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The Red and The Brown

On Saturday December 8th, as the Minion-like yellow vests began to congregate around the Arc de Triomphe for the fourth Saturday of nationwide riots, masked French authorities surrounded and pulled over a car in Northeast Paris. The two men in the car had just bought croissants and were headed to the demonstration. One was the well-known French ultra-leftist Julian Coupat. In the trunk—the agents obsessed with tailing Coupat likely already knew—were two yellow vests, ventilation masks, saline, and some paint.

The authorities have long considered Coupat to be the “leader” of a mysterious publishing collective called the Invisible Committee, which defected from Paris and took over Tarnac, a small village in central France, over ten years ago. He came to national prominence during a legal spectacle known as the Tarnac Affair, in which members of the milieu were labeled “terrorists” for allegedly sabotaging nearby high-speed rail lines. The evidence wielded against them was the anonymously authored 2007 text The Coming Insurrection (La Fabrique/Semiotext), a sleeper hit among New School-grad-student-types heralded by the who’s who of academic Marxist celebrities. Coupat was exonerated this March when the state’s ramshackle prosecution finally came apart, ending a ten-year legal ordeal.

The state never forgets a slight—especially not in this case, where the elemental rage of the yellow vests movement had shaken them. The Invisible Committee, for its part, has long called for a generalized insurrection springing forth from rural France, and their texts have been prophetic in diagnosing the shape of things to come. Take, for example, this passage from the 2017 tract, Maintenant (Now):

What is really occurring, under the surface, is that everything is pluralizing, everything is localizing, everything is revealing itself to be situated, everything is fleeing. It’s not only that the people are lacking, that they are playing the role of absent subscribers, that they don’t give any news, that they are lying to the pollsters, it’s that they have already packed up and left, in many unsuspected directions. They’re not simply abstentionist, hanging back, not to be found: they are in flight, even if their flight is inner or immobile. They are already elsewhere.

The Parisian left have been caught off guard, scrambling to position themselves in relation to a movement they don’t feel entirely comfortable with, the Invisible Committee-affiliated organ Lundimatin (“Monday Morning”) has been steadily promoting and analyzing gilets jaunes—getting in while the getting is good.

Coupat and his friend were taken into custody and questioned about their involvement. Clearly, the authorities were paranoid that he would come striding back onto the scene. After his release, his friend was interviewed and asked what he would have painted on the Champs-Elysées, had he gotten the chance. His answer captured a depth of loathing more suited for the Arab Spring and Maidan revolution than neoliberal France. “You will not even have the right to St. Helena.”

That Saturday, they missed one for the history books. Paris is a city of riots, where a procession of new movements roll through like storms, but nothing like the recent unrest has been seen since 1968. The most jaded Parisian speaks about it with awe. I woke up that day to a boarded-up, empty, and unreal city, one that looked as if a hurricane was about to pass through.

What followed was a classic riot. Classic in that, as some commentators have noted, it was about scarcity and rage—not labor organization. Even with the exaggerated police presence with armored vehicles and numerous checkpoints, it felt wild and unpredictable.

While some of those who gathered around Gare Saint-Lazare and Arc de Triomphe were the usual suspects in yellow vests—antifa, black-block, queer activists—the majority of participants fit a different profile, rougher provincial people, gawking their way around militarized Paris. There were middle-aged women who didn’t flinch at the tear gas, trash can fires, or flash grenades. For hours, the police pushed the militants eastward out of the city, from Saint-Lazare down Grands Boulevards, in an squid-like motion—barricades, fires, and rocks, then huge crowds of people running from water cannons, gas, and flash grenades. I saw innocent bystanders caught up in the melee in Bonne Nouvelle, old men on crutches trying to get home, a mother cleaning the tear gas from her children’s eyes.

There was no central meeting point or route but many police checkpoints. Everything was diffuse and confusing. I followed a big crowd of people into a narrow passageway trying to get around a police barricade, before they stampeded back out when they saw the cops were there, too. The crowd was pushed to Châtelet-Les Halles, where it melted away into casual groups. These groups walked past the Louvre into posh, shuttered Place Vendôme, just behind the Élysée Palace, where they reformed and started rioting again. It was later revealed that Macron had a helicopter waiting for him at the palace in case things got out of hand.

In Place Vendôme, the yellow vests were in full control of a six-by-six block section of the neighborhood. The police were kept at bay at little fronts with bonfires, barricades, and smashed up stores. Walking around the historic neighborhood were yellow vests everywhere, filling each street. Jugs of whisky were passed around. At the lone open store, a guy offered me a bottle of water, free of charge. “Just take it!” I saw luxury cars punched, cobblestones and grates ripped up. The exclusive penthouse apartments above were all bolted and shuttered, no one looked out from the windows or the balconies—were there people inside, huddled in fear of the mob?

As with most protests, I assumed there were just one or two decent-sized groups of rioting yellow vests in the streets, buffered by a much larger mass of peaceful protesters. But as I walked east, the Minions multiplied, militant yellow vests everywhere, in control of large swaths of central Paris—at Place Saint-Augustin, around Gare Saint-Lazare, bombardiers rushing to put out massive bonfires, people looking at the spectacle through the windows of packed bars. I got on the subway—Opéra and Havre-Caumartin stations closed—an announcement over the intercom that there’s tear gas in the station at Réaumur –Sébastopol. Coming up under the impressive arch at Strasbourg — Saint-Denis, there are two huge bonfires. Yellow vests on every street roaming around, trash fires in the streets, several upscale boutique stores smashed. At the opposite end of the city, in the Upper East Side-like 17th arrondissement, I saw a gaggle of shell-shocked looking videographers from TV5Monde, standing outside the broken windows of their offices. A hurricane still seems the best comparison. And Paris is not the worst. Reports have shown intense street fighting in second-tier cities like Toulouse and Bordeaux. Those leaders who have sought to “reform” the deeply ingrained structures of provincial life have done so at their own peril. Macron has pressed hard on the rural mayors. The association of rural mayors has responded by opening up 33,000 town halls to the gilets jaunes.

The next afternoon, I visited an old activist friend in the 20th arrondissement. He was at the riot as well. He’d also just returned from Moscow, where he participated in a public debate with Russian National-Bolshevik philosopher and organizer Alexander Dugin, who has long cultivated ties with the international far-right and is often accused of being Putin’s “destabilizing” agent in Europe. Dugin has been prescient about the seismic ideological and geopolitical shifts underway.

“Dugin did say the way we’re going to deal with France is a red-brown alliance, Mélenchon and Le Pen. I thought it was kind of crazy a month ago, but now maybe it’s going to happen,” my friend told me. “He’s the smartest right-wing guy I’ve ever met. The left has no answer to Dugin. The only person who has an answer to him is Abdullah Öcalan,” he says, handing me a copy of imprisoned Kurdish leader’s pamphlet Democratic Confederalism.

Dugin’s daughter, Daria Dugina, has been in Paris for the gilets jaunes protests, organizing with the French identitarian far right. A doctoral student in neo-Platonist philosophy at Moscow State, she followed in her father’s footsteps and now runs the Breitbart-style Duginist website Geopolitica.ru. When I reached her, she told me, “I don’t think you can call gilets jaunes left or right, I don’t believe in this division, I think it’s over. This is the populist moment brilliantly described by the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe . . . what we see in world politics is this growing intense battle between globalists and anti-globalists. . . . A coalition of the left and right is one of my political dreams.”

Dugina argues that Macron is basically finished, that the future belongs to someone like Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the young rising star on the French right, niece of the elder Le Pen. “She’s setting up a ‘metapolitical’ school in Lyon. She’s criticizing the split of right and left. I think she’ll have success. She works for the future, not today.”

Everyone speaks with pseudo-mystical reverence about Le blocus—the blockade. The blockade is not rocket science. It simply means small groups of people congregating at logistical chokepoints to ground the economic system to a halt. On the southern periphery of Paris, I attended a late-night blockade of Rungis market. The area felt like a special economic zone. Rungis is the second-largest wholesale food market in the world, of vital strategic importance to Europe. It keeps Paris daily supplied with fresh food. A group of eighty yellow vests showed up and fanned out across the toll plaza—there’s weren’t enough of them to fully halt traffic, so they settled for slowing it to a trickle. A detectable ambiance took hold—the truckers honked and seemed supportive, French rap blared from a boom box, and a soccer ball was kicked around.

I talked to a yellow vest named Vincent, who chatted amiably with the supportive truckers. I asked him what he talked to them about. “We ask them if they’re with us or against us. We explain what we’re about. About 80 percent are with us.” His name is Vincent, he works as an airplane inspector at Paris Orly. He used to vote socialist, but three years ago turned to the extreme right. The reason? Immigration. Now his favorite magazine is Daily Stormer. He said if Macron went down, he wanted him replaced by “the most extreme person possible.” Perhaps Hervé Ryssen, author of books like The Jewish Mafia. I asked if there were many nationalist organizations in gilets jaunes. “There are, but we don’t talk about it. When we come, we leave our other identifications at home and give ourselves over to the gilets jaunes movement.” I asked how it had gone, working with the far left. “Today, we’re all together—nothing much sets us apart. We find ourselves with the same objective, to get rid of Macron,” he said, giving an exaggerated impression of someone being hanged.

Another yellow vest sauntered over and inserted himself into our conversation. He introduced himself as Matthieu, “Communist Party, PCF. Far left.”  Vincent stuck out his hand. “National Front, far right!”

The communist seemed caught off guard, but they hugged, awkwardly. “We’re citizens, all the same,” Vincent said.

Matthieu lived nearby and worked as communist party functionary. The area around Rungis is one of the last communist strongholds in France. I asked him about the French media, who have been heavily targeted during the protests.

             “The French media, they all belong to the . . .”

“To the jews!” Vincent interjected.

            “No, no . . . to the big capitalist trusts.” Matthieu corrected him.

I asked Vincent what would happen if Macron were no longer in the picture. The far-left and far-right would eventually have to reckon with each other.

            “We’re friends. For now. But not later,” he laughed.

Once the neo-nazi walked away, I asked the communist the same question. “Maybe I would leave my country if this happened,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the concentration camps.”

I arrived at a packed anti-capitalist meeting in the formerly working class neighborhood of Montreuil. The event was called “Yellow Vests: Is an anti-capitalist turn possible?”

The usual suspects stood up and spoke about whether the yellow vests should be supported. They referred to them as “they.” There was a sense of jealousy about not being the history-makers, the revolutionary subject—the gilets jaunes are driving events, not the left. There was one yellow vest in attendance. A young working class guy, a riverboat marine and CGT unionist named Kleber. “I hesitated to put on the yellow jacket for a few days, but only for a few days, because what I saw and heard convinced me. I heard anger, I heard an egalitarian point of view that had been forgotten even by the far left, and a revolutionary will. Sorry, but the wish to storm the Élysée, the National Assembly, the dissolution of the parliament . . . if that’s not revolutionary, what is?”

Afterwards, I sat down to talk with him. “The far left is destroyed by the intellectual petit bourgeois, which forces its preoccupations upon us . . . at the Saturday mobilization, we were singing the Marseillaise, and the far left said ‘aha, that is the hymn of the French imperialism’ . . . the exploited people of France hear in that song something revolutionary. It helps them in a certain way. There is this obstinate refusal of being part of a French revolutionary tradition. When the gilets jaunes speak about uprising, when they speak about revolution, when they speak about cutting the head of Macron, that is the continuation of a revolutionary tradition.” The more we spoke, the more he got riled up. “If I have to have a beard to help the liberation of the workers, I will have a beard. If I have to wear a cassock, I will wear a cassock. If I have to pray in a church I will pray in a church. If I have to pray in a mosque or a synagogue I will pray in a mosque or a synagogue, I don't give a fuck!”

Many protesters I met in Paris bristled at the question about whether gilets jaunes is left or right—they prefer not to speak in those terms. So extremely French that they preferred for it to be framed as “alienated” and “apathetic” vs. “activated.” They rushed to add that banlieue immigrants and high school students are getting involved as well, as if the presence of brown people papers over the underlying issues.

I attend a nighttime neighborhood committee at the Parc de Belleville. Thirty or so people shifted uncomfortably in the frigid cold, the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance. A police van circled the block every five minutes. The meeting was about meetings, the debate was about “the blockade” as opposed to a more welcoming and open strategy. “Do we really have to meet out here in the shadows, in the cold? In Montreuil, they have their meetings at a bar with drinks, and more people show up,” one speaker huffed. It seemed this would go nowhere—I thought about my old friend’s analysis of gilets jaunes. “I suspect what’s happening is a kind of weird delayed French version of the wave of Occupy to some extent, but also related to the right-wing populism which dragged Trump and Brexit forward . . . all this kind of anti-elite stuff . . . we just don’t know if it becomes an entry to fascism or left-wing [politics], it’s really hard to say.”

The French far left are not naïve about the risks of the ideological brinksmanship they’re engaged in with the far right. In a lengthy analysis, Lundimatin forthrightly admits neo-fascism as a possibility. “We are at a crossroads in France, in Europe, and beyond. In critical times, history is always uncertain and molten; the purists and the hygienists of the mind and of politics are at a loss. If they are not yet illiberal, the ‘yellow vests’ are already anti-liberal. But who can say whether they wish for new liberties?” The international populist right has shown itself to be adept at pursuing a hybrid strategy of mobilizing in the name of “the people” while concealing their long-term goals.

In late December, the gilets jaunes mobilizations became smaller and more diffuse. Macron’s administration hoped that the movement would run out of steam at Christmas and disappear in the New Year, but as the Invisible Committee predicted: everything is localizing, everything is revealing itself to be situated, everything is fleeing. Yellow vests have learned to melt away one week, only to reappear in force the next. To dupe the police, those in Paris have taken to announcing protests in one part of town only to gather in another; blockades have appeared on major highways all over the country, and on the Franco-Spanish border. Militant, confrontational mobilizations of thousands of people have cropped up in unlikely second and third-tier cities like Caen and Montpelier, while continuing in movement strongholds like Boudreaux and Toulouse and Rouen. In Rouen, militants set fire to the wooden doors of the Bank of France. In Paris this weekend, they drove a forklift through the gates of the state ministry, forcing the evacuation of Macron’s spokesperson.

Regardless of what happens, something has changed—the axis of ideologies has tilted. Macron won’t ever have the same authority within the EU as some centrist bulwark against the “neo-populist” tide. When Merkel goes—if he’s still around—he’ll be the one left responsible for holding the EU together. New political formations and alliances—even if they are pacts and alliances of convenience—are arising. The neoliberal center is weak, it won’t recover, and the vultures are already circling.*


Aaron Lake Smith