The gilets jaunes may want six impossible things before breakfast but, as the late Marshal McLuhan might have put it, the medium is the message.
For the last three weeks, France has been a theater of demonstrations, and even riots, against taxation. This movement is called the gilets jaunes in reference to the high-visibility yellow security vests worn by protesters. (Under French law, all motorists must have one of these in their cars.)
The movement originates in a fed-up cohort of drivers being pushed around by the government. In July, for example, French officials decided, for “safety reasons,” to lower the speed limit on rural roads from 90 to 80 kilometers per hour. Nobody really believed the safety justification, with nearly every media commentator calling it a decision by a fiscally ailing government to raise more revenue through fines.
In August, President Emmanuel Macron decided to increase the taxation on diesel fuel, officially for environmental reasons. It touched off an anti-tax revolt, which for France is not a staple of political debate—at least not recently. The last important anti-tax demonstration was in 1906, and it was repressed bloodily by Georges Clémenceau, the leftwing head of the Home Office at the time.
Then there’s the one that most people think of, which began the 1789 Revolution. Of course, we are not yet in a revolutionary situation. But our predicament is in some ways close to 1789’s.
For one thing, the “elite” today as in the time of Marie Antoinette is very far from the people. It understands nothing about the “yellow vests” opposition. A worker earning around 1,000 Euros a month cannot take in stride a hike in his fuel charges of 100 Euros a month. The salvation of the planet is clearly not enough to convince him of the merits of this political decision. Especially when social networks recall for him that Emmanuel Macron told us, only two years ago, that diesel fuel was better for the environment than ordinary gasoline!
For another, let us examine the weight and inequity of taxation. In 1789, only the “Third Estate” was paying taxes; neither the clergy nor the nobility paid them. Nowadays, the middle class carries a huge proportion of the burden of French taxation. The poor (and especially migrants) don’t pay very much except the VAT on consumption, and they, on the other hand, receive a lot of money from the welfare state. Billionaires, too, pay proportionally less than does the middle class, having ways to search out and benefit from legal forms of tax avoidance.
If the “Third Estate” paid a lot of taxes in 1789, it was really far less than today. Back then, one had to work 10 days a year to cover the entire tax bill; nowadays, it is on average 200 days a year. And that is not to speak of the public debt, really the equivalent of future taxation, which now represents around twice the GDP (if we integrate all the public debts, including the off-balance-sheet debt, like future pension payments to government workers).
Nor can the issue of migrants be ignored here. One of the tacit reasons for the “yellow vests” populist opposition to the government lies, indeed, in migration policy. As with the Trump voters in the United States, many French people of the middle class face the economic effects of competition with migrants to France. The massive number of newcomers presses on the salaries of Frenchmen and women and costs taxpayers a lot. Migration policy partly explains their loss of purchasing power.
Another feature of this movement that makes it unique is how it shows the tensions between the France of modern metropoles and “peripheral France” (in the phrase of the geographer Christophe Guilluy). And here too one thinks of those who catapulted Trump to the U.S. presidency. The “yellow vests” are people who lost a lot due to globalization—not only from an economic perspective, but also from a political and a cultural one. Out of tune with them are those who persist in believing in the “happy globalization” that was promised by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé (a mentor to Edouard Philippe, who now serves Macron as Prime Minister).
The “yellow vests” movement, impressively supported by French population, is polling higher and higher among the French as the weeks go by. At the end of November, 84 percent of those polled found the movement’s claims justified, which is very unusual.
Even the violence in the streets has not yet diminished this support. Perhaps this is because many observers see on social networks that this violence is not being committed by the “yellow vest” demonstrators themselves, but by far-Left activists using the movement to destroy symbols of capitalism (like banks), and even by some police officers in plain clothes fighting against their own colleagues to discredit the protesters.
The main weakness of the “yellow vests” is also their main strength: They have no organization and no leader. The movement was launched on the social networks, when ordinary people spoke into their webcams about why they were going to join the opposition. Their videos reached millions of viewers in a country of 65 million inhabitants. From this angle, the comparison might be to the “Arab Spring”: a claim to freedom passing from social networks out into the streets.
Given this lack of organization, many scenarios are possible.
The first one is the end of the movement. If the government foregoes repression and lays low, as it were, the movement might just peter out. The winter cold, the approach of Christmas feasts, could make the disgruntled simply go back to their normal lives. But, of course, this outcome would not switch off the anger, which would be bound to return with the next unpopular governmental policy decision.
A second scenario is a thoroughgoing takeover by the far Left, which as I said is already very powerful in the movement. We are seeing absurd Marxist claims come to the fore. One is a proposed new progressive taxation regime for fuel; and another is the proposed confiscation of empty flats in towns to allow the demonstrators who live in the countryside to become, with subsidized rents, town-dwellers living near their jobs so they would no longer need to drive great distances (thus saving them fuel costs). Most of the demonstrators are clearly not far leftist: they clamor for more freedom, including more economic freedom. But the Left is nothing if it is not well organized, so it might well be able to steer the demonstrators where they don’t want to go.
A third scenario would be invocation of the famous Article 16 of the French constitution, allowing the President to gather to himself not just executive power but legislative power, to quell the unrest.
But we could also see—and it’s the hope of many demonstrators—a fourth scenario. That would be the birth of a populist movement like the Five Star movement in Italy or the Tea Party in the United States. This would be very interesting, and could augur real change in the French political landscape where, currently, populists and conservatives are unable to ally, unlike in many other European countries.
The only thing missing for this last scenario to come about, and it is a huge lack, is the scarcity of legitimate and skilled spokesmen. Will we see them emerge? Time will tell.