Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

French protesters wear yellow vests as they march in Paris against rising oil prices and living costs near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees. (Photo: Olivier Coret/News Pictures/REX/Shutterstock 11/24/18)

French protesters wear yellow vests as they march in Paris against rising oil prices and living costs near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees.  (Photo: Olivier Coret/News Pictures/REX/Shutterstock 11/24/18)

What Could the French “Yellow Vests” Teach Us about Ourselves?

For the French, equality is a positive value; whereas here at home calls for greater equality are fought by evoking fear of creeping “communism” and—with racist undertones—the coddling of the “undeserving” poor

Frances Moore Lappé

Most coverage of the Yellow Vest movement in France—lasting seven weeks and drawing hundreds of thousands onto the streets—misses a key question, and one at the heart of our own nation’s journey.

We’re told the diesel tax hike was the “last straw” for the rural, working poor unable to make ends meet, while the underlying cause of the uprising is resentment at the worsening inequality.

But wait. If the stress of making ends meet and economic inequality were the distinguishing causal forces, shouldn’t Americans have been the first to hit the streets? In France the top fifth of all earners receive almost five times more than the bottom fifth. Sounds extreme. But here that gap is eight-fold.

Such contrasts in economic inequality carry with them real differences in the depth of human suffering. Consider that American babies die at a rate 80 percent higher than French babies; and disparities in death rates between babies in poor and wealthy neighborhoods is more significant in Manhattan than in Paris. Moreover, our lives are on average three years shorter than those of the French. In education, American college grads are burdened with student-loan debt averaging almost $29,000, whereas in France the cost of higher education is negligible.

So, what’s to explain the relative quiescence of Americans confronting more extreme violations of basic fairness than their French counterparts?

I’m convinced that in part it’s that we Americans have more thoroughly absorbed the notion that our fate is our fault.

Many factors, of course. But I’m convinced that in part it’s that we Americans have more thoroughly absorbed the notion that our fate is our fault.

Americans have bought into a particularly virulent version of social Darwinism—dismissed by science more than a century ago. We cling to the belief that in our dog-eat-dog world, ruled by an infallible “free market,” the best rise to the top. So, we’re set up to feel demeaned if we are struggling to get by. And, on top of that, we feel trapped because in our collective psyche there’s no fix to inequality that wouldn’t wreck the market’s magic.

Yes, France also has a capitalist economy, but deep within its culture are values at the heart of its 1789 revolution—“liberté, égalité, fraternité.” They are not viewed as tradeoffs but as essential to one another—and written into the 1958 French constitution. For the French, equality is a positive value; whereas here at home calls for greater equality are fought by evoking fear of creeping “communism” and—with racist undertones—the coddling of the “undeserving” poor.

In both nations inequality has gotten worse. For decades after World War II both France and the United States experienced lessening inequality. But in the early ‘80s things changed. In France the trend reversed, and by 2007 the share of income going to the richest 1 percent had grown by about half, reaching 12 percent. A similar shift went much further in the U.S., where by 2016 1 percenters reaped 39 percent of income.

My hunch is that, though mild relative to our extreme, inequality in France violates core values and thus provokes less shame and greater anger. There, struggling to get by is not itself seen as demeaning. The Yellow Vests express dignity in their demands. “We’re human, too, for God’s sake!” shouted one Yellow Vest.

Perhaps because of such cultural attitudes, more than 70 percent of French people approve of the movement’s demands.

Within a market driven by corporate America’s one-rule obsession (i.e. do what brings highest return to existing wealth), sadly we end up with more extreme inequality than in roughly 120 countries, including—believe it or not—India and Mali.

And, if we listen closely, these French protesters could carry a liberating lesson for us as well: To achieve real democracy and basic fairness requires that we, too, claim our dignity.  We can reject any notion that there is shame in announcing that we are struggling to get by in America’s brutal form of capitalism. Why should we feel shame when the scales of our economy are so titled?  Within a market driven by corporate America’s one-rule obsession (i.e. do what brings highest return to existing wealth), sadly we end up with more extreme inequality than in roughly 120 countries, including—believe it or not—India and Mali.

Listening to the Yellow Vests, we can reject the lie that a market works on its own for the good of all. As citizens step up in the rising Democracy Movement, they are striving not only to  fix our broken political democracy but to work for a democratic economy as well. Citizen-led campaigns in the midterms increased the minimum wage in two states. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren are leading the push for legislation giving workers the right to elect representatives to corporate boards.

In this good work, Americans are rejecting the false “tradeoffs” frame as we come to understand that achieving greater economic equality furthers other values we hold dear, including economic and social vitality and, ultimately, life itself.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

New Legal Campaign Aims to Protect People and Nature From Polluters' 'Irreparable Damage'

"States must listen to communities' demands to recognize the human right to a healthy environment and better regulate businesses with respect to the impacts of their operations."

Jessica Corbett ·


'You Tell Me What We Should Cut': Sanders Not Budging on $3.5 Trillion

"Poll after poll tells me, and tells you, that what we are trying to do is enormously popular."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Set to Admit Even Fewer Refugees Than Trump's Record Low

The "paltry" number of those admitted so far would be well below the 62,500 ceiling President Joe Biden had set for the current fiscal year.

Andrea Germanos ·


In 'Landmark' Decision, EPA Finalizes Rule Cutting Use of Super-Pollutant HFCs

The regulation will drastically curb the use of "the most potent super-pollutants known to mankind at the moment," one climate campaigner said.

Julia Conley ·


Biden's Envoy to Haiti Resigns in Protest Over 'Inhumane' Deportations

The Biden administration's move to ramp up deportations at a time of overlapping crises will "add to Haiti's unacceptable misery," wrote Daniel Foote.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo