The Gilet Jaune (Yellow Jacket)

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A gilet jaune, or yellow jacket, from France, the symbol of anti-government protests (TRC 2019.0005

A gilet jaune, or yellow jacket, from France, the symbol of anti-government protests (TRC 2019.0005

On Saturday, 5th January 2019, TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson writes:

My late father-in-law decided to stop driving his car when he was in his 80s. He lived just outside Paris, and could walk to the nearby train station and grocery store. Inside his car was a yellow high visibility jacket (sometimes called a high-vis jacket, or a traffic safety vest). The French government had made this inexpensive sleeveless, plastic vest with reflective bands obligatory for all motorists to carry in 2008. He gave the jacket to me. I recently donated the jacket to the TRC (TRC 2019.0005).

The mass produced yellow jacket is now famous throughout the world, thanks to protests by hundreds of thousands of French people. On 17 November 2018, to protest a proposed national increase in fuel prices, an estimated three hundred thousand people throughout France blockaded roads and fuel depots. They wore yellow jackets—gilet jaunes in French—as a sign of their opposition to the fuel hike in particular and to the rising costs of living in general. The following Saturdays saw gilet jaunes blockading more roundabouts and roads, and some airport runways, this time in Paris itself.

The yellow jacket was a perfect symbol for making a statement. It’s immediately recognizable, easy to obtain and cheap. It shows that the bearer belongs to a group of like-minded people. The yellow jacket has been quickly adopted by grassroot groups espousing different causes around the world, from Taiwan to Jordan. In Bulgaria, anti-government protesters wear it; in Pakistan, engineers wore it during a one-day strike in Lahore. There have been marches and demonstrations of yellow jackets in The Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Croatia. Early in December, Egyptian authorities severely restricted the sale of yellow safety jackets, afraid of protests that might commemorate the January 2011 uprising that toppled the Mubarak government.

As many have noted, this is not the first time in France that an article of dress has signified mass protest, even revolution. In 1789 the citizens who fuelled the French Revolution were called sans cullotes ('without breeches'). They wore trousers or pantaloons, not the silk breeches of the aristocrats. Dress has always been a sign of status, a symbol of belonging or exclusion—or opposition.

My father-in-law worked in a French trade union movement for his whole life. I wonder what he would have thought of the gilet jaunes? He deplored violence but welcomed ordinary people standing up for themselves. Mercí beaucoup, Robert.

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