In the Fog of the Real

Jeremy Harding

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.


  • 8 December 2018 at 9:37am
    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.

  • 8 December 2018 at 12:00pm
    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.

    • 8 December 2018 at 1:16pm
      David Sharp says: @ XopherO
      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: ).

      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.

    • 10 December 2018 at 11:27am
      XopherO says: @ David Sharp
      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.

    • 11 December 2018 at 10:46am
      rrhallmark says: @ David Sharp
      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.

    • 11 December 2018 at 4:40pm
      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.

  • 8 December 2018 at 7:54pm
    Simon Wood says:
    It is too early to say.

    • 10 December 2018 at 2:55pm
      John Cowan says: @ Simon Wood
      As Zhou Enlai supposedly said about the French Revolution. (Though he may have thought he was being asked about 1968.)

    • 10 December 2018 at 11:07pm
      Simon Wood says: @ John Cowan
      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.

  • 10 December 2018 at 10:41pm
    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.

    • 11 December 2018 at 5:13pm
      XopherO says: @ Anaximander
      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?

    • 12 December 2018 at 7:45am
      David Sharp says: @ XopherO
      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.

    • 12 December 2018 at 1:44pm
      immaculate says: @ David Sharp
      On the contrary, I want to read what other people think and write, if that's OK with you David.

    • 13 December 2018 at 9:05am
      XopherO says: @ immaculate
      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!

    • 13 December 2018 at 8:45pm
      David Sharp says: @ XopherO
      I take your point, "XopherO", but I have become very sensitive to these issues; they make me very upset.

      You are free to consider this to be "over-sensitivity", but it's the way I am, and I don't think I'm likely to change any time soon. I'm not even sure I want to.

      Contrary to what "immaculate" suggests, I have no desire whatsoever to inhibit debate, or prevent points of view from being exchanged. Far from it.

      I simply don't see why the moderators couldn't make certain contributors refile their comments without the casual insults.
      In the absence of any such policy, I shall no longer be taking part here.
      No great loss for the blog, I suppose, but that's the way it is.

    • 16 December 2018 at 1:26pm
      XopherO says: @ David Sharp
      Actually, I may be joining you for a different reason. For the last three months it has been taking nearly three weeks for the LRB to reach me here close to Paris - I get the previous one on the date of new one! I have complained with sympathetic responses but no change. I may just cancel my subscription to end the irritation.

    • 16 December 2018 at 6:39pm
      David Sharp says: @ XopherO
      Apologies for following you off-topic, but both I, in central Paris, and another friend who lives in the inner suburbs have been having the same problem.
      However the problem also concerns deliveries of the TLS. I suspect that the two titles may share the same postal service.
      Over the same period, two other UK magazines I subscribe to (The Economist and The Friend, both weeklies) have been arriving on time, like clockwork.
      The mysteries of our privatised or semi-privatised postal services become ever deeper.

    • 18 December 2018 at 5:33pm
      Michael Anders says: @ David Sharp
      Me too. The LRB arrives at my Midi postbox weeks late.
      To return to the topic of the original poster, the 'Gilets Jaunes' movement: I think we are seeing the first signs of a tidal wave of revolutionary force which will not be restricted to France or even Europe. Bring it on, I say!

  • 19 December 2018 at 10:51pm
    Rod Miller says:
    People (like Harding) keep saying things like Sweden "appears to have hung on to its cherished social model". They obviously don't know the place. My Swedish brother-in-law has taken part in a fledgling "gilets-jaunes-à-la-suédoise" demonstration.
    Of course, the Swedes hardly have the hell-raising mentality of the French. More the pity.

    The Gilet Jaune thing appears to be running out of steam: it's Strasbourg, it's the Season, it's Entropy. But Macron better have learned a Lot from this. Otherwise it will be back to bite him sooner rather than later. Meanwhile his poll ratings are catastrophically bad.

    What, apart from anything else, will it take to change the French constitution?

    • 21 December 2018 at 1:43pm
      XopherO says: @ Rod Miller
      Not quite running out of steam - quite a few calls for this Saturday 22, plus one to demonstrate on the Champs Elysee on Dec 31 during the New Year celebrations, which might have serious consequences. Macron's rather bland mea culpa response to the petition against fuel rises won't help - the initiator is continuing to organise border protests to block commercial vehicles coming into France.

      Could something like the GJ happen in the UK? I suspect what has happened in France may encourage big demos against a no deal Brexit, and vice versa if a referendum is called, which could easily turn violent. Isn't it time the Labour Party stopped posturing and suggesting it could do better than what was always going to be a worse deal than staying in - everyone knew that? Personally I think it should back May's deal, and get it over with - a bitter pill. It would certainly end the worries of expats over here with regard to continued rights. It mighty help prevent what could be very destructive violence a la GJs. Another referendum (probably illegally run and propagandised again) is not a solution to anything. A general election is not going to happen.

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