We would like to share an article with you from the “Assembly of the Assemblies” in Commercy of the Yellow Vests, January 26 and 27. Firstly published in France by revue-ballast.
“Against the bad-living: when the Meuse rises up”
It is one of the two sub-prefectures of the Meuse: Commercy, less than 6,000 inhabitants. A territory of the “diagonal of low densities” struck by the industrial collapse; an unemployment rate of 24.5%. In just two months, the small town of Lorraine has become an essential point of the yellow vests movement national uprising: strong of a daily assembly, the Lorraines shun Macron’s “big debate” to better praise direct democracy, without representatives or leaders. Messages of support arrive without delay from Chiapas and Rojava. An Assembly of the Assemblies (or “Commune des communes”) was held on January 26 and 27, at their call, gathering 75 delegations from all over France. The horizon ? Abolish inequalities, share wealth and empower people. We went to meet them.
The mist clutters the plains unroll by the windows of the bus. The clock indicates 9:30 am. One of the passengers, a certain Victor, throws himself into the discussion which goes improvisely: “Most organizations of the left-wing have relayed all slanders on the yellow vests, justifying almost the repression, or they said they had nothing to do with it, and that it was not a struggle of the working class… Purists!” Brown, chunky, voluble, thirties; he presents himself to us as a Trotskyist sympathizer. Another passenger bounces: “It’s an intellectual bankruptcy of the extreme left-wing. Because this movement is comparable to the white trash1 one, and far-left-wing activists are socially very far away from it. There is a lot of contempt. There’s a total disconnect with social reality.” The vehicle is parked near the Commercy station; the cold grips us, the snow only held on the roofs. The yellow vests, from the four corners of the country – Sète, Lorient, Nice, we see here and there on the fluorescent chasubles – converge towards the shuttle that will take us to Sorcy-Saint-Martin: it is there, less than eight kilometers from the sub-prefecture, that the assembly of assemblies will take place. The natives are busy, visibly surprised by the influx. It must be said that almost nobody knew the name of Commercy two months ago…
We are heading towards the center of the town and put question randomly some inhabitants on the road: they do not know that this Assembly is held today. While most support the yellow vests movement, although by far, some are indifferent, not to say skeptical. We enter the first bar, a few steps from an old castle built by some fond of opera comte. A customer, the tenant; we have coffee. Both of them do not know what’s will get out of it, but they would gladly have come if they did not have to work – “Who’s going to hold the counter ?” – Launches the man standing behind it.
A hut against “the bad living”
“Today, the ZAD peoples, they are no longer in Notre-Dame-des-Landes but they are on the roundabouts: these are the yellow vests”, said a man named Michel during our visit to the ZAD farm called “100 names farm”.
The church of Commercy stamps a pale cloud. Narrow streets, gray stones, wooden shutters, a snack bar, a florist, some “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs. The hut of the yellow vests suddenly colors the Place Charles-de-Gaulle. “Taxes”, “Retreats”, “ISF”, “Ecology”, reads black line on pieces of wood studded; a flag tends its three colors to the small wind. From this modest “Cabin of Solidarity”, all made from scratch, Commercy became a national and international center of interest: support messages flocked from Germany, Mexico, Syria or the Dominican Republic. The location owes nothing to chance: its centrality is an invitation to the ordinary meeting, and the public domain occupation takes the place of a struggle, making more visible the “invisible” that are, that is their word, yellow vests.
Eight of them – four men and as many women – appear on November 30, 2018 on our screens, for five minutes, reading in turn a statement printed on an A4 sheet: “We organized city or gas station blockades, and traffic filter dams. In the same time, we built a cabin in the central square. We meet there every day.” Sweeping away all attempts of mediation between the movement and the government (the guarantor of the “system”), the people of Commercy lash out at “the representatives” to better praise the only democracy that worth for them: direct and popular. Against “all those who gorge themselves”, against “the powers of money”, against “the interests of ultra-rich”, they call to erect, throughout France, popular committees and general assemblies to “take over the power”.
Some yellow vests take us aboard their vehicle, direction the Assembly. Winter unfolds the countryside with her lean fingers; trees, fields, a swan breaks for a moment the place harshness. The Sorcy-Saint-Martin parking, indicated by a board placed on a crate, is crowded; we hear moaning. 200 people, by sight, are already on the spot. It is not midday. It wags, waves, meets, greets, recognizes, discovers itself: tongues are loosening without the double talk of which the political scene is made. We enter the village hall. A map of France is displayed, inviting to mark a thumbtack the commune from which people comes – the country is doted with points, except the southwest. Flyers, placed on a table recall the “method for a citizen and participative assembly”: these are the gestures used on the square occupations, from Puerta del Sol to Nuit Debout. Free priced stickers mock the prime minister, urging Macron to “go away” and denounce tax havens. A book about the Rojava revolution is also available for sale.
Steven, one of the figures of the refractory from Commercy, tells us: “To organize the Assembly of Assemblies, no one has made a decision by saying “I am going to do that”. We debated and decided in our assembly”. Transport, reception, press point, canteen at free price (La Marmijotte), nursery: everything has been structured upstream – more than 250 yellow vests will sleep homestays tonight. We see journalists from the AFP, LCI, Libération, the RT channel or Le Monde. Independents, too. And the “automedia” of yellow vests. Two spokespeople face the flow of questions, doing the best they can.
A family under construction
If the criticism of the leaders is widely shared by the yellow vests gathered today, it is a word that seems to unite the citizens mobilized since November: “family”. The very one whom Jerome Rodrigues, mutilated in Paris by the troops of the Macron government during Act XI, continues to use in his messages to the movement. “We made Christmas at the cabin. I went for a drink first, and then I went back with my family, but many stayed together. They are people who did’nt necessarily have families, or just wanted to stay together. It’s beautiful”, says John, an emaciated amateur boxer.
Break the structural isolation; learning to listen, so also learning to keep quiet; to develop spaces where speech can freely unfold without hasty judgments or taunts. Stéphanie is a veterinary assistant in Bretagne; their struggle is based on four pillars: social, economic, environmental and judicial justice.
“We felt lonely, helpless, exploited. We were isolated. We are all in movements each in our corner and, here, this meeting allowed us to take a national temperature. We have seen that we are not alone in defending these values, and that they are common to everyone. And it’s nice!”
Renz, who has a bushy beard and a dusty chasuble on which one can read “RIP capitalism”, completes between two laughter: “This movement, what he has created is a family feeling, a brotherhood. Coming here, we realize that the family has grown. We have created links that are strong and which, I hope, will last”.
A policy of the assemblies
Autonomy, says the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis in 1993, “it is the project of a society where all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in the legislation, the government, the jurisdiction and finally the institution of the company”2. Here we are. A second video – called “Commercy’s second call of yellow jackets” and posted a month after the previous one – is behind this gathering. Under the makeshift roof of their hut, the mobilized inhabitants parade to invite the whole movement to come here in order to “gather the notebooks of claims and put them in common”, to
“debate all together the consequences of the “movement” and to decide on a mode of collective organization of the yellow vests, authentically democratic, coming from the people and respecting the stages of the delegation”.
The call ends thus: “Together, let’s create the Assembly of Assemblies, the Commune of Commons. This is the meaning of History, it’s our proposal”.
Madeleines – the local specialty – and fruits are available near the coffee fountain. Pasta is on the menu; tomorrow, couscous. We discuss, breaking the crust, with a yellow vest from Saillans: since 2014 and the strong opposition to the construction of a supermarket, this village in Drôme is administered by a “citizen power” – a collegiate municipal council, participatory commissions, a council of wise men and the use of the draw. It is one o’clock; The assembly, broadcast live on the Internet, begins in the multipurpose room with pink and white walls. Claude, an antinuclear activist engaged in Bure, seizes the microphone, a feminist symbol traced on the back of his vest: “We represent an idea, a mode of operation that we will try to experiment. So we will be humble. […] It’s about engaging in a process, if everyone agrees, a process from the bottom up. […] We will be able to start without further delay! ” The Poitiers delegation advances first, under the applause.
Each delegation, mandated by its local base – a parity pair more often – presents itself in turn; there are 75 of them. The spokespersons relate, for one to five minutes, their experience, their difficulties, their progress. The struggles are similar, complete each other. Blockage of roads, occupations, constructions, evacuations of the month of December, reconstructions. Here, a speech, widely praised, against sexism and racism; there, a call to articulate the communes to the regions, via the intercommunal and the department. Isere departement calls for direct democracy on a national scale; Paris defeats the “caste des bobos” (bobo stands for bohemian bourgeois); Ardèche recalls, acclaimed, that the yellow vests are not the “seditious” so much vomited but the heirs of the original republican ideals; Belfort recounts its junction at the border with the Swiss and German yellow vests; Saint-Nazaire returns to the creation of their House of the People, the first of the movement – the applause is fed, a fist gets up, the war cry of the Spartans is sung.
Bookchin in Lorraine?
A flag struck with the words “libertarian municipalism” adorned in mid-November one of the roundabouts of the sub-prefecture. “Commercy opens the way of municipalism”, title a few weeks later the monthly CQFD; “In Commercy, yellow vests for libertarian communalism”, endorsed in January the site Stop on Images; “Will the Meuse be the next Rojava?”, even asks Radio Speaker on the eve of the Assembly of Assemblies. What to say? If the notion long resonates within the anarchist tradition, it is the American thinker Murray Bookchin, disappeared in 2006, that we owe the most successful formulation. “A people whose only political function is to elect delegates is not in fact a people at all; it is a mass, an agglomeration of monads.3 Politics, unlike the social and the state, leads to the masses recorporalization into richly articulated assemblies, to form a politic body in a place of discourse, shared rationality, free expression and decision modes making radically democratic”4 he explained. Under the name “libertarian municipalism” – or “communalism” – this environmental activist of Marxist formation built, from the 1970s, an “alternative”5 to capitalism: in order to dissolve the state and to “take away the economy from the bourgeoisie”, to create communes, structured around popular assemblies and defended by a civil guard, then to federate them together to erect “a dynamic International, firmly rooted in a base local”.
If Bookchin’s proposal was hardly echoed during his lifetime, Rojava – through Abdullah Öcalan, PKK co-founder – took inspiration from it to build the communist revolution he started in Syria against a civil war backdrop. For two days, we question the yellow vests we meet: the vast majority of them know nothing about libertarian municipalism. Rico, from Ariège, confesses: “I discovered the term last night, so I’ll go find out”. Adel, agent of a SNCF private subsidiary in Ile-de-France, asks us to repeat the word: “Too technical. Impossible to hear in the suburbs”. Chantal, a retired laboratory technician in Ariège, is also wary of importing theories outside the uprising: “It’s up to people to write the ways they want to work. We can take inspiration from the things that have been proposed in the past, but above all, no already made project of society! There was the Paris Commune, there is Chiapas, the people are not stupid: they knew how to do it, they will know how to do it again – even without having read Bookchin’s books!”
Claude insists, anxious to respect the collective word: he only answers us in his own name. “The term libertarian municipalism is no longer used in Commercy, we prefer to speak of popular assemblies – which is the same thing. We do not care about words, we put them into practice! We do not care whether it’s a bookchinian or not, we do not want to tackle pre-existing ideologies on the practices we are experimenting with“. And Steven, a specialist educator, added that 12 out of 15 groups felt that it was premature to promote the bookchinese model in the Meuse commune. “On paper, it’s a very good idea, but as municipalities have less and less power, we have to think about it. But it could be one of the consequences of the movement: to take power at the local level … “
Sabrina, a school teacher from Paris, wrote “Quartier populaire”on the back of her vests; she tells us: “Some people speak of a historical moment: when we see the support of the Commune of Rojava, it has value for many people“. In December 2018, a young woman wearing a yellow chasuble proclaimed, filmed:
“We are addressing you as an Internationalist Commune from Rojava, Western Kurdistan, to the north of Syria. We have been following the popular revolt in France for more than a month. We were impressed by both the determination of the protesters and the level of police and state repression. We send our solidarity to all those who pay the price. May strength be with you, your resistance is popular so far”.
It was surrounded by a dozen militants, some of them masked – in their backs, a banner showed the face of the British internationalist fighter Anna Campbell, fallen under the fire of the Turkish fascist army on March 15, 2018. Few people in Commercy have heard of Rojava, are we told however. “We will send them a message of support in return, that we decided collectively in assembly”, continued Claude.
A call for dignity
John tells us about René, a retiree of his acquaintance: it is him who always reminds the group “that there is this social emergency linked to misery”. Word naked and raw that “brings back to reality”. And from that, John congratulate himself: the risk would be great to lose “in reflections on the question of democracy, or the Constitution”.
“There are people who are starving, who do not have housing. It’s this rage that feeds our commitment. There are many single parents, people in the RSA (french minimum income). There’s not much work in the area, and to find one, you need a car. The vicious circle is that if you have no work, you can not have a car”…
In the room, the microphone goes to the right, then to the left; some take notes, others invite to more silence. The next four hours are devoted to the elaboration of the “consequences and perspectives of the movement” as well as to the “democratic organization at all scales”. Words are looking for each other, others are found. Nanterre praises the multiplication of links with “basic syndicalist”; Saint-Nazaire puts on the table the urgent necessity of organizing a collective defense against police assaults; Poitiers proposes to boycott the banks. The exchanges follow one another, in applause and sometimes hoots; a grizzled man judge good to strengthen “the junction with the labor movement”; a young woman urges the audience to mobilize against the infiltration of right-wing activists into the demonstrations. The tone goes up, the listening resumes.
We go through the weekend instruction sheet (the roles are defined – observers, moderators, delegates, animators, press – and schedules) and a local preparatory document entitled “Summary of claims”: resignation of Macron, dissolution of the National Assembly, reduction of elected officials, abolition of privileges, relaxation of yellow vests, exit from the state of emergency, retirement at age 60, energy transition, organic farming, quality of public services, removal of Parcoursup, mutualisation of the media and definanciarisation of the press – all themes put in the common pot as the order of the day. “We split hairs there!” Impatient a delegate; “Don’t get too caught up in it all“, objected a man face the democratic and horizontal intransigence at work: the strict respect for mandates and the legitimacy of decision-making haunt the exchanges.
Sunday will give birth to a collective appeal, ratified by this first Assembly of Assemblies, to “live in dignity”: “Share the wealth and not the misery! Let’s finish with social inequalities! We demand the immediate increase of wages, social minima, allowances and pensions, the unconditional right to housing and health, to education, free public services and for all”. The text, read face camera and immediately broadcast on the Internet, invites everyone to join the movement and, after endorsing the national slogan of uprising (“Macron resignation!”), concludes: “long live the power at people, for the people and by the people!”
The people’s return
Commercy’s yellow vests pound it: they are “apolitical”. To hear, in reality, “apartisans” – the politic and representative filth has soiled up the etymology of this great word, “political”, to most of the people: polis, the City. The fear of recovery, of dispossession, is everywhere obvious. The fear of phagocyting by parties or unions, synonymous with bureaucracy or arrangements with power, too. To lead to a militant movement, assures Steven, would imply de facto his failure. Roundabouts and assemblies are therefore places of daily learning: yellow vests inform, form, debate, learn from each other, return home grown and then raise in their turn. Renz, from Saint-Nazaire, tells us: “We did a lot of popular education work in the movement: at the beginning, we found the situation painful, that’s all, that’s what started the movement. There, we are refining. We wonder in which society we want to live. And what comes out of most of the movement is power to the people”. The plasticity of the movement, originally presented as an emanation of the extreme right-wing and the “brown plague”6, is such that it will push Eric Zemmour to deplore the death of the movement on the grounds that the yellow vests would finally be too much left-wing7 …
We meet at Commercy a former elector of the National Front (extreme right-wing party) who has gone to Insubordinate France (extreme left-wing party), syndicalists from SUD (a french union), and a few anarchists who perceive an authentic self-managing dynamic there rather than a “red-brown” specter. A retired factory worker assures us to vote Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and the inhabitant designated to host us does not hide his disconcerting royalist sympathies. Libertarian municipalism as fashioned by Bookchin guarantees “the most complete expression of all points of view”8 within the inter-classist assemblies. And Commercy does not act differently: a skinhead is accepted at the meetings… The yellow vests from Lorraine repeat it to the envy: it is important to gather on what makes common, putting under silence what “cleaves” and “excludes” – hence, in particular, the obvious absence of questions of identity and migration. We know that the repressed never fails to reappear, and this knowledge is urgent in a world threat with nationalist revivals. A member named Bertrand tells us: “Only wishful thinking know how to reach consensus …”Obviously anxious to clarify, once and for all, the ethical and political boundaries of the mobilization of yellow vests, the call of the 75 delegations born of the Assembly of Assemblies do not stop there any less: “[Macron] presents us as a hateful fascist and xenophobic crowd. But we are quite the opposite: neither racist, nor sexist, nor homophobic, we are proud to be together with our differences to build a society of solidarity”.
The parliamentary division we have used since the French Revolution, between a left-wing unfavorable to the royal veto and a partisan right-wing of the monarchical power, no longer appears in the eyes of Commercy’s yellow vests as an efficient reading grid. “Let’s take the quarrel between right-wing and left-wing. She has lost her meaning. Both of them say the same thing”9, Castoriadis estimated in the 1990s: the two spaces embrace each other, the end of recorded History and the sanctified Market, on the ruins of international communism. Chantal does not tell us anything else: “Left-wing and right-wing, it’s a place in the National Assembly, it does not mean anything”. It is indeed “the people” – and no longer “the working class”, “the proletariat” or “the anti-capitalist camp” – which advances, in all speeches, as a subject of emancipation. This people, whom one of the volumes of Pierre Larousse defines as “those who toil, who produce, who pay, who suffer and who die for the parasites”, is here constructed as a social majority (“we”) facing a oligarchy, illegitimate, disconnected and spoliating (“them”). Chantal continues: “The yellow vests are the exploited, the humiliated, the people who have empty pockets, and not those who fill theirs”.
The “grand debate”continues its tour, only on stage; the city council of Commercy orders the final withdrawal of the hut; Saint-Nazaire announces, on February 10 2019, that the second Assembly of Assemblies will be held at their home at the beginning of April. The streets, like every Saturday, continue to fill with the yellow of the protesters and the blood of the mutilated. “We are proud because with our small means and our little ideas Commercy has inspired many people”, Claude confided in a single modest voice.
“At the same time, it scares us. We embody something that is beyond us. We must keep a cold brain and continue. We receive solicitations from everywhere, we are asked for advice or help, but we do not have knowledge that others do not have … We are in full experience. The task before us is immense. Whatever happens, even if the movement goes out, the emotion that we have to live all that will leave traces”.
1 American slang: poor white population.
2 Interview published in issue 10 of the magazine “Propos”, March 1993.
3 Individual Consciousness, individuality because it represents both a unique view of the world and a closed totality.
4 Murray Bookchin, For a libertarian municipalism, Atelier de création libertaire, 2003-2018.
5 Janet Biehl, Le Municipalisme libertaire, Écosociété, 2013.
6 “It’s the brown plague that has manifested [on the Champs-Elysees]”. Gérald Darmanin at the RTL Grand Jury, Le Figaro, LCI, November 25, 2018.
7 Zemmour & Naulleau show, 6 février 2019.
8 Janet Biehl, Le Municipalisme libertaire, op. cit.
9 Cornelius Castoriadis, Post-scriptum sur l’insignifiance, L’Aube, 1998.