The central government in Paris is facing an old-style peasant wave of unrest in the westernmost part of the country. Small entrepreneurs, workers, farmers and many other people have congregated to oppose, with some degree of violence, a new tax on commercial road transport (with the trendy P.C. label “écotaxe”) that is currently being implemented and had been decided by the preceding government in the name of “sustainable development”.
France is famous for its street protests of a more or less violent form, and this tradition is continuing because it works. Historically, governments have backed down on many policy measures because opponents managed to make life impossible for them.
On paper, there is nothing legitimate in trying to cancel the choices of a democratically elected government through violence. And Brittany has given a large majority to the current government in 2012, thus endorsing more expenditures, more redistribution, more regulation, and more taxes. Who did they expect would foot the bill?
If however we turn to the substance, the root cause of the upheaval is two-fold. First, if you administer people a hefty dose of mad-cow-nomics, they predictably become crazy. Second, people are increasingly taken hostages by a ruling elite which seems totally out of control.
The mad-cow-nomics of the Breton upheaval are the following. On the one hand, people are asked to be competitive in the European single market. On the other hand, the institutional context in France and most recent policy measures are just prohibiting them from becoming competitive. The écotaxe is just the turburlence which triggers the final blast of the pressure cooker.
On the one hand, the Breton agricultural producers are supposed to compete with large German plants that reportedly hire workers from Romania and Bulgaria at Romanian and Bulgarian wages, thanks to the Bolkestein directive.
On the other hand, they have to pay their own workers French minimum wages, topped up by high social security contributions, abide by a myriad of costly regulations, and are a privileged target for more regulations and taxes in the name of “sustainable development”. In particular, the Bolkestein directive is not implemented in France to the same extent as Germany, so they cannot replicate the German strategy of importing cheap labor from the East. The French road transport tax is more severe for medium-size trucks than the German one, adding to the problem. And Schröder-style reforms are unheard of around here, meaning that the minimum wage has kept crawling up — some 17 % of the employed are paid the minimum wage, an astronomical proportion by international standards.
Historically these handicaps were offset by subsidies. But as the subsidies are phased out, the Breton producers can no longer break even.
In the context of the upheaval, we notice repeated attacks on speeding radars, which may sound anecdotal. In fact people have been furious against those radars from the start; they epitomize the contempt of the ruling class for them. They are strategically located at places where the speed limit is abnormally low given the configuration of the road. They impose a mental torture on drivers, especially of course on those who have to drive constantly in their profession. Nobody believes they have anything to do with road safety. They are a consequence of a global ideology where politicians incarnate some moral principle — sustainable development, gender equality, public health, solidarity, European unification — and consequently people are accountable to politicians instead of the other way round. In turn this ideology serves as an excuse for the elites to increase their power and extract more resources from the population.
In 2007 people voted for Sarkozy because he sounded more receptive to the actual problems of the people. Immediately after he was elected he scattered the territory with those radars, while at the same time hiring politicians from the defeated socialist party in his government. At that point people understood that they had been grudged.
How can one explain to the Bretons that there is any good for them in enlarging the European Union to the East and in implementing the Bolkestein directive? This is made more difficult by the fact that there is no democratic legitimacy to such enlargement. Nobody in France was asked their opinion about whether Bulgaria, Slovenia or Latvia should be part of the Union: There was no referendum. To be sure, the parliament agreed. But the two main parties are unanimous over everything European. That is, the scope and scale of the European Union are simply taken out of the debate — in the former Eastern Germany there were 11 political parties; but things like freedom of speech, a market economy or reunification were, similarly, taken out of the debate.
At the same time as we have no say on the frontiers of the Union, we are told that we need more political unification, which of course makes it even more important that enlargement should be subject to referendum. It’s as if the U.S. congress suddenly decided that Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia would now become U.S. states. What would the American people say? In fact such a scenario is not even conceivable.
Once upon a time, transfers of political sovereignty to Brussels were subject to referendums. In 1992 the French said yes to the Maastricht treaty, after a campaign which skillfully lumped together membership of the Euro area with the very existence of the EU (then EEC). In 2005 the French said no and since then there has not been a referendum. We are allowed to have referendums only if we say yes.
The Bretons are angry because they (and other French people alike) have not given consent to any of the things that are imposed on them. They have not consented to the Eastern enlargement, they have not consented to the Bolkestein directive, they have not consented to the écotaxe, and they have not consented to the speeding radars (another bipartisan consensus).
From 1300 to 1660 the kings of France, when levying new taxes, needed the consent of a popular assembly called the Etats Généraux. While political representation was not equal across people, the members of this assembly were not professional politicians but genuine representatives of their constituency. It was not rare for the assembly to say no to a tax proposed by the king. The scope for manufactured consensus to make a mockery of popular representation was lower, precisely because the representative of shopkeepers was not a career politician but a shopkeeper, who would personally experience the pain of any new tax on shopkeepers. Circa 1660 the Capetian dynasty stopped resorting to the Etats Generaux and became a dicature called absolutism. It lasted another 130 years.