Is France facing its Trump moment?

The wave of protests engulfing the French Republic since November 17 shows no sign of abating. The end of the tax privilege on diesel fuel for cars pushed hundreds of thousands to the streets in version 1.0 of the Yellow Vest protest. The sprawling nature and low density of french rural areas means that people drive a lot, and comparatively cheap diesel fuel and a wide choice of mid-size affordable diesel cars meant that it was generally ok to do so.

The end of this tax “privilege” through a steep tax increase, officially a carbon tax aimed at aiding the energy transition to low carbon, means that a lot of people who can barely make ends meet now find themselves overstretched through a tax that only really hits the poorer people, as city-dwellers or the better-off either don’t drive much or don’t care about fuel prices.

This network-based, horizontal protest movement was and still is mostly peaceful throughout the country but turned bad in Paris and some cities. The movement grew and by December 1st it was voicing a lot more than just a fiscal protest, it was calling for a number of measures including a hike in minimum wage, the return of the ISF – a special tax for the very rich that was taken down by Emmanuel Macron, and a nationwide feeling of people “pissed off” by the arrogance, the apparent all-for-the-rich syndrome of the Macron regime.

The protests of Yellow Vest 2.0 turned ugly in Paris and other places, with war-like scenes around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hundreds of people were arrested, the government talking of hooligans out to just break things and kill cops, but in the courts it turned out most are just “normal” people, unknown to the police and not at all your typical Black Bloc types, just citizens who “lost it” in the noise and smoke and vented their frustration.

Yellow Vest 3.0 is now taking shape on the eve of what promises to be another hot Saturday, this December 8, as the movement is joined by students. These protest against a new college-orientation system put online this September and accused of leaving too may people with no options, and a plan to make foreigners pay for higher education (many foreigners study in French universities as fees are very low, a few hundred euros).

The Yellow Vest movement is mostly managed through Facebook groups, with no appointed leaders but with a couple of spokespersons. The list of demands has grown, including a Right of Referendum, Swiss-style, that would enable people who want a specific issue decided on to get a petition going and make it mandatory, if the petition has enough signatories, for the government to act on the issue.

France faces a situation that resembles that faced by the USA prior to the election of Donald Trump. Trump was an outsider playing on the fears of the usually silent, sinking white middle-class of America which was taking the brunt of the dark side of an economy mostly driven by financial services and IT innovation, including heavy investment in AI which promises to further cut jobs. This frustration rose up as support for the Trump campaign, seen by many as a way to sabotage the leftist, pro-immigration, politically correct and corrupt Democrats.

This didn’t happen during the last French elections in 2017, won by Emmanuel Macron against nationalist Marine Le Pen. She lost because she played badly, but mostly because she is as much a part and beneficiary of the establishment as any other contender, and is not credible as a Trump-like spanner in the works. This was in the second round of the election, the first round having been won by Macron because the conservative right simply committed suicide, and the left split itself with many of its leading members switching to the new Macron side called En Marche (Moving Forward).

Things could well have turned out otherwise, but Macron came out as the man who would restart France and give Europe the required whipping to get moving again. He spoke of a “start-up nation”, but as we all know a start-up is a business object that hires the brightest people on the promise of further enrichment down the road, no way to run a country of 67 milion where you have to take account of everybody, not just the better-off or smartest.

Many people didn’t vote for Macron, or voted for him to oppose Le Pen, and as one man in the street said today “I didn’t expect anything from Macron, but not this much!”. The Macron style is typical of the Golden-Boy style elite: arrogant, know-it-all brat making an effort to “explain” to the lowly masses the otherwise evident brilliance of his policies. After eighteen month of this and the petrol tax, the boomerang came back in true French style. Macron has taken a step back, leaving his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to map the minefield and offer some appeasing solutions before Saturday. Including the repeal of the end of the diesel tax privilege. Nobody can say today if that will be enough now that the toothpaste is out of the tube. I expect not.

On thing seems clear enough: if there was a presidential election today and some Trump-equivalent was on the scene, someone from outside the political establishment, with the means to run a campaign targeting the feeling of discontent and frustration of this mostly rural, white working / lower middle-class he/she would stand a real chance. Trump, just like other current authoritarians regime leaders in Brasil, Russia, China or India, has a following of people angry at rising inequalities, predatory economics and perceived threats to their way of life. The tide that lifts all boats materialized for a while, but not anymore and the only way to change that is to throw a bomb at the system. This happened in the UK with the Brexit vote, in the USA with Trump, in Brasil with Bolsonaro. It didn’t happen in France last year but it is happening now.

Of course these “bombs” offer no real solutions, although one can argue that the Trump trade war with China addresses a real issue. But they offer the hope of a solution, given that the establishment types will definitely not offer any solution. At the very least they provide the satisfaction of having thrown some shit in the fan. They do not necessarily show the best side of people, as unlikable types from the far-right as well as hooligans will join the fight, but it shows that the people at the top, the Macron-style beneficiaries of the New Economy with access to higher education, the social networks and the best paying jobs, those who run the show because they have the means to do so, cannot escape the fact that at some point the losers will fight back.

So what happens now? If things go bad on Saturday we will be facing a form of insurrection that goes beyond a social protest. The Macron regime will be fielding at least 65 000 riot police, and perhaps the army, to face off protesters. The government says it will not accept violence, but violence seems to be the only thing it actually responds to. The french riot police is brutal and dangerously armed with deafening explosive grenades, tear gas, plastic bullets and if the army joins the fray they will either shoot at protesters (that is what the army does), or join them. It could turn into a carnage.

The small violent minority among protesters is growing as more and more Yellow Vests, including students, get maimed of killed. There is a dangerous escalation going on and the Macron regime has no real idea how to handle this. Carrot and stick is a standard teacher to pupil strategy (irony intended for those who know about the life of Emmanuel Macron), translated here as a step back on the fiscal side together with a lot of cops to crush those who don’t take the carrot. What Macron needs to do is prove that he will side with the real interests of the common people and that he will respect them. That might imply naming a new government, the current one being mostly made up of lobbyists, turncoats and rich establishment beneficiaries who have no idea what “the People” means. Tall order.

My other articles on the Yellow Vest movement, in French but the Google translator is pretty good:

A propos Vincent Verschoore

Animateur de Ze Rhubarbe Blog depuis 2008.

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