Dear Partners in thought,
It is the fourth weekend of the yellow vests’ demonstrations and actually riots in Paris and France even if the numbers have gone down and Sunday was calmer (in relative terms) than Saturday. The yellow vests are still hard to understand but I wanted to share a few pointers on this seemingly unstructured but potent movement:
1. Born “from nowhere” through social networks, it is not led though it organises itself to “demonstrate” (and indeed to riot) while lacking a negotiating face to settle issues with the government, something that may not be a clear objective in itself.
2. It is deeply rooted in the French revolutionary ethos as seen throughout history since 1789. Deeply, it is an anti-elite and anti-(capitalist) system revolt though without viable alternatives on offer. It is a “scream” originally rooted in despair that is real for some, focused on the protest more than on any solutions.
3. It has not one agenda, even if it started with an opposition to fuel taxes aimed partly at fighting climate change (now recalled), but expresses multiple agendas and at times representing individual ones.
4. Each agenda is item-conflicting like with a demand for less taxes though with a request for more forms of financial assistance, all with a general utopian flavour devoid of any sense of economic reality as if the latter was besides the point.
5. If one common feature can be found it is the frustration against the stagnation in earning power over the last ten years, the rise of (indirect) taxes, the big level of unemployment and a strong French attachment to equalitarianism through this time a scream for the re-instauration of the ISF wealth tax (equalitarianism over freedom and in spite of the French mixed historical motto of liberty, equality and fraternity) .
6. It is targeted against the King or Président Macron and his “distant style” and liberal economic policies as while the French love their king and clearly wanted one in May 2017, they have short memories, hate reforms and also periodically like to cut their king’s head off, at times literally.
7. Early demonstrators are gradually shadowed by “professional” street-fighting extremists looking for clashes with police forces leading to an unprecedented level of arrests, which in spite of a very broad but non-specific support by “two thirds of the French”, risks to be discredited and create eventually a popular late May 1968 backlash still to emerge.
8. Russian hackers are deemed to have fomented fake news on social networks to incite riots in the same vein as seen during the British referendum of 2016 and US and French Presidential elections of 2016 and 2017. On Saturday, one of the arrested rioters was wearing a yellow vest with the Russia-supported separatist Donetsk People’s Republic flag on its back.
9. The yellow vests saga is a process of “emotional contagion” enhanced by social network technology when people get involved without clear grievances but as they wish to join “something big” that takes form against “the system” which has been in many but at times vague ways unfair to them (all of this while France has a majority of non-income tax payers and one of the highest redistribution systems in the OECD).
10. It is very costly with a loss of EUR 1 billion as the fourth weekend was starting and a blow to the retail and tourism industries notably in Paris which will result in less taxes that could be used to enhance additional redistribution.
11. Traditional opposition parties that have not provided any real opposition to the government since mid-2017, possibly allowing the yellow vests to emerge due to the void, have not yet taken any real credit for the events as the situation is still too unclear even if a few politicians, such as former Président Hollande (looking for an unlikely come back) and Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of Centre Right Republicans (looking for a mere “existence”), made sure they were pictured with the yellow vest crowd or wore a vest respectively.
12. It will become essential for the elite (and the media) to explain to the yellow vests that a government democratically elected in a free country like France needs to be respected and is not changed by street riots as well as conveying to “them” the need to sit down and discuss their grievances with the government in a rational and reasonable way within the context of the institutions and economic system as we know it. Lastly it will be key to convey to the yellow vests the fact that a collapse of our economic system as we know it and can improve would lead to their own real collapse and true pauperisation.
Things are unfolding on a daily if not hourly basis but I hope these pointers are useful to understand what we know to be the “Gilets Jaunes” especially in these times of Faulknerian “sound and fury”. Keep tuned for the official communication from Emmanuel Macron this Monday.
Serge Desprat – Dec 9, 2018 (Prague)