Yellow Vests Out of the Blue? Using Social Movement Theory to Explore the Emergence of the Yellow Vest Movement in France

Astrid Hviid Villadsen

Student thesis: Master thesis


The yellow vest movement emerged apparently out of the blue and took many by surprise. The aim of this thesis is to explore how social movement theory can contribute to explaining the emergence of the movement, focusing in particular on the potentially explanatory power of the context. The thesis investigates the following three questions: (a) why the movement emerged, (b) how the emergence was possible, and (c) why the grievances are expressed through a movement. Based on an analysis of various types of qualitative and quantitative data sources, the findings of the thesis suggest that following factors may contribute to explaining the emergence of the movement: (a) First, the emergence was triggered by President Macron’s announcement of a rise in fuel taxes, which tapped into a division in French society between centre and periphery, as well as French cultural values, due to its presumed skewed social impact. However, Macron’s policies, and the fuel tax in particular, may only have been “the last straw” for the large segment of the French population, which mobilized through the yellow vest movement, because this segment had already been suffering from increasingly precarious life situations for years and had already lost confidence in the capacity of the established, institutionalized system to defend their interests. (b) Second, the emergence of the movement may have been possible because the protesters exploited a range of favourable patterns in their context, in particular, the increasing illegitimacy of the system caused by declining levels of trust. Furthermore, the yellow vest movement managed to create an inclusive identity, which appealed to a large segment of the French population. And last, but not least, social media provided a means for circumventing traditional intermediaries and, to a certain degree, the strong French state. (c) Finally, it appears that the role of social media, as well as declining levels of trust in the established system, may contribute to explain why the protesters circumvented traditional intermediaries and expressed their grievances through a movement. In sum, the use of social movement theory for analysing the emergence of the yellow vest movement has entailed benefits as well as limitations. On the one hand, social movement theory has been useful for analysing the emergence of the yellow vest movement, because it provides frameworks for assessing different dimensions of a movement’s context as well as various hypotheses regarding movement emergence. However, social movement theory falls short in explaining the increasingly important role of social media for movement mobilization, as well as different traits particular to the French context, such as the geographical dimension of social cleavages, the relatively weak influence of labour unions in political decision-making process and the low levels of trust in the established system as a whole.

EducationsMSc in International Business and Politics, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2021
Number of pages66
SupervisorsMette Zølner