Il faut savoir terminer un fiasco
Fini la comédie! Il faut savoir terminer un fiasco. For more than three months now, all the thinking and (especially) talking heads of France and Navarre have been trying hard to make sense of the Gilets Jaunes. The protests have elicited as much sympathy as puzzlement. Indeed, the inscrutable character of the movement contributed to the sympathies it aroused even from unexpected quarters. The charge that the presidency of the Fifth Republic is nothing more than a republican monarchy is an old and familiar one, and Emmanuel Macron’s manner of exercising the powers of his office only exacerbated long-standing discomfort with the institution. At bottom the GJ were an expression of class and cultural resentment, an outcry against the suspension of social mobility.
But vague sympathies are not enough to sustain a political movement, and if Macron was too stubbornly Jupiterian for many, the Gilets Jaunes have proved too stubbornly refractory to investing their movement with intelligible political content. Those who have tried to move from repetitious marches to nowhere to articulated political positions have been attacked from within the ranks.
On Saturday, Ingrid Levavasseur, who had hoped to mount a movement candidacy in the upcoming European Parliament elections, was attacked by other marchers and driven from the streets under police escort. The grass roots movement at the ronds-points has dwindled in number over the past several months, while the urban marches in Paris, Bordeaux, and Toulouse have been infiltrated by violent groupuscules of the far left and far right. In Lyon marchers wearing common yellow vests but representing opposite extremes clashed with one another in the streets, while others stoned a police vehicle. GJ networks on social media are filled with wild rumors and disinformation. And as everyone has now seen in a widely disseminated video clip, Alain Finkielkraut was jeered with anti-Semitic taunts by demonstrators wearing yellow vests as cover for their true colors, of Soralian or Dieudonnéiste hue.
Meanwhile, Macron has regained his footing with his tireless self-defense in Le Grand Débat National. My skepticism of this ploy turns out to have been unjustified. Whether because Macron is singularly impressive in this sort of format or because there is always a Party of Order in France and he has found the way to rally it through the mayors–the one French political institution that seems to have maintained the confidence of most people, despite Macron’s early disparagement and budgetary strictures–I cannot say, but the polls indicate a genuine albeit relative success.
Let’s be honest, though: Macron will never again walk on water. From here on out he will manage a traditional presidency for better or for worse. The word is that he will try to end this disastrous sequence by organizing a national referendum. Referenda are always dangerous exercises: just ask David Cameron or Charles de Gaulle. Nevertheless, Macron’s timing could prove to be just right. If the themes of the referendum are chosen judiciously, with the aid of the Council of Sages appointed to oversee the Great Debate, he could emerge with enough wind in his sails to carry him forward for another year. And the referendum temptation may well be less damaging than the repression temptation, which always exists as well, especially with the new truncheon handed to the police in the form of the Loi Anti-Casseurs.
If the Gilets Jaunes had any collective political instinct or leadership, they would recognize that the time has come, to paraphrase Maurice Thorez, when il faut savoir terminer un fiasco, before the continuing dérapages dissipate all remaining sympathy for the protests. If the referendum doesn’t end the violence, some irreparable excess will probably do the job. This is a movement that is never going to mature.