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