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United in diversity: understanding what unites and what divides the Yellow Vests


This paper stems from the first sampled and representative survey carried out on the Yellow Vests movement in the French region of Occitania. While scientific literature mainly explores the drivers of internal—social and ideological—cohesion in social movements, our study sheds light on the internal diversity of the Yellow Vests' mobilisation. Our findings reveal the unprecedented scale of the movement in relation to the French population. They confirm and document its social and political heterogeneity. We confirm that the working and lower middle classes are over-represented in the movement. But our study also highlights the diversity of the coalition formed by the Yellow Vests who are, in fact, fairly representative of the French working and middle classes in all their diversity, including the upper-middle class. Only the upper classes are not part of the movement. In part two, we explore the cleavages that unite the Yellow Vests as well as those that divide them. While they are cohesive on economic issues and their strong rejection of political elites, the Yellow Vests are highly divided on identity and cultural issues. The results allow us to shed light on the forms and dynamics of the movement. Indeed, the variety of ideological and social profiles, as well as grievances, is reflected in the partially differentiated spatial distribution of the participants across the various protest sites. Our analysis also offers keys to understanding the process by which demands were generated and framed, the reasons for the mistrust shown towards would-be spokespeople and the difficulty in translating the movement into the political and electoral arena. Our study underlines the processual nature of any social movement and prompts us not to overestimate the unity, uniformity, and similarity of its participants, since many Yellow Vests probably rallied not so much together as alongside each other.

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  1. This survey stems from the BAROC (Baromètre opinion Occitanie) research programme funded by the Occitania region between 2018 and 2021 and led by Jean-Yves Dormagen.

  2. Executives tend to be over-represented in online surveys, while senior citizens, particularly the oldest among them, are strongly under-represented (Dormagen and Michel 2018).

  3. A second wave of surveys was carried out during the first lockdown, between the 28th of April and the 2nd of June 2020. The protocol involved, as part of a panel approach, reinterviewing—this time by telephone—those individuals who had agreed during the first wave to be called back (974 out of 1998). As a result, 528 people were reinterviewed. In this second questionnaire, new questions were asked about the Yellow Vests movement and some of the data collected in the first wave was checked.

  4. Public authorities often focus solely on demonstrations. According to the French Ministry of the Interior, 282,000 demonstrators attended the first day of the protest on 17 November 2018, which marked the height of the mobilisation. Based on the map produced by Hervé Le Bras and published in the media, involvement in the movement is estimated at between 1.8% and 6.8% of the population in the most active regions.

  5. J-Y, Dormagen and G. Pion, "Gilets jaunes, combien de divisions ?", Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2021. This estimate was produced by developing regional mobilisation metrics based on the ratio between the number of Yellow Vests registered on Facebook groups or the number of participants in demonstrations by region and the number of people on the electoral register.

  6. This practice is described as active support by the respondents themselves.

  7. This figure is close to that measured by the field survey carried out among early protestors (those who were involved before 8 December 2018), after which the campaign was largely dominated by activists who were more familiar with the practice of collective action, in Collectif, "Enquêter insitu par questionnaire sur une mobilisation. Une étude sur les gilets jaunes", op. cit., p. 883.

  8. Among the Yellow Vests interviewed in the early months of the movement, 17% belonged or allegedly belonged to a political party, 32% to a trade union and 38% to an association. Collectif 2019, op. cit, p. 17.

  9. Net worth is calculated on the basis of the combined total (or absence) of the following three assets: life insurance, shares, and second home in addition to main home.

  10. Although some of these factors meet the conditions for statistical significance, they remain ultimately insufficiently predictive. The 'sociological model' (model 1) only explains a relatively small part of the variance, as shown by the pseudo R2s: the Cox & Snell R2 is only 0.09 and the Nagelkerke R2 is 0.169, which means that the variables included in the 'sociological model' only explain a fraction of the variance (Table 2).

  11. This assumption echoes that of Raphaël Challier on the potential decline, within the movement, of the triangular understanding of the social world in favour of a more protest-based awareness, in Rencontres aux ronds-points. La mobilisation des gilets jaunes dans un bourg rural de Lorraine, La vie des idées, February 2019. It is however important to point out that the roundabout rally studied by R. Challier seems more 'popular' and less socially 'diverse' than the Yellow Vests movement as a whole. His analysis of the social dynamics at work during the campaign must therefore be viewed in the context of this specific setting.

  12. The survey carried out on Facebook provides similar results, in particular regarding the fact that the Yellow Vests do not particularly abstain from voting, in Guerra, T., Gonthier, F., Alexandre, C., "Populist Attitudes Among the French Yellow Vests", op. cit., pp. 6–7.

  13. Please note that our survey focuses on Occitania's population registered on the electoral roll. The unregistered Yellow Vests, whose numbers cannot be determined, are therefore beyond the scope of the study. In France, an average of 6% of the voting age population are not registered to vote (source: INSEE).

  14. The questions were open-ended and asked about whether respondents knew the name of the Prime Minister, the Environment Minister, the President of the Region and the President of the European Commission, as well as how often political discussions took place. They were phrased as follows: Do you discuss politics with relatives: Every day or almost every day/Several times a week/Several times a month/Rarely/Never. Name of the French Prime Minister, the President of the Region, the President of the European Commission.

  15. For example, in the survey conducted by the Pacte laboratory via Facebook, 61% of the Yellow Vests who responded said they did not stand on a left-wing/right-wing axis (Guerra et al. 2019a, Guerra et al. 2019b). These widely differing results may be due to the nature of the sample and the timing of the survey, but probably also to the wording of the questionnaires.

  16. Devaux Jean-Baptiste, Lang Marion, Levêque Antoine, Parnet Christophe, "La banlieue jaune. Enquête sur les recompositions d’un mouvement", La Vie des idées, 30 April 2019; Collectif 2019 op. cit,; Reungoat Emmanuelle, Jouhanneau Cecile & Buton François, "Becoming Yellow Vests: The Politicization of Ordinary Citizens (France 2018-20)", preprint, Politics and International Relations, 16.11.2020; Dormagen Jean-Yves, Michel Laura, Reungoat Emmanuelle, "Quand le vert divise le jaune. Comment les clivages sur l’écologie opèrent au sein des Gilets jaunes", Écologie & politique, 2021/1 (No 62), pp. 25–47.

  17. Piketty, Thomas. Capital and ideology. Harvard University Press, 2020.

  18. Marc-Antoine Sabaté, "Revenu de base inconditionnel: quel instrument pour quelle justice fiscale ? Réflexions à partir du cas des « gilets jaunes» en France", Éthique publique, vol. 21, No 2 | 2019.

  19. This is regardless of the policies actually pursued, for example, left-wing governments privatising companies or embracing globalisation while retaining a left-wing rhetoric, or, conversely, so-called 'free-market' governments pursuing policies aimed at maintaining social gains. See for example Jobert B., 1994, Le tournant néo-libéral, L’Harmattan.

  20. Palier, B. Gouverner la sécurité sociale: les réformes du système français de protection sociale depuis 1945, Presses universitaires de France, 2005.

  21. Palier B., "Un long adieu à Bismarck ? Les évolutions de la protection sociale", in Pepper D. Culpepper et al., La France en mutation. 1980–2005 Presses de Sciences Po, pages 197 to 228.


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Appendix: "Sample representativeness"

Appendix: "Sample representativeness"

Fig. a—Living location—Comparison between registered voters in Occitania, voters registered in 100 randomly selected polling stations and individuals in the sample.

Sociospatial type

Reg/100 polling stations


Sample individual

1. Large city




2. Medium-sized city




3. Medium-sized and large city suburbs




4. Small town




5. Small town outskirts




6. Rural area




Fig. b—Gender and age group—Comparison between registered voters in Occitania, voters registered in 100 randomly selected polling stations and individuals in the sample.

figure a

Age group

Reg/100 polling stations

Sample individual





1. Under 22





2. Between 22 and 29





3. Between 30 and 39





4. Between 40 and 99





5. Between 50 and 59





6. Between 60 and 69





7. Between 70 and 79





8. Over 80





9. Does not know










Fig. c—First round behaviour in the 2017 presidential election—Comparison between registered voters in Occitania, voters registered in 100 randomly selected polling stations and individuals in the sample.

figure b

Fig. d—Professions and social categories.


Occitania sample (%)

Whole of France (%)

























Factor analysis

Fig. e Divisive policies and systems of opinion. Synthetic approach—YV versus non-YV (score reading: between 3 and −3 (answers were coded as follows: very much in favour = 3, rather in favour = 1, rather against = −1, very much against = −3, no opinion = 0).

We carried out a factor analysis based on the answers provided by our sample population to questions in the table below. Individuals are distributed along five axes—three of which are mainly explanatory—shown here in sequence. The issues that contribute most to each of the 3 main axes are listed below (in descending order).

figure c

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Dormagen, JY., Michel, L. & Reungoat, E. United in diversity: understanding what unites and what divides the Yellow Vests. Fr Polit 20, 444–478 (2022).

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  • Social movement
  • Yellow Vest
  • Value survey
  • Internal cleavages
  • Diversity