Learning to Build Together

Reportback on the Yellow Vests' second 'assembly of assemblies'

First published in Lundimatin #188, April 23, 2019

Editors’ introduction: Last month, April 5, 6 and 7, the second “Assembly of Assemblies” of the Yellow Vests was held in Saint-Nazaire, after the first one in Commercy in January. The following article is a partial reportback on these meetings, offering an enthusiastic, albeit ambivalent, assessment. When “limits” and “disappointments” are mentioned, the author considers them despite everything as being part of a longer-term process: “democracy must be conceived as a painful learning process.” However, according to echoes reaching us from other sources, it would seem to be the forms of democracy themselves that are at least in part responsible for making those few days painful: obsession with voting, exacerbated formalism, massive presence of veteran activists, etc. While we think it is vital for the Yellow Vests movement to be able to organize nationally beyond virtual channels (Facebook, Telegram, etc.), it seems a bit sad that this process, in many ways, insists on using the same codes of the democracy that we are familiar with: elected representatives who vote on texts and get bogged down in conflicts that no one understands. Why not simply take advantage of moments like these to talk about different local situations, forge a sharper perspective on the state of the movement and its different parts, and even, perhaps, coordinate a few pertinent actions?  —Lundi matin

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In late January, an initiative by some follks in the small town of Commercy in eastern France sketched out a basis for structuring the Yellow Vests. The idea was simple: to coordinate a gathering of delegates from local groups all over France, with the idea of working out a horizontal structure for the movement that would apply the principles of direct democracy. A wild gamble, and a response to skeptics.

Two months later at the second “Assembly of Assemblies” in Saint-Nazaire, the roundabouts seem to have taken up the idea, as nearly 250 delegations made the trip to speak on behalf of local groups in the debates. It signals a success for the Saint-Nazaire organizers, but also a logistical challenge. One after another, potential venues for the meeting replied with rejections. No matter! The organizers hit back with wild inspiration: why not hold the event at the Maison du Peuple (the “People’s House”), where popular assemblies have been held every night for months? Why not rip up the ground floor of the old sub-prefecture, knock down the walls and see if it works? As the organizers are well aware, the institution of the People’s House is a powerful symbol, one that has already captured yellow imaginations pretty much everywhere in France. There’s something dreamy about occupying an old seat of power (a sub-prefecture) on a whim and transforming it into a place of life and organization. To use it to host an assembly of assemblies, making it the capital of yellow dissent for a weekend, only sweetens the dish.  One power chases another.

Still, the context has changed. Two months have passed since Commercy. Along the way, that determination so common at the start of a struggle has had to come to terms, first, with fatigue, and then with doubts. The litany of “prefecture journalists,” combined with the banality of judicial and police violence, have worked tirelessly to undermine the struggle. For those who refuse to give up, Saint-Nazaire bears the vague promise of a new maneuver, a new front.

 “It’s going to be complicated;” “We’re going to experiment;” “Not everything will be perfect.”

Given the delegates’ impatience, the local organizers proceed cautiously. The magnitude of the task is immense, and the three days of discussion won’t be enough. Plenary sessions alternate with thematic working groups. Beneath the large tents and kiosks that line the building, the crowd divides and subdivides until it reaches a reasonable size. In a hurry, the most motivated among them push through the beating rain to move from one group to another. It’s a well-designed formula, leading otherwise strangers to relax and get to know one another. A new feature of this second meeting is that groups are able to propose their own topics for discussion: “Municipalism” for Commercy, a “Charter of the Yellow Vests” put forward by Montpellier, or “People’s House” from Saint-Nazaire, etc.

These small discussion groups place the emphasis on lived experience. The violence of the repression is countered with the relief of learning that one is not alone. Everyone narrates their actions, astonishing the person sitting next to them with their audacity or creativity. Blocking the economy, recreating local ties, producing for all, taking back the roundabouts, imagining a different way to organize life, targeting certain businesses, pressuring the authorities, developing popular education, fighting against bad housing, attacking the symbols of the disaster: everyone is pushing their emergency, hoping to win support.

Local experiences are mixed up in an immense melting pot of revolt and desire. Pages are covered in ink, meetings planned. Folks learn about practices they had no clue existed: blocked Airbus factories in the southwest; occupied tollbooths, liberating toll roads for several weeks on end; alternative “citizens’ markets” feature local, often organic, goods and services each week; etc. As one miffed delegate put it: “How did I not know? It’s weird that nobody talked about it. Shit.” The idea of a large platform for information is brought up again, to no longer depend on anyone. Of the 70 accreditations granted, a good portion of the red media badges adorn yellow vests: many Facebook Page editors, autonomous media crews and independent journalists and documentary teams are present. Criticism has turned into action: people telling their own stories, taking back control of their words, freeing themselves from all delegation. 

It’s in these smaller group that the pulse of the movement can be taken. More so than in Commercy, determination is on display and there’s nobody left who doubts the process. Four months of struggle have gone by and transformed even the most recalcitrant. There’s nothing left to do but get organized. Get organized, to believe again. The idea of a more thorough coordination is discussed at great length. An idea that wins support: remobilize, then attack simultaneously pretty much everywhere. The calendar promises its share of opportunities: April 20, May 1, the European Union elections, not to mention the G7 in Biarritz late August and the 2020 municipal elections.

But when all the delegates gather in the plenary assembly, the atmosphere is different. Here, they’re experimenting with the most complex, utopian aspects of direct democracy, and in Saint-Nazaire there are a lot more people present than in Commercy, maybe even too many. The first cracks begin to show in the assembly. The folks with the microphone try to be reassuring despite the time that flies by at full speed. Managing to agree on
enough points to put out a call by Sunday evening appears complicated, but
nobody wants to give up on it.

The first draft of a joint text is finally submitted to the assembly on Sunday around noon. Disappoiting. A certain number of agreements from the working groups seem to have been left out. Some decry a scam, others commiserate in frustration. In fact, the text itself was intended to be minimal to get enough votes to pass, even if it means disappointing the more ambitious delegates. Other, more focused, thematic and concrete texts are proposed simultaneously that win votes more easily and are passed. Each issue has a different text addressing it: the European elections, repression and the cancellation of jail time, citizen assemblies and convergences with environmental struggles, etc. For the first time in three days, the rain stops — the sun gives smokers hope again.

Although the afternoon is well underway, the dream of a call from Saint-Nazaire still seems far off. Some refuse to give up on it, as a limited number of amendments are agreed upon. Do political prisoners need to be discussed? What about amnesty, or the annulment of sentences? A last-minute amendment is adopted without really any debate: the goal of exiting from capitalism. The text is adopted by a very large majority. Once more, the delegates’ voices can be heard rising in the main hall, “We are here, we are here…” But this time is different. Hundreds of sub-prefecture squatters vibrate with yellow fever. The call isn’t perfect, but it’s a symbol and it’s done, honor intact. A stubborn joy is palpable.

The consensus, however, lasts only as long as the chant. The last-minute amendment on capitalism doesn’t go over well: “a disgusting stab in the back,” according to one delegate. Poorly chosen words, too connoted, too divisive, not sufficiently representative of the yellow vests in their diversity. Others castigate the assembly for not formally putting concrete directions and strategic proposals into writing. In vain: the text has been voted upon, it’s final. But the memory of the consensus achieved in Commercy fades away. This weekend of April 6, 7 and 8 was historic, but for those who placed their hopes in it, it served above all as a reminder: democracy must be conceived as a painful learning process. This is what the Saint-Nazaire team recalls a few days later in a message addressed to participants:

“Just like in Commercy, we can make these three days into something foundational, especially in the lessons to be learned, in the mistakes not to make again. This real democracy that we’re building and inventing happens in real time, in all its complexity, and over time, in all its lengthiness — not in the quickness of the time of those we’re fighting against. We only have four months of experience but what a long way we’ve come in such a short time!”

Despite the disappointments, a plan is set in place for another Assembly of Assemblies in early June. Two groups have already offered to host and direct this third gathering, which promises to be decisive.