It is a political rule of thumb that street violence and disorder eventually redounds to the benefit of the party that can put an end to it. Except in rare cases, that is the party in power.
Paris in 2019 is almost certainly not Saint Petersburg in 1917 or Tehran in 1979. French President Emmanuel Macron, two years ago viewed as the great neoliberal hope for saving Europe from the populists and nationalists, was by this past summer extremely unpopular. He has now managed to rally in the polls, giving his party a small but meaningful lead going into this May’s Europarliament elections.
One can imagine that in a head-to-head contest, some politician would be able to persuade a majority that Macron is too weak to govern France, that his policy failures are responsible for the chaos, and that ousting him at the polls is the way to restore dignity and calm to the country. But that election is years away, and it’s far from clear what figure might emerge to carry that out. Macron, meanwhile, has effectively initiated a “national dialogue” and used it to his own political advantage, drowning the French population in a sea of words.
In the meantime, parts of Paris are burning. The Gilet Jaunes seem to be petering out as a movement, their populist roar from forgotten France increasingly overtaken by leftists speaking in their name. Four weeks ago, some Islamo-gauchistes wearing the movement’s trademark yellow vests shouted crude anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic slogans at 69-year-old Alain Finkielkraut and seemed on the verge of assaulting him before police intervened. Not that it should matter, but Finkielkraut was one of the handful of prominent French intellectuals who had spoken favorably about the Gilet Jaunes when the movement began.
The number of Gilet Jaunes at traffic circles and in demonstrations has decreased with each passing week. Fatigue is a factor, but the demonstrations have also been subject to extremely rough treatment by the French police. Particularly fearsome have been the heavy use of so-called flashballs, non-lethal rubber projectiles fired by the riot police. As of last month, 20 people had lost eyes, and there have been hundreds of serious head injuries.
By increasing the fear factor, police have surely lowered the number willing to participate in demonstrations, while raising the outrage of those who do take to the streets. Today’s Gilet Jaunes protesters are thus less numerous and more violent. This past Saturday the group returned to Paris in some force, their ranks swelled with the so-called casseurs, or black blocs, hard-left agitators. They blended in with the Gilet Jaunes, using them as human shields, occasionally emerging to attack the cops, burn shops, and scrawl communist and anarchist slogans. They broke down the security gates of the famous and pricey brasserie Le Fouquet on the Champs- Élysées, sacked the restaurant, and then firebombed it. They also set fire to a half-dozen newspaper kiosques—small businesses that run on very tight margins.
At this point, the French press recognizes that the Gilet Jaunes aren’t responsible for the majority of the violence, but their demonstrations do facilitate it. Who is responsible then? Eric Delbecque, author of the recently published book Les Ingouvernables on the far left and violent ultra-left, describes their strategy like this: “the black blocs are not a movement but a mode of operation. Their goal is to wage an information war, with the following goals: demonstrate their power to inflict violence, provoke the police into incidents which can be used to spread charges of police brutality.” Delbecque says they are ideologically a mixed bag of anarchists and zadistes (a term used for militant ecologists who violently “defend zones” against commercial and official encroachment).
It’s the violence that’s key. Delbecque observes that the violent left was able to remain somewhat untracked by authorities in recent years because so much manpower has been devoted to monitoring radical Islamists. He fears the coming of “leopard France”—a situation where the French state gradually cedes pockets (spots) of its sovereignty to Islamists or far leftists. (I first heard this term in relation to Vietnam when it arose in various ceasefire proposals wherein the Viet Cong would be allowed to retain authority in certain zones, so-called “leopard spots.”)
In any case, the police estimated that there were 1,500 casseurs active in Paris last weekend. It’s not a small number. The broader Gilets Jaunes phenomenon has unfolded quite distinctly from the unrest the French establishment really fears: violence from the immigrant populated suburbs close to Paris. Thus far, the youth of Seine-Saint-Denis haven’t joined in any meaningful way in Gilets Jaunes protests, and one occasionally reads comments from suburban notables along the lines of “if blacks did that in Paris, the police would massacre them.” That’s surely not the case, but it’s undeniable that the highly unlikely fusion of the remaining Gilets Jaunes, the hard-left casseurs, and the suburban lumpenproletariat would be genuinely terrifying to the French authorities.
In any case, what the Gilets Jaunes represent in French politics has evolved. Once an unexpected cry of pain from the peripheral France hurt by globalization and ignored by the French governing class, supported at least tacitly by a large majority of the French, it has become a more standard left-wing movement, shouting redistributionist slogans and now in some instances blended with the violent ultra-left. Last November, on French social media, a video circulated of a couple of hundred Gilet Jaunes reaching a local entente with a squad of riot cops; the slogan shouting stopped and both groups joined together to sing the French national anthem. Such an interlude is difficult to imagine today.
Even though Macron retreated on the regressive carbon tax that ignited the initial protests, the underlying class problem that gave birth to the Gilets Jaunes remains unaddressed. Simply put, more working class people in France are poor and struggling to get by than at any time in the postwar era, while many in the prosperous cities are doing just fine.
The safest prediction is that the demonstrations will soon stop. The government will forbid demonstrations in certain sensitive areas like the Champs-Élysées and a crackdown will be widely viewed as unavoidable. Macron’s party will emerge slightly stronger in the coming Europarliament elections than if the Gilet Jaunes had never happened, and the economic gap between Macron’s France and the Gilets Jaunes’ France will continue to grow. Some Gilets Jaunes activists will move into electoral politics, without obvious effect. It isn’t a happy outcome if you believe neoliberalism doesn’t have the answers to the crisis that’s been generated by its own policies.
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.