France’s Yellow Vests Take a Left Turn

The anti-tax protesters are being replaced by something closer to Antifa. What ultimately will emerge from all this?

When French President Emmanuel Macron addressed his country on television Monday night, there was one “Gilet Jaune” in the BMFTV studio, a middle-aged man in a yellow vest surrounded by a half dozen regular center-left and center-right talking heads. He took notes during the 13-minute speech, before being called upon to comment. Macron had decried the violence of the past weeks, praised the police, expressed some contrition for his government’s failings, and announced four specific measures to aid France’s working poor and pensioners. “Finally”—was the man’s emphatic initial reaction, while noting that Macron’s concessions alone wouldn’t go far enough. But he also acknowledged that Macron had finally heard the countrywide grievances of the forgotten middle and welcomed the prospect of a renewed social pact to reduce the gaps between France’s périphérique and its more prosperous cities.

Five minutes and several interviews later, a BMFTV camera found a group of Gilets Jaunes watching TV at an encampment in the provinces. A younger man took the microphone, and said that the only thing that would calm the crisis was Macron’s resignation. His fellow protesters cheered.

Such are the difficulties posed by a social movement of amorphous structure. It is hard to know who speaks for it, how to negotiate with it, what it is exactly. Furthermore, the movement changes. Though there is, of course, some continuity, the Gilet Jaunes of a month ago are not the Gilet Jaunes of today.

Paris and other major cities have seen two successive Saturdays of street blockages, metro closings, bonfires, window smashing, looting, and mass arrests, and, of course, Paris is tired of it. Writes Elizabeth Levy, the editor of Causeur, “One feels that if the Parisiens, so enamored of openness and trade, could shut themselves off and close all the entrances to the city, it would not displease them.”

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Levy touched impressionistically on the evolution in the movement. The crowds she saw in Paris last Saturday morning “were mostly made up of men and [based on her interviews] more Mélenchonist [supporters of La France Insoumise, the far left party] than at the beginning of the mobilization.” Levy added that this view had been confirmed by Benjamin Cauchy, one of the moderates of the movement who signed an appeal to the group to not demonstrate in Paris last Saturday. According to Cauchy, at the traffic circle gatherings of the Gilet Jaunes, many of the workers and small businessmen had gone back to work, their places taken by left-wing militants. If three weeks ago, one could expect road closures and economic disruption from a Gilet Jaunes protest, one should now anticipate violence. Casseurs (“smashers” in French; Antifa in American idiom) have joined the demonstrations, taking advantage of the crowds and general police exhaustion to smash stores and bank windows. So too have the “youth” from the suburbs begun to join in, looting when the opportunity arises.

A movement that three weeks ago seemed somewhat attractively apolitical (many Gilets Jaunes proclaimed this was the first political protest they had ever engaged in) has begun to assume a different coloring. Center-right intellectuals such Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut, critics of globalism and neoliberalism, were initially well disposed; now they lament the violence that trails in its wake. If a movement is seen to be both extremely popular and unstructured, requiring no more than a yellow vest to join, it will inevitably become a target for entryism, a tried and true radical left tactic.

Bruckner traces some of present violence to the car burning riots of 2005, an outburst that began in immigrant suburbs and where the government was determined not to use force that might harm any of the rioters. Thus was set a new threshold for any demonstration. As Bruckner writes, “the lack of state reaction in the territories lost to the Republic [a phrase evoking the controversial Islamization of the French suburbs] inspired the more radical Gilet Jaunes to believe that anything was possible, including the complete overthrow of political institutions.” It is now noted that the very nature of what a political demonstration is has changed in France. No longer a matter of chants and marching and perhaps a standoff with the police, looting and smashing are now almost mandatory—something that was not the case a generation ago.

With his speech Monday night, Macron clearly recognized that the unstructured working-class revolt, whose approval ratings have polled at close to 70 percent, was a threat to the survival of his government. The French police are not able to maintain themselves in a state of high mobilization every weekend. And, of course, having major cities shut down during the holiday season does a lot of damage to business and thus to state revenues and the French economy. Macron thus found himself forced to make concessions.

Another facet of the Gilets Jaunes protests, not formally linked to economic immiseration, is that of cultural displacement. This was originally a movement of the French périphérique, the French equivalent of flyover country, whose concerns had been widely ignored by a succession of governments that instead devoted considerable resources to trying to “integrate” the immigrant suburbs. The website of Bernard Henri Levy, the influential French neoconservative, depicted the Gilet Jaunes as “white trash,” to use the English phrase. On the other hand, the initial reaction of Marine Le Pen’s party (renamed the Rassemblement National) and many more traditionalist right-wing intellectuals was favorable to the movement, often enthusiastic.

But to the extent that the Gilet Jaunes becomes an adjunct to La France Insoumise, with an added seasoning of banlieu looters and Antifa, the French right will back away. Practically all of Marine Le Pen’s tweets over the past several days have been directed at Macron’s signing of the United Nations’ immigration pact at Marrakech, a document that expresses a wooly aspiration towards a multicultural borderless liberalism. Important as that pact may be, it is not what the French are talking about right now.

It’s far from obvious that the Macron government has the fiscal strength to pursue both the pro-capitalist economic reform it seeks and placate the Gilet Jaunes. France is now a country both mobilized and tired of disruption at the same time, and many disparate social forces are in fierce contention. The one thing that feels certain is that the economic and social model that has reigned in France and throughout much of Europe for the past generation, under the twin pillars of neoliberal economics and high rates of immigration, is under unprecedented duress. It is being attacked at once by a nationalist and sovereigntist right, a multicultural left, and an older left still comfortable with class warfare language. What model will emerge to replace it?

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.

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22 Responses to France’s Yellow Vests Take a Left Turn

  1. JRC Maenpaa says:

    This was never a right-wing/anti-tax revolt, but rather a revolt against shifting the tax burden from the wealthy onto the lower middle class and working poor, which is what switching from income and estate taxes to consumption taxes is ALWAYS about.

    The protests are also against neoliberalism in general.

    Adjust your media appliances with a BFH, and get a library card.

    You’ll know stuff; it’s like magic.

  2. polistra says:

    You’re completely confused. Macron is not pro-capitalist, he’s pro-EU and pro-Gaia. Antifa is a stout and steadfast defender of Deepstate. Antifa is pro-EU and pro-Gaia.

    Antifa aims its protests AGAINST the Deplorables who are the majority of the yellowvests.

  3. Michael Kenny says:

    What the author is saying, and I think he’s right, is that Macron is winning. The thing is turning into a typically French protest. People march through the streets, some minor concessions are made to them and they just go home. In addition, the violence is turning people away. People are starting to worry that their employers might go bankrupt. The move to the left is generational. The millennials tended to lean to the far right. The post-millennials tend to lean to the far left.

  4. Kurt Gayle says:

    Scott’s insightful conclusion: “The one thing that feels certain is that the economic and social model that has reigned in France and throughout much of Europe for the past generation, under the twin pillars of neoliberal economics and high rates of immigration, is under unprecedented duress. It is being attacked at once by a nationalist and sovereigntist right, a multicultural left, and an older left still comfortable with class warfare language. What model will emerge to replace it?”

    In order to succeed, the attack against the twins pillars of neoliberal must be organized and must be accompanied by a clearly articulated political program. The Antifa tactics—the random violence, window-breaking, and looting—that have characterized the past two weekends must be avoided. Such tactics will quickly erode the originally strong public support.

    General de Gaulle’s scatological but oh-so-clever May, 1968 slogan — “La réforme oui, la chie-en-lit non” – translated into a sweeping establishment election victory the following month and demonstrated how quickly initial public support can evaporate in the face of anarchy. (Random street violence by Antifa-style wankers is the gift to law-and-order candidates that keeps on giving.) Ms. Le Pen is right to back off from any open-ended support of the Yellow Vest demonstrators.

  5. Van den Bruggen says:

    The Yellow vests are foremost “anti-governement” and have not gat a clear ideological frame yet. It is not about solutions or policy and it is support in France is waining.

  6. SteveM says:

    Such are the difficulties posed by a social movement of amorphous structure. It is hard to know who speaks for it, how to negotiate with it, what it is exactly…

    It is being attacked at once by a nationalist and sovereigntist right, a multicultural left, and an older left still comfortable with class warfare language. What model will emerge to replace it?

    The French are essentially replicating the 2016 U.S. presidential election process, but with more intensity. Trump represented the disenfranchised Right and Bernie Sanders represented the disenfranchised Left.

    The key subtext is that the Left-Right divide is only over means, not ends. That is why the political configuration of the Yellow Vest protests is ambiguous. Both sides recognize that the status quo run by a totally corrupt Elite class is rotten to the core and has to be replaced.

    Whatever can’t last forever, won’t, I.e., Ponzi scheme economies and perpetual war. What will replace the sclerotic Leviathan that propagates them, I don’t think anyone can tell at this point. Only that Trump, and now the Yellow Vests are canaries in the coal mine of an eventual, very chaotic dissolution.

    This is the initiation of the death spiral. After that crash, it will all over but the crying.

  7. Sid Finster says:

    I would consider it a mistake to think of the GJ as “left wing” or “right wing”, especially as American politics watchers understand the terms. A lot of the NF (LePen’s party) program would be considered well to the left of anything Team D espouses. In fact, NF party rhetoric is that immigration reform and withdrawing from Europe is necessary to *save* and *expand* France’s social programs. Ronald Reagan, this ain’t.

    That said, like most Americans, the average frustrated Frenchman can see that the system as constructed is not working for him or her, but for the French and European elites. In fact, the average GJ probably isn’t terribly interested in ideology. What he wants are what most Americans want – the jobs to come back and the stupid wars to end. (This is also how Trump got elected, although he has since governed as a particularly reckless and dysfunctional Republican.)

    If “socialism” will restore something like the rule of law, sovereignty, and a decent standard of living for ordinary people, and will end French participation in Washington’s stupid wars, then the average GJ is for socialism. If it takes something like the FN to do these things, then he will support that, whatever label attaches to it or ideology it relies upon.

    Of course, the French and European elites, like those here, think the current system is working just dandy. Moreover, if Macron were to step down, there is a very real possibility that his replacement will be someone unacceptable to those elites, someone who will institute real reforms and upset the elites’ place in France and Europe.

    Therefore, Macron will be allowed to do whatever it takes to hang onto power.

  8. Sid Finster says:

    Just to beat my earlier point to death:

    “Nothing scares the Identity Politics Left quite like an actual working class uprising. Witnessing the furious unwashed masses operating out there on their own, with no decent human restraint whatsoever, Identity Politics Leftists feel a sudden overwhelming urge to analyze, categorize, organize, sanitize, and otherwise correct and control them.”

    http://www.unz.com/chopkins/the-indiscreet-charm-of-the-gilets-jaunes/

  9. Anthony M says:

    The French are so awesome. Americans like to think that they’re tough, but French citizens come out in force if their government tries to screw over the working class. This has been a violent revolt from the beginning, in proper response to the violence that Macron’s policies are inflicting upon French workers.

    It’s been entertaining watching American conservatives trying to make sense of this, without much understanding of the broadly understood social contract in France. They won’t take a slide into capitalist hell-scape lying down.

  10. Kurt Gayle says:

    @ Sid Finster, who quotes C.J. Hopkins (Dec 12, 10:45 am): “Nothing scares the Identity Politics Left quite like an actual working class uprising. Witnessing the furious unwashed masses operating out there on their own, with no decent human restraint whatsoever, Identity Politics Leftists feel a sudden overwhelming urge to analyze, categorize, organize, sanitize, and otherwise correct and control them.”

    Speaking as a trade unionist on the Trumpian right: It’s not about restraining working class demonstrators. Far from it. It’s about helping them to organize themselves and helping them to channel their efforts into tactics that can achieve recognizable goals without being counterproductive and alienating would-be supporters. (And without getting their asses arrested and charged with serious crimes!)

    Equally important: It’s about sitting down with the demonstrators and persuading them that they need to put forward some sort of political program – some list of goals they want to achieve by the demonstrations. Also, that they will use tight marshaling to control their people so that this wanton public vandalism – this break and burn and smash and grab – can be stopped immediately! One more thing: No more attacks on police and soldiers. None!

    The Yellow Vest movement still has the potential to be a really, really important political movement.

  11. The Other Sands says:

    They’ve always been on the left. They want the government to control cost of living for lower income people and redistribute more wealth.

    It is generally a mistake to map American political ideologies onto other countries, particularly one as different as France.

  12. Ivo Olavo Castro da Silva says:

    Those violent protesters ARE AntiFas with a yellow vest. No typical worker or middle class professional would do such criminal actions. Not even in France.

  13. Mark B. says:

    The Old Left, the Identity Multi-Culti left, the Nationalist Sovereigntist Right, the Alt-Right.

    Okay, Neo-Liberalism byby.

    I pick…Old Nationalist Identity Left.

    Anyone?

    If just somebody would tell the GJ-People loud and clear that old jobs never will come back becaus they are all consumerslaves of the Market, that they are in fact the pillars of neo-liberalism by their way of consuming and that if they want change, they better think ahead of what that change will mean for their way of living, for they will propably become poor savers instead of consumers in debt.

    And no whining please!

  14. An American says:

    There were always elements to the yellow vests that an American conservative would consider left-wing. It says a lot about the quality of journalism that this protest has been going on for weeks and you, a professional writer for a well respected website, are just figuring that out.

  15. Loran Tritter says:

    The French government may not know how to deal with foreigners and terrorists. French men know what to do and how to go about it. xxx

  16. ATBOTL says:

    McConnell is incredibly out of touch here. Citing, comically, a “Finkelkraut,” some totally irrelevant establishment figure with no real supporters, as if what he says means anything. Saying casseurs are “antifa in the America idiom” is utterly absurd as the word “antifa” is of course, a non-English language continental Europeanism, not any kind of America idiom. He doesn’t understand the the riot is against wealthy people who live in the city. Smashing up their favorite stores, cars and neighborhoods is part of the plan, not some scheme by infiltrating commies.

    No mention of the Benalla afair? The people are quite right to demand Macron’s resignation. What kind of country accepts a president who is the bottom in a sleazy sado-masochistic homosexual relationship? How would that go down with people here? How would that go down with young minority men here? You think they would be cool with that? You are crazy if you think ghetto youth are only opportunistically looting and don’t hate Macron to the degree of wanting to lynch him.

    This wave has far from crested. McConnell doesn’t grasp the white hot anger felt by the majority of the population over the hideously awful and twisted Macron and his sick, evil neoliberal policies.

    The large majority of people who voted for Macron disliked him and his program. They did it only to stop the FN. Macron and the establishment idiotically took the election as an endorsement. The people saw Macron as kind of interim leader who must not do anything unpopular. He did and now he’s toast. This will escalate until Macron is gone. He will probably be forced out of office by his own allies soon. He’s simply too toxic for the people tolerate.

  17. Dan Green says:

    Like most so called movements, they end up with what I would call, no fire power against the elite’s. We have our own fad’s. Me Too, Lean in , Black Lives matter, some prior Wall Street effort who’s name escapes me, etc. etc., and of course we have the Deplorable’s, who will be punished for their mis deeds. As our society standard of living is re-jigged to haves and have not’s, the 65 million deplorable’s are destined to be shut down and look out for themselves as best they can.

  18. cka2nd says:

    The initial reaction to these protests at Daily Kos, my go-to source for the Democratic Party “Cultural Left” zeitgeist, was conflicted, and most concerned about whether the Yellow Vests were anti-environmentalist or not. The comments sections still include some folks dismissing them as LePenists and proto-Trump voters, but the staff and community writers seem to be warming up to them. One of them produced a very useful column listing a translation of the stated demands of the Yellow Vests (along with additional links in French and English translation) and comparing and contrasting them to Re[. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ “proposed goals for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal.”

    https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/12/9/1818046/-Demands-of-the-Yellow-Vests-or-Gilets-Jaunes

    I’d call their demands classically social democratic, neither socialist revolutionary nor reactionary or fascistic, and absolutely opposed to the neo-liberal order of the last 35 years. Reagan, Thatcher, et al, would NOT be pleased with the bulk of the demands, and that works for me!

  19. cka2nd says:

    Thank you for the link to C. J. Hopkins’ piece at Unz Review, Sid. He’s got a sharp pen!

  20. C. L. H. Daniels says:

    If “socialism” will restore something like the rule of law, sovereignty, and a decent standard of living for ordinary people, and will end French participation in Washington’s stupid wars, then the average GJ is for socialism. If it takes something like the FN to do these things, then he will support that, whatever label attaches to it or ideology it relies upon.

    I feel exactly like that, and I’m not even French. I voted for Sanders, then Trump, following basically the exact line of logic you’ve laid out.

    I pick…Old Nationalist Identity Left.

    Anyone?

    *Raises hand*

  21. Sid Finster says:

    @ Kurt Gayle: please explain what you are saying, since I did not understand.

    BTW, the quote in my earlier post was intended as irony – the point was that many on the identity politics left are horrified at getting close to actual icky working class people, especially when those working class people open their mouths.

  22. Jim says:

    France has no cash to redistribute. The working middle class of France are my expat refugee neighbors. Gilet Jaune have one option: Guillotine every government employee. Each head frees up cash and cuts the regulatory burden.

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