Three Dutch yellow vests holding up a sign demanding democracy

The online identity of the Gele Hesjes

Analysis of the Dutch branch of the yellow vests

12 minutes to read
Article
Casper Arends
24/06/2019

On November 25th, 2018, a Facebook page was created in the Netherlands in response to the yellow vest movement that started in France. This Facebook page is now known as Gele Hesjes NL, translating to Yellow Vests Netherlands.

Though there are several pages concerning the Dutch branch of yellow vests, this was the largest at the time of my analysis. From the second of December to the end of the month, I followed the posts in this Facebook group in order to understand the movement that it aspires to be.

At the beginning of the analysis this group had over 15 thousand members, at the end of December these numbers had grown to over 42 thousand members, almost tripling the amount. There were several protests organized by the movement during this month, with varying degrees of success.

It is a mostly non-violent movement that has multiple aims, but is mostly concerned with changing the political paradigm. It tries to make citizens active and take their online protests offline.

This analysis will take a look into who the gele hesjes are, how they try to take it their protests to offline spheres, what their ideals or goals are, what political tradition they fall into, the leadership structure of this movement, and responses from politicians.

Who are the gele hesjes?

Although they share the name and certain views with the gilets jaunes, the Dutch gele hesjes cannot simply be explained as gilets jaunes in the Netherlands. Similar to the movement in France, they protest, among other things, against taxes and the current government. They claim that their movement is a civil movement with average citizens in the Dutch society. They clearly mobilize a populist framework (Maly, 2018), in which the admins of the page claim to articulate the voice of the people. This claim is made in both the page description and the press release of December 3rd 2018.  

The press release was uploaded by a moderator on December fifth and was afterwards deleted from the page. However, it still is of relevance in the time of analyis. It consists of two parts, the first defines who the gele hesjes are. The second part contains the aims of the movement in random order. In this press release they also stress the fact that they are against violence and distance themselves from any individual claiming to be part of the movement while using violence.

Digital media are crucial in the construction and form of the movement. The movement started on November 25th as a closed Facebook group, only about a week after the start of the French yellow vests. Being a closed group means that the content posted in the group was accessible only to members. The Facebook page Gele Hesjes NL serves as a unifying group for all Dutch yellow vests members. They encourage the making of local Facebook groups who can organize activities on their own. The protests on December eighth form an example of these local groups, as on that day all the local factions organized their own protests in their own regions. This had the effect that there were many small protests throughout the entire country.

Slacktivism or choreography of assembly?

The main purpose of the Facebook page of the Dutch yellow vests appears to be taking this online movement to offline spheres. As ofDecember second, all potential members of the online group had to answer the question “Als u kan doet u dan mee met acties & demonstraties?” which translates to “If you are able to, will you join actions and demonstrations?”.

This immediately makes clear that for the leaders of this movement, the purpose of the online aspect is to create offline behavior. They aim to make people active beyond the digital sphere. However the Dutch yellow vest protests still have significantly less active participants than the French protests.

The question asked in order to become member on December second

The Belarusian techno-pessimist Evgenyi Morozov warns about certain aspects of online activism. One of his warnings is the possibility for ‘slacktivism’. Morozov defines slacktivism as ‘feel good activism that has zero political or social impact’. It does however create the illusion of impact on the world without any more demands than merely joining a Facebook group. When applying this concept to the gele hesjes it seems likely that the group contains slacktivists. Whereas the group during my analysis has had between 15 thousand and 43 thousand members, the actual protests never had more than a couple hundred participants. This is despite the constant effort of the gele hesjes to mobilize as many members as possible.

In his book Tweets and the Streets, Paolo Gerbaudo points out the importance of physical geography and emotions when it comes to understanding social movements. To understand why the Dutch yellow vests have received less of a following than the original French yellow vests, it is important to point out certain differences between these countries. Gerbaudo uses the example of the Egyptian revolution and how movements in the West have tried to imitate it. However, as the Egyptians encountered a much higher level of repression, the effect of the social movement was much stronger.

In order to translate this to the difference between the Dutch and French yellow vests, we can look into the original reason for the rise of the gilets jaunes: taxes. The annual Revenue Statistics 2018 publication of the OECD shows that the tax revenue as a percentage of the GDP is the highest in France of all the analyzed countries. It was 12% higher than the average, whereas the Netherlands only scored 4.6% higher than the average. Thus the pressure that the citizens encountered was larger in France than in the Netherlands.

To further understand why the Dutch yellow vests have less mobilization power as compared to the French, it is important to look at the three forms of history as described by the historian Braudel. These forms are courte durée, le moyen durée and le long durée, meaning, respectively, the history of the event or the now, the slow moving history such as the socio-economic time and the constant, and very slow moving time.

Above we have already covered themes that concerned courte durée and moyen durée,  but there is also an interesting difference between the long durée in the Netherlands and in France when it comes to these movements. France has a long history of protesting and being an active citizen. With historical events such as the French revolution or the student revolts in Paris, French citizens are known for making their voices heard by politicians through movements or revolt. Thus the French have a culture that is more oriented towards protesting than Dutch culture. 

Neither right, nor left?

Within several posts and descriptions the gele hesjes claim to be politically neutral, uniting the left and the right. They furthermore claim that they are against any form of violence. By analysing their press releases, Facebook posts, event and page descriptions we can analyze that claim. Are they indeed politically neutral and what are their ideals and aims?

The press release from December third had eleven goals. Within these goals there are several that follow the ideals and discourse of nationalist parties such as PVV and Forum voor Democratie. These parties tend to be culturally right-wing but often have left-wing tendencies when it comes to economics. In general there are few occasions in which the goals truly contradict both of these parties. The goals given in the press release that are most commonly voiced in posts and in events appear to be concerning the changing of the political system, changing the economic situation, and the position of immigrants.

The manner in which the gele hesjes want to change the political system is to get rid of the current prime minister and install direct democracy through the usage of binding referenda. This goes against the current system of representative democracy that is installed in the Netherlands in which referenda have been abolished since mid-2018.

Within Dutch political parties, this view is mainly shared by nationalist parties. Within the Dutch political discourse this opinion is also often associated with a referendum to leave the EU. Most likely because of this, many of the posts relating to holding a binding referendum also mention exiting the EU.  

The gele hesjes want to change the economic situation in that they want to increase the availability of social healthcare and decrease the power of big companies and the rich. By voicing this they gain support from the left-wing while not necessarily steering away from the views of the PVV and Forum voor Democratie.

This support from the left-wing, however, might fade when it comes to the position of the gele hesjes vis-à-vis the position of immigrants. The gele hesjes appear to dislike, or in some cases fear, immigrants and their position in society. In the press release they even go as far as stating that in the eyes of the law immigrants are favored above native Dutch citizens. The context implies that this is not only referring to direct immigrants but also to mostly non-white citizens with a migration background.

In conclusion the gele hesjes mostly combine the left and the right only in as far as nationalist parties tend to do. They mainly follow the discourse of two specific parties, namely PVV and Forum voor Democratie.
 

The banner image of Gele Hesjes NL at December 28th "We demand a real democracy! Support the gele hesjes. Real democracy, like it was intented, does not exist in the Netherlands anymore [...]"

Anti-enlightenment tradition

Following the theory by Sternhell, most of the political currents can be traced back to either enlightenment or anti-enlightenment traditions. The enlightenment traditions are in line with the French revolution and writings such as that of Rousseau, in which principles such as equality, freedom and progress are at the core. Enlightenment thinkers often align with the idea of representative democracy: an elected few that govern and ought to represent the society.

Whereas the enlightenment thinkers have the individual at their core, anti-enlightenment thinkers focus more on the group. The group, for example the nation, is more important than the individual. Following this line of thinking a representative democracy is not always fitting. A direct democracy is an example of a governing system that puts the group before the individual. However anti-enlightenment thinking is not limited to this form of governance. The reason I have highlighted this form of governing, however, is because this is what the gele hesjes seem to want. They want a binding referendum to govern and overthrow the system of representative democracy.

The movement of the gele hesjes is not simply a protest against certain measures, it is a new incarnation of the discussion between enlightenment and anti-enlightenment thinking.

Leadership structure

Being an online movement, the gele hesjes do not have pronounced leaders. It does however have some figures that have some sort of leadership role, albeit more in the background. This type of leadership is called choreographed leadership (Gerbaudo, 2012). Some of the leaders can be found in the admins and moderators. This page had only one admin at the time I started analyzing (December 2nd) but by the 20th of December this count increased to three. There are three other moderators. The admins appear to fulfill the role of leaders or front men the most. They all make frequent posts and make sure that they are known by the members of the page. One of the admins even took to newspapers to spread their message.

There are also other members that have gotten media attention and as such have become sort of a leader. An example of this is Danny Cornelissen who was dubbed a voice of the people after appearing on the Dutch tv show Jensen.

The problem, however, of choreographed leadership in an online movement is that it is easy to jump off the bandwagon and not take responsibility. Furthermore, the leaders are diffused to such a degree that it can become confusing to people what the actual message of the movement is. This last point is also what we see happening in the community of the gele hesjes.

Retrieved from Gele Hesjes NL on December 2nd. Caption reads "Warrior Danny Cornelissen Gele Hesjes Nijmegen". Image reads "Danny Cornelissen voice of the people".

Response in politics

As this is a movement concerned with the political sphere it is interesting to look at responses to this movement in politics.  The prime minister, Mark Rutte, is one of the main objects of critique within the movement, and because of this his public response is all the more surprising. On the seventh of December, during his weekly press conference, Rutte claimed that ‘we are all wearing a yellow vest’. 

With this he mainly meant that we all have worries and dissatisfactions. However, given the movement’s anti-Rutte attitude it seems contradictory to claim to be supporting this movement in some way. He furthermore claims that he does not expect this movement in the Netherlands to get as violent as it has in France because, according to him, these acts of violence do not fit the Dutch culture. Based on this reaction it might seem that Dutch politicians accept the movement, however their actions seem to indicate the opposite. During protests the members of the gele hesjes were limited in where they could go and in some cases the amount of people allowed was limited.

Furthermore, certain protesters were arrested without any clear or necessary cause, this was especially apparent at the December 1st protest in Den Haag. During this protest of only 50 people, 3 arrests were made. One arrest happened before the protest even started, just as one of the leaders got out of the train. This might have been to disrupt the protest, possibly violating the rights of these citizens.

Silverstein makes a distinction between being on message and off message. Being on message means that an action contributes to a consistent image of a public person among their addressed audience. As the members of the gele hesjes can be assumed to be part of the prime ministers addressed audience in this regard, the contradiction between his words and his actions deliver an inconsistent image of this public figure. This means that when it comes to the prime minister’s response to the gele hesjes he has been off message.

Conclusion

For approximately a month I followed the online component of the Dutch yellow vest movement. During this time the movement grew rapidly. It is at its core a non-violent movement that seeks to change the political paradigm. Whereas the Dutch government is currently based on Enlightenment ideas and has a representative democracy, the main fight for the gele hesjes is a fight against these ideas. The movement is founded on anti-enlightenment traditions. It is therefore no surprise that their discourse is most aligned with anti-enlightenment parties such as PVV and Forum voor Democratie.

The online aspect of this movement heavily focuses on inciting members to take action in the offline sphere. These actions in the offline sphere have been limited by government actions. This is despite the prime minister's claim that he is more than understanding of a movement that is in large part against himself. The gele hesjes follow a choreographed leadership style as is common with online movements. However, this causes certain challenges for the movement, such as not being able to communicate its message and ideals clearly to its audience. 

References

Here are sources that were used in the writing of this article that are not linked through url.

Gerbaudo, P. (2014). Tweets and the Streets. Social media and contemporary activism. The introduction.

Silverstein, M. (2003). Communicating the Message vs. Inhabiting “Message”. From Silverstein, M. Talking politics. The substance of Style From Abe to ‘W’

Sternhell, Z. (2008). How to think about Fascism and its ideology.