“Ce peuple est encore dangereux”

Arthur Goldhammer
2 December 2018

Half a century ago, Raymond Aron wrote of the French that “ce peuple, apparemment tranquille, est encore dangereux.” His observation has once again been borne out. Yesterday’s violent demonstrations, not only in Paris but in many other cities and towns across France, drove Aron’s point home. But now that the point has been made, What is to be done?

There was a surreal aspect to yesterday’s events. While Paris was burning, Emmanuel Macron, the protesters’ bête noire, was away at the G20 in Argentina. BFM-TV, the 24-hour cable channel, broadcast a split screen. On the left, the police retreated before a barrage of Molotov cocktails launched by unseen demonstrators. On the right, President Macron boasted about having met with the prime minister of Jamaica. No better image of a dialogue of the deaf could have been scripted.

There had been an abortive attempt at dialogue the day before, when Prime Minister Philippe invited eight “representatives” of the Gilets Jaunes to meet with him at Matignon. Only 2 showed up, and one of them refused to speak unless the talks were televised in their entirety, which the PM refused. There were reports that some of the representatives had been threatened with harm if they took part in the talks because some of their comrades claimed they had no mandate to speak for the movement.

The impasse may be broken if an appeal for talks issued by a “collective” which claims to speak for the protesters is somehow granted legitimacy to speak for the whole. The government, perhaps out of desperation and faute de mieux, has indicated that is ready to open discussions.

What do “the people” want? Clearly, the famous gas tax, the spark that set off the conflagration, has receded into the background. As Macron himself observed at the outset of his presidency, the French are not happy without a king whom they elect and often remain unhappy even after they elect him, at which time they will settle for nothing less than his head. To save his head, Macron seems prepared to offer them instead his “method.” This has failed, a government spokesman suggested, because of ill-conceived “communication” and want of “pedagogy.” If this is all the government has to offer, I see no end to the violence.

The next step would be retreat. The gas tax hike could be rescinded, along with any number of other tax hikes and benefit cuts and hospital closures and reductions of subsidies to towns and housing assistance payments and so on, all for the sake of concretely boosting the “purchasing power” of those whose “suffering” Macron claims to have heard. None of these things are crucial to Macron’s program of putative structural reform. The arguments against this course are two: first, it probably wouldn’t be enough to calm the outrage, and second, Macron is convinced that Hollande failed because he repeatedly retreated in the face of opposition. But Macron himself has already given in to the Zadistes on the Nantes airport issue. He may have no choice now, even at the risk of increasing the projected deficit beyond 3% of GDP.

More significant would be a reversal of the decision to abolish the wealth tax, which François Ruffin of La France Insoumise has called the “original sin” of Macronism. This, rather than aid the afflicted, would afflict the wealthy, and the rage of the protesters stems in part from their aggrieved sense that Macron duped them with his promises to govern en même temps from the right and left but in practice has served only the well-off.

Of course, Ruffin oversimplifies the matter by pretending that the Gilets Jaunes share the analysis of France’s woes proffered by La France Insoumise. The LFI’s ostensible leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has been calling for a “convergence of struggles” since Macron was elected and predicting a “tidal wave” that would sweep away the government when that happened, may be in danger of being swept away himself, as LFI fissures in the run-up to the European elections. Ruffin himself may be preparing a presidential run in defiance of the supreme leader.

Yet no other party has had any success hoisting its banner above the sea of yellow vests. The government would like to associate the movement with the far right, since Macron’s path to victory depended on his being the only viable alternative to Marine Le Pen. Republican leader Laurent Wauquiez met with a group of Gilets Jaunes in the Rhône-Alpes region, of which he is governor, but that didn’t stop demonstrators from setting fire to the prefecture in Puy-en-Velay. And incidentally, while the TV commentators are keen to attribute the violence to casseurs professionnels, it seems unlikely that such “professionals” were at work in all the provincial locations where substantial damage occurred.

The yellow vests provide a very visible uniform to the troops of what is being termed in some quarters a “popular insurrection.” The media have become the unwitting recruiting sergeants for this army by concentrating cameras on any gathering they can find and broadcasting the most striking incidents in endless loops. There is as yet no good measure of the actual strength or social composition of the movement, however. The roots of the movement are said to lie in “peripheral France,” in the forgotten rural communes and smallish towns that dot the landscape. But 92% of the French population is urbanized, and 80% are said to support the Gilets Jaunes, so something here clearly does not compute. The widespread support corresponds most closely to the widespread dissatisfaction with Macron, whose approval rating has dropped to 25%. His decisions over the next few days will therefore be the key to determining whether the movement continues to grow.

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7 Comments

  • Massilian says:

    This is another shipwreck. Sinking of the executive. Sinking of the political class, from extreme right to extreme left. Sinking of the “elites”, editorialists and analysts. Let’s applaud the appearance of the French 5-star style movement, already bringing together Brigitte Bardot, Franck Dubosc and Patrick Sebastien… Français encore un effort !

  • A perceptive analysis — a few points:

    1. 80% of the French say they support the Gilets Jaunes. It’s all too familiar and easy. Like supporting the railway strikers last year. They wave their gilet and honk as they glide, grinning madly, through a peage or past a group of them. It’s all great fun– They aren’t the ones affected by a hard life.
    2. ‘The French people are still dangerous.’ But why do they behave in such a manner? Aron is right but/and he’s basically adding to Tocqueville in The Old Regime (which he knew backwards and forwards): ‘The French people , when they awaken, do something dramatic and destructive and then are surprised at what they have wrought’. Does it still make sense to analyze French political behavior in this way, with his historical allusions? So-and-so is Robespierre or Danton, and these are the Jacobins or the Girondins… To put it another way, in this sort of wildfire politics conceivable, or not, in any other nearby, historically comparable country?
    3. Why are French police forces so incapable of limiting the organization and damage done by the casseurs? Why does it all so resemble May 68 in the Quartier Latin when one could sit in a cafe Bd. St. Michel and watch the to and fro. In other countries the police would have infiltrated the demonstrators. They would follow the social media themselves and head to the next meeting point just like the Gilet Jaunes and the casseurs. Someone should do a comparative study of police crowd control.
    4. En meme temps…why is Macron and the government (it’s not only the president) so inept in this business? Edouard Philippe agrees, finally, to meet a group of representatives–two show up and one agrees to talk but it all falls apart. The PM then goes before the cameras to say, in all solemnity, that it was a respectful meeting.
    5. In the end: imagine if French economic statistics Macron inherited had headed in the opposite direction: instead of GDP growth from 2.2 to 1.7, it had grown from 2.2 toward 2.7; if the unemployment rate had dropped by .7% or so.; if corporate investment, French and FDI, was nicely rising, as business executives had forecast. The president can’t manipulate the economy as he wants, yet he’s blamed for all bad news. Macron is smart and his intentions are good. Why, anyway, would he want to be the president of the rich? He needs a lot of help — where is it? Why isn’t it?

  • An excellent piece, Arthur; thank you.
    Your comments take me back to an off-the cuff remark I posted on Facebook a day or to ago to something Mabel Berezin wrote: Despite what are, on the surface, different forms of expression by the putatively governed, the malaise in virtually all western societies seems an indication of the difficult to govern effectively by governments of left-center, center or right-center. I may be courting altitude sickness by going to such a high level of abstraction, but I wonder if we are not seeing a massive rejection of the pretense (in arrogant fashion, in the current French case) of actually governing when that is becoming increasingly difficult in a democratic framework? My fear is that, in the absence of quick and effective ways to address that rejectionist mood, the democratic framework may be abandoned.

  • Myos says:

    92% live in “towns” of 2,000 people or more. The issue is that living in a town of 2,000 or 10,000, or even 40,000, is very different from living in a big city.
    Someone remarked one of the “revendications” was odd: a 25 class size cap. It seemed oddly specific and unrelated to a gas tax. Until you remember that in June 2018, there were hundreds of occupied rural and semi rural schools. The occupying parents are the same as the protesting “Gilets Jaunes”. What happened last Spring? In order to reduce class size to 12 in the most underpriviledged urban areas without hiring more teachers, the government raised the cap for primary school classes to stay open. As a result, lots of classes closed and their teachers were sent nolens volens to the new classes, while the rural and semi rural schools ended up with 31 3rd/4th graders mixed classes or somesuch (including 30+ in kindergarten). Some schools were closed entirely (and that often means the end to the small business that live from families coming and going twice a day, especially the baker’s but also the general store for shopping emergencies, so the impact is felt by the whole village, sending real estate prices down, etc.) and the students sent to nearby villages (ie., parents have to drive them further). If there was a maximum cap of 25, it’d be impossible to close classes or schools that met that number. The class closures were felt as an injustice, especially since Emmanuel Macron had promised people in rural areas that there’d be no class closure….
    A Gilet Jaune woman complained that with the cost of life, she was merely getting by, and what would she tell her daughter if she wanted to go to college? The video went viral. Immediately the reactions were “Higher education is free in France”, including less charitable comments along the lines of “with such a stupid mother, that daughter isn’t going to college”. EXCEPT…. higher education is free in France IF you live in a city with a university. All you have to pay is public transportation. If you don’t (and I’m willing to bet most Gilets Jaunes don’t) you have to pay for university city rent, plus food, plus transportation. The Student Union indicated it amounted to about €6-8,000 per year. Considering a middle class family of 4 makes €23,000 and many Gilets Jaunes are NOT middle class but working class, that amount can be unsurmountable.
    Another example is the Maternité du Blanc. It is unbelievable that authorities can’t understand that it’s more dangerous, for a pregnant woman in labor contractions or about to give birth; to drive herself or to be driven for *one hour* than to drive herself 10mn to a small maternity ward. In most cases, there are no problems and giving birth doesn’t require super duper extraordinary devices, even if the small ward is basic, it’s fine. And borderline cases are usually aware that the small ward won’t be enough and wouldn’t protest. Guess where all the people who protested this closure are now?
    https://www.lanouvellerepublique.fr/le-blanc/dossier/maternite-du-blanc

  • bernard says:

    actually, every single gilet jaune I’ve seen interviewed on TV has said the carbon tax must go. Even though the movement has grown much broader since then, this seems to remain the sine qua non condition for any meaningfull dialogue to start. This insurrectional moveent, which did look to me very rural initially, has morphed into a generalised revolt of the “lower” classes. It is unorganised as opposed to the last serious revolt of the working class 50 years ago which was highly organised through the communist party and union relays. As a result this is now looking to me significantly more dangerous than the may 1968 general strike. Violence is very far from being limited to fringe activists and is in a process of sky-rocketing. Listening to interviewed gilets jaunes after the riots, I do not wish to be in Paris this coming Saturday. I do wish there were a waldeck-rochet or a segui around to take control.
    Most gilet jaunes I’ve heard do quote as the original sin repelling the wealth tax. I suspect Ruffin’s and Piketty’s idea is going to gain serious traction.
    What I fail to understand is that, given Macron will have to give ground no matter what, why doesn’t he do it now in the hope of avoiding further deadly rioting. Whatever one thinks of his policies, and I approved of them on the whole, the fact is that this situation is out of control and may yet escalate in unforeseen and unseen before ways.

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