Forgotten France Rises Up

Forgotten France Rises Up

France’s Yellow Vests took just one month to challenge policies on taxation, education, transport, and environment—and make the Macron government back down


On December 15, at the Place de l’Opéra in Paris, three Yellow Vests read out an address “to the French people and the president of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron” saying: “This movement belongs to no one and to everyone. It gives voice to a people who for 40 years have been dispossessed of everything that enabled them to believe in their future and their greatness.”

The anger provoked by a fuel tax produced, within a month, a wider diagnosis of what ails society and democracy. Mass movements that bring together people with minimal organization encourage rapid politicization, which explains why “the people” have discovered that they are “dispossessed of their future” a year after electing as president a man who boasts that he swept aside the two parties that alternated in power for 40 years.

Macron has come unstuck. As did previous wunderkinder just as young, smiling, and modern: Laurent Fabius, Tony Blair, Matteo Renzi. The liberal bourgeoisie are hugely disappointed. His French presidential election win in 2017—whether it was a miracle or a divine surprise—had given them hope that France had become a haven of tranquillity in a troubled West. When Macron was crowned (to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy), The Economist, that standard-bearer for the views of the international ruling class, put him on its front cover, grinning as he walked on water.

But the sea has swallowed up Macron, too sure of his own instincts and too contemptuous of other people’s economic plight. Social distress is generally only a backdrop to an election campaign, used to explain the choice of those who vote the wrong way. But when old angers build and new ones are stirred up without consideration for those enduring them, then, as the new interior minister, Christophe Castaner, put it, the “monster” can spring out of its box. And then, anything becomes possible.

France’s amnesia about the history of the left explains why there have been so few comparisons between the Yellow Vest movement and the strikes of 1936, during the Popular Front, which prompted similar elite surprise at the workers’ living conditions and their demand to be treated with dignity. Philosopher and campaigner Simone Weil wrote:

All those who are strangers to this life of slavery are incapable of understanding what has proved decisive in this situation. In this movement it is not about this or that particular demand, however important.… After always having submitted, endured everything, accepted everything in silence for months and years, it is about daring to straighten up, to stand up. To take your turn to speak.

The tables had turned

Prime Minister Léon Blum, speaking about the subsequent Matignon agreements of 1936, which granted paid holidays, a 40-hour week, and better wages, reported an exchange between the employers’ negotiators in which one said to another, when he saw the level of some salaries, “How is this possible? How did we let this happen?” Was Macron similarly enlightened by hearing Yellow Vests describe their daily life? Tense, pale, his eyes riveted to the teleprompter, he did admit in his address to the nation that “the effort demanded of them was too great” and “not fair.” The tables had turned, and he was now the one learning a lesson.

How did we let this happen? Thanks to the Yellow Vests, everyone is more aware of the government’s injustices: five euros a month less in 2017 for a housing benefit, while the progressive rates of tax on capital were abolished; the wealth tax eliminated; pensioners’ purchasing power declining. The costliest measure was the replacement of the tax credit for competitiveness and employment (CICE, a corporate tax-credit scheme for businesses) with a reduction in employers’ social-security contributions, which mean that this year the Treasury will effectively pay a double bonus to Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe, owner of Carrefour, LVMH, Le Parisien, and Les Echos. This policy will cost almost 40 billion euros in 2019, 1.8 percent of GDP and more than 100 times the saving from housing-benefit cuts. In the short, angry video, viewed 6.2 million times, that helped launch the Yellow Vest movement, Jacline Mouraud, 51, a composer and hypnotherapist from Brittany, asked Macron three times, “What are you doing with the cash?” Now we know.

A hefty fuel-price rise and a stricter roadworthiness test for cars were enough to bring everything to the surface. Such as banks that grow fat on every loan, yet in the name of cost-saving “rationalize,” meaning close, their branches, as they do the accounts of customers who write a check that bounces to get through to the end of the month. A government that raids pensions, already too low, as if they were a treasure chest. Single mothers who have trouble getting child support from their former partners, equally poor. Couples who want to split up but are forced to stay together because they cannot afford two rents. The Internet, computers, and smartphones—which are now necessities that have to be paid for, not for leisure purposes but because service rationalizations by the post office, tax authorities, and railways, and the disappearance of public phones, make it impossible to live without them. And everywhere there are maternity-unit closures and shuttered shops, while Amazon opens new warehouses. This universe of anomie, imposed technology, form filling, productivity tracking, and loneliness can be seen in other countries too. It has arisen under very different political regimes and predates Macron’s election, but he seems in love with this new world and has made its accomplishment his social project—another reason why he is hated.

But not universally so. People who are doing well—graduates, the middle class, those in big cities—share Macron’s optimistic outlook. As long as the country is calm, or in despair, which amounts to the same thing, the world and the future are theirs. A Yellow Vest, who owns a detached house that in the 1970s would have been a symbol of upward mobility, said, “When planes fly low overhead, we think: Look, there are the Parisians who can afford a holiday. Dropping their pollution on us too.”

Last piece on the chessboard

Macron can count on supporters beyond the Parisian middle class with money to travel, including journalists. There is the EU. With the UK reverting to insularity, Hungary refractory, Italy disobedient, and US President Donald Trump encouraging all of them, the EU cannot do without France nor punish it like Greece when its books don’t balance. However weakened Macron is, he is one of the last strong pieces on neoliberal Europe’s chessboard. So the EU and Germany want him to remain in place, even if they have to permit France a few deadly sins.

On December 6, four days before Macron acceded to some Yellow Vest demands (thereby allowing France’s budget deficit to exceed the sacrosanct limit of 3 percent of GDP), EU economic-affairs commissioner Pierre Moscovici did not reprimand or threaten Macron in the hope of averting laxness. Instead, he let it be known that he had no objection: “My role, as guardian of the growth and stability pact, is not to say to any country, ‘You must cut such and such a social expenditure, you must alter such and such a tax.’.… This 3 percent rule is not the most important. I heard Gérald Darmanin [France’s public accounts minister] say, ‘2.9 percent or 3.1 percent isn’t the difference between heaven and hell.’ He is not entirely wrong about that, and it’s up to France to decide what it should do. I’m not going to say today, ‘France is threatened with sanctions, it’s deviated from the deficit procedures.’” The Spanish, Italians, and Greeks should translate this, and future French governments, whose economic sovereignty might be more challenged and budgetary misdemeanors less well received, should keep a transcript.

To justify adding around 10 billion euros to the deficit, Macron told his parliamentary majority, “In moments of crisis, the cost is secondary.” Angela Merkel quickly backed his climbdown; it was intended, she said, to “respond to people’s complaints.” And France’s right-wing opposition soon called for the demonstrations to end. The middle class, which knows where its interests lie, sticks together when the house is on fire. To “save Private Macron,” bosses even encouraged businesses to pay their workers a special bonus, in reaction to his call for a higher minimum wage. The press too curbed its criticism when faced with a stumbling government. An economist and a political scientist had warned them: “Journalists must remember that they are not mere observers, but are part of the elite whose role is also to preserve the country from chaos.” The conservative daily Le Figaro got the message, as an editorial suggested after Macron’s speech: “For now, the government must be acknowledged as having preserved the essentials.… Tax policies in favor of investment (the partial abolition of the wealth tax, a flat tax on savings) have been maintained, as well as the reduction of charges and taxes on business. Let’s hope that this lasts.”

The ‘immigration question’

No one can rule out that this wish will be granted. The government has not collapsed; it pulled itself together, protected by the institutions of the Fifth Republic, and by its parliamentary majority, which will be even more loyal since it owes everything to Macron. The government also made it clear that its ostensible liberalism does not stop it deploying armored vehicles on the streets of Paris and preventatively arresting hundreds of demonstrators (1,723 on December 8), as it had done in the weeks before. And the executive does not balk at manipulating fear—the Elysée palace warned darkly against a “hard core” of people who had come to Paris “to kill”—or alleging foreign intervention (Russian, of course). Moreover, Macron, by choosing to highlight the “immigration question,” confirmed his instinctive political cynicism.

The government can argue that the Yellow Vests have a weak grasp of how the international system works. Macron’s Olympian pretensions and his symbiotic relationship with the financial and cultural world of the rich have encouraged the illusion that his policies are personal whims, so that he is at liberty to change them radically. But France no longer controls its own currency; its public services are subject to EU competition law; German officials scrutinize its budget line by line; Brussels negotiates its trade treaties. Yet the words “Europe” and “European” do not appear among the Yellow Vests’ 42 demands.

The roundabout demonstrators and their supporters seem more concerned to protest the number of members of parliament and ministerial privileges than to challenge their politicians’ powerlessness, clear to see when the boss of US multinational Ford did not deign to speak to a French minister on the phone after his company announced a plant closure with 850 layoffs at Blanquefort near Bordeaux.

‘Social miracle’ of the 1990s

Pierre Bourdieu called the unemployment movement of the winter of 1997–98 a “social miracle,” arguing that its first achievement was its very existence: “It wrests the unemployed and with them all precarious workers, whose numbers are growing by the day, out of invisibility, isolation, silence… out of non-existence.” The sudden emergence of the Yellow Vests, just as miraculous and much more powerful, demonstrates the gradual impoverishment of an ever-larger section of society. It also demonstrates the feeling of absolute defiance toward—almost disgust at—the usual channels of representation: The movement has no leaders or spokespeople, rejects political parties, keeps its distance from unions, ignores intellectuals, and hates the media. This probably explains its popularity, which it managed to retain even after violence any other government would have capitalized on.

There is no predicting the future of a movement so culturally alien to most people who read or write for Le Monde diplomatique. Its political prospects are uncertain, and its eclectic character contributes to its appeal but threatens its cohesion and power. It is easier to make agreements between workers and the middle class over rejecting a fuel tax or abolishing the wealth tax than over changing the minimum wage, since small-business owners and independent traders fear their costs will go up. Yet there is a potential unifying bond, since many demands result from transformations of capitalism: inequality, wages, tax, the decline of public services, punitive environmental measures, offshoring, over-representation of middle-class graduates in public institutions and the media.

In 2010 journalist François Ruffin described two protest marches in Amiens on the same day, which crossed paths but did not join forces; one was workers from the Goodyear plant; the other, anti-globalization campaigners demonstrating against anti-feminist legislation in Spain. Ruffin wrote: “It is as though two worlds, separated by just six kilometers, have turned their backs on each other. With no possibility of the ‘tough guys’ from the factory joining what one worker called ‘the city-center middle class out for a walk.’” Sociologist Rick Fantasia noted around the same time in Detroit that there were “two lefts…separate and distinct,” activists without political plans, and realists with no appetite for action. Even if the divisions in Amiens and Detroit are not identical, they show the growing gulf between a working-class universe constantly attacked yet trying to fight back, and a world of contestation inspired by intellectuals whose radicalism on paper is no threat to the social order. The Yellow Vests remind us of this division, but it’s not up to them alone to bridge it.

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