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The relatively modest but nevertheless paralysing movement of the gilets jaunes, or ‘yellow vests’, has caught France, and French politics, off guard. It could be argued that it is Europe’s first rebellion against the ecological transition, to an economy free of fossil fuels, with the EU heralding the beginning of the end for 2050. The ‘yellow vests’ are a movement of the sort that politicians are ill-equipped, yet again, to respond to: spontaneous, social media-driven –although enjoying the support of the traditional media and users of change.org– without leaders, without spokesmen, non-party (indeed they reject political parties), side-lining trade unions (which were caught unawares) and pressure groups, such as those representing motorists, with clear goals and a broad social base, and simultaneously online and in the street (many of the elements that were present in the Spanish 15M movement). The movement is disruptive and even violent, although the greatest violence seems to be the work of extremists and casseurs (troublemakers) rather than the demonstrators themselves. How long will it last? No doubt not long. But it is a warning. Some time ago I wrote about movements of non-identified masses. These days their presence is greater, but they have mutated.
The origins of the protest lie in the increase in fuel taxes announced by Emmanuel Macron’s government for 2019 as part of what in France is called the ‘energy transition’ and ‘ecological conversion’, or ecological transition. Members of the movement may thus be characterised as ecological Luddites. A countervailing case is the electoral rise of the Greens in Germany, after an extremely hot summer that many German voters attributed to climate change.
A few extra cents of tax on a litre of fuel cannot in itself explain the anger unleashed among the tens of thousands of demonstrators. This ecological transition dispute, at least in France, arises when there is already widespread dissatisfaction in French society stemming from the economic crisis, with no increase in purchasing power or any fall in the unemployment rate (despite employment going up), even in the recovery. A very important factor is what is known as ‘forgotten France’, in reference to places far removed from Paris, ‘peripheral France’, provincial, very heterogeneous, the France of medium-sized and small cities, in geographical areas where cars are essential for getting around. The anger and uncertainty flourish when people face the prospect of having to get new vehicles because theirs do not comply with the regulations, not knowing, as some of the gilets jaunes have pointed out, whether they now have to buy a petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric car.
Media coverage of the demonstrations has focused on Paris, but they have been held over several weeks in more than 2,000 places, coordinated through social media, which doubles as the platform for taking Macron to task for his proposals on the issue. Almost 74% of French people, according to some polls, back the gilets jaunes. At a time when his popularity has sunk to an all-time low, Macron did himself no favours with his remark about the ‘change-resistant French’ (Gaulois réfractaires au changement), although he later acknowledged the expression was a mistake. The President has recognised, rather tactlessly, the tension that exists between the ‘end of the world’ and the ‘end of the month’. His offer ‘to listen’, to embark on a process of negotiation throughout the country and to adjust the rise in fuel taxes to the way fuel prices fluctuate, in other words a variable eco-tax, does not seem to have alleviated his predicament.
This rebellion has very French roots, but European lessons. Inevitably it has prompted comparisons with the spontaneous uprisings of 1358, the Jacquerie, led by Jacques Bonhomme, the name bestowed upon the unknown ringleader. The analyst Francis Brochet has called the movement of the ‘yellow vests’ (the garments worn by motorists in the event of breakdown) a digital Jacquerie. Like then, it is the outcome of a ras-le-bol, a despondency, prevalent in certain segments of society. Of course, the present is very different from the time of Jacques Bonhomme. In the current media frenzy, it is easy to conflate resentments en masse. And that hinders debate, which is so essential in democracies. Macron has said little to explain his policy; or his explanations have failed to convince. But the same can be said of Brussels and other capitals.
France is often the forerunner in social movements in Europe and further afield. It could point to proto-phenomena. Previous rebellions were against the stringencies of the markets and globalisation. This one, although resting on a general bedrock of anger in certain layers of society, is against a necessary and urgent ecological transition, but one that must be explained and programmed, more and better, amid what promises to be not so much a change in the type of energy we use as in our way of life.