As part of my journalistic work with Shoal Collective, I have been speaking to some of the people involved in the Gilets Jaunes movement near where I live in France.
I have to admit that I was not particularly impressed by what I first heard about the Gilets Jaunes.
On the same Saturday, November 17, that Extinction Rebellion took its urgent environmental message to the streets of London, here were the French rising up against increases in petrol prices!
However, having read widely about the movement as it evolved from that initial stage, and having discussed it with a lot of people over here, I realised that I was mistaken in dismissing it.
Yes, there are still question marks over the presence of far-right elements in parts of this very loose and unstructured movement, but happily they seem to be increasingly marginalised.
What has impressed me most about the Gilets Jaunes phenomenon is the way that it has allowed people’s voices to be expressed and heard directly, without the filter of political dogma.
Most people are not “political” in the way some of us are, and they do not spend their lives, as I sadly do, constantly refining and defining their exact ideological position.
So when they state their views, they might come across as naive, clumsy or politically incorrect from the vantage point of the seasoned ideologue.
But if you can see past that surface, and look at the actual content of what they are saying, then it is clear that the Gilets Jaunes represent a powerful rejection of capitalism and all the inequality and social injustice that goes along with it.
Here are some Gilets Jaunes’ quotes gathered from the two reports:
“People are getting poorer and poorer. We have to act on the cause behind this and the cause is the system and the way it operates, the elite that runs it.”
“We are in a vertical world and it would be good to make it a horizontal and proportional one.”
“I’m a refuse collector and I clean up all the shit in the street. Now we have to clean up all the shit in the world, which is what Macron represents: everything that is false, hypocritical, heartless. We have to clean up this shit!”
“It’s a pressure cooker which has been suppressed for many years. There is a very high level of poverty in France, despite our significant social welfare system. Nine million people are on the brink of poverty.”
“We want to help people and we are also making a link with the high cost of living, which we condemn.”
These are authentic voices, describing, on the basis of their own experience, what is unacceptable about the capitalist world we live in.
The same thing is true to some extent of Extinction Rebellion. There are clearly a lot of people involved in that movement who are new to political action.
When they talk about their fears for the future, for their children’s future and for the planet’s future, they are talking from their hearts.
From my point of view, I wish sometimes that they would stop focusing so much on climate change and acknowledge that it is the industrial capitalist system as a whole that is the problem, that will eventually poison and destroy life on Earth in one way or another if it is allowed to continue, regardless of the CO2 issue.
Like others I have spoken to, I find it disappointing that they don’t use the word “capitalism” enough to describe the system they are opposing.
Let’s get this straight, industrialism is capitalism. It would not exist without capitalism. It is the physical manifestation of capitalism’s inherent need for endless exploitation in the interests of profit.
So-called “socialist” forms of industrialism are not socialist at all, but state capitalist. They are fake forms of “anti-capitalism” which have failed to challenge the basis of capitalism.
But it does not matter, at the moment, if the Extinction Rebellion protesters do not put things that way, because their movement has a momentum and a distinctive voice of its own.
Likewise, it does not matter if the Gilets Jaunes do not use the traditional political language of the left, because they have found their own way of saying and doing things.
In the longer run, of course, people like me will try to influence both movements, steer them towards an awareness of the capitalist system and the role of the state in imposing it on us.
I suspect, in fact, that the paths of the Gilets Jaunes and the Extinction Rebels will eventually converge.
In 20 years’ time we will look back and see them as two wings of the same global popular uprising against the industrial capitalist system that has imprisoned and stifled humankind for far too long.