The materialist mythologies of an impromptu crisis: the yellow vests and French infrastructure


January 2019 - "What we thus oppose is not the man to the man, but the striker to the end-user" (Barthes, 1957)


In his collection of essays Mythologies (1957), Roland Barthes addressed a timely opposition. The end-user is often portrayed as the man in the street: algebraic, abstract, imaginary. He embodies the mystification of the strike into social disruption. After that, there is generally no point in knowing who is wrong and who is right. The strike is reduced to a scandal that harms this very abstraction.    

This feeds all kinds of fantasies. Just think of Trump's misinformed retweet about the ongoing French yellow vest strikes against the fuel tax. He sees it as the damper on Macron's lofty green goals, which he dubs the "radical leftist fuel taxes". Think of the far-fetched historical connections made by many with episodes such as the French Revolution, 1950s Poujadism, or May 68. Think of the political exploitation by populist writers like Christophe Guilluy, whose tendentious op-eds feed into theories about a poorer "peripheral France" - France périphérique - dispossessed by globalization and immigration, ready to rise and break down the system. 


The yellow vest - gilet jaune - technically refers to the high visibility safety vest made mandatory for car drivers in 2008. The bright fluorescent yellow vest became the metonymy of protests that started after an increase in fuel taxes, which made one litre of gas cost 1.59 euros, approximately six dollars per gallon. This increase represents a burden for lower-income households, particularly the car-dependent ones located in more isolated rural and suburban areas. The movement has no defined leader and pretty blurry political affiliations marked by many internal schisms. The general motto is distrust towards Macron's administration and the ruling elite.


The past week had marked the third week of violent confrontations in the country. It mobilized more than 80,000 strikers, and caused several million euros worth of damage. Even after the major twist that saw the government cancel the taxe carbone, an Act IV of protests took place this Saturday. This is because we have not yet extracted ourselves from the rhetoric of damage. What comes back in this rhetoric is, to me, a triple confrontation. First, the spatial confrontation between the strikers and the police. Second, the language confrontation between the media, the independent yellow vest Facebook platform, and official speeches emanating from government representatives. Third, the ideological confrontation due to an exploitation from both ends of the political spectrum.


In this rhetoric of damage, infrastructure is at the heart of mystifications. The pepper spray, the barricade, the burning car, the cobblestone, the bus shelter and the street are the recurrent parts of the chorus. The broken Marianne-like statue and the spray-painted Arc de Triomphe probably crystallize even more so this rhetoric of damage, as the Republican monuments defiled by this impromptu crisis gone wrong. 

This piece is certainly not a glorification of vandalism. But I argue that we should move away from the opposition of strikers and end-users. We should move away from mystifications of monuments broken and streets disrupted, and start thinking about what happens - to people, and infrastructure - once the strike is over. In Barthes' words, myth is a language-robbery, which deprives the event of its History. It is depoliticized speech, which threatens to be politically instrumentalized. Myth is the metalanguage that 'acts' nothing. Myth is the last outcome this impromptu crisis needs right now. 


For a second, let's extract ourselves from the mystified semiology that this is fueling. For a second, let's tame the thirst for simplification. Let's refrain from materialist mythologies, and make sure that we properly move from confrontation about infrastructure to a dialogue about how to fix this mess.