“We have now sunk to such a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
– George Orwell (1939)
Something about life in modern democracies really bothers people. Let’s call it the Problem that Has No Name. There are many theories about what the problem really is. The most popular involve wage stagnation, inequality, globalization, capitalism, the digitalization of the economy, social media, immigration, the disappearance of traditional venues for social life, the transformation of gender roles, the decline of religion. Some combination of these things infuriates people.
Whatever the problem really is, obviously it is complex. But the world around, voters have recoiled from the idea that their problems are complex. In one democracy after another, voters have decided the best person to solve these problems would be a brutish authoritarian.
Whatever the problem really is, it is either caused by, or the cause of, a blackout of rational thinking. The Gilets Jaunes embody this.
The General Narrative
No one formally speaks for the Gilets Jaunes, but a narrative about what’s bothering them has emerged. Their pouvoir d’achat—their purchasing power—has declined. Their taxes are too high and they receive too little money from the government. They resent a reduction in the speed limit. The word they use again and again is colère: rage. They can’t stand Emmanuel Macron. They say he’s the President of the rich. They want him to resign. They want direct democracy, the ability to vote for specific referenda, rather than a political candidate who represents them.
Many of these claims ring strange on closer inspection. The desire for direct democracy does not seem to match their interest in policy details. In this typical interview, Frederique Solivo, 39, says he is protesting because he’s fed up with high taxes and not knowing where his tax money goes. “Where is the money going?” The answer is no mystery. The French budget is transparent and detailed. But clearly studying it wouldn’t satisfy him. So it cannot be his real question. What is his real question? I don’t know.
Conspiracy websites catering to the Gilets Jaunes are worth perusing, not for news, but for insight into their mental apparatus. A rumor has swept through the Gilets Jaunes that Macron plans to hand the Alsace and Lorraine back to Germany. Another holds that Putin has banned all Rothschild Banks in Russia, causing economic growth there to soar. The Benalla scandal has only grown worse in recent weeks, which is contributing somehow to the colère. Benalla, it seems, not only had but retained two—no, five—diplomatic passports, and a top-secret defense phone, and used at least one of those passports to travel to Chad in advance of Macron’s recent trip. Benalla clearly enjoys humiliating Macron. When Macron most needs to project authority, Benalla leaks. He has told the press that he is still in contact with the President; indeed, that Macron has asked him for advice about the Gilets Jaunes. Benalla says he has copies of the text messages that prove it. “They can never deny it,” he says, “they” being the Élysée. “All these exchanges are on my cellphone.” What do they talk about? “We talk about different topics […] We might talk about the yellow vests, about so-and-so, about security issues. You know, ‘What do you think about things?’” Benalla obviously delights in Macron’s agony. He has denounced Macron’s entourage as “technocrats who belong to a family worse than the mafia, where everything goes, and everyone owes their career to each other.”
What can Macron say? It is an insalubrious situation, politically and morally, that makes it difficult for the government to establish epistemic authority. It reinforces every conspiracy theory the Gilets Jaunes can imagine. If everyone can see that Benalla and the President are mixed up in some unspeakable way, why would they believe the government when it says, “No, the world isn’t run by 1,000 Jewish families?”
At the beginning of the Benalla affair, Macron took responsibility for the scandal. “Let them come for me,” he said of his critics. He did not mean this literally, but now, whenever he leaves, the protests and the violence follow him. On January 13, launching her campaign for the European elections in May, Le Pen announced—in a clear reference to this comment: “We’re here.”
Like Benalla, the Gilets Jaunes seem very much to want to see the President humiliated. They claim that the President has condescended to them with disrespectful comments. They want vengeance: nothing short of Macron’s resignation, they say—and that of his whole government—will satisfy them. It does not occur to them that Macron’s humiliation is their humiliation, is France’s humiliation. This is part of the blackout of rational thinking.
“It Doesn’t Get Better”
Their anger does not correlate with economic facts. Never in French history have so many French men and women been so wealthy and so healthy. They are better fed, housed, and clothed than ever before. They live 20 years longer, on average, than they did at the beginning of the Fifth Republic.
After centuries of intermittent war, including two world wars, France has been at peace for six decades. It is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. France’s economy is the seventh largest; only three (the United States, Japan, and China) have more companies in the Global 500 rankings. Of the world’s very wealthy countries, its welfare system is the most generous. The French enjoy the shortest working week, the earliest retirement, and the best health care system in the developed world. Last year, France’s per capita GDP was U.S. $43,800—an all-time high for France. That is 337 percent higher than the world average.
But what about purchasing power, the pouvoir d’achat? It is also at a record high: U.S. $38,605.67. The inflation rate in France is low, and has been declining for several years.
What about inequality? France is enjoying the highest median standard of living in its history.
If the world’s wealth were to be redistributed from the rich to the poor, every last Gilet Jaune would become significantly poorer. Life expectancy at birth in France is now 83 years, exceeded only by Japan. In the past 20 years alone, women have gained 3.2 years in life expectancy, men 5.2 years. France’s literacy rate is 99 percent. Disposable household income in France is rising, not falling. (When I first came to work in France in 1986, I had neither a private toilet nor a phone; the only kind of phone available—though I couldn’t get one—was a rotary dial.) Only one country, Switzerland, has a cleaner environment. Any reasonably compiled list of “best countries to live in,” using any reasonable metric, will put France in the top ten, or perhaps the top five. I tried to explain the complaints of the Gilets Jaunes to a Turkish-American friend who moved here recently with her then-boyfriend, a refugee from Syria. “Are they insane?” she said. It’s a fair question.
In a satirical treatment filmed at a Carrefour supermarket, a Gilet Jaune marches stolidly before the camera, then unburdens himself of his discontent. “At the end of the month,” he says, his wife by his side, “I have to pay the rent, and the gas, and the electricity, and the insurance, and the food, and the car”—his wife begins to look uneasy—“and my wife’s car, and the iPhone, and my children’s iPhone, and gifts for Noël, and the contractor for the renovations,” whereupon his wife says: “Jean, shut up.”
A Psychological Issue
Is Macron the President of the rich? Is he arrogant and aloof? Perhaps. But that didn’t stop people from voting for him.
Josiane Joliy, 62, says, “Our spending power is the most important issue. I live on €480 a month and I can’t afford to go out and socialize. I’m lonely but luckily I have the internet, which sometimes feels like my only friend.” That seems more honest than the comment about not understanding where taxes are going. In this respect, the Gilets Jaunes have already solved their problem: loneliness. Getting together every Saturday meets needs that have gone unmet, not for greater “purchasing power,” but for companionship and a sense of purpose.
The Gilets Jaunes’ complaints are incoherent because they do not, truly, have a complaint that the government could possibly solve. They are consumed by resentment and the sense that other people are having a better time than they are. Getting together once a week to be a cheerful mob is an end in itself. They love their Saturday get-togethers. They are like play-dates.
The colère makes much more sense if we assume that the issue is psychological, not economic. But that doesn’t mean this can go on. They are having this fun at the expense of the rest of France, and the rest of Europe, as well.
Disorganization as Strategy
The Gilets Jaunes insist they are apolitical and disorganized. No one speaks for them. They have no internal elections. They do not support a political party. The French police, however, say there is “nothing amateurish” about them; they believe the ostensible disorganization of the movement is strategic. The protesters aim, the police say, to “shake up the rules, destabilize the Republic and create the conditions for an insurrection.” The movement has been entirely infiltrated, according to the police, by red-brown thugs who evade their surveillance by communicating on encrypted networks before setting the streets on fire.
Accidental or strategic, disorganization and violence have served them well. The violence has forced the media and government to focus on their demands, even if they do not, formally, have demands. Their disorganization makes it impossible to discredit them. No matter what someone does in their name, others will say, “That doesn’t really represent the Gilets Jaunes.”
Some members have naturally emerged as media favorites. They babble away on television and they are clearly nuts. Nothing they say makes sense. They think the government staged a terrorist attack in Strasbourg to deflect attention from them. They threaten to withdraw all their money from the banks, simultaneously, to cause the banking system to collapse, even as they claim they haven’t enough money to make ends meet. They are obviously confused about banking; quite a number believe that bankers run the world, and of course the banks are controlled by Jews.
No matter how nutty their opinions, the movement can’t be held accountable to itself or the public. No one need accept responsibility for the deaths, the injuries, the death threats, the rape threats, the attacks on journalists, the lunatic conspiracy theories, or the French parents who have been unable, for weeks now, to take their kids to the park on Saturdays. Their appearance of disorganization permits everyone in France to project their fantasies upon them, encouraging militants on the far Left and far Right to believe, sincerely, that the Gilets Jaunes’ emergence confirms their ideology, even in the face of contrary evidence. Radical environmentalists have persuaded themselves that a movement triggered by a carbon tax is in fact on their side, and thus their new slogan: “End of the Month, End of the World: Same Cause, Same Enemy.”
If the mass of the Gilets Jaunes have no firm ideas, politically or economically, nor an allegiance to a political party, France’s political radicals certainly do. The Gilets Jaunes are fertile minds and very useful idiots. The shared goals of France’s far Left and far Right are to end the European Union, realign France with Russia, and destroy NATO. Under normal circumstances, American headlines would read, “Backed by Vladimir Putin, France’s far Right and far Left have joined forces violently to destroy the French Republic.” That is not an exaggeration, but such matters no longer seem to rank as news in the United States. Americans would traditionally consider a threat to France contrary to our ideals and interests, but we are distracted these days.
Repeatedly, in France, over decades, the extreme Left and Right have been crushed at the ballot box. Under normal circumstances, both are persistently irritating but marginal forces here. The rise of the Gilets Jaunes has presented extremists who have been unable to win power at the ballot box with a tempting opportunity to seize it on the streets. They are working together, and not at all tacitly, to exploit the Gilets Jaunes. Both the far Right and far Left believe they will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this convergence des luttes: the convergence of struggles.
In democracies, elections are meant to settle the question, “Who rules?” France’s two traditional parliamentary parties crumbled in the Spring 2017 parliamentary elections. Macron’s coalition won 60.7 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, and finished first in 451 of 577 constituencies. Marine Le Pen’s far-Right Front National did poorly, finishing first in only 20 constituencies. The parliamentary Left alliance, led by the Socialist Party, took first place in 23 constituencies; the Right alliance, led by the Republican Party, won first place in 67. Le Pen has since re-named the far-Right party the National Rally. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-Left movement, La France Insoumise, was even more decisively rejected by the electorate. The people spoke, and they voted for a young, aloof technocrat with a weird marriage.
Mélenchon and Le Pen, egged on by Russia and Italy, are racing to harness the discontent expressed by the Gilets Jaunes to discredit the elected government. This is fair game in a democracy. But they are also attempting to exploit the Gilets Jaunes’ shocking violence to discredit the Fifth Republic tout court and undermine its system of representative democracy. This is not.
Russia, of course, is involved. Russian media, trolls, and bots are working assiduously to “accelerate the contradictions.” The Gilets Jaunes say that the only source of news they trust is Russia Today. The pipeline between Putin and the far Right in the United States is also well-greased. It is painful to read the comments about these events on Breitbart.
It’s a political platitude that the far Left and the far Right are not, like north and south, at opposite poles, but rather at the same end of a spectrum. Far-Left ideologues are much more easily converted to the far Right than centrists. We’re again seeing the ease with which this happens. Djordje Kuzmanovic, until recently Mélenchon’s right-hand man on matters of defense and diplomacy, has just embraced the National Rally: “The traditional Left,” he explains (by which he means La France Insoumise), “can’t win democratically; even in the best of scenarios, only 30 percent of the electorate would support it.” There is, he says, a “hierarchy of struggles.” At the top the hierarchy is leaving NATO, opposing the United States, engaging Putin and Assad, leaving international trade pacts, regaining France’s “sovereignty,” and rejecting capitalism. If the far Right is a more effective vehicle for achieving these goals, he reasons, then the Left will have to “postpone” its other demands.
In response to Macron’s speech of December 10, in which he effectively capitulated as best he could to the Gilets Jaunes, Mélenchon replied, “It isn’t enough,” and “This is only a fraction of the rage.” Le Pen replied, “We need to be discussing the fact of too much immigration; that’s at the heart of people’s anger.” (Immigrants have wisely stayed the hell out of this.)
Neither noted that the government changed its policies—even though it had a democratic mandate for them—in response to violence. Neither remarked that this set a regrettable precedent. As for that democratic mandate, critics have been swift to say that Macron is not popular and does not have the support of the masses. This is true: Macron was elected by white-collar professionals who amount to about 20-30 percent of the electorate. He won by default, because the alternatives were so disgusting. This does not amount to an argument against his legitimacy. The voters made it very clear they did not want the far Left or the far Right in power. A vote against is as valid, electorally, as a vote for.
But if you have no use for representative democracy, this doesn’t matter, and a substantial number of Gilets Jaunes do not. In the manner of neo-fascist Third Way intellectuals, they believe representative democracy is a failed idea. They want direct democracy by internet referendum. To judge from various lists they have compiled of their demands, this would not work very well. Two themes stand out. They wish to be left in peace with their cars, and they want money to be taken from the rich and given to them. In a direct democracy, this is exactly how they would vote.
A Casual Attitude Toward Violence
In Commentary, the French journalist Pascale-Emmanuel Gobry attempts to frame the movement in terms Americans understand. France, he says, has long been poorly governed by a “technocratic elite” that has no idea what it’s doing. Perhaps. He argues that the Yellow Vests “are a symptom of what the economist Tyler Cowen has called the Great Stagnation—the slowdown in real productivity growth and technological progress that has occurred since the 1970s. In a slow-growth environment, wealth tends to trickle up, as Thomas Piketty pointed out.”
Gobry makes several claims that sound compelling at first, but aren’t, really. Macron has not “turned parliament into a rubber stamp,” as he says. If the National Assembly has been inclined to support Macron, it is because the voters, in a landslide, gave Macron’s party the mandate to do so.
More substantively, he writes that the French have been governing themselves badly. They have made serious mistakes in economic policy. Such criticism is inevitable in any democracy, and it is good that it is: Liberal democracies prize freedom of expression, among other reasons, because governments serve us better when they’re scrutinized. He compares France’s elites unfavorably to those of China’s Communist Party, which, he says, at least “consciously spend time improving their average subject’s lot.” This is rhetorical excess, and silly, but that too is normal in democracies, where, unlike China, it is a right.
What is not normal is his casual shrug about this movement’s violence. Violence is not at all part of the normal effervescence of a vibrant democracy. It is antithetical to democracy’s ultimate norm: Governments change by elections, not force. “Protests are part of our way of life,” he writes, “and few of our protests go without at least some violence. . . . French history has always been a sort of dialectic between elites and the masses, and yes, this dialectic sometimes turns violent.”
That is a mighty casual attitude.
For all his complaints, some of which are warranted, he doesn’t seem to consider how much France stands to lose if this standard—“violence is an appropriate remedy when elected governments perform poorly”—were to be applied. “Elite dismay,” he writes, that “everyday people” would behave this way, given how badly they’ve governed, “is downright Marie Antoinette-ish.”
Two critical points get lost in this casual conflation of modern and pre-revolutionary France. First, the French Revolution was a sanguinary disaster that failed even on its own terms. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, 25 percent of its male population had been wiped out. Second, in 1789, the French overthrew an absolute monarchy. Modern France is a democracy, and a clean democracy, at that. There has been no scandal here, nor even an alleged scandal, involving voter fraud. France is governed by the rule of law. France recently had a free and fair election in which it overthrew its government without shedding a drop of blood. Every established party fell. There is no question but that it is possible to change the government here without violence and by means of elections.
Four Syrian photojournalists, all refugees, perfectly express the contempt every thinking person should feel for the idea that France’s problems are so severe, acute, and intractable as to justify revolutionary violence:
I heard a guy shout during the protest: “This is war!” I chuckled when I heard that. You can imagine what that sounded like to me. This isn’t war, man. I realize it’s more violence than you’re used to. But it’s not war. It’s not even close.
France is the tourist capital of the world. Tourism is a major engine of the French economy. Tourists come here because France is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with one of the world’s richest civilizations. They come because France is peaceful, or was. “The Yellow Vests live in the unglamorous French exurbs that foreigners never see,” Gobry writes. “Tourists see our urban landmarks and our picturesque countryside.” One might conclude from this that a small elite sits in these French cities while a miserable majority lives in the exurbs. To the contrary: 80 percent of France’s population lives in the cities. Tourists aren’t missing “the real France.” The exurban population is a minority, and has no business dictating terms violently to the rest of France. If France’s Muslim population were doing this, you can be certain no one would be defending it in Commentary.
According to the police, there have so far been 1,700 serious injuries among the protesters, and 1,000 among law-enforcement officers. In no normal social movement in France do you have violence like this. Until this past weekend, the Gilets Jaunes’ numbers in the street were declining, but those who remained were increasingly violent. (Last weekend saw an uptick in protesters but less violence. It’s impossible to say whether this is a trend.)
On January 5, Gilets Jaunes hotwired a construction machine and bashed through the door of a government ministry on the rue de Grenelle. The government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, and part of his cabinet were evacuated to safety by Griveaux’s private security detail. Government forces were inadequate to protect the building. From videos of the event, it is clear that they would have lynched Griveaux had they been able.
Journalists, in particular, have been beaten, kicked and threatened with rape. The Gilets Jaunes have blocked newspaper printing centers and prevented the distribution of newspapers.
Libération has counted 93 serious injuries among the Yellow Vests and journalists. By “serious,” they mean “sufficient to cause lifelong disability.” People have lost eyes, hands, organs. Most have been injured by rubber bullets or flashbang grenades. It is hard to know if this count is accurate: It has been compiled through social media accounts, including that of a movement called “Disarm Them,” whose authors hold that the police are illegitimate by nature.
Images of terrible injuries have flooded social media, but it isn’t easy to distinguish between real and fake. Many people believe they are all real. The police may well be making things worse by using weapons that cause awful wounds—a legitimate question worthy of a National Assembly debate—but the idea that the police should be abolished and the Gilets Jaunes permitted to do whatever they please is absurd.
Grave injuries to protesters were inevitable once the Gilets Jaunes made the decision to pursue violence as a political strategy. Gilets Jaunes militants have repeatedly tried to breach the police cordon around the Élysée during their demonstrations. The French police, as I’ve explained in The American Interest, are unable to respond to an insurgency of this scale. They are already stretched to the breaking point, which explains why the police unions have been begging for reinforcement from the army.
The government and journalists are at pains to stress that not all of the Gilets Jaunes are violent. It is only a minority committing the arson, vandalism, burning, and looting. A minority are smashing windows and torching cars; attacking journalists, cops, and government ministers; and sending detailed, explicitly anti-Semitic and racist death threats to members of the government. A minority began raising money in support of Christophe Dettinger, the former light-heavyweight champion who was filmed punching gendarmes to the ground, then kicking a fallen cop in the head and face during a free-for-all brawl on a bridge over the Seine.
That it is “only a minority” is what the government must say. It would be politically inept to paint everyone who sympathizes with this movement as a violent criminal. But a majority of the Gilets Jaunes are participating in a movement that clearly encourages violence among the minority.
No one even pretends it is only a “minority” of Gilets Jaunes who have been blockading French roads and fuel depots. The cost of these protests has been astronomical. The pure irrationality of this movement is obvious if you add it up. There is no way to meet the Gilets Jaunes’ demands for more money if they continue to attack every engine of economic productivity in France.
It is hard to put a precise figure on the economic damage the rioters have done so far. From the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la République, windows have been shuttered, covered in plywood, or smashed. Before the New Year, professional and business associations were suggesting the figure exceeded $15 billion. On December 3—seven weeks ago—the National Road Transport Association reported that road haulage and logistics companies were experiencing an “economic and social emergency. Trucks have been stuck in hundreds of kilometers of traffic jams or in logistics areas, without being able to deliver. Warehouses are inaccessible and staff are threatened. In addition, there are fuel supply problems in several regions. […] Road transport companies and logistics are in fact in a tragic situation, which induces a major risk [of life] and, in the short term, jobs.” The forced inactivity of this sector, they predicted, “will imminently lead to the paralysis of the entire French economy.” There were, they said, not enough police forces available “to ensure freedom of movement.” By January 8, the organization was desperate, and joined the call for “exceptional measures.” The free movement of people and goods, they said in a press release, “must absolutely and finally be guaranteed.”
According to the Ministry of Labor, some 58,000 people have lost their jobs or been partially unemployed by the crisis. They are mostly in small-to-medium enterprises. The Ministry made 32 million euros available in unemployment compensation. The financial sector was recently giddy at the prospect of poaching talent from London in the wake of Brexit. Spokesmen say they are no longer optimistic.
Tourists are rethinking their plans. International air arrivals in Paris have dropped by ten percent. Air France/KLM claims it has lost 15 million euros in sales.
Shortly before Christmas, the national federation retail sector estimated it had suffered a two-billion euro loss. “We are asking you to stop,” said Christian Gaulm, who represents the retail shops of Bordeaux. “Our backs are to the wall.” His pleas went unanswered.
Last week, the president of the National Association of Food Industries estimated losses of 13 billion euros for the agricultural sector. “It is mostly small-to-medium enterprises that are likely to suffer the most,” he said, fearing “bankruptcies.” Supermarket bosses, reportedly, have delivered food to the Yellow Vests as a bribe to refrain from looting their warehouses and destroying their trucks.
On January 10, the retailer FNAC Darty announced a 45 million euro loss caused by the closure of stores during protests and the diminution of shoppers. The indirect effect of this movement, said their CEO, “is monstrous. We see it in foreign investment, on the confidence to invest.”
The Committee of French Automobile Manufacturers reports “major difficulties in the delivery of vehicles that have poisoned the life of distributors.” Sales dropped by 14.5 percent compared to last December 2017.
This month’s census from the French Federation of Insurance reported that 4,000 claims had been filed for damaged vehicles, a few hundred more for damaged homes. More than 2,000 companies filed claims for property damage and the interruption of their business. The federation believes they will pay between €100 and 200 million.
Most of these estimates were predicated on the optimistic assessment that after the holidays, the movement would fizzle out.
It will cost billions to repair the damage done to roads and infrastructure. Roughly half of France’s traffic radar detection systems have been damaged. The Interior Ministry says that minor damage to a radar system costs, on average, 500 euros to repair. Major damage can cost up to €200,000. The French state will lose tens of millions of euros in revenues from this, too: In 2017, traffic yielded on average 84 million euros a month. This, of course, is exactly why the Gilets Jaunes smashed them. They believed the state was running a speeding-ticket racket. Those I’ve spoken to see no reason for speed limits. I was told that “cars have airbags now, so it’s safe to drive as fast as you like.”
The Central Bank has halved its fourth-quarter growth forecast. The Gilets Jaunes believe that taxes on the very rich will pay for all of this. They are incapable of thinking it through. The very rich can take their money somewhere else. They, on the other hand, are stuck in France.
Macron’s efforts to placate the Gilets Jaunes have thus far involved a package for low-wage workers that will cost the rest of France about 10 billion euros. France will breach the EU deficit cap, again. The movement has destroyed Germany’s hope of finding a sympathetic fiscal partner in France, destroyed Macron’s hope of persuading Germans that the French could be their partners, and made Macron’s suggestions about Franco-German fiscal and defense pacts sound absurd. Why should German taxpayers wish to finance French louts who torch their own country? How could they trust France with their defense when France can’t even defend itself? It is certainly not helping France to make the argument against Brexit.
The European Union, which the Gilets Jaunes loathe, is insulating France from the economic shock of their violent antics. This has been massively damaging to the French economy, but it is nothing compared to what would happen if France weren’t in the Eurozone. As Jean Quatremer has noted, all historic evidence indicates that if France had kept its own currency, the franc would by now be in the toilet; interest rates would be skyrocketing, the economy contracting, and inflation setting in. The euro has tempered and delayed this pain.
Violence and vandalism on this scale is a massive threat to the easy, privileged, safe, and luxurious life that everyone—yes everyone—in France enjoys. In no scenario is it anything but sterile and pointless, just as it was in 1848. It is terrible for France in every way: an act of self-mutilation and utter irrationality.
The French were initially supportive of the Gilets Jaunes, with about 80 percent describing themselves as “sympathetic.” Now, the number has declined to 50 percent, but this is still shockingly high. The hagiography of the French Revolution accounts for some of this. There has never been a fully honest reckoning here with the Revolution. Violent insurrection against the government has been romanticized. One of the most significant arguments in favor of democracy—that it obviates the need for political violence—seems to elude even intelligent and sensible observers.
It may be true that only be a minority of the Gilets Jaunes seek to overthrow the government by force. But the majority of the Gilets Jaunes seek to overthrow the government, irrespective of the will of the French electorate. And while neither Mélenchon nor Len Pen have personally committed an act of violence since the Gilets Jaunes took to the streets, both are clearly inciting it. Both insist that violence is “understandable,” and even “fascinating,” given the government’s refusal to embrace the policies they endorse. Both blame the violence on the government and the “system,” obviating the idea that French adults possess free will.
Both, when asked if they share the government’s call for calm, forcefully decline. “I’m not a guard dog,” says Mélenchon:
People do not have to make paternalistic or maternalistic calls to calm and all those beautiful phrases that the bourgeoisie likes to distribute to the people. Calling for calm makes no sense. It it is very offensive to those who hear it and those who are constantly invited to pronounce it. That is not my role. I believe in democracy, in politics, in dialogue.
But you do not believe in democracy, politics, or dialogue if you refuse clearly to say that none of these can take place unless all parties share a commitment to resolve their disputes without violence. Juan Branco, Julian Assange’s lawyer and an LFI intimate, says, “The elected politicians must tremble in their flesh, they must physically feel the fear.”
If Mélenchon has overtly and crudely lent his support to the most radical and violent factions of the Gilets Jaunes, Le Pen is shrewder: She is playing the long game. The most extreme violence comes from the far Right, as it always has in modern France. She has done nothing to discourage it. “You’ve been a bit distant in this crisis,” a journalist from France World remarked to her. “Do you support it, do you condemn it?” After accusing the government of trying to “solve a political crisis with truncheons,” Le Pen answers:
I refuse to participate in the government’s trap of pitting Yellow Vests against blue uniforms. That’s comfortable for the government because it allows them to escape responsibility. We see the strategy: ‘Look at these Yellow Vests that hit the police.’ In the meantime, the government hides, and the anger is directed against the police, not the government. It is ignoble, cynical, and terribly dangerous for the unity of the country. I share the concerns of the Yellow Vests. I support their demands, provided they are compatible with my project, and it is true that there are many common points. Obviously I condemn violence wherever it comes from, and I deplore the victims, whomever they may be.
Like Mélenchon, it seems Le Pen does not truly believe that France has a legitimate, elected government and thus a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. She does not note any moral distinction between attacking people and property, which the Yellow Vests have done, and preventing them from doing so, as the blue uniforms are trying to do.
The Convergence des Luttes
Macron has taken the protesters literally: He believes that they genuinely wish to debate policy with him, and his government has thus introduced a project for a “great national debate.” They began with an online poll, asking French citizens what they think the government should do. Overwhelmingly, the respondents were less interested in the details of tax policy than they were in reversing the 2001 Taubira law that legalized same-sex marriage.
This response perplexed many on the Left. On the one hand, it is obvious that the Gilets Jaunes hold disagreeable opinions about homosexuals, Jews, and immigrants. Even though they say they want nothing to do with political parties, their instincts lean far Right, not far Left. But on the other hand, that’s close enough for communist purposes. As Lenin said, scrupling about the fate of minorities—or individuals—is a bourgeois concern, an infantile disease of communism. Or so Le Grand Soir reminds us:
Thus we have seen part of the left petty bourgeoisie disassociate from Yellow Vests because of the discriminatory behavior of certain individuals. These behaviors are to be condemned certainly, but in a struggle, the masses must be supported as a whole, regardless of the digressions. . . . “A barricade has only two sides”; in other words, you are either with or against the people. The proletariat has nothing to do with “allies” who can betray and betray, for their own petty-bourgeois interests, all the workers.
Nicholas Tenzer, head of the liberal think tank CERAP, drew the obvious conclusion:
This is an insurrection. . . . The far Right, in an unholy alliance with the far Left, comprise the majority. You can’t talk to people like this, they do not share the values of the Republic. The time for talking is after the violence stops.
He’s right. Both factions—far Right and far Left—believe their side will win in the end, and are hoping to exploit the violence and determination of the other side to topple the Republic, and then in due course to crush the other. “The ideology and the violence,” he said, “are consubstantial with the movement.”
“Consubstantial” is not the word I would have chosen in English, but it’s correct: The violence is inherent. It can’t be cordoned off or dismissed as “not truly representative” of the movement.
The rest of France is now faced with a choice. If the Yellow Vests continue to plunge France into chaos and beggary, it is fairly clear what will happen. France will be plunged into chaos and penury. Allowing the Gilets Jaunes to sack Paris once a week will have the effect of allowing the Sturmabteilung and the Rotfrontkämpferbund regularly to attack each other on the streets of Berlin; and eventually, a fed-up public will say, “Enough. We need order.” When they do, they will turn to the Right, not the Left. Then Marine Le Pen—or an even more authoritarian figure—will emerge as savior. France will become something more like Russia: more brutal, poorer, and more authoritarian.
Mélenchon and his ideological kin are so blinded by their own claptrap that they can’t see how badly this will end for them. So are those who minimize the significance of political violence with a shrug and an appeal to the French temperament. To say, “This is just what France does” is nuts. There is no justification for violence in an orderly, democratic, First World country. A lunatic contingent of France—certainly no more than 100,000 people—wishes to destroy the lives of the other 67 million people who live here.
It is irrational to say, “This is just our tradition in France.” If it is, it shouldn’t be.
The Gilets Jaunes are not behaving this way because they want to talk things over. Nor are they behaving this way because they have legitimate grievances. The French peasants are not starving and crying out for bread. Macron is not Marie Antoinette. This is not about the fuel tax, and it’s not about the cost of living either. No one knows what’s really causing this. It is hard for rational people to find reasons for irrational behavior. Obviously, however, whatever the reasons are, it is not what the perpetrators say it is.
There is, however, one obvious possibility. The Gilets Jaunes are behaving this way because they like it. The more violence they see, participate in, and hear about, the more excited they become at the prospect of it. When they see video clips of thugs attacking and overpowering the police, it does not make them think, “My God, that is terrible, where did our movement go wrong?” No “last men” here.
Those who were inclined to that reaction, or revulsion, have already left the scene. They had it when the Arc de Triomphe was desecrated during the third week of protests. Peace requires a Leviathan. But they have since seen that the Leviathan doesn’t have enough cops.
Destroying France will not meet anyone’s needs, of course. But the simplest logical calculations do not seem obvious to those afflicted with this unnamable problem. We’re living in a strange era where the obvious, even the axiomatic principles of civilization, are no longer obvious. Reason no longer counts. This worries me.
If you had asked me three years ago who would lead a violent uprising against the French Republic, I would have said, “The same people who attacked Charlie Hebdo. Obviously.” But the Islamists are, so far, sitting this one out. They’re not gone, although many did leave to join ISIS, and few are ever coming back. But more likely, they are waiting. After all, as Napoléon reminds us: Never interfere with an enemy in the process of destroying himself.