When asked to share my thoughts on the recent yellow vests protests, I initially demurred, stating that is was simply another case of the French being the French (about benefits) (about airbnb and/or uber) (about strikes in general). The French also lack the resolve and ability to fix problems, as seen by the “we are not afraid” and “Je suis Charlie” sentiments now long since forgotten (thankfully). But as I thought more on the matter, I realized that the Yellow Vests are simply a remake of an American film we’ve already seen (and forgotten): Occupy Wall Street.
What Happened to Occupy?
In September 2011, a number of protesters moved into Zuccotti Park, in the Wall Street financial district. The complaints were vague: social and economic inequality, corruption, and the collusion of government and corporations in policy that disproportionately benefitted the few. The slogan of Occupy that we often saw was “We are the 99%.” It was a big splash…for a while. Two months later, the protestors were forced out of Zuccotti Park, and the world moved on to the latest celebrity scandal and right/left political story.
Even at its peak Zuccotti Park was only home to about 200 “Occupiers” and yet worldwide media attention was lavished on them. Why? It was a slow news period. Which is one of the reasons the Yellow Vests gained traction in recent weeks.
Does anyone believe that Americans would care about the French burning their own cities if there was a Supreme Court nomination battle happening? Or that Europeans would care about the French being themselves if Macron’s u-turns on the fuel tax didn’t have a direct impact on budget policy for the EU? Riots make for great television/YouTube content, so what was concentrated in Paris, and even then, in just a couple neighborhoods, was made to seem like a war in the streets that had the ability to topple Macron’s government. Even abroad I sensed this, and my return home last week has not convinced me otherwise, though on a short visit to Italy I was amused to see some of the rental car workers in Turin wearing freshly store-bought yellow vests (the vests still had the creases from being folded up inside a bag). It’s not usual for the Italians to take their fashion cues from the French, but when you’re bored and want to feel trendy, maybe that is what you do.
Why Did Yellow Vests Gain Traction?
Perhaps the year was too quiet. We didn’t have the terrorist attacks we had in past years here in France, and the general dissatisfaction with Macron failed to hit critical mass via the usual summer strikes that the French public told pollsters they were in “solidarity” with, but in practice virtually ignored. No one cares about your “right to retire” at 55, monsieur. So too, many people worldwide misread the “80% of French agree with the Yellow Vests” polling. It’s very easy for the French to say they are in “solidarité.” Does it mean anything, though? Often, non.
But the problem is that no one wants to tell the French you can’t have your brioche and eat it too. The Yellow Vests are effectively protesting globalism and the EU, both inevitable juggernauts that the protestors were happy to take money from when times were good, but now that the jobs and industries have moved on they have decided to throw their toys out of the pram while forgetting that the prams are now being made in Central and Eastern Europe.
But five consecutive weekends of protesting in cold weather combined with the police throwing their own “me too” blue vest protests have sucked the “resolve” out of the “revolutionaries,” and the media, at first excited about the possibility of a “movement,” have realized that leaderless protests lead to the same inevitable place: nowhere.
What Lies Ahead?
Not much. Our Savior’s Birth is this week, and for Christians the Christmas season and the joyous Twelve Days of Christmas lie ahead after the expectant waiting of Advent. For the “winter solstice” types, plenty of shopping and a complete ceasing of celebrating “the holidays” on December 25th. For the Yellow Vests, ahead lies the mountain of trying to convince the French, whose thoughts are with family and the new year, that protests and stupid slogans like “Macron resign” mean anything, in the long run. It’s the Fifth Republic, after all. The French have been marching in the streets since 1789. They are so famous for it you can even watch Hugh Jackman playact it in musical form. They haven’t learned that you can’t just complain and overthrow governments when times are bad. You have to pay attention to when your elected leaders sign you up for supranational organizations (the European Union) and defense treaties (NATO) and trading agreements (WTO). Decisions have consequences.
A French writer was quoted a couple weeks ago as saying that France is a paradise full of people who think they live in hell. It is a relative paradise for many. But for these protesting, whose comrades voted in Trump in America, Salvini in Italy, and nosed Britain out of the EU, the pain is genuine. They feel a squeeze, with no jobs and no future. But there’s nothing to be done in simply protesting, or even as it has been recently suggested, in their fielding candidates for the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections. In elective governments you not only choose the leaders from the society you have, you often get precisely the government you deserve. The French have been demanding more and more benefits with slower and slower economic growth for decades now. The numbers simply don’t add up. Whatever momentum the yellow vests thought they had, it is fading as the new year dawns.
The reason that many of us who aren’t French choose to make our lives here is because the French really know how to live, and live well. Someone–one of their own–has to have the courage to tell them that it’s long since time to pick up the bill for such a life.
Semper Fi and good writing on an important subject.
Great article, thoughts!
This reads like something a well-off German expat living in Manhattan would write about the Tea Party.
This seems to actually be a thoughtful and in-depth analysis: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/yellow-rise-paris/
Contrary to the other comments I feel the author left out something very important. It’s all well and good to say the French demanded more for decades. However he leaves out the part where the people who are paying for that more can no longer do so, in whole or in part because they’re elected leaders allowed a hollowing out of the economy that benefited only the top 10-15%. It was a long complicated slog to get there and it’s probably going to be a long painful slog to get out of it. Saying they have no hope, then mocking them for not knowing how to solve the problem is just poor op-ed writing. How about identifying the causes and at least proposing a solution or two? Given this is a rightward leaning site, those solutions might be anathema to the French, but otherwise this piece is facile stone throwing, nothing more.
barbaby33 – actually, it wasn’t that complicated nor did it even take that long. They signed up for the EU and the WTO and all else follows from there. Add in the inability of French to do their sums and their propensity to demand something for nothing since 1789, and you have this. I emphasized that it was the fifth French republic. This isn’t the first time the French have gotten it catastrophically wrong with their government.
I said, and I continue to maintain, that there is no hope to change this via protesting. I don’t speak just as a resident of France but as someone deeply familiar with French history. There is no “solution or two” or three for that matter. The French have built an entire government and system of thought that is rotten all the way down to its anticlerical and God-hating roots which have their beginnings before the execrable year of 1789 and in the so-called Enlightenment.
I identified the causes: perhaps you missed it, but I’ll reiterate. The French signed up for the European project. They also signed into the Euro. Readers of this site can follow from there – manufacturing got hollowed out in a number of places – here we are.
When you say it’s going to be a long painful slog to get out of it, you assume that such a thing is possible. I know that such a thing is not. That’s because this isn’t academic writing from the American side of the Atlantic. It’s on the ground writing from a resident of France. Time will tell, but I’m not hopeful that the French are any more competent than the Americans at governing themselves and solving enormous economic problems of their own doing. The French are currently governed by a Rothschild banker with two years more of experience in government than I have, and I have none. Hope? Not sold here.
This comment conveys a much different message from your original post.
It seems like these protests started outside of Paris and involved a much different segment of society than normal, and that dismissing them like you did is wrong. If residents of Upstate New York protested the destruction of their state, it wouldn’t be right to say they had “chosen” the responsible policies, because the fact is they didn’t. It seems to me rural France is also not to blame, and you can go back to the terroristic roots of their revolution and the fact that the country was a police state to suppress all opposition to see proof of that.
I hope as a denizen of Rochester you’re not speaking for upstate New York in general – though I doubt any uprisings are in the cards. In this and your previous comment you seem to be very NY-focused, so let’s talk about it that way.
New York State has been under three governments: His Majesty the King’s, the Articles of Confederation, and lately, the Constitution (with a nod to the Dutch and their time in the south of the state). The citizens, broadly, were supportive of the only two wars necessary for two of those forms of government, and also contributed a fair number of its flower to the War Between the States, which is a discussion for another time and place.
By contrast, France has been a country since roughly the 400s. Paris has been populated since before Our Lord’s birth. It was governed by kings for millennia. Since the murder of the king, when America was already governed by its current form of government, there have been *twelve* forms of government in France. 5 republics, 2 restored monarchies, 2 empires, 1 commune, 1 directory, and 1 consulate. It was during the establishment of the First Republic that rural Catholics fought the hardest before they were genocided. Mostly in the Vendee. Yes, some of the descendants of those brave heroes were recently wearing yellow vests, this is true. But they and their recent ancestors have chosen this government and several before the Fifth Republic, in large majorities. They have voted in
Charles de Gaulle
Valery Giscard d’Estaing
and lately, the boy wonder
Of all of these presidents, the only one who truly tried to get the French to change was their Dwight D. Eisenhower equivalent, De Gaulle, for whom the Fifth Republic was essentially crafted, with strong monarchical powers. He asked for a change to the constitution, which would have led to decentralization and other modernizing moves to the French state. In previous years he had withdrawn from NATO, making a tacit move for a multipolar world and a Europe not dominated by US policy. He made it clear to the French people that these constitutional changes were also a referendum on his presidency. When they rejected the changes, he resigned from public life forever.
This is a man with more social capital with the French than anyone could have commanded in a century. And even he gave up on them. And this Fifth Republic? It came into existence around the time JFK was being sworn into office. It’s just the latest in a series of failing governments that the French have cobbled together since they assassinated their king and destroyed the role of the Church. And do you know who the Gilets Jaunes claim some heritage from? The “68ers” which were the same losers who protested de Gaulle. We’ve seen this movie before – those of us who know French, not New York, history.
This country still has the murderous legacy of the Revolution everywhere. The priest-murdering La Marseillaise is the national anthem, every public building proclaims “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and the poison of laicite has turned many of the French not just against Catholicism, but against any belief in general.
New York is not France. Not even close. If you try to understand this through French and European historical lenses, I think you’ll have a better time understanding the perspective of someone who lives here (though you suspect I’m some beer-swilling Manhattanite) as opposed to squinting your eyes, failing to understand why your perspective of the Yellow Vests doesn’t line up with that of someone who lives here, who knows the French, and has had enough conversations with people who are not in the highest tax brackets that the French are not going to fight in the streets for these people – who I noted in the article had understandable pain. But just because their pain is understandable doesn’t mean there’s a remedy, or that you should have common cause with them.
I maintain that this is an Occupy Wall Street ephemera. Nothing more. If you wish to make a contrary case, please do so.
Thank you for your response.
My understanding is that perhaps 50k people were out protesting again this past weekend, so I think we can safely leave comparisons to Occupy behind. Of course the news coverage (at least in the US) is gone, because you were correct about the coverage being at least in large part due to the desperate need for content of our contemporary 24 hour media.
I am not a Francophile, nor do I romanticize the French people of now or any stage of the past. I have stated repeatedly here my admiration for Chesterton and Belloc as economic seers, but when I read Belloc’s encomiums for the French people I have no idea what he is talking about. As an American, Chesterton’s Englishness is much more familiar. And the English, other than the Tudors, have no history of the absolute monarchism that seems to have always characterized French government.
Regulars here will be familiar with my rural vs. urban focus and the related divisions of political power as the causes of many/most contemporary ills. From other writers, such as the link I posted above, it seems that the Yellow Vests are a French manifestation of this effect that has had so many recent global manifestations. It does not appear that these protesters are the usual students/union activists that, to my American eyes, make up the usual boring French protests. So, as far as I can tell, they have my general sympathy, though I’m sure their Frenchness means there will be much in their positions that I can’t support, or even relate to.
I don’t actually disagree with you that in the end these particular protests won’t effect the change they are looking for. There are too many powerful interests arrayed against them.
(PS. I did not call you a Manhattanite, and it is strange for you to combine “beer swilling” with that term, since the connotations for the two are radically different and oppositional.)
I was referring to your comment of my writing coming off as from a German expat living in Manhattan, etc…
As I gave in the timeline originally, Occupy was really around for a couple months. The first protests kicked off Nov 17th. Let’s see how things go when the French are back to regular schedules, not away with family for the holidays, before we see how much gas these guys actually have, and how much tolerance the government has for this sort of disruption.
The “absolutism” you refer to regarding French government is really quite recent, having been created and peaked under Louis XIV, perhaps France’s worst king. France slowly became a unified country by marrying into/consolidating other parts of France, like Brittany and Aquitaine. It was very decentralized for a large part of its history.
While the so-called Yellow Vest protests are slackening, they were hardly confined to “just a couple of neighborhoods” in Paris. In Marseilles…..not long after an apartment building in the Noailles with documented violations collapsed upon its occupants and killed several people….the protests occurred on several weekends while a Haute Provence toll booth between there and the lovely Torino was occupied and people were passed through free by Yellow Vest protestors as the gendarme looked on. I cannot imagine the law enforcement of this country, with the savage mood prevailing now would countenance protesters commandeering a toll booth without assaulting said protestors in a heavy handed manner as was done in Zucotti Park when patience was exceeded by the Wall Street Grandees. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone in this complacent nation actually protesting what was a wrong-headed Tax Reform Bill on the one hand or the daily and disastrous demolition going on in the Interior Dept and the EPA on the other. No, we are easily distracted by mere insult or the identity politics on both sides of the aisle. Reform is proclaimed but it is deformation at best.
Perhaps the French, like their confreres in America do not care to truly reconcile their daily comforts with the underlying costs or the fact that their governments have long been bought but at least for several weeks, many citizens throughout France took to the streets and actually shook their President off his crowing perch if only on one issue. The fact that the addled media of this country, lost down a rat hole of loutish spectacle actually covered the protests indicates the protest’s import went well beyond two neighborhoods.
Dismissing the protests and then decrying complacency or self-satisfaction would seem to be too quickly ignoring the undercurrent of mass frustration around the world as a result of a consolidating Corporate Totalitarianism. One element of the population is being easily manipulated in this country by mining their resentments. Another is being distracted by dissembling provocation. One of the largest bait and switches in political history is ongoing on the cheap. Would that some level of protest, of any leisurely measure begin to occur on a wider level before the savagery that is being toyed with now is unleashed on a far wider scale.
The Yellow Vests, as ephemeral as they may be provide some hope that this might actually happen.
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