The gilets jaunes are an inevitability of liberals’ tendency to dance to the alt-right fiddle
The French presidential election of 2017 looked for all the world like it might turn out to be France’s Trump moment. Of a field of eleven candidates in the first round, the two that progressed to the second — Marine le Pen of the far-right Front National (now Rassemblement National) and Emmanuel Macron of new “radical centrist” party La République en Marche—represented a new political dichotomy. Bigotry vs. progress, or patriotism vs. globalist oppression, depending on who you asked.
So, naturally, the French people, and to an even greater extent their American and British cousins, positively wet themselves with relief when Macron was declared the winner with a solid 66% of the vote.
Leftists, however, had been left somewhat in the lurch. They were faced with a choice between a liberal stalwart who had been a thorn in the side of the Socialist government of François Hollande and who had promised to roll back the country’s labour code, and a virulent nationalist who exhibited worrying racist and regressive rhetoric while pandering to the working class. While some on the left would rather the latter to the former at the expense of throwing immigrants and ethnic minorities under the bus, the bulk went with the neoliberal devil they knew in Macron.
However, the concern remained that Macron 2017 would lead to Le Pen 2022 — Macron would pursue the same policies that led to the economic malaise that fuelled the FN’s rise. Frustration with the traditional elite would only grow. Something would have to give.
And now, eighteen months into Macron’s quinquennat, it has.
The rise of the gilets jaunes movement was initially catalysed by proposed tax hikes on gasoline and diesel by Macron’s government, led by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. However, in the face of an increasingly unpopular and imperious President, it quickly took on a more broad-based character, protesting Macron’s administration and even European lawmakers more generally as it bled into neighbouring Belgium and Italy. The movement has seen government buildings set ablaze as well as numerous instances of damage to private property in Paris and elsewhere. Protestors have shut down the Champs-Élysées and shaken the French state to its core.
And yet, they manage to retain the support of up to eighty percent of the French populace.
While the popular image of France abroad is one of nation in constant protest and internal strife, the last time such a widespread movement retained the loyalty of such a large slice of the population was the 1995 rail strikes—and while they were extremely disruptive, including blockades and persistent demonstrations and strike action, they were not nearly as violent as the gilets jaunes are perceived to be.
Polling shows that a majority of supporters both of the Rassemblement National and La France insoumise (a left-wing coalition led by perennial presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon) support the movement, while it is mainly centrists and supporters of formerly dominant centre-right party Les Républicains that oppose them. French citizens across the political spectrum lend their support to the gilets jaunes, and it’s fair to say that there’s more on their minds than fuel prices. The movement has effectively popularised its platform of no confidence in the Macron presidency, even as it incurs physical damage that elsewhere would have been decried in the strongest terms.
Since 2016, the advent both of the UK’s ongoing Brexit drama and of the Trump presidency, it is difficult to deny that the politics of the Western world has taken a turn for the fatalistic—the world, Twitter constantly screams, is truly going to shit—and since then, commentators have cited a variety of events in world politics as forming part of this trend. A suspension of the constitutional court in Poland, a growing flirtation with anti-Semitism by the government of Hungary, and Saudi Arabia’s brazen willingness to flout international law with unprecedented audacity — the rule of law would appear to be breaking down everywhere.
But this, at least as far as the realities of foreign policy are concerned, is little more than an example of confirmation bias. Considered in a broad historical frame, constitutionally and ethically questionable practices have been a fact of political life in these regions for decades, at least since the end of the Cold War. This, on the other hand—escalating violence and the threat of a constitutional crisis in Western Europe’s largest country—is the alt-right’s true legacy. Not in deposing governments at the ballot box, but challenging them in the streets, by means that exploit the uncertainty of fake news and confuse the goals of what could have been a meaningful mobilisation against an unfair and inconsiderate energy policy.
And the “moderate” establishment has walked right into it. From Macron’s staggering arrogance, talking down to the working class and making it clear he sees himself more as a king than a president to Clinton’s failure to understand the issues and demands that the electorate really needed, and why the same energy that propelled Obama into the Oval Office would not support her without an update. If people believed their leaders were listening before, they sure as hell don’t anymore.
While it has been demonstrated that working-class voters in recent elections across the West including the Brexit referendum and the 2017 presidential elections in France tended to vote according to values rather than to factors such as class, there is a clear distinction between those candidates who opted to pander to those values, including anti-immigrant sentiment, and those who applied rationality and challenged those views, questioning why there were held and their value to political discourse. Or there would have been, if the latter had even tried to address the problem rather than stay away in an effort to broaden their appeal.
It was not the election of populists that has catalysed the the revolution of the alternative right, but liberals’ attempts to appease them with milquetoast, “pro-business” centrist candidates. Internationalists offered up candidates that offered nothing radical enough to mitigate rising inequality and a rapidly changing economy, and in doing so united the left and the right against them.
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe recently stated that the fuel tax hike was to be postponed for six months until after the winter—and then said it was to be scrapped altogether. While it remains to be seen whether the protests will abate, the anger is sure to remain as long as the Macron government continues to pursue its strategy of treating the symptom rather than the cause.
The gilets jaunes are indeed a sign of deteriorating political discourse — but they have been an inevitability since liberals decided to cut their losses by backing Macron.