‘They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.’ (J Conrad ‘Under Western Eyes’)

If you go down to the Champs Elysées, You’re sure of a big surprise

The Government had announced that Saturday’s demonstration (‘Act 2. All of France in Paris!!!!’) by the gilets jaunes – named after their yellow hi-vis jackets – could be held on the Champ de Mars, a large grassy space beyond the Eiffel Tower. It was probably chosen since the far lower number of demonstrators expected to attend would have rattled around, evidencing less support for the movement. Finally, last Saturday, the Interior Ministry reported that 106,000 had demonstrated over France as a whole, with 8,000 in Paris (of whom 5,000 had been on the Champs Elysées). Numbers significantly below the previous week’s 280,000 demonstrators.

But as so-presciently posted last week, the Champ de Mars was ‘far from satisfactory for those intent on delivering the coup de grâce: they want to make it to the much more revolutionary Place de la Concorde … Marine Le Pen, leader of the former Front National, has mischievously suggested the Champs Elysées … I spy trouble.’

For two successive weekends, French streets and motorways have been filled (and many blockaded) by protesters with yellow hi-vis-jackets. Anger about fuel prices segued effortlessly into taxes, the cost of living and the rigours of daily life outside France’s largest cities. [French Motoring Law note: When driving in France you must have a hi-vis jacket in your car, plus a warning triangle and a breathalyser. Not having a jacket or a triangle is punishable with a weighty fine. Not having a breathalyser is sanctioned by … no punishment whatsoever. Vive la différence.]

What then are the protesters’ demands? The initial potpourri includes 

  • withdrawing fuel tax increases
  • banning glyphosate
  • increasing investment to help employers hire people
  • lowering social charges on employers
  • providing more training
  • ensuring equal pay
  • increasing pensions
  • abandoning the Government’s plan for no non-electric cars on French roads
  • providing financial help for the young seeking work and for students
  • raising housing allowance
  • cutting Ministers’ salaries
  • ending discrimination against the disabled
  • increasing the minimum wage
  • imposing obligatory attendance on all people elected to office
  • introducing more referenda
  • closing the Upper House (Senate)
  • promulgating ‘citizens’ laws (passed by the citizens’ Assembly?) and
  • *re-adoption of the Wealth Tax which Macron replaced by a ‘Mansion’ Tax
  • **Macron must resign

A few things for Government to be getting on with.

[* apologies for foolishly forgetting this demand which has been there since the beginning of the movement and ** even sillier of me, the only demand that seems to unite every single protester throughout the country is Macron Démission (Macron, Resign) – amended 1 December]

The Government: It’s The Ultra-Right wot done it

Le Pen’s tweeted suggestion about demonstrating on the Champs Elysées was picked up by those who wanted a Day of Maximum Mayhem on the Champs.

Still, it sure was a surprise last Saturday to see barricades, fires, water-cannon, smoke-bombs, tear gas, paving stones thrown, building scaffolding requisitioned … and all on ‘la plus belle avenue du monde‘ [© every French news outlet]. Macron, at Monday’s Council of Ministers, condemned ‘scenes of war’.

Laurent Decotte twitter feed

Those extraordinary images went around the Earth in considerably less than forty minutes: here’s a flavour of what they saw in Jordan, Pakistan, Canada, Russia etc. Indeed centre-left Italian paper La Republicca liked the visuals so much they took BFMTV‘s live feed of The Happening.

Interior Minister Castaner accused the rioters of being ‘seditious’: ‘Today the ultra-right has been mobilised … people committing sedition have responded to Marine Le Pen’s call and want to take over the State institutions … Marine Le Pen urged people to come to the Champs Elysées.’

Minister of Public Action, Darmanin (a former Républicains Deputy) decided to get in his own tension-raising comments quickly. He said ‘la peste brune‘ (WW2 nickname for the Nazis) had been on the Champs. Strange that Darmanin went The Full Godwin so quickly – none other than Darmanin had been the one accusing his former Républicains Party leader, Wauquiez, of neo-Nazism but a fortnight earlier.

[A very special ‘Timing Is All’ section of this blog. Only the stoniest of hearts will not feel a twinge of sympathy for beleaguered Paris Mayor, Hidalgo. As if she didn’t have enough problems, with the clock ticking down on her Mayoralty, some clown in the Town Hall PR office had pre-programmed a tweet inviting everyone to ‘come and admire the superb illuminations … #ChampsElysées#Paris#Noel’. It went out at 17h04 on Saturday afternoon as dustbins burned and teargas billowed. It was soon deleted, but not soon enough.]

The Ultra-Right: It’s the Government wot done it

Le Pen kicked back against the Interior Minister, calling his accusations ‘unworthy … a type of political manipulation … he’s trying to make me responsible for some casseurs.’ [rioters]. Pertinently, Le Pen asked why the Government had allowed rioters on the Champs Elysées in the first place. From the telly (which is, I accept, scarcely the ideal way to judge riot control effectiveness) it seemed difficult to understand why the Champs wasn’t completely blocked, even if at the cost of considerable resources.

But who was that lurking on the Champs? None other than Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal (she’s seriously ultra-right: socially, politically and every which way … and she’s currently taking a sabbatical creating an ultra-right University in Lyon). She will one day remind us, as she told right-wing daily Le Figaro, that she too was there on the Champs. Quoting respected weekly Le Point‘s ‘The lead rioters belonged to the far left’, she tweeted: ‘The Government wanted to smear thousands of demonstrating gilets jaunes by a handful of rioters … from the far left. Total manipulation. I’m ashamed. Ashamed of our leaders.’

The Hard Left: We wish we’d been able to do it

Mélenchon, leader of his own hard-left, populist Unbowed France party, has been trying to get his voice heard. He’s had problems since he tipped over the edge, last month, into hyper-pomposity. He was last seen screaming ‘La République, c’est moi‘ as bailiffs and officers of the law went about their investigative business, seeking evidence that he/his Party had created fake jobs/committed false electoral accounting.

Since the gilets jaunes‘ arrival, Mélenchon has been pondering how best to make clear his support for the fachés (angry people – he loves ’em) but not the fachos (ultra-right, ie fascists, he hates ’em). And, all the while, Mélenchon cannot too obviously pitch for their support for his left-populist Party. A delicate balance.

So Mélenchon has let it be known he’ll be on the Champs himself this coming Saturday. But he’ll be oh-so-discreet. He doesn’t want, he reassured us, all those cameras focussing on him. As they inevitably do whenever The People’s Tribune is out ‘n about.

Mélenchon enjoys seeing events in terms of Great Movements of History. He told France 2 this week that the gilets jaunes movement is ‘clearly a major political event’. But it’s more. So much more than only that. ‘We’re on the eve of a citizens’ revolution’ he said in measured terms, ‘it began with all those good folk on the blockades … This movement is in large measure led by women [evidently, he watches his news on a different TV station to me – but then he’s no fan of BFMTV]. Women began the 1917 Revolution, women radicalised the 1789 Revolution, and women led the recent Tunisian revolution.’

Bliss is it this November to be alive, But to be a historian is very heaven.

The explosion of the gilets jaunes movement has had journalists scrambling to find historians. Where do the gilets jaunes fit into France’s proud revolutionary tradition? Can a ‘proper’ revolution emerge from social media? How can this happen without either political parties or trade unions?

In practice, how does Government respond to an un-structured, un-led, near-spontaneous movement which continues to insist on the importance of maintaining their stance of no political and no-trade unionist affiliation. All (bar one) of its 8 ‘spokespersons’ – chosen to go and meet Ministers – maintain that same unaffiliated stance. And there have been mighty rows (including allegedly death threats) for those who’ve volunteered to be spokespersons: not in my name say many people.

President Macron himself had got in early, bringing out socio-historic comparisons. Interviewed by TF1 days after the gilets jaunes first weekend’s street events, the President, sat in front of Rafale fighter planes, was rather dismissive of the protesters’ fuel price complaints: ‘Three-quarters of the fuel price rise is caused by the market. Government taxes* are entirely appropriate: I take responsibility for them. I would like us to get away from a type of contemporary Poujadism**.’ [*The announcement of next January’s hike in environmental fuel taxes, especially diesel (previously taxed less than petrol because diesel cars produce less CO2) triggered The Anger. **Poujadism: Populist right-wing 1950’s small-shop/artisan anti-tax movement, which won 2,000,000 votes and 52 Deputies (including Le Pen père) in 1956.]

Under the headline ‘The French pick up their pitchforks against President Macron’ the Financial Times went all historian-y in its editorial: ‘France has a long and rich history of rebellion. From the Jacquerie peasants’ revolt of the 100 Years’ War, the storming of the Bastille, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871 to the protests and strikes of May 1968. No country can quite match it. The latest uprising is by the gilets jaunes … [whose] emblem is the ubiquitous yellow safety vest … It has become the battle dress of a mass movement.’

The FT went on to comment (justifiably) that the emergence of this ‘amorphous’ campaign ‘is testament to the weakness of existing opposition parties … if it metastasises it could scupper [Macron’s] reform agenda.’ But then went further: ‘Some see the seeds of a non-ideological, anti-establishment movement such as Five Star, which came first in Italy’s elections this year.’

Hmmm. Maybe. With no gilets jaunes leader of any kind at all – let alone Five Star’s charismatic Beppe Grillo, a nationally known comedian and genuine leader – that seems most unlikely. It’s also worth mentioning that Five Star’s ‘strength’ has now rather faded. Instead, the wholly populist-right ‘former neo-Fascists’ have taken over in the polls and in the country. There’s been a straight swap in positions since Italy’s Elections: the League (ex-Northern League) now consistently poll 32% to Five Star’s 26%.

The Government’s response to ‘scenes of war’? How about a High-Powered (but perhaps low-energy) Commission 

It has to be admitted. It seems a near-parody response to Chaos On The Streets. A High Commission on Energy, crammed chock-full with economists and climatologists.

The President spoke this week about his energy plans for France. He said:

  • the fuel tax increases will go through, but fuel tax levels will be reviewed every quarter and compared with crude’s market price
  • France’s last 4 coal power stations will close by 2022
  • 14 of France’s 58 nuclear power stations will close by 2035, so leaving France reliant on nuclear energy for 50% of its energy needs by 2035 (under President Hollande, the original plan was for nuclear to furnish only 50%, down from today’s 75%, by 2025, but rock star environmentalist, ex-Minister Hulot had already abandoned that pledge) and President Macron confirmed he’s definitively not going non-nuclear
  • substantial development of renewable energies: anaerobic digestion, geothermal, wind (tripled by 2030), solar panels (quintupled)
  • a grassroots 3 months’ consultation on ‘ecological transition’, in which the gilets jaunes are invited to participate

The President used near-emotional language to help us appreciate he was in anger-hearing and pain-feeling mode. Regretting that ‘It’s always the same people who make the efforts’, he said of the protesters: ‘We pushed them into this … they haven’t created this situation, they’re simply the first victims … We must listen to these protests of social alarm, but there’s also an environmental alarm … I’m not confusing rioters with citizens who want to convey a message. I sympathise with my fellow citizens, but I’ll not give in to violence … You can’t be for the environment on Monday and against fuel price increases on Tuesday.’

But how to match these competing demands, that’s the problem. Macron sympathised with people – ‘we’ve told [them] for years. You don’t have the means to live in the major cities? No problem. Go and settle down in a nearby town.’

However, for the nth time, President Macron’s words have done all too little to help himself and his Government. This despite his attempt to raise issues concerning both ‘the end of the world’ (climate change) and ‘the end of the month’ (cost of living).

Currently, reports Odoxa, 84% support the gilets jaunes movement and believe it’s justified (that’s up 7 points since last week). Make what you will of Odoxa showing that :

  • 90% of the left and hard left
  • 96% of the ultra-right
  • 75 % of the right
  • and even 50% of the President’s own REM Party

support their movement.

Such support must be linked to their finding that 8 out of 10 didn’t find the President convincing? That’s an all-time record for Odoxa in their post-Presidential-speech-analysis. The problem seems to be that people believe the President’s measures will not only fail to help the environment, but will both adversely impact on their standard of living and worsen inequality. And, above all, that nothing can even begin to improve people’s daily lives for (at least) a further three months.

[Other polling organisations found somewhat lower levels of support, which makes more sense. Elabe and Ifop show gilets jaunes approval levels of 75% and 71% respectively … each up 5 points since last week. Even so, such levels of support are astonishingly high: the SNCF strikes earlier this year got c. 40% support.]

Even 11,000km away, he cannot get away from those ubiquitous jackets

In Argentina for the G20 (greeted off the plane by a gilet jaune, which caused wry amusement on social media) the President has had to respond to questions about The Events …

… Macron repeated that he ‘hears the understandable anger, the impatience, the distress of those people who want a better life, and quickly.’ He said he’ll pursue his reform agenda with ‘force’ and will neither ‘give up on his ambitions’ nor ‘give in to demagogy’.

And then (just possibly?) we had the tiniest hint of something more substantial. This

  • on the day when Prime Minister Philippe received gilets jaunes representatives (only 2 turned up – and one quickly left when Philippe declined the invitation to have their meeting transmitted live on TV) and
  • the day before Gilets Jaunes (Act III) opens (for one day only) on the streets of Paris, with the Champs Elysées only open to pedestrians who’ve been patted down.

The President teasingly said he’d ‘think about certain other issues over the coming weeks and months … I hear what’s being said.’ Weeks maybe. But months? Not good enough.

What is it all about? A wise warning

These comments from Le Monde‘s Françoise Fressoz are well worth pondering: ‘It’s long been called ‘Invisible France’ … A factory gets closed, then a school further away. Followed by a hospital and a railway line … The inexorable rationalisation which, in the name of globalisation, is cutting the country in two. Here, the France of major conurbations, fully benefiting from globalisation. There peri-urban France and the countryside in deep difficulty. One tax too many aroused them and the gilets jaunes movement was born. Shouting their anger at barrages on major roads or on the Paris streets. For the first time Invisible France has become visible. That’s a serious warning to Government because it’s signalling that it’s been pushed to the limit. Normally tempted to vote Le Pen or abstain (‘what’s the point of voting, they never listen to us’), those people who don’t have enough money to get through the month represent a significant portion of the French electorate: 40%. If part of the better-off middle class, or pensioners, join these angry people, the entire country could be moved in a different direction.’

Someone with a good word to say about Emmanuel Macron

This tweet from Cliffe (the always incisive ‘Charlemagne’ in The Economist) is apposite. We really mustn’t forget Macron’s powerful 11 November speech, at the Arc de Triomphe, commemorating the centenary of the end of WW1:

And another worthwhile reminder of that day. This picture’s worth a lot of words: Macron and Merkel glaring at Putin, as all the while Trump slaveringly grins. [Wonder why Mme M. didn’t get the email]


2 thoughts on “‘They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.’ (J Conrad ‘Under Western Eyes’)

  1. Hi
    A very long and complete overview of a complex situation. Congratulations!
    One very minor nit-picky point. It is no longer obligatory to carry a breathalyzer in a car. This requirement was dropped in 2016 I believe. But, as you say, non- compliance was not sanctioned anyway (the original €11 fine was eliminated early on).


    1. Hi Chris
      Thanks for your kind remarks about the post. I’m considerably more bewildered by the situatyion today.
      Re your nitpicking: permit me to correct your correction.
      According to Service-Public.fr ‘Le site officiel de l’administration française’ (see https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F19459):
      ‘Depuis juillet 2012, tout conducteur de véhicule terrestre à moteur doit posséder dans son véhicule un éthylotest … Le non respect de cette obligation n’est pas sanctionné.’
      I know many people think that the obligatory possession of a breathalyser was withdrawn … but the Government certainly doesn’t think so. There’s just no sanction. Odd.


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