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Don’t pretend you can’t see us

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Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called ‘gilets jaunes’ led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built – and set alight – by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron’s fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers’ movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax – which is set to keep rising year on year – when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don’t like it. They were out in force again on Wednesday and another big demonstration looks likely in Paris tomorrow.

The movement took off in mid-November, when thousands of people in hi-vis jackets turned out across the country at major junctions and minor roundabouts. The aim was to slow up traffic, or halt it, and share their anger with other motorists idling in neutral (racking up their CO2 emissions). The gilets jaunes also set up human chicanes – between 20 and 200 protesters – outside petrol stations and supermarkets where they could buttonhole consumers who’d dodged the roundabouts by taking by-roads to their nearest Auchan, Intermarché or Leclerc. Drivers in France are obliged to have hi-vis tops in their vehicles at all times: people who support the gilets jaunes – or claim to – have taken to placing theirs in a hi-vis position, wedged between the dashboard and the windscreen in a show of solidarity (or hope of a laisser-passer). In the rural south-west, where I live, most vehicles – commercial vans, family cars – are still sporting the tabard as they whizz by.

The gilets jaunes claim that they are being hammered into the ground by fuel tax, of which the carbon levy is only one component. Taxes on fuel have scarcely gone through the roof: the average increase since 2007 is roughly two centimes per annum, which environmentalists argue is not enough. (Duty on diesel is now rising faster, and it will soon be taxed at the same rate as unleaded.) Timing, however, has been a problem: The new carbon tax figures were set in 2017, when the price of crude averaged $50 per barrel. Last month it peaked in the region of $80 – which, combined with the tax hike, meant that diesel was 23 per cent more expensive (14 per cent for unleaded) than in October 2017. The tax is set to go up again in January and the government has no plan, at the time of writing, to put this on hold.

Carbon tax in France is part of a long term strategy to phase out fossil fuels (one ambition is to be levying CO2 emissions at €100 per tonne by 2030; another to end sales of diesel and unleaded cars by 2040). But the overall tax on fuel – roughly 65 per cent of the cost to consumers – is non-progressive, a central objection for the gilets jaunes. Those who can’t claim it back oppose the addition of VAT on a consumer item whose price consists largely of tax. They mistrust many of the tax-lite regimes for business, aviation in particular. And they’re stuck with their cars. Inhabitants of big conurbations and bijou cities are abandoning the car as public transport offers affordable alternatives. But that still leaves about 13 million people who live in the countryside. The conspicuous rich in rural areas drive ‘me-first’ utility vehicles whose manufacturing footprint is daunting, even though emissions are low: they can afford to pay. But millions with modest incomes above the poverty level – variously defined in France as households with less than 50 or 60 per cent of average national income – are disproportionately hit by the tax. So are their neighbours, the rural poor: roughly 1.7 million people, according to a government report in 2009: that figure has surely risen in the last ten years.

There are no gilet jaune leaders, only eccentric figureheads and pop-up advocates. One is Jacline Mouraud, a fifty-something accordion-player who has composed a new French national anthem (she didn’t like the violence of the Marseillaise). She rose from obscurity with a Facebook video in which she savaged the government for squeezing the less well-off: she is now a go-to figure on gilet jaune grievances.

Another is Frank Buhler, a far-right non-entity who was excluded last year from Marine Le Pen’s Front National (now Rassemblement National) and began buffing up his social media presence. He was a tireless advocate for the demonstration in Paris last weekend. The gilets jaunes, province by province, have taken their distance from him.

Far more significant is Priscilla Ludosky, a Martinican 33-year-old living in built-up peri-urban countryside an hour south of Paris. She put together a petition last month for lower fuel taxes. It is ticking towards one million signatures. A poll published on Wednesday put support in France for the gilets jaunes at 84 per cent.

Last week the movement appointed eight official spokespeople (Ludosky is one, Mouroud is not), but it’s still acephalous and averse to party-political appropriation, whether from the Rassemblement National – likely to make a strong showing in the European parliamentaries next year – or the tatters of the Parti Socialiste. La France insoumise has its eye on the gilets jaunes as raw material for a ‘left populist’ project of the kind proposed by the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, a key intellectual for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But LFI will have its work cut out if, as some in the press are saying, the gilets jaunes are really a Poujadist phenomenon. Pierre Poujade led a populist anti-taxation drive in the 1950s, and spoke with an invective against government that the gilets jaunes have yet to surpass. Parliament, Poujade said, was a brothel, and MPs were a bunch of ‘pederasts’. Unlike Thatcher, Poujade was a premature opponent of finance capitalism; like Thatcher, he was an enemy of big government and organised labour, a ferocious chauvinist who championed ‘the little guy’ as a Prometheus in chains. Poujade’s dream died with the reappearance of De Gaulle in 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic.

Many local business people in south-west France support the gilets jaunes: bakers, plumbers, roofers, electricians, small farmers, and most of the shopkeepers left standing now that the supermarkets have put weaker contenders out of a job. All depend on their cars and those of their customers to stay afloat. But the small business contingent isn’t enough to justify the description ‘Poujadist’. This is a leaderless, spontaneous surge of impatience against an ‘elite’ which is thought to spurn poorer citizens or milk them dry. All the same, when more incisive commentary describes the movement as a jacquerie – and likens the hi-vis vest to the ‘jacques’ (a short, padded jacket) worn by the peasants of the 14th-century Grand Jacquerie – we’re told the comparison is condescending. I find the term ‘Poujadist’ far more derogatory, and I’m guessing that the vests are worn to make a simple point: ‘don’t pretend you can’t see us.’ The press have now taken to referring politely to a ‘fronde’.

The protests have produced many minor road injuries and at least two fatal accidents: one involving a man on a motorbike who collided with a van reversing out of a blockade, another a sixty-something woman activist, run down by an edgy mother in a 4×4 taking her child to the doctor. While the gilets jaunes are the proximate cause in both, panic and road rage bear the burden of blame. The same can’t be said of racist episodes: ‘Go back to your own country,’ a gilet jaune said to a black mother and her children at a roadblock in Charente. Or homophobia: a gay couple harassed at a roadblock north of Lyon. Or the near-lynching of journalists in Toulouse last Saturday: TV journalism is seen by many protesters as an instrument of soft power wielded on behalf of Macron. Other gilets jaunes have taken their distance from racism, anti-gay sentiment and violent journophobia – a growing trend in France. To judge from the graffiti in Paris after last weekend, the left have a presence in the movement, but as long as the gilets jaunes are unaffiliated, with no trade union figurehead or party-political leader to deplore the odd aberration, the rest of us are left to make up our own minds about who they really are.

There are hundreds of activists in my nearest towns. Often their message is smuggled in under a joke. Two gilets jaunes in their fifties at a go-slow in the Gironde opened the doors of my car and proposed that the three of us elope to a tropical island. Perhaps they were thinking of Réunion, a French Indian Ocean outpost 9000 km from Paris, paralysed by intransigent gilets jaunes, where the overseas minister had a ferocious reception on a recent visit. The refrain from protesters in the Gironde, like those of Réunion, is that they have ‘nothing’. Poverty for local gilets jaunes is not just about the flat labour market or the price of fuel. It’s about a sense of being left behind, as the state withdraws from poorer parts of ‘la France profonde’: schools under pressure, ‘medical deserts’ spreading, Republican institutions shrinking (town halls opening maybe three days a week or less), food prices rising, and the thriving world of non-profit associations – sports clubs, youth groups, cultural groups – suddenly short of money: since Macron abolished the wealth tax, the rich are no longer making tax-deductible gifts to these low-key, crucial NGOs.

In the Dordogne last Sunday, the gilets jaunes were filtering consumers into our local supermarket. They don’t like supermarkets for the right reasons (plus the produce on offer, in Jacline Mouraud’s rough and ready appraisal, is ‘la merde’). But like everyone else they’re forced to patronise them: where else on a Sunday at noon can you can pick up forty baguettes and a few dozen merguez to cook over an oil drum brazier for hungry, rain-drenched pickets? A gilet jaune in her twenties told me she detested the state’s attention to ‘immigrants’ when indigenous poor and homeless were so obviously vulnerable. Another, in her thirties, argued that the French benefits system served the unemployed so generously that she was losing faith in her ill-paid temping on the hourly minimum wage (€9.98 or £8.80, better than the UK equivalent). Their comrade – thin, well-kempt, approaching forty – spoke eloquently of his disdain for metropolitan technocrats and politicians. Immigrants, scroungers, politicians … we might as well have been in Brexit Britain, the Lega’s Lombardy or small-town Hungary. Left-wing parties will find these attitudes challenging, if the gilets jaunes eventually engage in dialogue with the political class. I suspect they may, and I also suspect that many activists will be drawn to the right, which is why the movement, now and for the foreseeable future, leaves the Elysée and the government dangerously exposed.

Macron has embarked on an admirable policy to mitigate climate change but he’s failed catastrophically to heed the advice of the former environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, who resigned in August. Hulot said the project would only work with grants, attainable tax incentives and green job creation for less advantaged sectors of the population. Not nearly enough of this is in place, or even in the offing. Meanwhile the people now blocking the roads in France have been left to suck up the blame for climate change. But there are few Jeremy Clarksons among them – the motorheads are mostly the ones who try to power their way through a go-slow – and no gilets jaunes I’ve talked to can afford to trade their elderly diesel vehicles for low-emissions alternatives, even with the subsidies announced in January, which are aimed at more prosperous classes and the car industry.

A recent survey carried out for the European Commission finds that transport is still the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, and that ‘rural living’ raises the per capita footprint significantly outside the cities. Nevertheless the decisive factor across urban and rural communities alike is how much money we have: the wealthier we are, the larger our footprint, by anywhere from 150 to 450 kg per person per additional €1000 in earnings. This is why wilderness-free Luxemburg has one of the highest carbon footprints in the EU and countries in the former eastern bloc – notably Romania and Hungary – have the lowest. It is inconceivable that Macron, a technocrat and number-cruncher before his entry into politics, is ignorant of these conclusions and similar findings in other climate-change studies. Why has he chosen to comply with the caricature put about by his enemies: Macron, ‘president of the rich’? Probably because he is. But shouldn’t he be bluffing by now? Even just a bit?

Comments

  1. kirkmc says:

    It’s important to understand the context of diesel cars in France. For decades, the French government promoted their use, through much lower taxes on diesel fuel than on petrol. While the cars are a bit more expensive, the lower cost fuel meant that people who drove more than average would save money. This was because, for a long time, diesel was thought to pollute less. Now, they’ve realized that this is wrong, and they’re catching up, so a lot of French people feel cheated by the fact that they spent more on diesel cars, only to get screwed by rising prices.

    To be fair, this started as a very foolish protest, a sort of NIMBY for cars: I don’t care if mine pollutes more, but it’s not fair to make me pay as much as the dumb people who bought petrol cars. It’s gathered steam because of the overall dissatisfaction of the French over their taxes. I lived in France for nearly thirty years, and the taxes and incredibly high; now in the UK, I’m stunned by how much less I pay (though, to be fair, you get less in the UK for your money).

    • Scaramouche says:

      Ironically, 2018 is a blank year for personal income tax in France, as it gears up for PAYE — something no comment I’ve read here or elsewhere seems to take into account… But the dissatisfaction over taxes (and the CSG/CDRS, so-called social charges which hit retired people worst)are a constant component of what is squeezing the lower-middles here in rural France.

      Congratulations to Jeremy Harding for another perspicacious analysis.

      • fbkun says:

        2018 is NOT a blank year. In 2018, we’re paying income tax on our 2017 earnings. Starting in January 2019, our income tax will be directly deduced from our monthly paycheck — but it doesn’t mean that we will be spared income tax. And what will remain on our bank accounts at the end of each month will roughly be the same in 2019 as in 2018.

        • Peterwithey says:

          Nor is it PAYE in any meaningful way: your monthly tax bill for 2019 has been calculated on the basis of your 2018 tax return, itself based on your 2017 income. And in 2019 you will still have to complete a tax return, as in previous years, to ensure you have paid the right amount. They have fiddled with the current system, not changed system.

        • Scaramouche says:

          Sorry to hear you’re paying income tax this year — I’m not and no-one else I know hereabouts is. And, I was not suggesting that payment at source (PAYE in English) does not amount to income tax — of course it is, but paid up-front rather than retrospectively.
          I was simply pointing out the absence of any reference to the impending changes in this and other articles.

        • kirkmc says:

          It sounds like you’re paying twice then: monthly in 2019, then in tiers, in 2020, in 2018?

          I left France about six years ago, and it was incredibly frustrating to be paying taxes for a period so far in the past, especially since I’m a freelancer, and my income varies from year to year. (Don’t even get me started on the charges sociales… That’s one reason why I left the country.)

  2. David Sharp says:

    A good article.

    The gilets jaunes “have given me back my pride in being French,” said the historian-sociologist Emmanuel Todd during an excellent talk show on the France 2 channel last night: (the clip is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXpuxgzZAQo ).

    Although I’m only French by naturalisation, I feel the same. The train of events here over the past 20 years has been pretty depressing, and the election of Macron, which I saw as a naïve attempt to turn France into a cartoon version of the United States and Britain, as seen through the pages of The Economist, had taken us to a new low.

    Now, to paraphrase Macron, “France is back!” – only not quite in the way he intended.

    Todd also pointed out that the Macron experiment had come 20 years too late, long after the neoliberal wave had peaked.

    One element which has clearly got the French establishment in a state of panic is the fact that the Macron Boys and Girls seem to be completely unable to understand what’s going on. Why aren’t all these gilets jaunes people creating start-ups, or riding bikes for Uber?

    As Le Canard Enchaîné pointed out on its front page last week (available at https://www.lecanardenchaine.fr/ ), when faced with people who are desperate because they can’t make it to the end of each month, Macron basically went on TV to announce that he was going to cut the country’s reliance on nuclear power by 2035. And as Jeremy Harding points out, it’s not particularly useful to offer people a grant to buy a new, less polluting vehicle since it’s obvious that even with the handout, they could never afford it.

    His level of incompetence is stunning: anyone who aspires to run a country like France has to either have really strong political skills (as was the case for both De Gaulle and Mitterrand), or else be surrounded by people who can supply them, and be ready to listen to them. Macron clearly has neither.

    His “stock exchange coup d’etat” basically demolished the establishment, and brought to power a host of fresh-faced middle class kids with zero experience.

    Interesting times ahead!

    • Krudy says:

      so do you think this whole momentum that is clearly not only about diesel tax, will now suddenly stop?
      or is this just an indication of accumulated anger about to erupt, and not only in france?

      in any case, thank you for well informed, measured and articulated text, pleasure to read. i find my own opinions and those of friends living in France much aligned with it.

    • Charbb says:

      ” ‘Go back to your own country,’ a gilet jaune said to a black mother and her children at a roadblock in Charente.”

      Guess this is why you and Todd admire these brutes so much.

      • Rod Miller says:

        What, because one gilet jaune said this, they’re ALL brutes? That’s quite a uhh.. tour de force of extrapolation.

    • fbkun says:

      MAcron is the president of Business School graduates. The vocabulary (a mix of French and supposedlty trendy English business jargon), the ideology (laissez-faire, the infamous trickle-down theory), as well as the usual class disdain of self-proclaimed elites all reek of unbridled neoliberalism. Add to this mix the unbearable arrogance of someone who seems to believe he can walk on water, and you obtain the current revolt.

      • Rod Miller says:

        Nevertheless, he’s the duly elected pres and pretty wet behind the ears politically. Let’s see what his ability to Learn is. Sure, it’s more emotionally satisfying to have him believing he can walk on water, and if he still does believe this after the past few months, then you’re probably right.

        Mélenchon didn’t even get 20% in the first round. The guy with the “unbearable arrogance” beat him (go figure).

        This revolt isn’t just Macron’s doing. It’s been brewing. His abolition of the wealth tax was dumb-Dumb, but then it looks like he’s reversing that particular mistake. (This is how it goes in France: you organize a big enough protest and the government folds — I’ve seen it time and again.)

        I’ll join you in sneering at him if he doesn’t learn fast. But if all you can do is sneer a year and a half into his term, I’d sure like to know what you’d recommend (not Mélenchon, remember — he was rejected).

        • Peterwithey says:

          This is not intended as any kind of defence of Mélenchon, nor being counterfactual for the sake of it, but… had Hamon not persisted in running in the first round, some of his 6% of the vote would almost certainly have voted for Mélenchon, which would have in all probability led to a Mélenchon/Macron runoff. That would have been more interesting than the Macron/Le Pen contest!

          • Rod Miller says:

            Yes, I realize that. Nor am I hostile to Mélenchon (though he strikes me as a bit cartoonish). As I said in another post, Macron is pres because of the strange field he was running in (not least owing to the highly gratifying Fillon business).

            It would be damn interesting to see Mélenchon as pres. I’m not at all certain that things would be going swimmingly for him, or that he wouldn’t be acting like Every Other Occupant of the presidency under the Fifth Republic.

            Mélenchon would, one way or another, be addressing the urgent and growning wealth-gap issue, which Macron has so far failed miserably on. Dany Cohn-Bendit was saying on the radio yesterday that in ’68 his rebels eventually negotiated with the employers’ federation and got this close: the rebels wanted a maximum income difference of five to one; the employers were willing to have eight to one. Both radio interviewers simply burst out laughing. Today it’s through the roof.

            It’s obvious that France needs to ditch this regal constitution, but replace it with what? Now there’s a good question.

        • fbkun says:

          Macron obtained 24,01% of the votes in the first round. Mélenchon (4th in the first round) got 19,58%.
          The difference doesn’t strike me as huge, and Mélenchon was no more rejected than Macron’s score was a landslide.
          This means that four candidates obtained very similar results in the first round, and Macron got elected in the second round with a large majority only because of the 5th Republic’s system, and because he ran against Le Pen.
          But large numbers of his second round voters did not adhere at all to his program.
          It is interesting to compare Macron’s 2017 election to Chirac’s 2002 election.
          In 2002, the participation rate increased between the first and the second round when it appeared that Chirac would run against Le Pen (père).
          In 2017, the participation rate actually decreased between the two rounds when it appeared that Macron would run against Le Pen (fille)…

  3. rgst says:

    Readers of Alternatives Economiques (www.alternatives-economiques.fr) will note that while diesel and petrol have gone up by 30% and 12% respectively in France between nov 2015 and nov 2018 in the UK prices have fallen by 14% in both categories.
    This demonstrates that for all talk of world market prices it is government policy that sets prices.
    In France fiscal policy has been to increase taxes for road drivers to fund tax cuts for the rich; in the UK fiscal policy has been to help mask the consequences of Brexit.
    In a retort to Bill Clinton : Its politics stupid.
    The politics of the Gilet Jaunes are the same as those who voted Brexit.
    It’s a shareholders revolt. Citizens are discovering that the dividend they had come to expect as a French or Uk citizen has been eroded to help to sustain a managerialist myth.
    That is that giving a free hand and ever increasing wealth and incomes to the elite managers and professionals in our society would somehow deliver higher incomes for all.
    It hasn’t and what has happened is to feed and spawn a parasitic process whereby the many are suffering while the few are doing very nicely. This is not a reflection of world markets but deliberate government action to facilitate the process.
    The Gilets Jaunes represents a return to politics.
    Brexit has dug up the same issues.
    Redistribution not more managerialism is likely to be needed if politics are not to become ugly.

  4. brotherrandor says:

    In a spot on our Earth known as Toronto, there have been both palm trees and a mile of ice during the last 100,000 years, 1/40,000th of the life of the planet. James Lovelock, who argued in the 1980s that greenhouse gases would lead to global warming, now says he is no longer worried about climate change; we have bigger concerns. There hasn’t been as much warming as he expected and if the planet does heat up by 5C, life adapts. Our climate has always been changing, sometimes quite abruptly. Volcanoes, variations in the sun and other unknowns caused ice ages to wax and wane. Anthropological effects could be reversing a cooling tendency or accelerating a warming phase. Both are possible. Emanuel Macron and other rich folks in the rich world don’t see it but they are displaying a quality of millenarianism. The Beeb, the Guardian, the New York Times et al lambaste the unsaved who lack their fire-and-brimstone fear of climate change. But we sinners, who are evolved for Kenya but often have to huddle indoors for months on end, may not be irrational in actually welcoming a 1.5C planetary warming. But we can never expect the group-thinkers in the Guardian or the LRB to contemplate such a heretical thought.

    • BrianBruise says:

      Human caused climate change deniers are right. The increasingly severe weather events have been staged, like the moon landing but with better CGI. The “missing” following the California Camp fire are alive and well and living a life of luxury on a secret island. They have joined the “passengers” on the non-existent planes that didn’t hit the World Trade Centre; the child actors from various “mass-shootings”; and the Puerto Ricans who were allegedly missed in the original body count following Maria.

      I own a functioning WWI gas mask which I put on every time I see a chem trail – this allows my innate intelligence and subsequent analysis to rise above that of the majority of scientists who ignore the need for such protection. I’m glad to see so many kindred spirits on various threads. My friend and companion, an iguana named Tennessee, will vouch for me if his lizard relatives in the halls of power are unmasked – he is reading this over my shoulder as I type and giving an acknowledging wink of support.

      • brotherrandor says:

        You confuse accepting climate change with denial. Our planet is certainly warming, albeit slowly. Polar bears have always had it hard. Nature is not a Disney movie. It is cruel. And it will adapt.

    • Rod Miller says:

      May we have a Source for that James Lovelock toss-off? No doubt Lovelock would have said already Decades ago that the mother of all concerns is actually homo sapiens overpopulation. In fact, L. seems pretty laid-back about the prospect of human extinction (me, increasingly, too). And there are your gargantuan global changes for you — species come and go. Our extinction, at least, will be by our own hand.
      By the way, about 4 out of 10 humans today live on, or damn near, the coastline. I too come from Toronto and invite you to imagine Lake Ontario rising the way the oceans now are. Just one wee example of what’s happening.
      So: Happy Heresy.

        • brotherrandor says:

          My main issue with the Macronistas/Guardianistas/LRBistsas is their pusedo-Savonarolan conceit that we the blessed will save the planet. There is an excessive bloom of Homo Sapiens walking the Earth. That is the problem, nothing more. Nature will correct it. In time.

        • Rod Miller says:

          Thanks for the article. Classic Lovelock. I see nothing to contradict what he wrote earlier, given that — as he points out — specific predictions are invariably wrong. Always have been, even with the best of data. (Look at five-day weather forecasts even after the advent of satellites, super-computers, whatever — hardly worth the pixels they’re printed on. But would we abolish them? No We Wouldn’t.)

          Lovelock is still saying that humans don’t have long to go, which is what I believe. Rather than the climate becoming unbearable as such, I’ve always thought our sheer numbers will do us in one way or another. Maybe robots, or — what with so much industrial agriculture — something akin to an aerosol-riding ebola virus which, thanks to the high-bypass turbofan engine, will suddenly out of left field be everywhere at once and do us in: Like That. Or good old Dr Strangelove. I mean, we’ve been begging for it for some time now. And Gaia (which was always just a metaphor for L.) will doubtless oblige.

          You speak of “an excessive bloom of Homo Sapiens walking the Earth”. In the last book of Lovelock’s I read (2006) he used the expression “a plague of homo sapiens upon the Earth”. Same-same.

          I share his criticism of the Green movement but what are you gonna do? Vote for the lean’n’mean free-marketeers? They’re the fastest highway to Doom. I’ll take the slowest, thanks, even if they are irritatingly optimistic.

          • brotherrandor says:

            An antibiotic resistant bacterium has the pole position for doing us in, maybe a genetically engineered one. We pay very little heed to this and quite a bit to a 1.5C temperature rise, so what are you gonna you do? Don’t worry, be happy.

  5. BrianBruise says:

    As usual, the anarcho/nihilist Black Bloc/Antifa or whatever they are called in France, no doubt riddled with agents provocateurs, will allow the regime to claim it is preventing threats to life and property. The lack of viable leadership from an organized left in aid of building on the legitimate discontents of ordinary French citizens will, I’m afraid, lead to a few more days of continually violent but shrinking protests.

    The regime may well reduce the proposed taxes and with compliant propaganda from the mainstream media come out of this with an uptick in popularity. Remember ’68 (notwithstanding entirely different historical circumstances) when de Gaulle was able to mass almost a million people on the Champs-Elysees in a counter-demonstration, it knocked the wind out of the sails of the radical left. Of course, the usual craven capitulation of the communist and social democratic left went hand in hand with de Gaulle’s carrot (wage increases) and stick (threats to bring the army to the streets of Paris). Plus ca change …..

    When the seeming convergence of interests of two ideological poles described in the article is found to be illusory, it is more likely to lead to civil war than to revolution. Ask de Gaulle’s ghost which side the armed wings of the state will support.

  6. Krudy says:

    this is well written. it seems to me that the same problem is all over. diesel tax is just a trigger. the wider principle of skinning the masses, which became obvious in 2008 crash – is everywhere. the french, traditionally, due to character, start the kraval, and honour and respect to them. many or most other nations have similar motivation, but also either more violent police or more patience.
    it seems like the anger is overboiling and the times of confrontation with elites, in their various (true or imagined) forms are ahead. some typical conflicts have been described in Mr. Harding’s text above.
    also, it seems that times of imposed political correctness are over.

  7. Rod Miller says:

    Macron is the president of the rich, as was Hollande, Sarko, Chirac et al. Yes, he’s inexperienced, and won the election only because his opponents were so execrably crappy. We will now see whether he’s capable of learning, and if so, how much.

    Though the “gilets jaunes” look like a pretty amorphous bunch, it seems to me they’re largely fodder for the Hard Right, not the Left. As ’68-leader Dany Cohn-Bendit said on the radio today, whereas his own protest movement came within a whisker of toppling a general-as-president, the gilets — some at least — seem to be demanding the iron hand of a general as president. And those who are willing to act as representatives in negotiations with the government are receiving Death Threats from fellow gilets.

    The point is that Macron is a liberal, most importantly in the economic sense of the term. So now he’s getting a hefty dose of the Wealth Gap right between the legs.

    Macron claims to be a centrist. But as François Mitterand once remarked: “The problem with centrism is that it is neither left, nor left.”

  8. ccmdiva@yahoo.com says:

    It seems there are a lot of people who feel they have been left behind..to me, this is very similar to what happened in the UK with Brexit and in the US with the advent of Trump. Populism is once again rearing its ugly head and it’s not going away..I am certain a lot of excellent books will be written on this subject in the future. As someone struggling to stay financially in the middle-class, I marvel at how much cheaper the cost of living was in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was or seemed to be. I live in a city where crappy houses sell for a million and theatre tickets and food prices are astronomical and I am luckier than most. There’s a lot of anger out there. I am no right-winger but I understand the fury. The golden age of capitalism and the days of cheap credit are over.

    • Rod Miller says:

      Hmmm… Me too. I could afford to rent an apartment and feed myself on minimum wage back then. But don’t forget: There Was a Lot Less to Buy in Them Days. Now, as a matter of course, we’re spending money on stuff nobody had dreamt of then. We’re lemmings hurrying over the consumerist cliff. And it will lead to our extinction, more or less.

      If populism (meaning the feeling that the decent majority is being screwed by a deaf, amoral elite — whom only Populist X can save us from) is on the rise, my view is that the New Deal (or call it what you will) has indeed been consciously chipped away at over the past half-century, and things duly went BOOM a decade ago, and people are now starting to put two and two together. Unfortunately they’re mostly coming up with the answer Five. But yes, they’re furious.

      This worries me in the US particularly, where Donald won with razor-thin margins in the rust-bucket states. Rather than recognize Clintonism as a major part of the cause of that fury, the Dems have been wallowing in Denialist Fantasy about the election being stolen from them by the Russians (as if such a thing were possible). Their failure to get a grip on reality may see them get beaten like a gong in 2020.

  9. XopherO says:

    A good blog, that covers much about the causes of the Gilets Jaunes. I would like to comment on some of the contributions:

    I believe there is climate change – there always has been. The causes for the current increase in change are probably many, variable, and may include greenhouse gases, which may be at least in part anthropogenic. But the hysteria is silly. The history of science is full of these ‘certainties’ which are later unfounded. Scientists are supposed to be sceptics, and Popper argued that the key role of the scientist was to seek to falsify his/her hypotheses – conjectures and refutations. Unfortunately, he failed to point out that facts themselves could be falsified, because facts are theory-laden, apart from the trivial, and even these depend upon long-standing beliefs about what can be ‘seen’as real. A few big volcanic eruptions (or a nuclear conflict) could completely derail global warming – indeed, one awaits the response of Gaia! But there is a lot of money to be made, and is being made out of this debate – livelihoods of scientists, politicians, enterprises with ‘solutions’ etc.

    French taxes are not that high (not by Swedish standards anyway). Income tax is more progressive than in the UK, and VAT is the same but with lower levels (10% which Macron increased from 5%!) for artisans working on repairs and refurbishment, and energy-saving applications. What puts up French taxes is the Social Security contributions for workers, now 18% (up from 15 under Macron) compared with 8% in the UK – it also applies to interest and capital gains. Pensions in France are relatively generous, but the perhaps unfairly, the social security deductions apply to pensions. That is a big take. But Macron has sought to reduce social security for employers on the grounds that it will aid them to take on new workers. When I said this to my French friends in our local countryside cafe, they laughed and patted their pockets – the employers have simply purloined any benefits, because in effect world demand is weak and there is no point in therefore increasing production quickly. The problem is not expensive employees, it is weak demand. And in the UK, poor productivity -it’s the Production Function, stupid!

    The Gilets Jaunes have proved what has always been the case in France – violence, destruction and disruption work sometimes. Peaceful demos never work. From 1789 onwards there have been big flare-ups in France, mostly put-down by military massacres (but the last king, Louis-Philippe, had to escape to England!).

    I recently wrote to a friend in England that perhaps neoliberalism and the end of true social democracy had only just arrived in France with Macron. Previous presidents had tried but the French had risen up one way or another – that until Macron the idea of a social contract, of a welfare state, had struggled but not been defeated. Hollande was crushed by Merkel when he tried to introduce something approaching Keynesian policies at the start. Perhaps he was pushed into appointing the quisling Macron to his government.

    There is perhaps still some hope, though the involvement of the extreme right is an ongoing problem. Remember Macron and his band of inexperienced, incompetent yes-men got in to defeat Le Pen. His predictable failure is a big cause for concern even though the essential social contract remains, slightly tattered.

    • Rod Miller says:

      So who ever denied that the causes of climate change were complex?? Certainly not anyone who understands anything about climate. But if you’re smoking three packs a day and a chest x-ray shows a big shadow on your lung, are you going to scratch your chin and opine that maybe the technician spilled some coffee, or there are some crossed ribs, or whatever? No. You’re going to do the obvious: stop smoking right away.

      And hysteria? The problem is Insufficient concern. Nobody wants to actually Do anything about it, such as change their lifestyle. Not hysteria. Denial. That’s the operative word here.

      As for scientific certainties being overturned, what’s your point? If meteorolgists agree that a hurricane is going to hit my home on low ground, guess what. I’m evacuating, not waiting for Final Scientific Wisdom.

      “One awaits the response of Gaia!”

      No need for impatience. It’s a-comin’.

      “French taxes are not that high.”

      I take it you’re not a single mother trying to feed a family on 1200 euros a month. Then EVERYTHING hurts. This isn’t just Macron — it’s also Hollande, Sarko, etc. It’s been building. And abolishing the wealth tax was kicking vulnerable people when they were down. The wealth gap in France has been growing, not diminishing. Ça veut dire ce que ça veut dire.

      I certainly do agree with you that violent protest is the way reverse ANY government policy in France. That’s the way the place is.

      As for Merkel, she was riding high. Schäuble too. Times have changed. What with new governments in Italy and Spain, we’ll see just how uppity the Germans can afford to be now that the chemistry is different.

      You’re calling Macron a failure (well, you called him a quisling, so why not) after a mere year and a half. The guy is young. He may turn out to be yet another incorrigible neoliberal hack, in which case he’s governing the wrong country. But he may yet surprise us.

      • XopherO says:

        A mother with children on 1200 euros doesn’t pay any tax! So I don’t know what your point is here. I did not say there was no poverty in France. There is, but my point was that the French have successfully protested against Chirac’s and Sarko’s attempts to neoliberalise the country, and the social security system is one of the best, if not the best, in Europe (not perfect of course) – that is why the secu taxes are so high (still less than in Sweden).

        The wealth gap has been growing, but look at the fuss over the 90% tax on earnings over 1m euros brought in by Hollande – condemned everywhere including in the UK. Depardieu made a fool of himself, and repeated requests to list those businessmen who had left France for tax-haven, money-laundering UK were never answered – a few probably did like Depardieu (cuddling up to Putin!) – but it was largely a myth. That and the wealth tax have gone. Macron made a big hole that he is trying to fill with ordinary folk’s money – he has failed, in part at least, like Chirac and Sarko. Once wounded like that in France and your power starts to ebb.

        Macron is bringing more teachers into primary schools – great except he is doing it by making secondary teachers redundant. And very unusually, doctors and nurses in some hospitals have been taking action because they are overworked, and there are significant shortages in some disciplines. Macron will try to make the French health service resemble the British, sadly. Macron has done a lot of damage in a short time – he is so arrogant.

        As to climate change, it is not the same as global warming. The data for the latter is mixed, as brotherandor has pointed out. Indeed it is measured over ten year spans, not annually, to even out ups and downs, there was no net change between 1998 and 2008, for example. It isn’t consistent.

        My point was about scientists and bandwagons – they forget the need to test data thoroughly and ignore data that might be difficult to explain. This is all well-recorded. They take ‘facts’ as unquestionable facts. They seek to confirm their theories rather than question them. A recent publication shows that cheating in science is more prevalent than ever. Science needs its sceptics, and I am one of them. The literature in this field is extensive. Your counterblast misses the point – why don’t you say, like they do, look at the TVs, planes, medicines. That is science for you!

        A scientific conference in England in 1905 was called to look at problems the motor car might cause. They came up with permanent DUST clouds, but the solution, tarmac, had already been invented. What they didn’t see were the deaths and injuries, the pollution, the damage to cities etc etc. Futurology is a difficult science.

        • Rod Miller says:

          “A mother with children on 1200 euros doesn’t pay any tax! So I don’t know what your point is here.”

          Then perhaps you should think harder about her situation. All this is Not about Income Tax. The goods she buys have to be transported, and their price has therefore just gone up. Think about it.

          Yes, there is poverty in France — a growing wealth gap. Poverty in Sweden too (I know some victims personally). OK but it’s worse in France, and what’s admirable about the French is that — unlike the Swedes — they hit the bricks and put the Fear of God in their leaders.

          Yes, Dépardieu is an odious dingbat. So — as you say — Macron will have to figure out some Other way to close the wealth gap, because he’s off to a bad start here. (This hand-wringing about the wealthy leaving … I’d say: “OK, go. But we’ll see to it that you never again make a Single Cent in this country. How y’all like that?”)

          I suppose it’s out of the question geopolitically, but if I were French, I might seriously suggest leaving the Eurozone. I definitely would if I were Italian and can’t for the life of me imagine why the Greeks didn’t go (Schäuble definitely expected them to …). A euro when you have true political union, fine — but they put the cart before the horse.

          “Climate change is not the same as global warming.”

          Ohhhhkayyy. Well then let’s forget about “climate change” (whatever that is) and concentrate on melting polar ice, a weakening jetstream (result of above), rising sea levels (result), etc. I live in the Alps, and you need a freaking yardstick to measure the rate at which the level of the Mont Blanc glacier shrinks Every Year (forget decades). All these phenomena look curiously Similar to me. And it just so happens that over the past two centuries we’ve been dumping exponentially increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Mighty odd.

          Anyway, the root problem is overpopulation — a plague of homo sapiens on the Earth. So we’ll do ourselves in one way or another soon enough, deficient scientific prediction notwithstanding. (That’s MY prediction…) I know enough about climatology to realize it’s just about the most complex thing out there. Nevertheless, the facts listed in the previous para are facts.

          “My point was about scientists and bandwagons …”

          Then your point is about Human Nature. Good point.

          • XopherO says:

            Indeed, the poverty is not really about taxation. The French system as I am sure you know is quite generous to families by averaging out income across the family (including children). It is harder on single folk.

            Poverty is much more evident in the lower-taxation UK, as the UN rapporteur reported. Perinatal mortality and injury rates are some of the highest, as are cancer survival rates and child poverty. What is the point in being the sixth wealthiest country in the world (though much lower in terms of GDP/capita, probably below 20th) with such a failure to look after your citizens?

            A lot of the problem lies with the big rise in the price of petrol, a weaker euro (which has contributed to the former) and a rise in food prices. And along comes Macron and behaves like an idiot. He proceeds to implement all his neoliberal pre-election promises in a rush. Hollande’s problem was he made leftist promises and then spectacularly didn’t keep them from the start, and it was downhill afterwards – he did a Clegg and did for himself and the PS.

            The Gilets Jaunes have the bit between their teeth – it is going to run and run.

            As to global warming, the projections over 30 to 80 years are pure fiction like any such. If true, then it’s going to happen because emissions cannot be stopped quickly enough, so the scientists and technologists had better turn their attention to coping with it. But there is no research money recognition or Nobel Prizes in that at the moment. Stymied, whichever way you turn!


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