It wasn’t difficult to spot Jonas Vos when he entered the Erasmus Pavilion. Walking down the curved staircase wearing a bright yellow safety vest draped over a polka dot robe, the philosophy student didn’t exactly blend in with the rest of the casually dressed students. And that’s not what he’s aiming for either.
“It’s all about being public with this and getting the word out there,” said Vos, a Dutchman who grew up in France. “There are a lot of unclear things happening in France which people should know about. For one, this movement isn’t about protesting. It’s about the fact that people are tired of working all day long just to survive. They want to be able to afford things, they want to have free time.”
For the past ten weekends, hundreds of thousands of people in roadside safety vests have taken to the streets of France to protest against the government of President Emmanuel Macron. The movement initially began as a pushback against a hike in fuel taxes, but it’s now swelled into a tsunami of public discontent spilling into Germany, the Netherlands and beyond.
“I see myself as sort of an information bridge between France and the Netherlands,” said Vos, who is currently organising a symposium on campus about the yellow vests. “I stay in touch with the people who run the social media channels for the yellow vests in France and I bring that information to people here. The yellow vests are having a huge influence in France, but not yet here. And that’s because this country doesn’t have a protest culture. History shows us that. But I’m helping it grow here. I even went to a pub lecture with a bag full of yellow vests and explained the movement to people when it was just getting started. By the end of the night, the whole pub was wearing yellow vests.”
In and around the Netherlands, the yellow vest movement is starting to gain traction, with weekly marches taking place on the Erasmus Bridge at 11.30 every Saturday morning. Rotterdam’s own protests have gone without major incident but a protest in The Hague just before New Year ended with clashes between the yellow vests and the police.
“Just like in France, people here are tired of the way neoliberalism is encouraging things that were once public to become privatised. Hospitals, insurance, education – all these are becoming private and making it more expensive for people just to live.”
Left or right?
As Vos talks, the first real snowfall of the year starts falling onto the campus. Not that he notices. He’s too focused on clarifying the confusion surrounding the gilets jaunes.
“Part of the reason why this movement is so hard for people to understand is because the media is struggling to label what end of the political spectrum the yellow vests are on. The thing is, there are people on the left and people on the right, which is what makes the movement strong. People are starting to realise that they face the same economic problems on both the left and the right.”
With the falling snow as his backdrop, Vos looks awfully cosy in his robe and looks nothing like the violent protesters portrayed by the media.
“Only a tiny fraction of the protesters acts violently and the police are often responsible for starting the violence. When I was in Paris, the police were tossing tear gas everywhere and there was nowhere to run. However, it’s not the fault of the police either, because they’re just doing their job. They’re in the same position as the yellow vests: they’re being forced to do something they don’t want to do because their own livelihood depends on it. You can see that they don’t want to do it.”
“This is the problem. People want to be able to earn enough money and neoliberalism wants us to spend money. If that’s what the system wants then hell, the government should give people money for doing nothing—they’ll spend it and keep the system moving. My activism is not about rushing into things and acting on emotion to get results as quickly as possible. My activism is about getting people to think and have a conversation about what’s wrong. That’s why I wear this vest.”
What about the robe?
“The robe is just sexy. I wear it indoors or outdoors. Fuck rules. Rules are for fools,” Vos laughs. “Let’s go build a snowman.”
I shrug my shoulders, put on my coat and join him outside for a walk through the powdery snow. Sure, Vos probably isn’t your textbook example of a typical yellow vest, but maybe that helps explain this new movement a bit better: it’s made up of all kinds of people from all sides of the political spectrum. And although Vos himself comes over as a bit kooky, he’s someone who is legitimately concerned about how the system is shaping the way we live our lives.
“It’s the first time it’s really snowing this year, and everyone is rushing around looking miserable when they should be having fun,” Vos says before shouting at a few students passing by. “Hey, join us! Let’s make a snowman!”