After a prolonged silence, I feel some irrepressible urge to express my thoughts on current events in France. I would not be arrogant enough, though, to compare myself with Kant who changed his immutable daily walk when hearing news about the French Revolution…
The current insurrection is the result of a number of ideological, political and economic forces which gradually made life unlivable for the French lower middle-class.
How did we get there?
It all started with a long cultural battle waged by the Left in order to conquer and maintain hegemony.
Watch a French movie of the 1930s, 40s of 50s. You will generally encounter the noble figure of the Proletarian, often played by actor Jean Gabin, who would be a member of the Résistance fighting bourgeois Vichy collaborators, an honest worker exploited by his crook employer, or a free man whose spontaneous love for some upper class lady would be crushed by the hypocritical moral order. The Left was all for the working class and accordingly idealized and romanticized its representatives in its cultural products.
Then events did not unravel as planned. The evil consumer society happened. During the post-war period, working class people moved away from industry to become clerks. They started owning cars, houses, going on vacation, purchasing records, organizing barbecues, going to the restaurant, and so on. They started investing in savings plans and setting up fences around their property. They were ripe for supporting the social order.
This process culminated in 1968, when some children of the bourgeoisie, trying to organize a revolution (I honestly have no convincing explanation why), were “betrayed” by labor unions who saved the Gaullist regime in exchange for a general wage push (called “Accords de Grenelle”).
However this was a Pyrrhic victory. De Gaulle was gone the year after and the Communist Party and the main labor union (CGT) were unable to prevent the new 1968 hedonistic left-wing bourgeoisie from taking over. The 68ers rapidly managed to control academia, and from there it was only a matter of time before their ideology penetrated the media, the administration, charities, and the world of professional politics.
This stealth conquest of power set the stage for a large scale cultural and political offensive against the lower classes. Since their living standards were improving, their political preferences would sooner or later evolve, and it was no longer possible for the Left to seize power based on the traditional class conflict between labor and capital. Indeed, East German proles, supposedly dictators, were driving two-stroke engine Trabants, while their West German counterparts, supposedly exploited, were driving Volkswagens, if not BMWs or Mercedes.
Something else had to be invented.
To get a grasp of this something else, one should watch (again) a movie. This movie is called Dupont-la-Joie and depicts a bunch of racist, stupid redneck white males committing an ugly rape and accusing an innocent north African immigrant of the crime. Jean Carmet, who played the rapist, had replaced Jean Gabin as the new figure of the average lower class French. Short, unattractive, presumed sexually inept, racist, sexist, vulgar and idiotic. The new romanticized left-wing hero was now the immigrant, in his double role as a victim of colonialism and racism and as an incarnation of the “bon sauvage” yet unspoiled by the alienation of modern consumer society.
This ideology spread throughout the new elites almost unchallenged during the 1970s. And the socialist Left masterfully built on it to produce an almost unstoppable political war machine. Through its local politicians and a network of associations, it gradually enrolled suburban ethnic groups (the new “bons sauvages”) into New York style identity politics. This cornered the white lower classes into their own identity politics, which meant voting for the National Front.
There is no room here to explain what a blessing the National Front was for the May 1968 establishment. It was all about feeding that beast while keeping it scary.
The National Front was given a great deal of media attention and at the same time carefully locked in a ghetto of suspected racism so that any policy it could propose was interpreted through this lens.
The National Front was a political blackhole. It absorbed any dissent, stamping it with infamy. Are you against the single market? You’re a racist. Against monetary union? A racist. In favor of tax cuts? A racist. Against the monopoly of Social Security? A racist. Against the European constitutional treaty? A racist. Against same sex marriage? A racist.
Le poumon. Le poumon. Le poumon. Le poumon, vous dis-je.
The process reached a tipping point circa 1997 when the Socialist Party came back to power. Having played for 20 years, the Dupont la Joie script now influenced policy, which could be summarized by the 80-80 rule. That is, 80 % of policy decisions were made against 80 % of the people. For the first time in history, politicians in a so-called representative democracy considered that their job consisted not in pleasing their constituency, but in correcting them.
The average Joe does not think right, does not talk right, does not eat right, and does not move right. The average joe smokes too much, drinks too much, drives too fast in a car which is too big, does not educate his kids properly, and does not dispose of his garbage correctly. He contributes to global warming and the obesity crisis. He is a cause of traffic congestion and road accidents. He does not welcome newcomers. He does not adhere to an open, inclusive society. He does not appreciate the talent of contemporary artists. He bears the guilt of his ancestor’s crimes: slavery and colonialism. He is loaded with gender stereotypes. He lacks enthusiasm about the noble ideal of European unification.
Voilà pourquoi votre fille est muette.
The millennium ruling class faced the daunting task of reprogramming 80 % of the people while avoiding being voted out of office.
The Yellow Vest insurrection is a revolt of the reprogrammed against the reprogrammers, in a context where buying social peace through bribes is increasingly difficult since, as Mrs Thatcher put it “socialism only lasts until you run out of other people’s money” (which in itself is the other root cause of the insurrection).
Part of the reprogramming plan involves a substantial assault on living standards. This is what triggered the current protests.
Over the last couple of years, due to taxes, the price of diesel rose by some 30 eurocents per litre. For a lower middle class family which could use up to 50 liters per week, this means a reduction in living standards by 60 euros per month, an enormous share of noncommitted disposable income.
For years diesel was supposed to be good because it uses less fuel. People were encouraged to buy diesel cars and manufacturers spent money to make them cleaner, less noisy and more reactive. People made cost-benefit analysis on where to live and which car to buy based on an assumed price of diesel. Now that these irreversible decisions have been made, they are being told that diesel is now bad, because it emits “particles”. Diesel CO2 emissions per kilometer are 40% below those of gasoline but somehow global warming is no longer that big a problem when it comes to imposing a new tax (just like it is not a big problem when it comes to replacing nuclear plants by coal plants or by wind turbines backed up by fossil plants).
Policies in favor of “sustainable development”, also known as “punitive ecology”, have hit everywhere. The cost of construction has increased by 60 %, in part due to regulatory hysteria (see here); the cost of energy like electricity or heating fuel, the price of water, are skyrocketing. “Sustainable development” policies target the basics of life itself and they systematically harm the poor disproportionately.
A now popular view is that French society consists of three strata. The academically credentialled bourgeoisie of the inner cities. The ethnic suburbs. The periphery, where the entire native French lower classes now reside.
When you live in the periphery, no matter what you do, you use your car. Therefore, a tax on gasoline is a tax on everything you do. It might be a good tax from an economic point of view (low distortions) but it makes people mad (in fact taxing inelastic behavior makes people mad). The roads are also scattered with speed radars, meaning every time you do something, you are spied by the police (and you’re not allowed any lapse of inattention). As of now, 60 % of the French speed radars have been vandalized by the yellow vests. Any additional speed limit means any single thing you do takes longer, thus restraining your total freedom. One thing the new government did was to reduce speed limits on roads by 10 km/h. This is typical of the policies that are opposed by 80% of the population, and against which people feel helpless.
It is highly symbolic that the Parisian elites who impose these policies can travel at 350 kms per hour on high speed trains (called TGV) that all run between Paris and some other major French city (while stopping conveniently near places where the elite vacations such as the Perche or the Luberon, whose landscapes have also been strangely spared by wind turbines). Such public infrastructures are of little use to residents of the periphery, who are regularly lectured about the merits of mobility and nomadism and at the same literally prevented from moving (especially moving into Paris).
The inner city elite has zero understanding of these people’s problems, because they have zero empathy for them. They have zero empathy because they do not interact with them. TGV conveniently takes you from your Parisian fancy neighborhood to your renovated Luberon farm; it does not stop in between. The elite knows about the people only through the lens of its media, that has been playing some variation on Dupont-la-Joie uninterruptedly for the last 40 years.
The yellow vest movement is best understood as a hybrid between the U.S. Tea Party movement and Italy’s Cinque Stelle. Its position is largely incoherent, reflecting the diversity of its members’ motivation to join. But it has two original features compared to what we are used to in French agitation tradition. First, the yellow vests want less taxes (in the form of lower gasoline taxes but also lower taxes on (small) business). Second, they want more democracy (in particular, in the form of “popular initiative referenda”).
Most unrest in France is traditionally by stakeholders of the system, aka intérêts catégoriels (labor unions, students, farmers…) who fight over their piece of the cake. They do not want the cake to shrink, so they typically do not complain about taxes being too high. They do not want those who have little claims over the cake to have a say, so they are not supportive of direct democracy. Here we have something entirely new. In particular, there was no Yellow Vest protest last year when the government passed labor market reforms, that arguably reduced the bargaining power of unionized workers somewhat — such reform was irrelevant to the nonunionized, rentless, often independent workers who are presently taking the streets. Likewise, it is not the recent partial removal of the wealth tax which triggered the insurrection, although some YVs do complain about that reform, which certainly makes the gasoline tax hike appear especially cruel and unjust.
The YVs realized two things: First, even though they are nominally sheltered from the wealth and income tax, they do pay a lot of taxes. This is hardly surprising. In a country where public spending amounts to near 60% of GDP, everybody has to pay a lot of taxes. Second, since they do not have a voice, there is little that taxes (or, for that matter, policy) do for them. They only favor the wealth tax as an alternative to the gasoline tax; but they could not care less if its removal were financed by spending cuts. They have witnessed decades of ever increasing taxes while public services were closing in their community, trash was collected more infrequently, and the police was increasingly racketing them instead of protecting them. They don’t benefit from the amounts spent on culture, contemporary art, higher education, research, high speed trains, identity politics or greeting migrants who at best compete for them for jobs and access to public services and social insurance.
Some see in the YV movement a prelude to revolution or at least deep long lasting political change. The recent wave of “populism” (Trump, Brexit, Italy, etc.) may validate this view. Yet in all good logic the YV should fail miserably. All established powers are against them. For one thing, the radical Left joined the movement, that is, it pretended to. Their goal is to turn it into a usual organized interest protest thus emptying it of its meaning and delegitimizing it in the eyes of its very members and of general public opinion. Second, the media are predictably playing their usual part of racism accusations (Dupont-la-Joie never ends) and in their reports do not distinguish between the actual protesters and looters-arsonists who are conveniently left to operate (an old trick). Surely this will fool and scare some people. Third, Macron has skillfully made concessions that are likely to divide the YV, in a way that, like the radical left’s participation, makes them appear like just another angry intérêt catégoriel. The uninspired minimum wage hike that he promised is likely to please those protesters who are at the margin of the system (low wage earners with regular job contracts) but not the others–independent workers or small business owners. That is, Macron tries to divert the movement into traditional French zero sum politics, which, given the YV diverse support base, is bound to be divisive.
Macron also knows, like the Italians know, that it is now stupid to risk losing elections by keeping public deficits under check. The deficits are taken care of by the European Central Bank, which is a wonderful invitation to let them be determined residually as the outcome of political concessions to various protest groups.
This is ironical since many people who are sympathetic to the movement complain that the Euro is the problem, because it supposedly locks the country in a straightjacket of fiscal austerity, preventing the government to do all this wonderful redistribution that would solve our social problems (which makes me wonder how we could ever get away with a 57% public expenditure ratio). Yet the Euro has become a machine to mutualize and monetize public deficits. Absent the Euro the insurrection would be met by massive capital flight and a sharp depreciation of the currency, and it would be far more difficult for Macron to make such concessions in a country with a 3-digit debt/GDP ratio.