Paris is still hot and sticky from its recent heatwave but on July 12th in the halls of the Panthéon, the voices of hundreds of undocumented migrants can be heard shouting in unison, “What do we want? Papers. For whom? Everyone.”
The scene is as chaotic as it is impressive. Standing on the ashes of national figures such as Hugo, Voltaire and Curie, they call for the right to hold documentation allowing them to live and work legally in France. The ‘Gilets-Noirs’ (black vests), as they have chosen to name themselves, can be distinguished not by a physical item of clothing as their name might imply, but rather by the symbolic white papers that fill their hands, shaking furiously in the air. The self-appointed title of Gilets-Noir is, of course, in reference to the ‘Gilets-Jaunes’ protestors, who in the name of rising fuel tax took to the streets all over France wearing their namesake high visibility yellow vests.
Collage by Melanie Steen
High visibility vests were chosen primarily due to their accessibility, following a law passed in France in 2008 stating that all motorised vehicles should be equipped with high-vis vests, in case of a breakdown. The vest had become an accessible household item but also an ironic symbol of government-enforced road protection.
But what had begun as fuel tax concerns became a stage on which to voice wider anti-government concerns that had been sweeping citizens since the Macron election. The brightness of their vests, which has once made them so appealing, turned to a disadvantage during any crowd gathering or celebrations where police would systematically target or closely follow the movements of any vests worn or the colour yellow. The Gilets-Noirs, having learnt from this methodical prejudice of colour in crowds, chose to bear semblance only by name to any uniform item of clothing.
There was also a power now associated with calling themselves ‘Gilets’. The heavy presence of the Gilets-Jaunes in the media over the months that followed their initiation in November 2018 cemented the symbol of the high-vis vest as an association to the discontent and disorderly behaviour of the protesters. At their most momentous the Gilets-Jaunes counted well over a million supporters, an impossibly large number beside the few hundreds gathered at the Panthéon in mid-July. But the agency of visual language that can be associated with one item of clothing was easily transferred; allowing a few hundreds of protestors to be taken more seriously in the media under the alias ‘Gilets-Noirs’ than ‘undocumented migrants’.
Symbolically, the vest also made a solo appearance on stage at Glastonbury during British artist Stormzy’s performance. The rapper chose to don a custom Banksy stab-vest as a nod of awareness to the rising rates of knife crime throughout the UK.
Although vests have been primarily used for defensive protection – be it physical padding or preventative visibility – it would seem that their usage is well-suited to political agendas, as a symbol of public self-defence. By reclaiming the uniform typically worn by law-enforcement the message of protestors is clear: we will defend ourselves and our rights.
Arguably in France, the word ‘vest’ has become synonymous to a politically active unit of protestors whether it is then physically worn or not. The power of being able to easily obtain an item of clothing that will be immediately associated with your political message is dangerous for systematic crowd targeting but symbolically attractive.
The smashed shop windows and bus stops of the Champs-Élysées inflicted by the recent protests of the Gilets-Jaunes have been fixed up in preparation for the Bastille day celebrations, but the visual power of their vests will remain in the hands of the Gilets-Noirs. Unaverred by the heat and the upcoming national celebrations, they will continue their struggle for legal documentation and housing under the symbol of protection and protest that vests have verbally and visually become.