[Marxism] How France’s ‘Yellow Vests’ Differ From Populist Movements Elsewhere

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 5 08:40:29 MST 2018


(The takeaway quote: "The uprising is instead mostly organic, 
spontaneous and self-determined. It is mostly about economic class. It 
is about the inability to pay the bills.")

NY Times, Dec. 5, 2018
How France’s ‘Yellow Vests’ Differ From Populist Movements Elsewhere
By Adam Nossiter

PARIS — Too little, too late: That was the reaction of the so-called 
Yellow Vest protesters to the French government’s sudden retreat this 
week on a gas tax increase. The Yellow Vests, who have thrown France 
into turmoil with violent protests in recent weeks, want more, much 
more, and they want it sooner rather than later — lower taxes, higher 
salaries, freedom from gnawing financial fear, and a better life.

Those deeper demands, the government’s inability to keep up, and fierce 
resentment of prosperous and successful cities run like an electrified 
wire connecting populist uprisings in the West, including in Britain, 
Italy, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Central Europe.

What ties these uprisings together, beyond the demands, is a rejection 
of existing parties, unions and government institutions that are seen as 
incapable of channeling the depth of their grievances or of offering a 
bulwark against economic insecurity.

But what makes France’s revolt different is that it has not followed the 
usual populist playbook. It is not tethered to a political party, let 
alone to a right-wing one. It is not focusing on race or migration, and 
those issues do not appear on the Yellow Vests’ list of complaints. It 
is not led by a single fire-breathing leader. Nationalism is not on the 
agenda.

The uprising is instead mostly organic, spontaneous and self-determined. 
It is mostly about economic class. It is about the inability to pay the 
bills.

In that regard, it is more Occupy than Orban — more akin to the protests 
against Wall Street driven by the working poor in the United States than 
the race-based, flag-waving of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian 
leader, Viktor Orban.

In Paris, it was the luxury shopping streets, the Avenue Kleber and the 
Rue de Rivoli — insolent symbols of urban privilege compared with the 
drab provinces from which the Yellow Vests emerged — where windows were 
smashed on Saturday.

But it is also about a deep distrust of societal institutions that are 
perceived as working against the interests of the citizens, and that 
will make this crisis particularly hard for the government to resolve. 
The Yellow Vests push politicians away and reject Socialists, the far 
right, President Emmanuel Macron’s political movement, and everybody 
else in between.

The movement was “totally unanticipated by the parties,’’ said the 
political scientist Dominique Reynié. ‘‘The system is in crisis.”

In fact, so far at least, France’s movement remains relatively 
unstructured. It has yet to be hijacked by either the far-right 
nationalist Marine Le Pen, or the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 
try as they might to claim ownership.

And that is what makes France’s movement unique, compared with, say, the 
Five Star Movement in Italy, which grew up out of a similar disgust with 
political parties and a distrust of elites, and which has held itself 
out as the authentic expression of the popular will.

But Five Star was always less movement than new-age political party. 
While organized over the internet, it was led by prominent figures 
(Beppe Grillo, for one) as well as more obscure ones (the Casaleggios) 
who stoked, channeled and harnessed the popular discontent from the start.

Much the same can be said of the now-floundering U.K. Independence Party 
in Britain, which gave voice to Brexit and the public’s rejection of 
European Union structures, as well as its class divides with London. Or 
for that matter, of President Trump, who demonstrates contempt for 
institutions. His rural and exurban supporters agree with him.

“It is the same fear, anger and anxiety in France, Italy and the United 
Kingdom,” said Enrico Letta, a former prime minister of Italy who now 
teaches at Sciences Po university in Paris. “These three countries have 
the highest level of class slippage,” he said.

For the 30 years after World War II, “they were at the top of the 
world,” Mr. Letta said, “at the very center.” These countries “used to 
live with a very high level of average well-being,” he said. “Now, there 
is a great fear of seeing it all slip away.”

That fear transcends all others. Thus, in Italy, Five-Star’s proposal 
for a “citizens’ income,” or guaranteed income like an unemployment 
benefit, helped the movement conquer the impoverished south. In Britain, 
Brexit was sold partly as an escape from the perceived crippling of 
financial constraints from the European Union.

“There’s this social distress that exists more or less everywhere,” said 
Marc Lazar, a specialist in Italian history at Sciences Po. “Of people 
who are very worried about the future, not only are they suffering, but 
they have profound distrust of institutions and political parties. This 
is what we are seeing everywhere in Europe.”

Comparing the four countries — Britain, France, Italy and the United 
States — Christophe Guilluy, a French geographer who has studied the 
demographics of the “left-behinds,” said “the sociology of the people in 
revolt is the same.”

“These are the people who feel endangered by the current economic 
model,” which doesn’t “integrate the greatest number,” he said.

In France, fury at the perceived distance of the executive has not 
helped the government.

“The president has not once spoken to the French,’’ the Yellow Vest 
spokesman Éric Drouet said on French TV on Tuesday, referring to Mr. 
Macron’s relative silence over the last week. ‘‘There’s a total denial 
by our president.”

There is a paradox in the current French standoff, as Mr. Macron’s rise 
was itself predicated on sweeping away existing political parties, and 
on a rejection of traditional intermediaries like labor unions.

His campaign book was called Revolution, and it expressed a kind of 
contempt for the parties that had handed off power to each other for 50 
years. Mr. Macron, by personalizing power and rejecting what had come 
before, helped create the world of institutional weakness in which the 
Yellow Vests are now flourishing.

But his base, then and now, was exceedingly small, presaging his current 
wide rejection by the French, not just by the Yellow Vests. He won only 
24 percent of the vote in the first round of voting last year — while 
his opponents on the far right and far left together won over 40 percent 
of the vote. Those numbers have now come home to haunt Mr. Macron in a 
political landscape where nearly eight out of 10 French citizens no 
longer support him, according to a recent poll.

Mr. Macron, it turns out, is also a change agent out of step with the 
times, just as France’s long delay in biting off structural economic 
overhauls has left it out of sync with its Western cohort. He is now 
trying to push through reforms to make France more business-friendly and 
competitive, as Britain did in the 1980s and Germany in the 1990s. 
Meanwhile, the global backlash is already cresting, fueled by the income 
disparities those changes ushered in.

The partial sacking of Paris’s rich, tourism-dominated districts last 
weekend was merely the physical expression of what all these movements 
feel deeply, in the view of analysts: hatred of the “winners” in the 
global system, symbolized by urban elites.

“It’s the provinces against Paris, the proud and contemptuous capital,” 
Mr. Reynié said. “And Paris has never been so dissimilar to the rest of 
France. The fracture is very, very sharp.”

The combination of discontent and distrust has made the Yellow Vests an 
expanding force that almost certainly has yet to reach its limits. The 
protest has already changed from a revolt over a small gas tax increase 
to demands for higher salaries, and more.

“Right now, give us more purchasing power,” Jean-François Barnaba, a 
Yellow Vest spokesman in the Indre administrative department, told BFM 
TV on Tuesday.

“The gas tax was only the beginning,” said Tony Roussel, a spokesman for 
the movement in Marseille. “Now there are all the other taxes. There are 
salaries. There is the minimum wage.”

The government’s response is especially fraught. On the one hand, top 
officials express sympathy, not daring otherwise as polls show wide 
support for the movement; on the other, the same officials are angry and 
exasperated over the violent challenge to France’s institutional structure.

The result is a kind of paralysis, halting adjustments that are only 
likely to invite more challenges.

“They still haven’t understood our demands,” Mr. Roussel said by 
telephone this week. “This was like a firecracker in the water,” he said 
of the government’s six-month suspension of the gas tax increase.

The protests will go on, he vowed — until deeper concessions are made.


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