The Protest of Lonely People, Shaking an Entire Country
Loneliness can be just as powerful in bringing people into the streets as economic deprivation.
The yellow vest movement in France has now entered its fourth month. Every week, thousands of protesters don their high visibility jackets and match through the streets of Paris, or stand for hours on roundabouts, slowing down traffic. What started as a protest over a now cancelled fuel tax became a place for grievances of all kinds to be expressed, a way for those struggling to make ends meet to protest a President who used to work for a bank, and is seen, with good cause, as the President of the rich.
Recently I visited a group of protestors in Bourges, a small town in the countryside, in a part of France often referred to as the “Diagonal of Nothingness”. There is basically nothing of interest in this part of the country. It is a countryside of flat fields, shops are closing down in many of the town centres, cultural life is slow to none existent. There, I was welcomed by a group of Yellow Vests who spend their spare time in a large tent outside of town, drinking cheap beer and chatting around a bonfire.
Amongst them were single mothers surviving of temp jobs, people working on part-time, short term contracts and not knowing where their next paycheck would come from. There were pensioners whose benefits have been cut down and are living out their golden years shivering in houses they can’t afford to heat. There were young people who can’t get jobs and aren’t entitled to any benefits because the French social protection system is based on how much you have already paid in. I met a lot of people with very legitimate economic reasons to be angry against a President who has passed labour laws making job contracts ever more precarious, cut down on certain benefits while giving tax cuts to the very richest people in the country. They weren’t necessarily desolate, and they admitted it, but money is a constant source of concern. “I know I’m not the worst off,” one protestor, Virginie, tells me. “But I’m protesting for those with less money than me, too.”
Economic deprivation isn’t the only thing fueling the Yellow Vest movement, though. A big part of it is loneliness. The social isolation the protestors were living in before the movement began has led them to build a new friendship group around this tent, evenings around a bonfire talking about how to change the world, and weekly protests.
“We come up to the tent most evenings,” Sylvie, another of the group of protestors, tells me. “We sit and chat about the movement, and about our lives, and everything else.” The tent is filled with old sofas and chairs, and shelves covered in bargain cookies and own-brand soda. There is a vat of wine and boxes of beer. When I first get there, there are already a dozen people sitting around, and more and more arrive as the evening pushes on . “I didn’t know any of these people before,” Slyvie says. “I met them on the first day, when we were protesting nearby. And we decided to set up this place so we would have a basecamp, and a place to chill out.”
Bourges and the surrounding villages where many of the group live, are the kind of places where all the shops are boarded up, bars are closing, and there is nowhere left to socialise. Next to the train station, I see a vending machine for Baguettes, not far from a boarded up bakery. It is an ominous sign of the direction in which rural France is headed. In the historical centre, a huddle of attractive streets around a magnificent cathedral, there are a lot of chic restaurants, cafés, and designer stores, but they are all far too costly for most of the protestors to go to. “I can’t even take my kids to the cinema, it’s too expensive,” Virginie tells me.
Living in this kind of area, where there is literally nowhere you can go to meet people, takes a toll on your social life. Especially when you are locked into your worries over money. Before the Yellow Vest movement began, the protestors were isolated, and bored. Which is part of the reason the protest has lasted so long: there isn’t much else to do on a Saturday. When they gather around the roundabout to block cars and hand out tracts a few days later, there are chants and a beatbox blasting out music. People are happy, chatting, singing, messing around. In the movement, people have found not an outlet for their anger, but also a friendship group. “The movement has started loads of conversations, and we finally have people to talk to, who understand what we are going through,” Sylvie says.
The loneliness caused by economic difficulties takes a toll on people’s mental health. At least two of the protestors I talk too, out of around twenty, mention suffering from depression. Loneliness in itself makes life hard enough to warrant protest. The Yellow Vest movement has shown how strong such isolation can be in bringing people into the streets to demand change and keeping them there.
Collective movements can lead to widespread social change, but they also have a positive impact on the people involved. They provide a place for individuals to come together, a rare gift in a society which increasingly isolates people, especially the poor.