The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement has been in steady decline since Christmastime. But the grotesque assault on Alain Finkielkraut in Paris last Saturday marks its end as a social force one could be hopeful about.
The Gilets Jaunes emerged last November from the French version of flyover country with stunning speed, a protest of middle- and working-class Frenchmen who didn’t live in Paris or Bordeaux, who needed their cars to get to work and wouldn’t sit still for a new “green” tax on gasoline that fell disproportionately on them. In French President Emmanuel Macron, they had found a seemingly perfect political foil, a former banker who had made every possible concession to accommodate multiculturalism while pushing policies favoring France’s globally linked capitalist elite.
Their movement—large in numbers and courage—shocked the comfortable in Paris. It pushed to center stage the analysis of France’s most important contemporary sociologist, Christophe Guilluy, who had been writing for years about the growing chasm between France’s rich metropolises and its declining industrial base, rural areas, and middle class.
When the Gilets Jaunes massed hundreds of thousands in France’s major cities, the French progressive establishment, which had habitually flattered itself by posturing in solidarity with popular movements, reacted with near-universal disdain. Many were shocked by the movement’s episodes of symbolic violence, like tagging the Arc de Triomphe with graffiti. But the biggest damage was to their own sense of themselves: here were middling French men and women who had been losing economic ground for decades and to whom Parisian progressives had nothing to say.
As the protests swelled, Macron made some important concessions (especially on the gas tax) and started a political campaign-style “national conversation.” Some Gilets Jaunes welcomed the concessions; others doubled down and made more radical demands. “Macron resign,” a common Gilet Jaunes cry, ran into the problem that the French president had been legitimately elected. Others, working people with jobs and families, couldn’t keep up the pace of protesting every weekend. And though the movement was widely supported, many grew weary, even after a few weeks, of the disruption that the continuous demonstrations caused.
Much of the initial appeal of the Gilets Jaunes was based in their “everyman” quality—that of middle-class French who weren’t especially engaged in politics but had had enough. But the other side of this lack of experience and foundational structure was that anyone could put on the yellow vest that French drivers are required to carry and present themselves as representatives of the most important social movement France had seen in years.
This, of course, gave a huge opportunity for entryism, especially to the far Left. Soon, demonstrations began to attract casseurs, the professionals of leftist street violence. Members of the far Left party La France Insoumise began to play a more prominent part in the movement’s support. The Gilets Jaunes had trouble agreeing upon a strategy beyond weekly protests. When some of them prepared to put themselves forth as candidates in the forthcoming Europarliament elections, others denounced them as sell-outs.
The French political media establishment was always ready to smear the Yellow Vests. The singer of an appealing music video contrasting the “naughty” Gilets Jaunes with “nice” establishment figures such as Bernard Henri Lévy and Daniel Cohn-Bendit was accused of anti-Semitism. But soon the Gilets Jaunes were tarnished, fairly or not, with genuine anti-Semitic acts on the margins of their demonstrations—the scrawling of “Juden” on a bagel store, the defacement of portraits of Simone Veil. It was never established who exactly carried out such acts.
Then last Saturday, Alain Finkielkraut, an extremely prominent 69-year-old author and philosopher of the center-right, was accosted by a group of men wearing yellow vests while returning from a lunch in Montparnasse. They hurled anti-Semitic slurs at him (“Zionist shit!” “Go back to Tel Aviv!”) and seemed ready to attack him physically had police not intervened.
Finkielkraut’s response was interesting: he said he hoped police would find out who the attackers were, but made some important distinctions. “We are not experiencing a return to the 1930s. It’s a new type of anti-Semitism we’re experiencing. They are the sorts who shout ‘Palestine’ while calling me a Zionist. There was one with a beard who said ‘God will punish you’—that’s not the language of the extreme Right, it’s actually Islamist rhetoric.”
In an interview published prior to the assault, Finkielkraut, when asked about the rise in anti-Semitic acts in France, repeated that they were not for the most part due to the extreme Right but to an anti-Semitism imported from the Maghreb, Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa, which had been implanted in France over a long period of time. He then noted a parallel exponential rise in attacks on Christian churches, observing that “in the 21st century France, Jews, and Catholics were in the same boat.”
There are further points to be made, particular to Finkielkraut and the more general position of Jewish intellectuals in France. (I’ve addressed both subjects at greater length here.)
The people who menaced him on the streets of Paris certainly didn’t care, and even if this weren’t the case it wouldn’t excuse the anti-Semitic slurs, but Finkielkraut is what in the United States is known as a liberal Zionist. He has always taken a position in favor of Palestinian state alongside Israel. He was an active supporter of Peace Now in the 1970s, an Israeli group which called for withdrawal from the West Bank. He was a recent critic of the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. In this realm, he is more or less the direct opposite of his counterpart philosopher Bernard Henri Lévy, who (in the fashion of many American neoconservatives) combines militant right-wing Zionist advocacy with support for high immigration and multiculturalism in the West.
Secondly, Finkielkraut was one (along with the popular right-wing writer Éric Zemmour) of a handful of French intellectuals favorable to the Gilet Jaunes at the outset, critical of the arrogance of the French elite ready to write off as not worthy of concern the travails of French people in small cities and towns. While remaining a critic of the Front National (now the Rassemblement National), Finkielkraut has readily acknowledged that Marine Le Pen has transformed the party by purging the anti-Semitic elements that it once attracted. In recent writings he has been an eloquent witness to the failure of French multiculturalism, which has made him a regular target of the far Left.
In short, if one were to imagine (as did I and others ) that France needed a movement like the Gilets Jaunes—a powerful populist outburst from La France profonde to counter the elites who are shepherding what Renaud Camus calls “the big replacement” (the demographic replacement of the French by peoples from Africa and the Mideast)—then that movement needed intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut to not only help others understand it but also, conceivably, to give it some guidance.
Alas, that is not going to happen. Whatever the inclinations and propensities of the first Gilet Jaunes were, they have now been effectively superseded by whomever can today put on a yellow vest and shout anti-Semitic vitriol on the streets of Paris. Perhaps something like this was inevitable—a group as unstructured as the Gilets Jaunes had no means to ward off activists seeking to appropriate its brand for their own purposes. There were previous signs that this was happening, but the verbal assault on Finkielkraut has brought it to a tipping point. It’s a loss, and not only for the Gilet Jaunes.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9