WHEN HISTORY comes to study the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets), two symbols will mark their cause. One is the high-visibility jacket that French law requires motorists to carry in case of accident, and is now a uniform of protest. The other is the roundabout.
It was on ronds-points across France that the gilets jaunes first gathered to protest against a rise in green taxes on motor fuel. It is at the country’s most famous one, the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, that protesters have converged for their weekend revolts. President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the “distress on so many roundabouts”. With their blazing fires, makeshift camps and festive tinsel, the occupied roundabouts have become places of muscular resistance and hubs of cheerful, defiant solidarity.
Pioneered by Eugène Hénard, a town planner, in the early 1900s, the roundabout is a fitting emblem. Since the 1990s the modern version, often topped with decorative kitsch, has spread widely across semi-rural France. Far from bike-sharing, Uber-hailing, Macron-voting Paris, this is where people’s lives are spent in what Daniel Behar, a geographer, calls “territorial zapping”: in the car between jobs, homes and the sprawl of out-of-town discount stores. Those who occupy the roundabout, he argues, are “at the same time from somewhere and from nowhere”.
One French writer attributes the roundabout’s metaphorical force to the fact that it is egalitarian, offering access to all. Another argues that it is the cruel appearance of mobility that makes the roundabout symbolically apt. Victims of the “fantasy of fluid capitalism”, argues Jean-Pierre Denis, the gilets jaunes are not marching to a destination, nor even en marche (on the move), as in the name of Mr Macron’s political party. They are crying “stop!” exactly at the point at which they ought to be moving.
A hard core of yellow jackets vows to keep up the protests, despite a sharp drop in numbers in Paris on December 15th, after Mr Macron’s concessions. Some now want protesters to quit the roundabouts. In a country of existential reflection, the concept of circular motion embodied by the roundabout inevitably invites metaphysical commentary, even if inadvertently. “We can’t keep spending all our time on a roundabout,” declared Jacline Mouraud, a founder of the gilets jaunes: “Because, in any case, that would only end up going round in circles.”