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In the Fog of the Real

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As the gilet jaune revolt moves forward and another destructive showdown looks imminent tomorrow in Paris, the government – and the president – have opted for the lesser of two contradictions. The greater: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you set aside progressive fiscal policy and tax rich and poor at the same rate, putting social justice – a grand French aspiration – in parenthesis. That didn’t work. The lesser: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you get alongside low earners and help them through a difficult transition, even though the climate jeopardy of clapped-out diesel UVs is absurdly obvious. But that hasn’t worked either.

Perhaps President Macron and the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, have grasped that conspicuous pollution lower down the economic ladder isn’t as dangerous as invisible contributions to global warming from consumer-led growth across the board: 24/7 internet, deforestation for vegans and carnivores alike, no-tomorrow air travel, farmed shellfish and all the rest. It’s even possible that Macron no longer thinks of rural people as despicable smoking mums who lower the aspirational tone at the school gate as they wait to collect their children.

More likely, though, is that the Elysée and the prime minister know they’re on the run. Big concessions have been made to the gilets jaunes this week. The projected rise on the fuel tax in January has been dumped. Indeed no fuel tax rises at all are envisaged in the 2019 budget. There is frenetic talk of trying to raise ‘purchasing power’ for the less advantaged. The minimum wage is set to increase by 3 per cent, but the rise in real terms is closer to 1.8 per cent. Management, we’re now told, should consider doling out end-of-year bonuses to their workers (tax-deductible for the company and tax-exempt for staff). Voices in the government and the parliamentary majority have even raised the possibility of reinstating the wealth tax (impôt de solidarité sur la fortune) which Macron scrapped in January and replaced with a new version (impôt sur la fortune immobilière). Macron has explicitly ruled out a return to the old tax, but the murmurings persist.

This a key issue. The idea of scrapping the ISF was to reduce capital flight: very roughly, big equity portfolios are no longer subject to wealth tax, only land, bricks and mortar. Sweden did something similar in 2007 and it appears to have hung on to its cherished social model. Why shouldn’t France? Whatever the merits of this idea, the gilets jaunes loathe it, and are now demanding that the ISF be reintroduced. To call the movement a ‘fuel protest’, as the BBC does, is a huge over-simplification: the protesters have egalitarian pretensions that go far beyond the petrol tank. And for many – as far as we can tell – it’s less a matter of rejecting taxes outright (or social charges for small businesses) than a question about who should bear the brunt. Attac, a movement founded in support of Tobin-style taxes on financial transactions, has expressed its support for the gilets jaunes on the grounds that ‘social justice’ and ‘climate justice’ should articulate in any grand policy for change. Another big march scheduled for tomorrow – one of several ‘climate rallies’ as the COP24 round in Poland toils towards its conclusion – looks likely go ahead in Paris. Here, too, climate-change militants are broadly sympathetic to the gilets jaunes. In a handful of provincial French cities the two sets of marchers are wondering if there’s a way to link up.

Tomorrow in Paris will be fraught. Moderate gilets jaunes – speaking for a so-called ‘gilets jaunes libres’ tendency – have warned activists not to take part in an event which is bound to involve violence. But the government’s conciliatory offers have been dismissed with such contempt that the movement feels it’s on a roll, ‘libre’ or otherwise. Intransigence is the order of the day: we saw this earlier in the week when a group of gilets jaunes negotiating an audience with the prime minister pulled out after threats against them on social media. Many lycéens are now caught up in a parallel anti-government protest about university selection (among other things). Yesterday in a school north-west of Paris, 150 lycéens were detained by police and forced to kneel with their hands on their heads. This kind of spectacle does the government no favours; nor does talk of calling in the army – an idea slapped down earlier this week, though there will be armoured cars on the streets in Paris tomorrow.

Seven hundred lycéens have been detained to date. Does their agitation in secondary schools, along with vocal solidarity for the gilets jaunes among the climate marchers, mean we’re witnessing a ‘convergence of struggles’? Not really – or not until the trade unions and the political class can get a foothold in the movement. Besides, it’s entirely unclear what to converge on. When you talk to gilets jaunes at a go-slow, hear them on the radio, or see how easily they can close down parts of France if they want to, they appear to have many classic characteristics of earlier French mobilisations. Easy to forget, in the fog of the real, that the big rallying ground is probably Facebook, which is where this movement took off and how it perpetuates itself.

The government, in other words, is facing a crisis on the streets and on social media. The magnitude of the challenge – and we’d have to go back decades to find anything comparable in France – means we’re on unfamiliar territory: we shouldn’t be deceived by the long Republican tradition of mass turn-outs in public and ostentatious violence into thinking that we’ve been here before. As the BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Broderick explains, the gilets jaunes have built their movement ‘almost entirely on small, decentralised Facebook pages. They co-ordinate via memes and viral videos. Whatever gets shared the most becomes part of their platform.’ Democracy in action! But some of it has to do with algorithm changes that Facebook made in January, privileging ‘local’ news and discussion on the grounds that they’re likely to be better informed, or less disinformational than global third-party gossip. Not long after Zuckerberg announced the algorithm tweak, disparate local ‘groupes colère’ (or anger groups) in France began to achieve traction on Facebook, railing narcissistically against all kinds of stuff. Unlike Broderick, I’m not sure the groupes colère were precursors of the gilet jaune phenomenon, but the new Facebook arrangement has done the gilets jaunes no harm either.

Chantal Mouffe has reassured the readers of Libération that the gilets jaunes are tending to the left, if they’re tending anywhere. But what left is that exactly? After Hollande’s dismal presidency and the collapse of the Parti Socaliste, only the Communist Party and La France Insoumise are left standing. What happens in the short term – tomorrow or Christmas – won’t tell us whether Mouffe is on the ball or just a wistful left-wing intellectual.

Two vigorous and influential figures in this fight want it to go the other way. As the cars are set ablaze tomorrow in Paris, Marine Le Pen and Steve Bannon will be watching eagerly from Brussels, where they’re scheduled to speak against the ‘Marrakech treaty’, a UN-inspired Global Compact for Migration. The document aims to manage human movement, as the driving factors – climate change included – push millions of people away from their countries of origin. The UN compact is non-binding: a member state can sign up to the idea, as France has done, without implementing the recommendations. But for Le Pen – and Bannon’s got her back – it’s the last nail in the coffin of national sovereignty. The gilets jaunes are still susceptible to this line of reasoning as they try to resist the tide of globalisation.

Comments

  1. Ally says:

    I guess I chose the wrong week to read Paul Collier’s “The Future of Capitalism”. “The narrative of belonging to your country has been left, by default, to the nationalists who have hijacked them for their own divisive agenda, and in the process the ethical state has withered away. In 2017 President Macron of France broke this pattern of negligence. He has pioneered a vocabulary to distinguish between two forms of nationwide identity: nationalism and patriotism, describing himself as a patriot but not a nationalist.” Reading this on publication in October would have been a smooth glide over the tarmac of commonplace opinion. Now, it’s juddering over the potholes.

  2. XopherO says:

    Am I being too cynical to think that Macron’s appeal to climate change to support his policies is really just a way of implementing his right-wing neoliberal agenda while looking green to the politically innocent, and to the world outside France? Perhaps some of the Gilets Jaunes have understood this, and are as cynical as me. What will they do? It has been proved over the last month that peaceful protests have no impact. Violence has seen him pull right back. Not a good lesson! There is blood on the tracks.

    • David Sharp says:

      You are quite right in thinking that. Until these protests started, Macron had never talked much about climate change, concentrating on reducing job security, cutting pensions and overall government spending and handing out gifts to the very rich (There’s a graphic in this week’s edition of The Economist which illustrates the effects of these policies on income distribution: https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/12/08/emmanuel-macron-faces-the-first-real-test-of-his-presidency ).

      Another thing that strikes me is that a large part of the efforts to supposedly prevent global warming revolve about persuading, or even forcing, motorists to replace their vehicles with new ones. Twenty years ago the French media were full of articles claiming that the problems with nanoparticles emitted by diesel vehicles had been resolved thanks to technology; people duly bought diesels in huge numbers, encouraged by sales promotions, and by the fact that the fuel was then cheaper.

      Now they claim to have suddenly realised that that was all a mistake, and want everyone to get rid of their diesels, and also their petrol-driven vehicles, and buy electric cars. It all seems more like a ploy to keep capitalism in business than a serious effort to save the world.

      • XopherO says:

        The Economist article points to a crucial gap in Macron’s influence – virtually no Maires of the 35,000 communes explicity support LREM. If any, they were elected on the back of one of the traditional parties, but even more on their performance as seen by residents (our maire has worked hard with some success to keep shops and activity in the village, population of the whole commune,not just the village,600 souls!). Macron conspicuously did not turn out for the annual Maires’ gathering in Paris this year – they were very upset. And another faux pas was not turning out for the commemoration of the battle of Verdun where French losses were the greatest of the war. Plus his imperial style has virtually closed down discussion in the Assemble Nationale, and those LREM deputies who have dared to question have been repressed by threats. He completely alienated the rail workers – their perks were quite exaggerated. Free train travel is not used so much in the era of the motor car, other than getting to work. Three months of strikes. And as with the British miners in 1984, it won’t be forgotten for a long time.

      • rrhallmark says:

        Such ignorance, such deafness.
        Macron, for all his faults, has been active (but I agree with those who say not active enough) on climate issues. He hosted the Paris meeting that led to the eponymous accord. He has referred to it frequently. It was part of his election programme. It has been, up to now, part of his programme. He appointed the most active minister for ecology that probably any country, certainly France, has seen, in Nicolas Hulot. Hulot resigned as he said he felt that not enough is being done. But when he was interviewed on France2 television, at length (your comment suggests you did not see this) he was scathing about the attitude of the gilets jaunes towards those issues, and less critical of Macron than they the gilet jaunes might have supposed.

        There was an interesting dialogue on that programme with a gilet jaune spokesperson, which showed just how ignorance they are about these things, and how little ecological questions really bother them. (Some vague protestation “au contraire” have not demonstrated any real interest.)

        I suspect that Hulot wanted to resign in part so that he would be freer to speak out more loudly and urgently on climate issues than he could as minister.

        But worst in your comment is the ultra-leftism and paranoia which you display muttering about a scam to keep capitalism in business. It is as if you spend more time getting your news from social networks than more reliable sources (such as AFP, which you should know about).

        You should know that there was a policy adopted by many governments to turn to bio-fuels as a better alternative to petroleum for motor fuels. Bio-diesel is an ingredient in diesel (often). Bio-fuel production has been responsible for the destruction of swathes of “virgin” rain-forest in many countries.

        • David Sharp says:

          rrhallmark:
          The COP-21 Climate conference couldn’t have been “hosted” by Macron, since it took place in November-December 2015, 18 months before he came to power. Although Macron was a minister in Hollande’s administration at the time, as far as I know he had nothing to do with the COP-21.

          More generally, I thought this blog was moderated. Not very effectively, I’d say.

  3. Simon Wood says:

    It is too early to say.

    • John Cowan says:

      As Zhou Enlai supposedly said about the French Revolution. (Though he may have thought he was being asked about 1968.)

      • Simon Wood says:

        Yes, that’s the reference I had in mind. We can’t underestimate the understatedeness of the Chinese – they have a long history, are a big country and through experience are very, very patient.

        People have been saying to me, why don’t we show some spirit and riot? I remind them that we did in 2011 when four people died, one more than France’s three. “Oh, that wasn’t political,” they retort.

        One has to be patient.

  4. Anaximander says:

    It’s a very garbled post, where so many sentences contradict each other.

    Just a few notes:

    Many rural dwellers drive rather new cars, so the “clapped-out diesel UVs” are rare. The newer vehicles come via finance deals (as in the UK) but are also bought because people are aware of climate change (which has changed their weather for the worse in the past few years) and are willing to do their bit.

    Time Harding gave up those lazy stereotypes.

    “Attac… has expressed its support for the gilets jaunes on the grounds that ‘social justice’ and ‘climate justice’ should articulate” This has already happened, with DiEM25, which Hamon left the floundering PS to join.

    “a ‘convergence of struggles’? Not really – or not until the trade unions and the political class can get a foothold in the movement.”
    But those rigidly elitist dinosaurs are being deliberately left behind as neither have offered what most people want.

    “only the Communist Party and La France Insoumise are left standing.” Ha ha! see DiEM25 above.

    The GJs have forced Macron on to TV tonight, where he made some important concessions, and suggested, a bit vaguely, there might be more. He looked genuinely humbled, but wouldn’t revisit the wealth tax. It wasn’t the opportunist violence that got Macron to address the nation, but polls showing the GJs had 65-75% popular support.

    France has tilted a bit on its axis, with unforeseeable consequences, with Le Pen and Mélenchon huffing and puffing to catch up.

    • XopherO says:

      The GJs had that level of support for three weeks before the violence. This plus the violence undoubtedly forced a response. Either alone would probably not have got the same result.

      Has Macron said anything about his plan to restrict rises in pensions and social security payments to 0.3%, when inflation is running close to 2%? That will have a big impact on purchasing power for the retired, unemployed and poverty stricken (for whom the rise in minimum wage will have no benefit.) His changes to wealth tax cost the government 3 billion euros, and his doubling of tax relief to employers (CIC) will cost even more, and probably have little effect on employment, enterprise or productivity. None of this has anything to do with reducing global warming. But it certainly takes from the poor to give to the rich. You don’t have to be ultra-left to see that.

      Diesel cars are still being sold, and people are buying, including in the countryside. Diesels are probably going quite cheaply second-hand. They don’t disappear that quickly!

      Why the hysteria and ad-hominem abuse?

      • David Sharp says:

        XopherO writes : “Why the hysteria and ad-hominem abuse?”.

        I think that the comments on this thread by the people who sign themselves “Anaximander” and “rrhallmark” should not have been validated by the moderators.

        Gratuitous insults are a major deterrent to participation in an otherwise serious and interesting blog. I no longer feel inclined to contribute.

        • immaculate says:

          On the contrary, I want to read what other people think and write, if that’s OK with you David.

          • XopherO says:

            Yes, I think you are being a tad over-sensitive David. I don’t know why folk cannot stick to discussing the issues rather than being unpleasant/abusive about contributors, but it seems some are like that – get angry/hysterical too easily, clouding their judgement. It appears to be one of the prices of blogging. Moderators shouldn’t be too restrictive, supposing a certain thickness of skin!


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