John has written about the protests against the French government of Emmanuel Macron, protests that turned violent this weekend. I want to add the following observations:
First, the protests weren’t just this weekend, although that’s when they turned up on the U.S. radar. One of my daughters was in Paris on business last weekend (the weekend before Thanksgiving) and observed some of the disruption. It’s estimated that 280,000 people protested throughout France last weekend and more than 100,000 protested this weekend.
Second, news reports say that the protesters are not among France’s more “marginalized citizens.” That’s true in some senses. Generally speaking, the protesters aren’t immigrants and may not be impoverished.
But immigrants and refugees receive generous benefits from the government and are backed to some degree by strong political interests. The protesters, generally speaking, receive neither handouts nor the support of influential interests.
Third, the dispute here can be viewed as between Paris and “La France profonde.” The high tax on gasoline imposed by Macron’s government, the reason for the protests, has comparatively little impact on most Parisians and those who live near Paris. Many of them have shops and stores within walking distance, and public transportation serves their needs well.
For those who live in the “provinces,” it’s a very different story. They tend to rely heavily on cars and often must drive fairly long distances (bus service is no good substitute in our experience), all the more so since small French towns are losing population and thus shops and stores.
In effect, Macron is placing the burden of addressing climate change (however fitfully) on the backs of France’s rural population. French elites do not share the burden.
Fourth, in this regard, disaffected French men and women couldn’t help but notice the lavish ceremonies the French government put on to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of World War I’s end. Macron expects ordinary French citizens to tighten their belts, but seems uninterested in any tightening that would diminish the pomp and circumstance he enjoys.
Fifth, the government was also tone deaf when it tried to confine the protesters to the Champ de Mars. These are grounds near the Eiffel Tower. They are fit for gathering, but not for demonstrating. The protesters demanded to march down Les Champs Elysees towards the president’s palace, and were right to do so. As one of the leaders said “we are not in Paris for picnic.”
Sixth, the “yellow vests,” as the main body of protesters is known, do not appear to have been responsible for the violence that broke out this weekend. This was the work of others.
Which others? The government tried to blame the violence on right-wing supporters of Marine Le Pen. However, reports I’ve heard suggest that the culprits were “les casseurs” — the breakers — anarchistic thugs who like to smash things and have no connection to Le Pen’s party. Perhaps both elements were involved.
Seventh, Macron now says the government needs to listen to and address the grievances of the yellow vests. But their overriding grievance is with the gasoline tax, and Macron apparently won’t budge on this. Macron seems to be clueless about, or indifferent to, the problems of La France profonde. Dialogue would appear to be futile.
Eighth, does any party in France have anything to offer the yellow vests? Marine Le Pen’s party might, but it carries too much baggage to be a positive force.
Ninth, naturally, President Trump got into the act this weekend. He tweeted:
The large and violent French protests don’t take into account how badly the United States has been treated on Trade by the European Union or on fair and reasonable payments for our GREAT military protection. Both of these topics must be remedied soon.
This just in from the U.S. President: The French aren’t protesting the fact that France isn’t paying more money to the U.S. No “America First” for the French.
Tenth, earlier this month, Macron took a shot at Trump’s nationalism by claiming, absurdly, that nationalism is “the exact opposite of patriotism.” The yellow vests are definitely nationalists. They are placing their economic interests above the world’s interest in reducing carbon emissions (or gestures in that direction). Trump might have asked Macron whether he believes the yellow vests are unpatriotic.
He probably does — he’s that clueless. But he can’t admit it.