The semiotics of roundabouts
Well before exhausting their near-endless supply of historians, the press turned to geographers to help us comprehend the gilets jaunes phenomenon. Those two subjects (histoire + géo) have for decades been linked in the French exam system. So it was near- inevitable that urban geographers like Christophe Guilluy (co-author of ‘The Atlas of New Social Dislocation in France’ in 2004 and writer of 2014’s ‘La France Périphérique: How we sacrificed the working classes’) should be brought front stage.
Guilluy’s theory is of France divided in two, co-existing increasingly unhappily. In metropolitan France, globalisation means managers and ethnic minorities live side by side. But there’s also a forgotten outlying, or peripheral, France: 60% of France lives there, in small/medium-sized towns and the country, far from the areas of fullest employment. Forgotten? We’ve now been reminded of them.
‘Until the beginning of this century’, Guilluy presciently wrote, ‘everything went well. The invisible remained invisible. Off the media radar, the working class and lower middle class didn’t exist for politicians. No political party, especially from the left, was concerned by their issues, their worries, their distress. Neither town halls nor trade unions represented them … The majority of people live in this ‘Peripheral’ France, invisible and forgotten. In these areas a counter-society is beginning to form, from the bottom up. It’s slowly breaking away from the politics and culture of yesterday’s France … The France of the forgotten people … is about to bring into question the entire structure, from below.’
And on the edge of places where ‘forgotten France’ lives there be roundabouts. Latterly, they’ve become gilets jaunes‘ encampments and blockades. As The Economist pointed out in their piece entitled ‘To the roundabouts … A different sort of revolution’ (geddit?) roundabouts have become, with yellow hi-vis jackets, the symbols of This Revolution. At many roundabouts, evidence of deep anger can be seen. There are makeshift guillotines. Shouts of ‘Down with King Macron’ and ‘Resign King Macron I’ are heard.
All this cannot help but remind us of that wonderful interview Macron gave to a philosophical magazine Le 1, back in 2015. He was then Economics Minister in Hollande’s administration. That was well before any public hint of Macron’s O’erweening Ambition. ‘What’s really missing from French politics’, said Macron, ‘is the figure of the King … the French people, fundamentally, never really wanted him to die.’
A roundabout factoid – which may not have met The Economist‘s perhaps stricter factoid-checking rules – is that there are some 60,000 roundabouts worldwide*. Of them, half (!) are in France. For North American readers who may feel lost at their inability to comprehend the rond-point (roundabout/traffic circle/road circle) here’s New Hampshire Dept. of Transportation’s take: all you need to know about How to Drive a Single Lane Roundabout AND (for further edification) How to Drive a Multi-Lane Roundabout.
[*CORRECTION (29 December): Apologies, apologies. Indeed this roundabout factoid didn’t meet The Economist’s ‘factoid-checking rules’, because it’s a load of Wikipedia rubbish … and I didn’t check my facts. Thanks to alert reader Chris L. (at least someone’s awake this festive-ish season) who gently signalled that France indeed leads the way with c. 32,000 roundabouts, followed by the UK with 25,000. Then there are 5,000+ in the USA and over 4,000 in Germany. Thus, 4 countries alone have over 66,000 between them. As he wrote, there are several other countries with roundabouts, including Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. So France is well in the lead, but it’s definitely not half the world’s roundabouts. A benefit of this roundabout error is it’ll encourage me to learn how to be a Wikipedia article fact-corrector.]
It’ll be all over by Christmas (It wasn’t)
Over the last two Saturdays, the gilets jaunes movement has faded somewhat, in terms of numbers protesting and numbers arrested. This was coincident (?) with President Macron’s €10 billion giveaways to ease pressure on the lower middle classes (that included his first recorded U-turn: killing fuel tax price increases), and doubtless affected by the murderous attack which killed 4 people in Strasbourg’s pre-Christmas market.
Over France as a whole on 15 December (Act V of this long-running tragedy) 66,000 demonstrated, half the previous week’s 125,000. While 22 December saw still smaller Saturday numbers again: 39,000 overall, with 2,000 in Paris. But Paris also witnessed more real violence: a police officer drew his pistol and a motor-cycle cop was forced to abandon his bike (in what looked from the TV as though the crowd were intent on real violence), while it’s claimed police fired dispersal grenades at a totally peaceful crowd. Here’s footage of it all from HuffPost France. The Prime Minister tweeted there’d been ‘unprecedented violence’ against the police. All of which has led the newspapers to put the phrase gilets jaunes inside quote marks ever more frequently as it becomes plain that what remains of the street ‘movement’ (at least in Paris) has been largely taken over by ‘political’ or ‘apolitical’ extremists intent on wreaking havoc.
Where would the pre-Christmas Act VI take place? There were many possibilities:
- one of the first actors in the long-running tragedy, he claims to be ‘left-ish’, Eric Drouet (followed on Facebook by 260,000) called for Paris and ‘its tiny streets’ to be ignored. This self-styled ‘messenger’ (no spokesperson he) first urged people to gather at media HQs (especially hated BFM TV). He then suggested targeting Versailles (so Versailles Palace was closed amid heavy policing). And the tease finally said: venue/time on Facebook on Saturday. Drouet ended up with a few ‘followers’ filmed in Montmartre singing the Resistance song Chant du Partisan as perverted by anti-semitic non-comedian Dieudonné, complete with neo-Nazi salute. [Good to see Drouet was arrested on Saturday.] He recently shared a post by one of his Belgian followers: a quote from an apposite JFK 1962 speech
- some urged demonstrations in front of the Town Halls and Préfectures of 14 major cities (excluding Paris, which should be ’empty’), to show that a mass movement still existed, but suggested this strategy should be ‘shared in private’ (!); avoiding Paris, they said, will mean not ‘being arrested on the outskirts’, so enabling the gilets jaunes ‘to show the media their lies, that we are 68 Million, for our children and families, our dead and our injured … WE WILL NOT GIVE UP !!!’
- others, like ‘Angry France’ wanted France’s frontiers to be closed and at 7am last Saturday morning, 30 gilets jaunes blocked a Strasbourg bridge leading from France to Germany. Yet there was no problem crossing the same bridge from Germany to France. Maybe good for its minuscule effect on France’s massive Balance of Payments deficit? But that demonstration, along with blockades on the Belgian and Spanish borders, soon faded away
- lastly the gilets jaunes libres (and their very right-leaning spokesperson Cauchy) called for action against the nearly-non-tax-paying GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon]. They can in fact claim that Government has moved to take unilateral tax action faster than originally intended. It was going to be March for a pan-European tax deal, but now its January to replenish emptying Government coffers with €500million/year … at least the gilets jaunes libres probably spent Saturday in real shops, avoiding last-minute Amazon buys.
What with neo-Nazi saluting and frontier-closing it sounds as though the dregs of this movement are unabashedly towards the far-rightward end of the spectrum.
Who began it? What began it?
Priscillia Ludosky can claim to have been there (wherever ‘there’ may be) from the start. A 33 year-old owner of an online organic cosmetics company, she lives 30km south-east of Paris. She put her petition against fuel price increases online last May. A local journo met her in September, when the petition had 700 signatures.
Truck driver Drouet (see above) contacted Ludosky after reading the interview. Drouet had talked with ‘friends’ about protests to demonstrate physical opposition to fuel price rises. Facebook groups contacted each other, and Ludosky’s petition had 10,000 signatures by mid-October. Le Parisien found the story. It snowballed. By end-October there were 200,000 had signed, with 100,000 saying they’d be part of mid-November’s National Blockade Day. The petition now has 1.1 million signatures.
Ludosky is certainly a Face of the Revolution. But not just a face; she’s occasionally its mouth too. After the first 2 major Paris demonstrations, 8 names emerged of those who might get invites to a Palace or Ministry for talks about talks. Ludosky was one of two ‘spokespersons’ who overcame internal hostility to meet de Rugy, Environment Minister. She went with Drouet after everyone else withdrew, mostly citing threats for their temerity in claiming they represented anyone.
The punchline is that The President himself replied (at length) to Mme Ludosky on change.org: ‘I got your message’ said Macron ‘You’re right’. He sets out all his specific financial proposals and calls for dialogue. It may have seemed like a good idea on paper in the overheated Elysée Palace atmosphere; not sure it works so well in practice.
Hypno-therapist and accordeonist, Jacline Mouraud (self-styled ‘spokesperson of a suffering France’), whose October Facebook rant (including the choice question to the President: ‘But what are you doing with the people of France’s money?’) on the price of fuel and the cost of the President’s crockery will soon have had 6.3 million views. She twice voted Sarkozy in Presidential Elections (we learnt from the Journal de Dimanche) and even voted for him in the 2016 Republican primary election. She told JDD: Sarkozy’s ‘the only one with balls’. In the likely absence of anyone with balls in 2022, this strange person is now thinking of standing for President herself.
Who is gilet jaune? What is (s)he?
So who are they? Who are the gilets jaunes whose image is the face of France’s 2018 People’s Revolution? They’re:
- average age 45, with end-of-school certificate, employed but with low-paid jobs … if retired, they used to work
- lower-paid ‘lower middle classes’ (Brit ‘non-equivalent’ – classe populaire/’petite’ classe moyenne), with half having no history of ‘activism’ of any kind
- nearly half are women, and they reject all traditional forms of representation
- this ‘revolt against inequality’ is motivated by a need for increased purchasing power and a rejection of policies favouring the better-off
- 90% reject violence
- 33% said they were apolitical/’neither right nor left’, of those who self-defined on a left-right spectrum, 15% were on the hard left and 5% on the extreme right; overall 43% on the left, 13% on the right and a minuscule 6% in the centre
At least these were the almost-uniformly (un)stunning conclusions of 6 University researchers. They analysed no less than 166 questionnaires completed by gilets jaunes at roundabouts and motorway toll stations.
I’ve no idea whether such a miserly modest set of responses produces valid conclusions on a movement which maintains its inchoate form. But it was seen to be good enough to persuade Le Monde to give 2 whole pages to the report. Now behind their paywall, the report can be read (in French) at a friendly blogger’s site.
Is it all coming apart at the seams? Are the wheels coming off the bus? Have the cliches been given free rein?
‘Gleeful critics of Emmanuel Macron deride him as a trainee Emperor hurtling towards hubristic failure. Anxious supporters concede that the young French president has governed at times like a maladroit liberal … Mr Macron’s difficulties arise not from a failure to understand the French people’s discontents, but from a mixture of poorly sequenced reforms, especially with regard to taxation, and a regal hauteur in his behaviour that millions of his countrymen find unbearable. ‘ Was that from a revolutionary gilet jaune tract? A populist party of left or right? Nearly right: they were the thoughts of Anthony Barber, Europe editor of the Financial Times.
What we’ve recently seen is a near-total reversal of the once-all-powerful machine which used to run Government. Transfixed in gilets jaunes headlights for weeks, Government’s organisational ability has been seriously damaged. Some days ago, Government cack-handedly announced a reversal of every measure previously offered to compensate the rise in carbon tax. The ‘thinking’ among those super-intelligent people in charge was that since the carbon tax rise had been abandoned, the earlier financial concessions offered by Government should be withdrawn. How unimaginably stupid. In less than 2 hours, Government withdrew its withdrawal. Substantial protests, mostly from the President’s own Républiqe en Marche Deputies, restored sense to Government.
Before the President’s Big Speech, the Finance Minister had been on telly talking about the tax rise affecting pensioners. We’re definitely not budging on that, said the Minister confidently. Alas. Pride. Fall. He was unaware the President would withdraw that tax rise (from the earliest days of his Presidency) mere hours after the Minister misspoke.
Out of the Big Speech emerged the Presidential invite for the nation to have a Great Debate (on which more below). At the weekly meeting between President and Ministers it was decided that ‘uncertainties over immigration in the context of globalisation’ should be specifically addressed. More protests. Change of mind. Another U-turn.
There were several small (but irritatingly important) changes of policy (aka filling out the detail) following That Presidential Address. Eg the ‘clarification’ that – despite what everyone thought they’d unequivocally heard – the minimum wage (salaire minimum de croissance, universally known as the ‘smic’) was NOT being raised. It turned out to be all fiendishly more complicated than that: so some smicards get no raise.
As for cack-mouthed Government spokesperson, Griveaux. He often spokes too quickly. Regularly gets something in his spokes. Latest example, he called out a leading gilet jaune for being racist and for publicising Le Pen on his Facebook page. Oops! Wrong person called out! Public apology later: it’s so tricky identifying people on Facebook.
While it seems that the President himself has retreated to his Elysée bunker [at least according to what seem well-sourced, colourful reporting in Le Monde such as the ‘fact’ that Macron now never went out without lots of make-up, even for his hands, especially since The Big TV Speech when he sported a thin and Nixonianly undershaved look]:
- now no late night dinners at his fave Montparnasse brasserie, La Rotonde (not far, incidentally, from that street where any President can cross the road and get a job in a restaurant)
- now no Versailles weekends, with Madame at the local boulangerie on Sunday
- now no overseas visits – except a pre-Xmas visit to the Army in Chad
Look like Governmental cock-ups. Smell like Governmental cock-ups. Probably ARE Governmental cock-ups.
Prime Minister Philippe (a bit of a boxer himself) told Le Journal de Dimanche on Sunday that ‘Politics is like boxing. When you enter the ring, you know you’re going to get hit. I’ve taken them. And I can give them too.’ But, in truth, all members of the Executive are clearly feeling more than a bit groggy.
So maybe because of that they’ve pushed back their major pensions reform (far too heavyweight a subject for these lightweights) until after May’s Euro-Elections. But there’s still plenty of big fights ahead. Firstly trade unions and employers have 2 months to sort out an entirely new, substantial-money-saving unemployment benefit scheme: €3.5bn savings to be found. Secondly, there’s the long-awaited cut in public employees to get close to matching Candidate Macron’s huge reduction of 120,000 public sector jobs over his 5 year term.
‘They’re off’. It’s The Great National Debate
The President made his 13 minute State of the Nation Address on 10 December. That came after 4 weeks of Utter Presidential Silence amid France’s State of Chassis.
Then we saw a nervous President eating humble-ish pie before 23 million people, while stiffly sat behind His Golden Desk, allegedly the most valuable artefact in the Presidential Palace. [Body language note: BFM TV hired a ‘non-verbal communication’ expert to watch The Speech. The expert saw the President’s left eye more closed than his right. Apparently ‘indicating tension and emotional stress’. Impressive expert analysis.]
10 days later we’re off and stumbling on one of the President’s headline promises. He wants ‘to take the national pulse’. A Great National Debate is part of the response to the gilets jaunes. It had all been intended to start by mid-December. Needless to say there’ve been hiccups getting to where we currently may be.
Within 2 days of the Presidential Address, Government announced a consultation organised around 4 major questions:
- How best to help people with their accommodation, transport and energy needs?
- How to make the tax system more fair, efficient, relevant and comprehensible?
- How should democracy and citizenship evolve?
- How should the organisation of Government and public services be made more efficient and more in touch with people?
- [And there was also (but blink and you missed it) a FIFTH subject too. The President even referred to it in his Big Speech. IMMIGRATION. At the end of his Thirteen Minutes To Save His Presidency, he referred to ‘identity’ and ‘addressing the question of immigration’. But it was soon decided that was far too explosive a stand-alone subject, so it’s morphed into being part of ‘citizenship’]
Next day, Prime Minister Philippe got things moving with a speech to the French Towns Association. That was progress of a sort. Thus far, Government in all its manifestations has tended to disregard humble bodies that make countries function at local level. Philippe urged local debates, meeting people in their workplaces and contacting them through social media.
The Prime Minister even said – and Government was so proud of this trenchantly witty analysis, they put it on their Government website: ‘The broad idea of this debate is that, rather than a French garden, it should be like an English garden: foissonant [ie abundant, overflowing, unconfined, expansive].’ Yet some commentators rather fear a grand bazar à la française, ie a big bleedin’ mess.]
Within days France Info public radio revealed that the National Commission for Public Debate (yes, there really is one) had opined. Their worthy role as an ‘independent administrative authority’ is to ensure that ‘public opinion is taken into account’ on major public projects. And this surely is ‘major’. The NCPD blew its whistle early: they were worried that Government might just try influencing the debate.
These discussions are not to be political meetings warned the Commission. No Government Minister or Deputy can open, close or lead the discussion. Government must respond formally to what’s been raised, said the Commission.
Further, it was initially being done with obscene haste. So it’s all now happening from mid-January until 1 March 2019: all at a Discussion Point Near You. To ensure there’s an agora almost everywhere in the country, voters’ names will be drawn randomly and conferences comprising 100 ‘citizens’ will be established in every Region.
Meanwhile the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE) set up an online consultative platform to which all of us, ‘gilet jaune-wearers or not’ says the invite, are cordially asked to contribute, under 6 general themes, by running along with speech bubbles above our heads. There’ve been nearly 5,000 ‘contributions’ thus far, over 90% from individuals (some people being fairly prolix: GA has made over 200 contributions, while ‘Dominique from Burgundy’ is nearly at 80); only 3 have been ruled out by the moderator, and put into a public dustbin for all to see
- social equality (20%)
- ecological transition (19%)
- citizens’ participation (17%)
- fiscal justice (15%)
- purchasing power (9%), and
- inequality between regions (6%)
Opinion poll on Euro-Election voting intention (and it’s still 5 months away)
- Le Pen’s National Assembly (formerly Front National) 24% (+3)
- Macron’s République en Marche 19% (-2.5)
- Mélenchon’s hard left France Unbowed 11.5% (-1)
- ‘Centre’-right Républicains 8% (-6)
- Ecologists 6.5% (+1.5)
- Socialists 6% (+2.5)
- Gilets jaunes would get 8% if they ran … but next May?
Le Pen is the big winner of the gilets jaunes struggle thus far. Macron will be hoping that the gilets jaunes decide to present a list (or better still, lists) so as to syphon votes from hard left and extreme right, leaving him semi-cock of the walk.
Best wishes for 2019
As we approach the blog’s 2nd anniversary, here’s wishing you all the very best for 2019.
What a difference a year makes. The President’s 2017 Christmas greetings
and now the somewhat downsized (and definitely down-pictured) version for these darker days of 2018
See you in 2019.