François Langlais and Arthur Thouvenin’s film follows the Yellow Vests movement in Saint-Nazaire, an industrial coastal town not far from Nantes. Most of the activity is centred around the “People’s House” an old Job Centre which has been temporarily squatted by activists and is the venue of their daily meetings. It will later be the venue of a national delegate movement of the Yellow Vests throughout France.
The movement is a strange mix of the old and the new. It covers a range of ages, including more older women than you’re used to in social movements. While some are new to politics, many have experience in other political activities. A 70-year old woman supports the activists, but refuses to get directly involved as she did all that in May 1968.
Although there is no obvious direct support from trade unions, many Yellow Vest activists are proud trade unionists. Others are members of socialist organisations, most obviously the French Communist Party (PCF). One says that the Yellow Vests provide the mix of workers and people who do something in the media that she hasn’t experienced in the PCF for ages. At the same time some people, particularly the younger ones, are encountering active politics for the first time.
There is no shortage of debate – from the fundamental “what exactly are we fighting for?” to the strategic: how should the movement react to police violence, especially after a young activist from Saint-Nazaire is hit by a rubber bullet and lies in a coma? Should they be blocking people’s cars or concentrating on businesses? What counts as a business? Should they target the supermarkets or the refineries?
A fundamental question is their relationship with workers and the trade unions. Should they blockade workplaces if they are unable to gain the support of the workers inside? This question, like most raised, remains unanswered, or at least never fully resolved. In a Q&A after the film showing, the directors said that the activists usually resolve such problems by everyone choosing the tactic with which he or she feels most comfortable.
Despite the presence of trade unionists within the movement, it doesn’t occur to anyone to suggest appealing to the workers themselves to call strike action. It is unclear why not. Maybe it is a result of the lack of discussion about which strategy could win. But it could also be a realistic acknowledgement of the current level of class confidence. It’s probably a bit of both.
“What if tomorrow we win?” is an honest film, which sees its role of documenting what it sees. This is to say that it is chaotic, muddled and has no real sense of direction. Possibly despite itself it highlights the limitations of horizontal organisation. It is great that there is a healthy distrust of leaders, but there is a surfeit of endless discussions, which often lead to no conclusion.
This starts to wear people down, particularly those who have to supplement their activism with working for a living and looking after their children. As time goes on, the original aim of getting rid of Macron is not achieved, and people become less clear about what their immediate demands should be. Moralism seeps in, and they start to blame each other for not doing their fair share of the work needed to sustain the People’s House.
This does not mean that this is a pessimistic film. A range of people enthuse about what they have learned from their experience and how they have learned through experience about active politics in a way that just wouldn’t have happened if there were no Yellow Vest movement. Very early on, the film scotches the claims that this was a right wing movement, and we visibly see people start to reject anti-migrant ideas that they once held.
And yet, looking at France in 2021, it is not that easy to see how much the Yellow Vests have changed society. At the time of writing, the polls for next year’s elections see 2 fascists fighting to see which will challenge Macron in the run-off for President. It seems that the main legacy of what we see is the pessimism that views all politicians as corrupt but sees no viable means of challenging them. If long meetings every day can’t change things, what can we do?
It is not the job of this film to suggest alternatives. The extent to which it shows a movement that is both clearly progressive and popular, and at the same time ineffective at implementing lasting change, raises interesting arguments which could and should be raised elsewhere. But it is to Langlais and Thouvenin’s credit that they have honestly shown us how things are at the moment. It is now up to us to process and act on this information.