The Body Politic

Someday the “gilet jaune,” the fluorescent yellow hazard vest that has become synonymous with the French outcry over fuel prices, growing income inequities and much more, will end up in a museum as one of the most effective protest garments in history.

Whoever chose it (and no one is claiming authorship, just as no one has stepped forward as a leader of the movement), and for whatever reason, instinct or insight, it was a potent idea. So effective, in fact, that on Tuesday the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced that fuel taxes would not be raised. There hasn’t been such a compelling sartorial symbol of revolt since the Sans-culottes seized on their trousers as the point of visual difference with the aristocracy during the French Revolution.

That’s probably not a coincidence.

The yellow vest is immediately visible in all of the pictures of the protests, peaceful or not, and impossible to miss even on the small screens of social media. It is easy to slip on over any outfit, and instantly transformative. It is widely understood as a distress signal.

It is associated with industries of the working class, like construction. And it, or a garment very much like it, has been owned by all French motorists since 2008, when a law went into effect requiring car owners to keep a high-visibility garment in their vehicle in case of problems. (Other European countries have similar laws.)

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