“Ce peuple est encore dangereux”
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 The gas tax hike could be rescinded, along with any number of other tax hikes and benefit cuts and hospital closures and reductions of subsidies to towns and housing assistance payments and so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.