Under the yellow vest, Occupy and Tea Party viewpoints unite

Demonstrators wearing their yellow vests demonstrate in Marseille, southern France on Dec. 29.
Demonstrators wearing their yellow vests demonstrate in Marseille, southern France on Dec. 29. Associated Press

Over Christmas, my daughter and son-in-law took our whole family on a family ski vacation in the French Alps followed by a full week in Paris. Since at my stage of life, skiing seemed inadvisable, I decided to look into the “Yellow Vest” (YV) protest movement that has rocked France to the core.

Dressed in the yellow safety vests that French drivers are required to wear in case of highway emergencies, the YVs are stopping traffic on busy roadways. They’re occupying toll booths to allow travelers to escape burdensome fees.

But why?

In the U.S., the YV movement is typically reported by the Fox News right and even by progressives in terms of identity politics. It’s a rebellion, we’re told, against an “eco-tax” on diesel fuel.

According to this view, the rebels are part of a culture war pitting climate skeptics against a government whose vision has been captured by environmental extremists. Alternatively, the movement is characterized as anti-immigrant.

The YVs I interviewed disagree. They insisted that far from being either predominantly conservative, liberal or radical, their movement is an all-sides rebellion, not against environmentalism or immigration, but against the austerity of neo-liberal globalism itself.

In other words, and in terms understandable to Americans, yellow in France has become the new purple — a blend of red and blue. Le Monde describes Yellow Vesters as “retirees, the unemployed, poor workers, small businesspeople, and the self-employed within the gig economy.” It’s as if the Occupy Movement had united with Tea Partiers.

All sides, in other words, see YVs as repudiating the status quo. And they’re working together to overthrow it. Therein lies an important lesson for Americans.

The lesson is that recognizing broad class interests as opposed to narrow and exclusionary identity politics can unite normally fragmented citizens against a tyrannous plutocracy that is crushing us all.

Take that issue of immigration. What the left characterizes as xenophobia is really a mostly unconscious, but highly accurate perception by the right that current forms of corporate globalization are totally impractical. They are founded on a fundamental contradiction. That inconsistency claims to champion “free market capitalism.” Yet such economic arrangement accords unrestricted freedom of movement across borders to only one element of the capitalist equation, namely to capital itself.

Meanwhile, labor, the other equally important factor in the system, is forbidden such mobility in the United States and is restricted to other members of the European Union on the continent. When the world’s labor force (in the former colonies) intuits the injustice of such a double-standard — when it votes with its feet to appropriate for itself the privileges routinely accorded capitalists — all of us are made to recognize the unworkability of current expressions of corporate globalization.

The same is true of refugees caused by climate change and resource wars. Like free-trade agreements, both are intimately connected with current forms of globalization. Such recognition in turn reveals a common struggle shared by both the political right and left.

What I’m saying is that YV partisans suggest that our focus should shift from villainizing fellow workers who happen to be immigrants to the corporatists who exploit both them and us by their contradictory trade policies.

My accidental research project in France has given me hope. It’s helped me see as unnecessary the counter-productive divisions between Occupiers on the left and Tea Partiers on the right.

Actually, we have more in common than we might think. It’s the powers-that-be who want us fragmented and at each other’s throats.

Reach Mike Rivage-Seul, a retired Berea College professor, at Mike_Rivage-Seul @berea.edu.