Where Things Stand

Arthur Goldhammer
10 December 2018

I did an interview with France24 on Saturday, which I post here for those interested in an interim take while awaiting President Macron’s statement this evening. I’ve also written an article for Foreign Affairs, to which I will post a link when it appears.

I can’t say I have a firm grasp on anything about this movement or where it might be headed. French politics at this moment seems to me to be a molten magma. Whichever way it turns, there is likely to be a great deal of damage done before the magma cools. As Pierre Rosanvallon said in Le Monde the other day, social movements usually end in either compromise or fatigue, while rebellions, which feed on radicality as their raison d’être, admit only 3 possible “institutional” outcomes: resignation of the government, dissolution of the parliament, or removal of the head of state.

Whether what we are witnessing is a social movement or a rebellion remains to be seen. It lacks the organization of a movement, but maybe the movements of the social media age are by nature more individualized. There is something striking about the instant communities that are forming at traffic circles around France, as if people who previously nursed their grievances alone have suddenly found an unlikely place to gather and discover one another. But I am not a political romantic. I don’t believe in Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of “groups-in-fusion” emerging from the “serio-practical inert” to sweep away ossified social structures. The weight of the past is too insistent; the future is not as malleable as one might like.

I thought that France, like me, had shed its revolutionary romanticism over the past half-century. But maybe not. Maybe my anti-romanticism will in fact prove to have been the last vestige of my romanticism, as the weight of France’s revolutionary past reasserts itself in yet another spasm of hope that history’s slate can be wiped clean and everything begun anew in a cleansed world in which the last shall be first.

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3 Comments

  • Geof says:

    “…the future is not as malleable as one might like.”

    To the contrary:
    “History does not teach fatalism. There are moments when the will of a handful of free men breaks through determinism and opens up new roads. People get the history they deserve.” – C. De Gaulle

    Perhaps this is Macron’s “De Gaulle moment?”

    • annoyed says:

      It was not a DeGaulle moment, although I don’t think such a moment was possible. DeGaulle’s strength in ’68 was that a majority of the French were for him and against the protesters. Macron doesn’t have that advantage, so he has to concede crumbs (SMIC was a substantial crumb I admit) and wait for the protests to peter out. There isn’t much he can say to his critics at this point- his arrogance has destroyed any belief they may have had in his good intentions.

      If things still look bad in January the ISF will have to come back and Philippe may have to go. Yet replacing Philippe with Bayrou would be like Hollande appointing Valls- an admission by Macron that his program has failed. I assume Macron will avoid such drastic measures for as long as possible- maybe the protests will indeed peter out, which will give him time, and then maybe the economy will pick up. In such a case he could make concessions or even change governments without appearing to panic.

  • Stéphan A says:

    Few Analysts refer to the excellent intervew given by Jacques Juillard in l’Obs last Wesneday. With a clear marxist touch, he name the Gilets Jaunes “un mouvement d’anarchistes de droite”, recruiting more within the lower midle classes than in the traditional working class, unable to structure itself and to have significant political influence.

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