February 17, 2019


The Politics of Fury: France's Yellow Vests condemn violence but 'have to admit that it is efficient' (Philippe de Lara, January 2, 2019, The Tablet)

Before the violent demonstration of Dec. 1, 2018, on the Champs Elysées, one could wonder about the nature of the Yellow Vests movement, given its spontaneous and "apolitical" appearance. The media were complacent, intellectuals divided: Was it a democratic insurrection against oligarchy or a populist revolt seeking some new form of authoritarianism? Was it a protest of the poorest people against growing inequalities, or of the lower middle class of neglected rural territories against "wired" cities? The last battle of endangered professions and regions unable to find their place in the new digital-robotic economy? An expression of concern about painful economic reforms to come, notably on pensions? Such social and political factors may be at play, but there is more and, unfortunately, it is not reassuring.

First, the urban violence, insults, and vandalism that characterized the Yellow Vests demonstrations are not the collateral damage of a peaceful mobilization. Yellow Vests leaders cynically admit this fact in their oft-repeated media slogans: "We firmly condemn violence, but we have to admit that it is efficient." Indeed, their violence was instrumental in the retreat of the government.

Instead of organizing and channelling their demonstrations, Yellow Vests stick to a strategy of unpredictable gatherings and do nothing to help the police in preventing vandalism and violence. This guerrilla strategy is by no means spontaneous. It requires careful organization. After six weeks, the spontaneity of the movement, maybe genuine at the beginning, has become a myth: Leaders and spokesmen have emerged on Facebook, all sticking to the same talking points, including the insistence on the "horizontality" of a movement without leaders, and the denial of their own accountability: "I speak only for myself, others may think differently, and I will follow them." "I am satisfied with the measures announced by the government, but since my fellow men aren't," etc. etc.

Second, anger against Macron has evolved into a watchword that overshadows all other demands: the "Citizen's Initiative Referendum." It sounds like participatory democracy, but it is not. The main point of these referendums, it has emerged, is not to decide policy questions but to nullify elected representatives. Yellow Vests want the referendum to be free from any legal or constitutional checks (for instance if it contradicts human rights or international obligations). It is not meant to empower civil society, but to give unlimited force to individual resentments, and to surmount the political process in its entirety. While Yellow Vests stay programmatically "apolitical," in Facebook groups they endlessly repeat their hostility to the EU, even promoting a "Frexit," and vent the most extreme clichés against Jews, migrants, George Soros, Freemasons, homosexuals, etc. Behind their "righteous anger," fake news and conspiracy theories flourish, spread by overheated social networks.

The populism of this new movement goes along with distrust of media and elites ("them") and credulity to any hoax circulating on Facebook ("we"). Before the Yellow Vests, belief in conspiracy theories was already high in France, like everywhere else in the Western world. According to a national poll in December 2017, 35 percent of respondents believe that the American government took part in the Sept. 11 attacks, a statement that attracted 47 percent belief among young people (ages 18-34). Twenty-two percent of respondents suspected or are sure that the Islamist attacks in Paris in January 2015 (17 killed: satirical journalists, policemen, customers of a kosher grocery store) were in fact planned or manipulated by the French secret service. This last figure jumps to 34 percent among the 18-24 age group. Fifty-five percent of respondents believe that the Department of Health conspires with drug companies to hide to the public the harmfulness of vaccines.

Posted by at February 17, 2019 8:50 AM