Whatever Christopher Caldwell writes, you’ll need to read it, because he’s going to tell you something important about the world we live in. Here Caldwell writes about the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) protesters in France. What’s especially interesting about this essay is how the Yellow Vests movement maps onto US populist politics — and how it diverges. Caldwell points out how the Yellow Vests emerged from what the French call la France périphérique — basically, “flyover country.”
Christophe Guilluy, the geographer whose books La France périphérique and Fractures françaises first drew wide attention to the problem of desertification, believes there is something more general at work than a revolution in retail. Over lunch in Paris in early winter, he described his visits to Scandinavia (where the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats took 18 percent of the vote in last September’s elections) and Quebec (where the anti-immigration Coalition for Quebec’s Future toppled the province’s older liberal and separatist parties). When it comes to the economic and political effect of globalization on rural areas, Guilluy says, “Western societies are living under the same dynamic. The sociology, whether Italian, American, or Swedish, is exactly the same.”
To take the TER train in Burgundy, along the meandering Yonne between Auxerre and Clamecy, is to travel through the ageless mystery of rural France: the strangely tilted farmland, the canals and barges, the herons, the bursts of mistletoe in the trees, the exotically named towns (St-Bris-le-Vineux, Vincelles, Mailly-la-Ville, Coulanges-sur-Yonne) and their little stone train stations shaped like monopoly houses. Clamecy itself had 5,900 people in the mid-1970s, when it also had factories, notably for making charcoal, but that business stopped in 1981. It only has 3,900 people now. It remains a pretty place, with a church dating from the thirteenth century and a museum dedicated to novelist Romain Rolland, the 1915 Nobel Prize winner, who was born there. It has a sophisticated used-book store, beloved of Parisians who come on weekends. But the only activity in the center of town on a weekday is in the bar Mon Oncle Benjamin, where locals rub scratch-off tickets while horse races run on the flat-screen TV. The mayor, Claudine Boisorieux, who represents the non-Socialist left, was born there. “When I walk around,” she said in December, “I think ‘This was the house of a lawyer,’ ‘This was the house of a doctor’ … and they’re just not there anymore.”
Whether as cause or effect, the lights are going out on public services in Clamecy. The train-station ticket window is open only a half-day a week. The maternity hospital closed a decade ago. Keeping the emergency clinic open 24 hours a day is an ongoing battle. But in recent years such battles have moved onto different terrain. Now when the government looks for “savings” in a place like Clamecy, it can no longer cut services, because there are almost none left to cut. It must levy new taxes.
We tourists never see this France, just like we never see the rough suburbs. We get the Disneyland version of France. It’s like French tourists coming to Louisiana, and only seeing the French Quarter and Uptown New Orleans, but never making it out to the ghost towns of Louisiana’s poor Delta counties. I live in Louisiana, and I never go there. In 2012, not even a year after I’d returned to my home state, I drove my mom to a funeral in West Monroe, in the northeastern part of the state (you know it from Duck Dynasty), and our route took us through some of those Delta towns. I had passed through there as a boy, going to Monroe to visit family, and remembered them as being busy. Now, they were ghostifying. It was a shock. Mind you, I had just returned to my small rural town in southern Louisiana, and couldn’t help thinking that if one of those little rural towns had been my home, there would have been nothing to go back to.
That kind of thing doesn’t just happen to people, and they accept it passively. Not French people, anyway. Caldwell writes that Emmanuel Macron is a symbol of France’s elite class — pro-business progressives — and has a weird personal habit of talking down to those he believes are losers in today’s economy. It was the gas tax that set off the Yellow Vests. People who live in the cities aren’t affected so much by them, but people who live in Flyover Country, and who have to drive great distances, were massively affected.
Last November 27, in a speech meant to show resolve against the protests that were only then beginning, Macron uttered a bon mot that had been making the rounds among Paris journalists and politicians: He described the argument over the diesel tax as a clash between those who cared about saving the planet (la fin du monde) and those who worried about making it to payday (la fin du mois). Viewed this way, the battle was between rich people’s idealism and poor people’s selfishness.
Caldwell said that the movement is best understood not by traditional left-right categories, but rather as “a conflict between insiders and outsiders.” Things started out in a good way:
The striking thing about this gathering was its conviviality. The protesters waved and smiled. They were polite to the motorists, and almost all the motorists honked back in solidarity. Alain de Benoist, the sage of the late-1970s “New Right,” was correct to say, in an interview with Sputnik France, that these gilets jaunes protests had reacquainted people with an idea of the “common good” that can be found in the works of Livy, Machiavelli, and James Harrington. They were discovering, de Benoist said, that the abstract solitary individual—all decked out with rights and choices, as envisioned by free-market liberals—doesn’t really exist. It was not surprising that such people were clashing with Macron, whose movement was built on uniting free-market liberals of all parties.
Solidarity, it turned out, was not enough to keep the gilets going.
Now the Yellow Vests seem to have been taken over by left-wing militants and professional revolutionaries. What about the rural people who just wanted solidarity? Are they represented by the Yellow Vests who are now on Paris’s streets wreaking havoc? Do they agree with last weekend’s Yellow Vest protestors, who objected to all the rich French people giving money to rebuild Notre Dame de Paris?
Read the whole thing. We are all in for a very bumpy ride. Caldwell points out clearly that you can’t draw strong equivalencies between what’s going on in France and what’s going on in the US. I’ve been wondering what comes after Trump on the Right. He is not a man of ideas or ideology; he governs by force of personality. Consequently, we haven’t seen any sort of organized populist movement emerge under his presidency. But it is also clear that after Trump, there will be no return to the GOP status quo. So, what then?
It is also clear that the Democrats will almost certainly not go back to the Clinton-Obama status quo. They are now in the process of determining what kind of party they will be. Will they focus more on economic issues, or stand fast on identity politics? Seems to me that if they wanted to gain power, they would focus on economics. But any attempt to do that without paying proper respect to the demands of identity politics is going to draw down the wrath of the party’s Social Justice Warriors.