On January 25, the newspaper of the French Communist Party (PCF), L’Humanité, declared it could no longer pay its bills and requested bankruptcy protection. Although the paper itself is small—its circulation has declined to 32,000 daily readers from 400,000 in its heyday in the 1940s—its travails suggest an irony of history. L’Humanité has gone bankrupt at the moment of France’s greatest wave of popular protest since 1968: the “yellow vest” movement, whose participants have pointedly excluded all parties and figures, including those of the left. The financial bankruptcy of L’Humanité perfectly represents the political bankruptcy of the French left.  

L’Humanité has been the voice of the PCF throughout its history, officially from 1920, unofficially since being granted nominal independence in 1999. It has reflected not only the party line but the party’s health. Some of the paper’s problems are related to the general drop-off in newspaper sales and advertisement, a situation as grave in France as it is in the United States. But the paper’s decline has been a long one, and it is closely tied to the virtual disappearance of the PCF as a force in French politics.

Jean Jaurès, the preeminent socialist leader of his day, founded L’Huma, as the paper is familiarly known, in 1904. With it he sought to unify the fissiparous socialist movement in France, writing in the paper’s founding editorial on April 18, 1904: “For us, revolutionary socialists and reformist socialists are above all socialists.” L’Humanité, as he envisioned it, would be “in constant communion with the entire working-class movement,” which, Jaurès insisted, “has no need of lies, half-truths, tendentious information, garbled news, or calumnies.”  

These pious wishes did not long outlive Jaurès, who was assassinated on July 31, 1914, by a right-wing fanatic as he, the paper, and a broader alliance of European socialists campaigned to prevent the outbreak of war. Starting in 1920, when the French Section of the Workers’ International voted to join the Communist International, L’Huma followed every twist and turn of the party’s line, letting its members know who was today’s enemy and which of yesterday’s enemies had switched status to become today’s friends. 

The PCF struck fear in the country’s political mainstream as the party of revolution, but in fact it put the brakes on the two great revolutionary moments of the French twentieth century. During the months of May and June 1936, French workers occupied factories or walked out on a general strike. The workers won wage increases and paid vacations, and the PCF, satisfied, put an end to the occupations and strikes rather than risk alienating those who opposed the socialist government of Léon Blum. On June 12, 1936, L’Humanité published the pronouncement of party Secretary-General Maurice Thorez that “one must know when to end a strike” and that “everything isn’t possible.” 

More than three decades later, in May 1968, a leftist student movement set off an insurrection that brought close to ten million workers out on a general strike. The PCF and L’Humanité did all they could to keep the radical students away from the workers and to restrict demands to bread-and-butter issues. They did so for many of the same reasons as in 1936, but also to ensure the party’s hold over the working class and its protests. 

Despite its failure to press radical demands in 1968, the PCF won more than 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections the following year and maintained that level of support for a decade. The party’s agony began only after the socialist candidate François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981. 

Mitterrand struck a formal alliance with the PCF, including some of its members in his government, where they bolstered his Socialist Party by giving it left-wing cover. During this period, the PCF’s counterparts in Spain and Italy had embraced Eurocommunism, a more open and democratic variation that emphasized independence from Moscow. But though the PCF officially made the same turn, it never implemented the changes in practice. The Socialist Party benefited from the PCF’s hidebound authoritarian image and successfully presented itself, by contrast, as the true vehicle for French aspirations for social justice. As a result, the PCF’s share of the vote dropped precipitously starting in 1986. 

Still tied closely to Soviet communism, unwilling to support new social movements, and with an incrementalist political strategy now hopelessly out of date, the PCF vanished as a political and social force. The vision of the working class that once animated it was ill adapted to an economy where more and more workers were hired on contracts of limited duration, factories and mines had closed, and immigration had become a central issue. The effectiveness of worker mobilization, too, has waned. In spring of 2018, President Emmanuel Macron made reforms to the national railway system, the SNCF, part of his plan to modernize France. The reforms ended railway workers’ entitlement to life employment and special retirement benefits, leading the railway workers of the once communist Confédération Générale du Travail to call a series of rolling strikes spread out over three months. Macron refused to surrender to the workers’ demands, and the strike was a total failure. This defeat of a classic working-class tactic no doubt fed the frustration that would produce the yellow vest movement. 

The anger of those living in the French periphery is so deep, issues from so many different layers of society, and springs from such a wide array of complaints that the traditional schemas of the left simply no longer apply.

The Socialist Party, for its part, failed to live up to the hopes placed in either the Mitterrand government or that of President François Hollande and has increasingly become the party of a segment of the bourgeoisie that includes the bobos,or bourgeois bohemians. These young, educated urban dwellers evince little concern for the needs of those suffering in la France profonde, or the France of rural villages and small towns on the country’s periphery, where un- and underemployment are common, wages are low and taxes high, and ordinary people struggle to stretch their wage packets to the end of each month. 

There remains Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise, which has attracted some of the voters who once would have been communist or socialist. But this force is heteroclite, loosely organized, and new. With its focus on winning national office rather than on addressing local grievances, La France Insoumise is unlikely to replace the old parties of the left, despite having garnered a more than respectable 19 percent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election.   

Many of those in France’s periphery who formerly voted left have moved right, but even the change that the Rassemblement National (successor to the National Front) might offer is barred, because the two-round electoral system effectively keeps small parties from ever attaining power. With no faith in a system that has failed them and ignored them, the yellow vests have taken the step of speaking for themselves.

The anger of those living in the French periphery is so deep, issues from so many different layers of society, and springs from such a wide array of complaints that the traditional schemas of the left simply no longer apply. Shop owners and the self-employed play a significant role among the yellow vests. The left had answers—or thought it did—for an uprising of the workers, but not for one of the workers and shopkeepers. A seething anger has finally exploded, and the left is no longer its vehicle or interpreter. The anger now floats freely, striking where and when it will.

The France of exurbia, the countryside, and small cities has long felt that no one listens to it, let alone addresses the low and stagnant wages and scarcity of work with which it is afflicted. The proposed gas tax that sparked the uprising would have disproportionately harmed the French outside the big cities while leaving city dwellers, with their extensive mass transit systems and short commutes, relatively unhurt. Those who live far from cities and commute to their jobs already felt crushed by gas prices and tolls, neither of which a Parisian would have placed atop a list of society’s inequities. But for those who came to form the base of the yellow vests, the gas tax was the final straw. 

When the yellow vests first appeared, blocking roads and protesting a rise in the gas tax, they barred politicians from their demonstrations and encampments. Spokespeople arose from within the movement itself: Jacline Mouraud, a hypnotherapist and hunter of ectoplasms whose YouTube video helped catalyze the protests; Eric Drouet, a truck driver not entirely averse to conspiratorial notions; Maxime Nicolle, known as Fly Rider, whose sympathies lie on the right, if not the far right; and Christophe Chalençon, an accused Islamophobe whose meeting with Luigi Di Maio, the Italian deputy prime minister, led France to recall its ambassador to Italy. Conspiracy theories and wild rumors are common among the yellow vests, including that Macron has hired mercenaries to fight the yellow vests, that the French constitution has ceased to be in effect since 2017, and that France lost its sovereignty on the matter of immigration thanks to the Marrakech pact in 2018. 

The notion that the yellow vest movement is revolutionary does not make it leftist.

Optimists on the left may be tempted to view the yellow vests as a revolutionary force in the making—one finally springing naturally from the desires and demands of the people, without the intermediary of party or union. But the notion that the movement is revolutionary does not make it leftist. Never before have fascists and royalists participated in the same demonstrations as avowed leftists the way they now do. Anti-Semites, such as the comedian and Holocaust denier Dieudonné, proudly wear the yellow vest. Bernard-Henri Lévy has said that the movement’s participants should be called not “yellow vests” but “brown vests.” The inchoate wave of protest is like the elephant in the parable felt and described by nine blind men, each portraying a different creature based on what he’s touched. 

Having lost faith in all parties, the yellow vests want direct power and demand citizen-called referendums. The people have achieved political maturity, the yellow vests say, and no longer need representatives (whom they feel are not representative in any case) to make decisions for them. The yellow vests demand a more just tax regime, raises in the minimum wage, and limits on great fortunes. They even oppose lower speed limits. These demands are left-wing populist at the same time that they’re right-wing populist. And the movement is largely native French. It is not without significance that immigrant communities play little part in this protest wave: the yellow vest protests are part of a Franco-French civil war. 

All of which speaks to the movement’s incoherence. It is opposed to politics and politicians (though there is now talk in certain yellow vest circles of running candidates in the next European elections), yet it calls for measures that only politicians can implement. The yellow vests, with their conspiracy theories, their rumors, their visceral hatred of a vague “bourgeoisie,” do not herald the return of a dormant Marxism, freed of its Stalinist ghosts. They are more the avatar of the socialism Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of, “apostles of revenge and ressentiment.” They are the product not just of President Macron’s policies but of the decades-long emptiness of the left, gone bankrupt like its storied newspaper, L’Humanité

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