Anyone who’s ever tasted teargas will attest how unpleasant it is. I tasted it in Paris on Saturday 8 December as the city turned into a war zone.
This being said, the lack of a concrete political programme and coherent ideology, though a strength now, may prove the movement’s undoing down the line. Because it’s quite simple really: if you don’t have your own programme, sooner or later you will inevitably become part of someone else’s. Of this, the fate of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 leaves no doubt.
I am writing these words in a hotel room in central Paris in the aftermath of a day of rage, unleashed by the self-styled gilets jaunes (yellow vests) mass movement of latter-day ‘enrages’ (angry ones) of French revolutionary repute. And it was indeed a day that bore the hallmarks of a revolution underway. Even now, just after 8pm, the unrest continues, with the sound of wailing police sirens and helicopters hovering overhead the unceasing mood music to my thoughts.
This chaos is taking place not in Syria, Venezuela or Ukraine but in Paris, the city most synonymous with the affluence, culture and liberalism of a European continent that increasingly finds itself beset by social unrest and political disruption.
The French capital is now, for all intents, the frontline in a growing struggle against neoliberalism and its bastard child, austerity, across a European Union whose foundations are crumbling. They are crumbling not due to the devilish machinations of Vladimir Putin (as an increasingly unhinged and out of touch Western liberal commentariat maintains), but instead as the result of a neoliberal status quo that provides far too few with unending comfort and material prosperity at the expense of far too many, for whom dire misery and mounting pain are its grim fruits.
Not only is this mass grassroots movement of Yellow Vest protesters a problem for Macron, but it is also increasingly a problem for an EU political and economic establishment that is yet to wake up to the fact that the world has changed, and changed utterly.
Throughout human history hubris has been the undoing of the rich and powerful, along with the empires forged in their name; and hubris is currently well on the way to being the undoing of an EU whose proponents have embraced the unity not of its peoples but of its banks, corporations, and elites.
Emmanuel Macron is a poster boy for ruling class hubris in our time, a leader widely referred to in France as the ‘president of the rich’. His unalloyed contempt for the plight of ordinary people across the country has only woken them up – and from what I have seen, they will not be going back to sleep anytime soon.
From the perspective of Macron and his government the inchoate character of this Yellow Vest movement, which is mounting the most serious challenge to neoliberalism in Europe yet seen, has to be the most worrying aspect of the current crisis. Thus far it is a movement that lacks a concrete programme and recognizable leadership, with neither Macron nor the French authorities, it is obvious, clear about what it is they are dealing with.
All they know at this point is that whatever it is, its momentum elicits no evidence of slowing down – buoyed by a level of public support that governments which genuflect at the altar of austerity can only dream of.
The few protesters I talked to were adamant that this is a non-political movement (or perhaps that should be non-politics as usual), with no room for right or left – no support for either Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. They are, they said, opposed to the system and political parties in their entirety. They demand Macron’s resignation, a new constitution, and popular referenda in order to return power to the people.
As to the EU, one young man I talked to called David voiced support for a reformed model of European unity – one that places people first. Macron’s EU is finished, he averred. It is not democratic it is autocratic, delivering not justice but injustice; distributing economic pain rather than prosperity to those whose only crime is to be young and old and ordinary in a world governed in the interests of the rich and the connected.
I also talked to Rafiq, a young guy of Moroccan descent. He proclaimed that Macron’s arrogance and indifference to the problems of the people had gone too far. When the people have no hope, he said, they have no choice but to rise up.
But surely, I put it to him, rioting and violence is not the way to go about making change in a democracy. What democracy, he retorted. In France democracy is for the rich. In Macron’s eyes, nobody else matters.
They descended on central Paris, refusing to be cowed or deterred by the heavy police presence, or the warnings issued in the days leading up by the authorities of a heavy crackdown should any trouble break out. Along Boulevard Haussmann they marched towards the Champs Elysees. They were singing, waving flags, shouting anti-Macron slogans and epithets, propelled on by a sense of unity and confidence in their own strength and purpose.
They had come from all over the country, reminding the city’s affluent residents, its bourgeoisie, that Paris is not France and France is not Paris.
But where were they, these rich and affluent shoppers and denizens of Macron’s Paris? Where were the usual fleet of luxury vehicles, the army of tourists and shoppers that normally colonized this part of the city?
On Saturday, rich Paris was in retreat; the Gucci and Louis Vuitton boutiques, the lavish department stores, upscale restaurants and wine bars boarded up to make way for the arrival of the kind of European army Macron did not have in mind when he issued a call for one.
The struggle being waged by the Yellow Vests here in Paris and across France is not indigenous to one country. It is the struggle of millions across a continent who have had enough of being held in contempt by elites who couldn’t give a damn about them or their families. It is a struggle common to the masses in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy – in Ireland and across the UK. It is the struggle of men and women of no property, pitting those who have nothing against those who have everything.
If Macron had expected the Yellow Vests to return to the obscurity from whence they came, after caving into their initial demand of canceling the proposed fuel tax hike, he miscalculated. As Paris burns, so does his legacy – the legacy of a leader who has come to symbolize the end of the road for neoliberal Europe.
By John Wight