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The Limits of Outrage Politics

The precipitous decline of France's Yellow Vest movement—like the sputtering end to Occupy Wall Street—shows why political movements need more than inchoate anger.

Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP/Getty Images

Last Saturday proved to be less of a crescendo and more of a curtain call for France’s gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests. “Acte XXX,” as organizers called the thirtieth iteration of their protest, made clear that the movement is coming to an end. Few were present in Paris this weekend, and the few who were didn’t seem to know why.

More so than any movement in the twenty-first century, the gilets jaunes embody the problems of outrage politics. For the protesters, grains of truth and reason have been lost in a sea of fear and anger. For their politicians, charting these waters and sailing toward solutions has become impossible, and increasingly pointless: Over time, outrage politics—as seen in the dying moments of the gilets jaunes, the final pitch of Brexit, the hazy memory of Occupy Wall Street—tends to be far more about the outrage than about the politics, until, inevitably, it is about nothing at all.

The gilets jaunes began in November of 2018 as a movement against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed fuel tax. Despite the environmental merits of his measure, the optics for France’s young president were poor. In the prior year, Macron had slashed the nation’s wealth tax and established a flat tax on capital gains, earning him the moniker président des riches. The new fuel tax, which would hit the working class of France’s non-urban areas the hardest, only reinforced this reputation. In response, protesters donned the yellow vests that drivers are required to keep in their cars for emergencies, and set the nation ablaze—sometimes literally.

The first protest, “Acte I,” saw a quarter of a million people take to the streets in two thousand demonstrations throughout the country. Windows were smashed, tires were burned, hundreds were injured, and one was killed. The next Saturday, and for many Saturdays to come, the masses continued to mobilize.

Their motivations and objectives were never particularly clear. Beyond the focal point of the fuel tax, there were significant differences between the protesters and no leadership structure to resolve them. Both hailed by the far-left and featuring many activists on the far-right, the movement briefly appeared to unite the two sides, with 78 percent of the French public saying the protests were “justified.” It didn’t, of course, and it never would.

However, the movement did enjoy some early success. Two months after the protests began, Macron bowed to public pressure and scrapped the fuel tax at the heart of the matter. Several months later, as the gilets jaunes continued to march, the president called for a series of town halls to be held across the country—a grand débat to talk out the remaining tension.

In recent months, Macron has paired these moves with somewhat more petty—and somewhat more effective—measures. One has been to block the gilets jaunes from entering the Champs Elysées, the most famous street in Paris, forcing them to reroute to lesser locations. Another has been to delay and disrupt the metro on the day of protests, a deterrent for the many gilets jaunes who live outside the city. A third has been intimidation displays, as seen this Saturday with the scores of police officers who surrounded the square where the protest was held, shaking tear gas canisters they never used.

This approach seems to have dampened the demonstrations. It was reported that the prior week’s protest, “Acte XXIX,” had the lowest turnout in the movement’s history. At this week’s protest, the main gathering ground in Paris was partially populated by a group protesting the latest violence in Sudan, as well as a vegan food fair. After six months, the once numerous gilets jaunes had been edged out by a different demonstration and a handful of gourmands.

What’s more, the basic political premise of the protest no longer exists. Although one Parisian confidently told me that he was still demonstrating against the fuel tax—a fuel tax which was scrapped five months ago—most seemed to have moved on. The only problem was that they were moving on with misinformation, chanting “Assassins! Assassins!” at the police, following reports that two gilets jaunes had been killed that day in Montpellier, a city in the south of France. Those reports, as it turns out, were false.

Although the movement may have outlived its original impetus, there are undoubtedly still things to protest. France’s 8.8 percent unemployment rate is more than the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s combined. At 20.8 percent, France’s youth unemployment rate remains among the worst in the West. In addition, the ghettoization of France’s minorities, the banlieues filled with French citizens of African and Middle Eastern descent, remains a worthwhile wrong to rally against—as does France’s 15.4 percent gender pay gap.

However, these basic inequities are not what you see and hear at a gilets jaunes rally. Instead, what you find is absent-minded talk of revolution, mixed with the bizarre particularities of conspiracy—state murders, globalist cabals, and the like. You meet people who wholeheartedly disagree with one another—one woman expressing to me her unabashed leftism, one man praising the Anglo-American right, and a third man explaining how the movement was “neither left nor right.” And, of course, you find wanton violence: a teenager who instructs his friends to film as he throws a glass bottle towards the police, missing and shattering on a crowded street.

After a surfeit of press early on, the gilets jaunes’ abrupt decline has been conspicuous. In last month’s European Elections, the parties that claimed to represent the movement captured just 0.6 percent of the vote, failing to send a single member to the European Parliament. After six months, the protest that has been France’s longest-running since the end of World War II seems to have run out of outrage. So far, it has also failed to make effective use of more legitimate fuel. Today, President Macron is no longer listening, the French people no longer approve, and the one election the protesters had to put themselves on the map has elapsed.

In varying forms and to varying degrees, this is the problem that outrage politics has frequently experienced in the past decade. When a movement becomes detached from politics and devoid of policies—as did the gilets jaunes, who boycotted the grand débat and failed to call for any legislation since the early days of the fuel tax—a slow slip into irrelevance becomes inevitable. Across the Channel, Brexit has been much the same. Its most ardent supporters have similarly abdicated political responsibility, voting time and again against the deals that would remove the United Kingdom from the European Union. Across the pond and across the political spectrum, the well-founded movement in Occupy Wall Street met a familiar fate, failing to engage policymakers or propose policy change despite having the momentum of the financial crisis and the presence of a Democratic president.

Even still, the gilets jaunes stand apart. They will likely never prove as prominent in global affairs as Brexit, nor will they have the same opportunities for resuscitation as Occupy Wall Street. As their momentum ends and their moment does too, the gilets jaunes will ultimately serve as little more than a case study in why a political movement needs more than outrage.