A. J. Liebling, the greatest reporter—and the keenest Francophile—ever to write for this magazine, said that a reporter tells you what he’s seen, an interpretive reporter tells you the meaning of what he’s seen, and an expert tells you the meaning of what he hasn’t seen. Not having been there to actually see—or sense, hear, or witness—what is going on right now in France, mere expertise should watch its step and often curb its tongue. Yet, although not the same as being there, looking at the background and the history of an event can often help to make sense of it, even in brief retrospect. So, the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, in France, have been the subject of anxiety, controversy, and, at times, shameless political opportunism on all sides.
They are a popular movement of no clear political view or ideology; they take their name from the yellow vests that drivers in France are required to keep in their cars, to be worn in the case of a breakdown. (They can be seen in the dark that way.) Their ostensible ignition point was a rise in fuel taxes, engineered by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, for, as it happens, impeccably green reasons: the plan was to wean France off fossil fuels by making them more expensive, and to encourage the use of renewable sources.
This tax hike seemed to the group, which gathered followers mostly through social media, the last insult of metropolitan Paris to rural France, and they began protesting and blockading highways across the country.
Last week, the protests reached Paris, where the gilets jaunes—or, by most reports, members of the largely rural group aided by extreme leftists and even more extreme rightists, both prepped for street battle—rioted on the Champs Élysées, vandalized the Arc de Triomphe, and broke into stores, creating a crisis of a kind that has brought down or impeded the progress of French governments continuously throughout the postwar era.
That fact is, in itself, the first fact to pay attention to: the local causation of the yellow-vest movement, this tax hike or that insult by Macron—or even the larger draining away of his mandate—seems less significant than that the group is one in a series that, since at least 1995, has taken to the streets to protest a program of what governments of the right, the left, or the center have imagined as “reform.” In this way, the attempt to understand the movement in narrow, immediate political-economic terms rather misses the point.
The dynamic of violent street demonstration resulting in government recoil—on Tuesday Macron’s government folded and suspended the fuel-tax hikes—is not only familiar in France, it is pretty much the most predictable cycle of its modern political life. As “France’s Long Reconstruction,” a fine new history of the Fifth Republic by Herrick Chapman, a professor of history at New York University, makes explicit and highly explanatory, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, as established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, so centralized power in the Presidential palace that it had the unintended cyclical effect of making street protests and manifestations the only dynamic alternative to government policy. Even the National Assembly is meant to be subsidiary to the Élysée Palace, where the President resides.
This is not a bug but a feature of the regime. Anyone who recalls the much larger demonstrations of late 1995, which brought the Juppé government to an end, over pension reforms that seem, in retrospect, minute, will recognize the permanence of the dynamic. Indeed, it is an irony of the movement that it takes its name from a rule of centralized government: those mandatory yellow vests. Overcentralized authority produces incoherent, spontaneous protest. The Fifth Republic French feel that, to be seen at all by centralized authority, they have to take to the streets in, so to speak, luminescent vests.
In a still larger sense, of course, the rhythm of demonstration and street fighting—including violence—has been imprinted on French history since the Revolution. In the years before the Fifth Republic, one thinks of the right-wing riots that vandalized Paris as part of the mob warfare between the extreme left and the extreme right, which scarred France in the nineteen-thirties, or of the once hugely popular movement of the poujadistes, in the nineteen-fifties—a movement of small shopkeepers who, like the gilets jaunes, felt afflicted and ignored by the central government and had a similarly contradictory politics. The most famous of all the Fifth Republic protests, the events of May 1968, though they still shine in memory to many a utopian mind, had actual politics that were vague and, at times, grotesque—at the depth of the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, Maoism was in vogue—and are rightly remembered best for their revolutionary emotion, as Woodstock is remembered best for the music, not the mud.
So, in the “vertical” direction of history, the current uprising in France seems not a new one but a part of a recurring one. In the “horizontal” direction, geographically, it also seems arbitrary to track the causes of the discontent too narrowly to this or that act of the Macron government, given that discontent of a similar kind has swept through Europe to America, and is still on the march in Brazil and other new frontiers. As with Brexit, Italian Berlusconism, Trumpism, and the extremist movements in Central and Eastern Europe which are awkwardly called “populist,” looking for a single local cause seems to miss the multiplied global point. Journalists have diligently gone out to inquire about the grievances of the gilets jaunes and have discovered economic complaints mixed with conspiracy theories and a resentment of “élites.” Certainly, the inequality that afflicts America afflicts France, too. And the rural-urban divide, which was so striking in our just concluded elections, seems equally strong there: the yellow vest is a rural emblem, rarely seen in the cities.
Naturally, pundits on both the left and the right want to seize on the French protest for a crumb of ideological comfort: the Wall Street Journal editorial page announced that the gilets jaunes provided more proof that the green élite doesn’t get the popular resentment of ecological, specifically climate-change, concerns. Macron, having positioned himself as the anti-Trump, becomes a favorite target of American Trumpism. Trump himself, with his usual grace, has taken the side of the gilets jaunes against green energy, though apparently because he thought they were endorsing him. Left-minded journalists in turn insist that the real arc of the movement is revolutionary and rooted in (what else?) a hatred of neo-liberalism. We are once again in the presence of a progressive insistence that all popular movements, no matter how reactionary their rhetoric or obnoxious their allies, are really left movements that have yet to discover their true nature. (Feelings of exclusion and dispossession doubtless exist throughout France, as they do in this country, but it also must be said that the pet social programs of Bernie Sanders progressives here—universal health care, paid maternity leave, and government subvented higher education—are already in place there.)
In France, too, the leadership of both the left and the right are trying to take advantage of the movement. However, given how well organized and how alarmingly popular the far right has been in recent decades, it is surely the most likely to benefit from a social rupture: in a contest between the far right and far left that might come in Macron’s wake, anyone would bet on the Le Pens. For that reason, the gilets jaunes seem more likely to become the French face of Trumpism—or of Orbanism, or even of Putinism—than of a more tolerant future. Indeed, the rhetoric of the movement, with its insistence that there is a globalized élite that, by manipulating finance and capital, are undoing French civilization, rhymes ominously with the classic forms of French right-wing nationalism, including indigenous French anti-Semitism. (Just as the economic anxiety of some Trump supporters seems rooted in a perception of lost status, as well as in racial resentments that date right back to the post-Civil War period.) Issues of identity and of meaning and conspiracy theories of manipulation from on high—whether from the “deep state” or the “global élite”—are more powerful in human affairs than many pundits of both left and right like to admit. It is doubtless true that the Macron government, not unlike the Obama Administration, has relied too much on the assumption of its own expertise, and has underestimated popular passions. But that does not make popular passions a basis for better government.
The notion that rage or even violence can be a positive force in social life is a persistent one—the romance of revolution remains very strong in France, dominating, particularly, memories of 1968—along with the idea that it would be exciting to live in such a time. Actually, it wouldn’t. We live in a time, as David Bennun wrote last week in the Guardian, when what Americans call liberal institutions, and the French call republican ones, have been in place for so long that people assume that they are so hardy, and somehow so natural, that they can be perpetuated even as the protections they offer come under assault by authoritarian extremists—some in power, some seeking it. In truth, republican institutions are frighteningly fragile, and, as we’re already seeing in Eastern Europe, can collapse more rapidly than one would have thought possible. There is no substitute for the hard work of republican, or democratic, government. Those of us among the governed need to recall this; the governing need to keep it in mind even more. Even a little modest expertise might help.
One can feel in France, and in the reactions to the events there abroad, an urge for expedience: they’re enraged at green taxes—they’re part of our rebellion! Or: they’re enraged at neo-liberalism and corporate control—that’s good for our side. Two truths hold: rage is ignored at its peril and must always be addressed, however irrational it may seem; and rage can never, in itself, constitute a politics. Those who bet that they can benefit from rage, or exploit it, eventually lose their bets, and sometimes their heads. It is vital, as the yellow vests symbolically remind us, that everyone in a nation is seen. But being seen is not the same as being saved. That takes the hard work of real reform.