United colours of the ‘yellow vests’
As the French state tries to withdraw, it faces an unprecedented backlash
The sight of flaming barricades and upturned cars in Paris usually sends journalists scurrying to their cliché cupboard. For historically literate commentators, current events in France evoke the storming of the Bastille and the Paris Commune. For the politically minded, they seem more akin to the Popular Front of 1936 or May 1968. And, for those aware of France’s difficult colonial past, the spectacle of the police confronting ordinary citizens brings back memories of the Battle of Algiers.
There is a kernel of truth to all these clichés. It is true that political violence in France follows well-worn patterns that have their roots in the country’s revolutionary past. This means that the mere erection of a barricade can turn a tedious protest march into a pseudo-revolutionary action with powerful political ramifications.
It is also true that some of the techniques used in the recent protests in France mirror those used by trade unions. Shutdowns and blockades have been the stock-in-trade of the French labour movement for more than 150 years.
And, yes, after the collapse of the French empire in the 1950s and 1960s, the French police did bring their peculiarly violent methods of control and interrogation back to metropolitan France, with sometimes devastating consequences.
The problem is that none of these clichés really gets to the heart of the so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests that have rocked France for the past three weeks. This is because the protests do not fit the usual historic parallels.
For a start, the gilets jaunes movement is not led by any union or political party. No one can say that it is a structured ‘movement’. It also seems to combine elements of the right and left — and especially elements of the far-right and far-left — that make an ideological interpretation of the protests awkward.
Most importantly, the protesters’ demands are not clearly articulated: some want tax cuts (on fuel), some want tax rises (for the rich), some want more public services, some want more generous state benefits, some want to smash up symbols of capitalism, some want a stronger President, some think the current President is too strong, and some want all of these things at once.
Given this extraordinary dispersion of demands, it is hard to give a fixed reading of what the gilets jaunes represent. Instead, it is more useful to focus on the few things that unite them. There are two that stand out.
Double-bind of French state
The first is the obsessive focus on the French state. From the beginning, the gilets jaunes have targeted the French state as both villain and saviour. They have organised groups to protest outside government offices all over the country, especially in smaller provincial towns. This has frequently been accompanied by violence and vandalism. Almost all of the protesters agree that the state is not doing enough and has neglected their needs.
This belief has been exacerbated by the imperious attitude of French President Emmanuel Macron. His avowedly statist orientation, his embrace of the hyper-presidentialism of the Fifth Republic, and his fondness for monarchical symbolism have merely stoked the fire. Like an ill-fated king, Mr. Macron has turned anger at the state into anger at his person.
Yet, despite their ire, the gilets jaunes also demand redress from the very same state they abhor. They want the French government to lower fuel taxes, reinstate rural post offices, increase their ‘purchasing power’, cut property taxes, and hire more doctors for rural clinics. They firmly believe that the state can and should fix their problems. The fact that many of the issues at the heart of the protests relate to deep structural imbalances in the French economy makes no difference. The state is held as sole responsible and sole guarantor.
This paradox has a long pedigree in French history. Especially since 1945, the French state has expanded enormously, to a point that French people are comfortable with high levels of state interference in their social and economic lives. The massive subsidies put in place to soften the blow of deindustrialisation in the 1980s further increased this dependence.
Today’s demonstrations are a logical outcome of this double-bind: as the French state tries to withdraw, under pressure from European Union-wide austerity politics and its own budgetary overreach, it faces an unprecedented backlash.
Centre and periphery
The second common theme in the gilets jaunes protests is their very wide geographical dispersion. In this respect, the focus on Paris has been misleading. What is most interesting about recent events is how spread out they are across metropolitan France and even overseas.
While cars were burning on the Champs-Elysées, thousands of people in provincial France blocked roundabouts, staged sit-ins on town squares, and threw rocks at town halls. Meanwhile, in the overseas territory of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, the entire island has been brought to a standstill by targeted traffic blockades.
This geographical reach reflects another long-standing structural pathology of the French economy, namely the sharp division between centre and periphery. While urban areas in France have tended to develop better infrastructure and more integrated community structures, the withdrawal of state aid has had the opposite effect in peri-urban and rural areas, and in the highly unequal overseas territories.
In this respect, it is significant that the catalyst for the protests was rising fuel prices. Those most reliant on their cars are those who live farthest from urban areas and do not have access to regular public transport. In addition, there has been a complete policy reversal on diesel fuel. After almost half a century of subsidies, the French state has been taking away financial incentives on diesel since the early 2000s. This is a heavy blow for the 61% of French people whose cars run on diesel, and for the truckers and farmers who were used to getting their fuel on the cheap.
A bleak future
So what can be done? The answer is, probably not much. The most likely scenario is that the protests will peter out due to fatigue, demobilisation and a lack of leadership. It is not clear how, if at all, any political party can capitalise on them, except perhaps for the far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who sees herself as the voice for France’s peripheral squeezed middle.
The biggest danger is spiralling depoliticisation. Mr. Macron’s plunging approval ratings before and during the gilets jaunes protests indicates a crisis of leadership at least as acute as the one that marred former President François Hollande’s five years in office. Not for the first time, the most urgent task facing France’s elite is to elaborate a more inclusive political project that will begin to reduce the country’s well-documented inequalities.
Emile Chabal is a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’