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EU elections: Why some Yellow Vests want to go to Brussels
While some Yellow Vest members are resolutely against taking part in this weekend’s European Parliamentary elections, others are candidates on Eurosceptic and sovereignist lists.
The only list on which all 79 candidates say they are Yellow Vests is Alliance Jaune led by French singer Francis Lalanne. Number 13 on this list, André Lannée, a DJ from near Grenoble, is upbeat but will his enthusiasm be enough to garner votes?
André Lannée carefully positions an Alliance Jaune (Yellow Alliance) campaign poster on one of the 34 metal boards outside a school in central Paris, taking care to smooth out any air bubbles.
The slogan is Revolte par le vote (Vote to Revolt) and, unlike the vast majority of the other 33 campaign posters, it has no photo. French singer Francis Lalanne may be N°1 on the Alliance Jaune list, but it’s a leaderless movement led by, and for, citizens. That’s what drew Lannée to it.
“It’s the first time there's a project I believe in, maybe the last, but it will not be the least,” he announces with a smile. “We will not stop until we give to our country real democracy, a good way of ruling the country.”
Lannée is a DJ from Saint Geoirs near Grenoble. He says he “likes to make people happy” and wants to “give our children real ways of ruling monies in our country, and in Europe”.
He joined the Yellow Vest movement from the very first day on 17 November 2018 when working people on low wages began protesting at roundabouts in the provinces against the government’s planned green tax on petrol and diesel.
“On the first roundabout I bring my musical stuff and I put music all day long,” he recalls, “everybody was singing and dancing on the roundabout. It was a party.”
But as the movement grew and spread into towns, it became more violent and Saturday protests would often end in clashes between riot police and protestors.
“The Black Blocs are just a nightmare for us,” says Lannée, referring to the masked ultras and anarchists involved in the most violent incidents.
But he admits some Yellow Vests may have smashed things "maybe because it’s been 27 weeks they fight and 27 weeks the government tell us ‘go home I don’t want to hear you’.
Now, as Number 13 on the Alliance Jaune list, he believes it’s time to shift protests from the streets to the ballot box.
“I say to them ‘join us on the political field and let’s fight quietly, peacefully and with democracy’.”
Financing the fight
“We pay [expenses] out of our own wallets,” says Lannée pointing to a couch at the HQ where candidates from the provinces rest when visiting the capital.
But they’re luckier than many of the very small lists.
Jean-Marc Governatori, a billionaire friend of Francis Lalanne’s has underwritten the 800,000 euro bank loan enabling them to run the campaign, and another friend has lent them these modest, but well-placed, premises in Paris's fifth district.
If they win more than three percent of the vote, the State will reimburse up to about 4.5 million euros-worth of campaign expenses. If they don’t, and opinion polls suggest they won't, then who knows what the next step will be.
Lannée refuses to be held down by such thoughts and concentrates on rallying support for their campaign.
Organised political force
The main points on their platform include taxes on heavy fuels such as kerosene, a Tobin tax on international financial transactions, taxes on transfers of sportsmen and women, and on big corporations. They also propose to follow the Spanish example in making banks pay a small mortgage tax to help finance pensions.
Overall, the revenue would be used to reduce VAT: “to make our citizens happy, able to live properly through their work,” says Lannée, “just [put] food in their fridges”.
The DJ says he makes a decent living but that's not the case for most Yellow Vests.
“Even with 2,000 euros you can’t live properly,” he says. “We want to be able to go on holiday, clothe our children, pay for dental and eye treatment and we just can’t. We have income, we are free, we work, we want to live properly.”
Power back to the people
To have more of a say in their futures, Alliance Jaune demands more direct democracy via popular referendums called RIC (Citizens’ Referendum Initiative).
“RIC is the only way to rule a real democracy,” says Lannée, “we are citizens, we want to decide the way our country is ruled.”
Popular assemblies could propose and revoke laws, and hold both members of national and the European parliament to account. They would no longer be decision makers but “messengers for the people”.
Alliance Jaune would set up European “satellite offices” around France so that each time Yellow Vest MEPs were called on to vote they would have to submit the proposal to their voters back home in France too.
“We are going to speak with Yellow Vests in other countries and make a real democratic Europe in five years," says Lannée. "We will put citizens in the centre of the decisions, not politicians, not technocrats."
A legal framework for organising referendums
Not all volunteers helping with the campaign are Yellow Vests.
Laurent Marquant, a Paris-based architect, decided to give a few hours of his time to help structure the campaign.
“I want to help transform the Yellow Vest revolt into a movement that advances and evolves over time. That requires a legal framework.”
For him, the most interesting aspect of the movement is the RIC which "allows you to have a real impact on people’s lives because they’re the ones to choose what they want".
But, as the controversy over the Brexit referendum revealed, people have to fully understand what they are voting on.
"Voting is a serious business, it mustn't be haphasard, you need to lay out the arguments for and against. That hasn't always been done here in France.”
Implementing the results of popular referendums can be complicated though. And they can deliver surprising results.
In Switzerland, which has a developed system of direct democracy, some smaller municipalities allow the town assembly to make decisions on naturalisation. Locals in one village voted to block citizenship for an animal rights activist who had resided in Switzerland most of her life.
The challenge of federating
The RIC is one of the few common points across the very splintered Yellow Vest movement.
Some have joined Evolution Citoyenne, an anti-immigration, “sovereignist” list led by the controversial figure of Christophe Chalençon. He caused a political spat between France and Italy after inviting Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s M5S movement, to a Yellow Vest rally earlier this year.
Others can be found on the far-right Eurosceptic Ensemble Patriotes et Gilets Jaunes list led by former National Front N°2 Florian Philippot; on sovereignist list DLF led by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan; or on Initiative Citoyenne which also defends the RIC.
“It’s a Yellow Vest problem,” admits Lannée. “Yellow Vests are in all kinds of people, from extreme left to extreme right. So we have a lot of difficulty to communicate properly.
"We all want the same thing but we don’t have the same words to say it. That’s why we have today a real problem to federate all the Yellow Vests.”
As well as different political affiliations, some reject the political system altogether and refuse to take part in these elections.
Yet Lannée maintains that as the majority of French law is rubber-stamped at the European level, Yellow Vests have to take their grievances to Brussels and Strasbourg if they want change.
“We want to say to our Yellow Vests, and all citizens who don’t care about Europe, that we need to be in Europe to have a better life in France.”
While some with Les Patriotes want to leave the EU, he says Alliance Jaune is not in favour.
“We have gone too far in Europe to get out of it now, it will be 10 or 15 years of recession and we can’t afford this.
"We don’t want more Europe, we don’t want less Europe, we want a better Europe. We don’t want to be slaves of the system anymore.”
The latest polls suggest the five main parties (National Rally, LREM, The Republicans, Socialists/Place Publique, EELV) will be the only ones to get the five percent of votes needed to qualify for seats in the European Parliament.
Alliance Jaune is credited with one or two percent. Lannée wants to believe they’ll get more.
“We don’t go to a fight thinking maybe we’re not going to win, so for the moment we win, and much more than three percent,” he says.
Whatever the score, "this vote will show our government the real proportion of our fighters".
For Laurent Marquant the Alliance Jaune list is important because it keeps the demands on the political agenda.
"So long as the demands haven’t been met I think the only way to advance is through a political party; to vote and let the revolt be heard in a legal and formalised way."
Which is exactly what some other Yellow Vests reject.
This story was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.