A gilet jaune protest at a roundabout  in France
A gilet jaune protest at a roundabout in France © Reuters

My uncle Jojo is a gilet jaune. As with Brexiters, every family has at least one yellow-vest protester in its ranks. The news came as a shock, though, perhaps because it came from an unlikely corner: Jojo, a handsome man in his sixties, is the most successful, most rightwing, and most macho member of the family. Not one to occupy a roundabout wearing a gilet jaune, even less one to stop people from going about their day unless they proclaim their hatred of our elected president. Or so we thought.

I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years when he turned up two weeks ago in Paris for the birthday of Nicole — my mother and his big sister. He had driven from his home in the heart of Sologne, a yellow vest conspicuously and proudly placed on his Swedish car’s dashboard. For the occasion, we had lunch at a café with a view of the Eiffel Tower, on Place du Trocadéro.

Jojo had always been a big mouth, but then we are all big mouths in the family. A self-made man who left school without a qualification, with a taste for car mechanics and Swedish girls, whom he married one after another, he quickly became the chief executive of a large company. He is a clear case of shrewdness and healthy social mobility. He owned vintage cars, in various degrees of dereliction, a boat, and a horse. Today, he lives with his dog Filou and a few dozen ducks on a picturesque piece of Sologne land.

What grievances could he possibly share with the gilets jaunes? I was wondering silently while he eyed and commented on the pretty women sitting around us. “It’s strange,” he started, “I have had weird looks from Parisians. It must be my yellow vest on the dashboard.” You bet, I replied. The Trocadéro and the nearby Avenue Kléber were torched and looted only a week before. It was a crisp and sunny day and the glass of Sauvignon fired up our family debate, like the first cannonball at a Napoleonic battle.

A litany of vituperations against fiscal overload and presidential scorn started pouring from his mouth: “Enough is enough, where does the money go? I want to know!”, “Macron behaves like a bloody monarch, why does he despise his people?” We replied he only needed to go online at Vie-publique.fr to find out where his money went, and how the country’s finances were used, and reminded him that France was a champion of redistribution, with 57 per cent of GDP going to public spending. As for Macron’s personal style of government, the French loved it until last summer, when they decided that they hated it after all. These were clearly not the reasons why my uncle had become a gilet jaune.

He went on to describe life on the roundabouts. He showed pictures of his comrades in yellow, of his dog Filou proudly wearing a fluoro dog coat, albeit an orange one. He talked about long hours of conviviality, discussions and moments of boisterous gaiety with complete strangers, as many women as men, mostly in their fifties and sixties, artisans, self-employed, indebted small entrepreneurs, and pensioners who were afraid their children wouldn’t fare better. As the successful self-made entrepreneur he had been, he remembered how he decided on salaries and bonuses for his thousand employees, favouring significant increases rather than “today’s insulting low levels” based on inflation and various indices. His management style might have been perhaps paternalistic but there was no doubting his closeness to his employees. This closeness explains why he joined the first gilets jaunes: he wanted to speak up in favour of the voiceless France.

The local mayor came to visit them on their roundabout and gave them a cahier de doléances just like in 1789, a notebook where they could write up a list of grievances. My uncle felt invigorated by those encounters, “warm inside and outside”. His own gilet jaune trajectory and story, like most of the yellow-vest experiences, was in fact one of a newly found fraternity. The roundabout had somehow replaced the village bistro. In 1960, there were 200,000 cafés in France and only a few roundabouts. Today, there are just 36,000 cafés left and 50,000 roundabouts. A paradigm shift. And a Proustian case of time regained: the gilets jaunes have reclaimed fraternité.

This shouldn’t, however, hide the underlying violence of the movement. Did they actually stop drivers and prevent them from passing unless they swore they hated Macron, as had been the case in other parts of France, I asked my uncle. “No, we let them through, but only if they agreed to drive round three times sounding their horn.” Though mild and good-humoured, this was still coercion.

The gilets jaunes is a polymorphous protest that will know many mutations and stages before it disappears, or runs the country. At first, it was a call for help and solidarity; it has now become, in part, a disorderly and semi-insurrectional jacquerie often fed by conspiracy theories cooked up on social networks with a link to Russia.

As the comedian, Sophia Aram, said this week in her weekly radio show: “The yellow vest is a magic wand, it transforms any old endive into a roundabout Che Guevara.” She went on: “You want to destroy the Arc de Triomphe and look like a real patriot? No problem, just wear a gilet jaune.” Before one last blow: “I remember a time when 250,000 people demonstrating in the streets, venting their anger, were called, well, demonstrators. Thanks to the gilet jaune magic, not only do they become ‘the people’ but they achieve this feat with only 35,000 demonstrators.”

Will my uncle Jojo come back from his Scandinavian Christmas holiday still filled with gilet jaune buoyancy? And how will he and his comrades transform their roundabout fraternity into a coherent and democratic energy? Here lies today’s gilet jaune challenge.

Agnès Poirier is author of ‘Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950’

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article