraints, and ecological prudence.

Ultimately, through spreading simplistic, unfounded sociological nostrums at the expense of real analysis and meaningful argument, the self-proclaimed experts on the gilets jaunes risk eliding the real issues, if not blowing on the embers of the mouvement. Opposing “peri-urban drivers” to “privileged centers,” the “good poor” to the “bad poor,” and territorial “winners” to “abandoned” spaces — as these commentators implicitly do — may provide readers with some reassuring sentiments and cut back on the numbers who deserve help. This is, however, far from a solution to their troubles.