Il faut savoir terminer un fiasco

Arthur Goldhammer
18 February 2019

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.

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4 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    What does that mean, “manage a traditional presidency”? That the “air has gone out of the bag”, after Macron’s accomplishments to date? Once again, I think you are underestimating Macron, Mr. Goldhammer. I am in the midst of Julian Jackson’s wonderful biography of de Gaulle, which makes plain that the French are born into one of two tribes, and that no one, not Napoleon, not de Gaulle, has ever been able to reconcile them. Macron will not reconcile them, either –and probably knows such a transformation is not in the cards. Rather, Macron is attempting to get the more reasonable members of each to agree to enough structural changes to create some play in the joints in what will otherwise remain a sclerotic republic. .He doesn’t need to walk on water, he needs to be astute and flexible, which he has been so far. “Yes!”, he responded to the “gj” movement, rather than anticipating it. However, as de Gaulle wrote, the leader must not just know what he wants to do, he must know how to react to contingencies. That Macron has done. Whether pulling the ambassador to Italy out is a misstep, or a useful signal to the European far-right parties not to meddle in France’s internal affairs is an open question: French patriots on the moderate Left and Right may support the decision, even as the extremes try to make hay out of it. Salvini’s government, by meeting with the “gj” leaders committed a provocation: Macron could not let it pass uncensured. How his decision will “come out in the wash” remains to be seen. For the moment, though, Macron is in a better position than he started out the year with. The “debat national” has not run its course; European Parliament elections loom: in conclusion, a judgment on Macron’s presidency so far cannot be reasonably made until made until those events have come to pass.
    What is at stake? See the recent cover piece in “Marianne”, about France’s young illiterate, and unemployed to get a taste of the future in France, if Macron fails in his task –the “gj” movement may be in its death throes, but there will be more, and still more violent ones, if the Republic cannot modernize itself. So there is no underestimating the stakes –or the hopes that ride with Macron.

  • bernard says:

    I am not surprised that Levavasseur was insulted and close to being lynched. The main impact of a GJ candidate list in the European elections would be to reduce votes for Le Pen’s RN and, to a lesser extent, from Melenchon’s LFI. Further, I believe I heard her being called “sale juive” in one of the videos (I am still trying to confirm this) which, while being quite a stretch, is rather revealing. There is at the very least a fringe in this movement which is being enabled by the culpable weakness of the rest to confront them, and I very much fear that this fringe will eventually mutate into a much more dangerous body that will seriously contemplate terrorism and for some, actually basculate into this.

    As for Alain F., you have got one detail wrong. The main author of this incident was quite clearly a salafist, identifiable both fom the exact insults used and his physical appearance (do they have catwalk events for beards?). In fact, he has been formally identified by DGSI and will shortly answer for his crime. Not that I am inclined to parse antisemites of course. Be they soralien, dieudonné, salafist, catholics or whatever, I know exactly what to do with them: offer them full board in one of the Republic’s establishment.

  • Gwenael HENRY says:

    It is important to know how to end a strike as soon as satisfaction has been obtained. It is even necessary to know how to agree to the compromise if not all the demands have yet been accepted but the most essential ones have been won.

    The problem is that the population has not yet obtained anything concrete, at most a vague big debate without consequences. The only one who in theory would have the power to propose something is Macron, and all he does is throw fuel on the fire. With media on orders that disqualify the movement all the time. So if this strike does not end, it is because the situation is blocked by those who could at least try to make things right.

    The government’s objective is to buy time between now and the European elections to create a lot of confusion so that Macron’s party comes out on top. To do this, he must ensure that he denigrates the elections so that voter turnout is low while his loyal supporters will vote for his list.

    In the first round of the presidential election, Macron received 8,656,346 votes, representing 18.19 per cent of the voters on the lists and 24.01 per cent of the votes cast. Since there will only be one round next May it will be easy to see if he is replenishing his electorate. We can say that he will have succeeded if he succeeds in bringing together all his electorate and “en même temps” global participation collapses.

    But it is a dangerous game for democracy and unworthy of a great statesman that Macron is definitely not.

  • FrédéricLN says:

    Thanks for all this follow-up of our quite lively, these days, French politics!

    “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.”

    I would approve but also dissent in part. And it’s clearer to me since having taken part to a GJ demonstration yesterday. It was just not a demonstration. It was an agora, a demonstrative agora. Occupying a center place (namely Champs-Élysées this time) just to talk politics. As far as I see, very similar to a one-day-per-week “Occupy (Wall Street)” process.

    For sure, not many articulated policies-like content aroused, and that may push a majority of French to think “ok, that’s enough, additional Saturdays will be of no use — and more irritating than helpful”. But the that is the nature of “Occupy-“like movements. And it’s quite consistent that GJ do not build an organized block or list at upcoming EP elections, if they feel they would be under pressure to deliver a policy agenda, that they have not.

    But during these many Saturdays, political consciousness and national consciousness of participants (~150,000 to 500,000 altogether?) improved immensely. Priscillia Ludosky (who ignited the movement) writes that in France, “we live alone, everybody caring about little oneself (sa petite personne), not caring about what happens in the country” (which may be surprising for people who remember France in the 60’s and 70’s) but experiences within the GJ movement, “it’s reborn, we’re taking care of our neighbor. (That) wakes up the patriotic feeling. “(https://www.reconstruire.org/priscilla-ludosky-la-remise-en-cause-du-systeme-institutionnel-est-au-coeur-du-mouvement/)

    The political implications are not obtained yet. But it is still maturating, I think.

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