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Are the “Yellow Vests” Vandals or Militants?

The sharp increase in fuel prices in recent months has sparked a protest movement in France known as the gilets jaunes or “yellow vests.” In a climate reminiscent of 1789, demonstrators and the police have clashed in Paris and other cities across France. But to what extent can we compare the two eras?

On July 14, 1789, in Paris, the price of bread had reached its highest point in a century. Parisians held the king responsible. The royal administration’s meddlesome regulation had made grain commerce among the provinces difficult, leading to local famines. The result: a riot in the capital, and the taking of the Bastille — a mostly empty prison but a hated symbol of the absolute monarchy. What then followed was a revolution — the French Revolution — taken over by an elite fired by the mad ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: this generation of twentysomething men would invent the first modern dictatorship and shed much French blood before taking on Europe, all in the name of the republic and according to a virtue that it claimed to embody. Robespierre, one of the most wild-eyed of the revolutionaries, designated himself the Republic’s messiah, charged with the “purification” of the old world. This history is well known, but it is generally reconstituted in a positive light, baptized with the ideology of “the common good” or “the general will.”

One can’t help but recall this French taste for rebellion, idealized as progressive and ultimately positive, as rioters in reflective yellow vests are currently setting fire to the Champs-Elysées. Might this symbol of consumer society be the equivalent, for contemporary protesters, of the Bastille two centuries ago?

The origin of the present protest is not the price of bread but an increase in gasoline taxes. Yet, with gasoline now occupying a central place in our way of life as bread once did, there is at least some link between the two eruptions. And Louis XVI was guilty by inattention, just as Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, seems strangely indifferent to public sentiment. To enact policies that raise gasoline prices — already the highest in Europe — on the eve of the year-end holidays and without offering a justification, was a major political error. Macron’s mistake was made worse by the justification given after the uprising: the government explained to skeptical citizens that the new tax was actually an ecological measure, and therefore justified, since the goal was not to add to the state’s coffers but to help fight climate change. Obviously no one believes this excuse, including the government that issued it.

The truth is that the French state, since Louis XIV and the construction of the palace at Versailles, demonstrates again and again its incapacity to balance its budget; it is constantly having recourse to some urgent measure to make ends meet. Once upon a time, monarchs sold public positions to the highest bidder to raise funds; today, the government taxes gasoline. Will Macron end up as a modern-day Louis XVI? It was not written in advance that Louis XVI would end up on the scaffold and that the Terror would succeed the monarchy, which would then give way to the Empire and then, not for another century, to the liberal Republic we now know. The apparent necessity of these events is but an a posteriori reconstitution by some clever philosopher. It is a sign of History’s stumbling missteps that republican regimes these days are in reverse gear, as they move from liberal to increasingly illiberal democracies. Even the United States, where modern democracy was invented, is not safe from such a regression. Thus, it would be bold to try to deduce the future from France’s riots.

We should also be wary of all grandiloquence in the descriptions of these riots and of the actors involved. President Macron blames the disorder on the far-right, in keeping with his propensity to see fascists everywhere, especially among those who cannot understand his political strategy. More likely, the rioters are a jumble of citizens impoverished by taxes and political militants given to violence, as well as ordinary thugs attracted by the shop windows of the Champs-Elysées. The mob of July 14, 1789 was, as far as we know, just as heterogeneous, and probably drunk.

For my part, unlike more visionary commentators, I find that vandals — even drunk ones — are less a threat than militants. Militants of the extreme left and the extreme right, brought together by a common taste for violence, are carriers of absolutist ideologies, virtuous tomorrows that are glorious — and therefore dangerous. When we reread the words of Robespierre (cited by philosopher Marcel Gauchet, who has just published a remarkable volume examining the revolutionary’s writings and speeches), expressing his intention to legislate “for the world and for the centuries,” we are reminded to be skeptical of the virtuous. A thug who beats up a cop does not want to remake the world; a believer in a messianic ideology does. The latter is therefore more fearsome than the former.

Unfortunately, the French believe that revolution is a good thing — it’s what they learn in school. What is truly good in politics, however, is very different. The ideologues of upper-left benches of the “the Mountain” in the French Revolutionary assembly referred contemptuously to the constitutional moderates of the lower seats as “the Marsh.” Today’s ideologues show the same disdain for citizens seeking practical, intermediate solutions. We must learn to listen to, and love, the Marsh.

  • Cher Monsieur Sorman, tous les “gilets jaunes” que je connais sont des pacifistes, des gens qui veulent travailler et subvenir aux besoins de leur famille. Je ne sais pas qui étaient les casseurs, mais il ne s’agissait sûrement pas des gilets jaunes qui réclament un peu de justice sociale. Non seulement la possibilité de rouler en voiture mais surtout ne plus être traités avec arrogance et mépris.

  • Le pouvoir d’achat : le maître-mot ! Le problème et l’origine du mécontentement est plus simple qu’il paraît : le nombre de pauvres en France suit une courbe exponentielle inversement proportionnelle à celle des riches. Exemple : quand Carlos Ghon gagne 45 000 € par jour, il faudra suer sang et eau durant près de quatre ans pour un pauvre afin qu’il ait gagné la même somme. Mais il aura accumulé des dettes, il sera souvent même super endetté, souvent interdit bancaire et de plus il vivra dans des conditions de logement et d’alimentation indignes pour la France et sa vie aura été un cauchemar. Comprenez enfin que seules des solutions à court terme, et d’autres à moyen terme, peuvent permettre aux gilets jaunes de ce type de s’en sortir. Trouver l’argent, actuellement gaspillé pour des causes plus que discutables et qui coule à flot, et le réinjecter de façon intelligente pour élever nettement le pouvoir d’achat des plus humbles est la priorité numéro un ! Elle ne nuit en rien à la transition écologiste si l’on y réfléchit bien, tout au contraire.

  • Ne pas confondre des mouvements de protestation avec un profond malaise du peuple français. Il y a eu plusieurs révolutions après 1789 dues à la royauté qui voulait instituer des privilèges à une certaine classe de la société. Nous sommes en République actuellement. C’est vrai que des mouvements contestataires comme en 1936, 1968 et autres ont fait penché la balance démocratique du côté du peuple. La République en France doit être démocratique mais quand un gouvernement se permet de flouer le peuple en augmentant les taxes et que le peuple n’en peut plus de vivre, il explose. Depuis des siècles en France les peuples se révoltent quand ils trouvent que trop c’est trop.

  • Ce que vous appelez le marais est l’autre nom d’un centre qui est le thuriféraire de la mondialisation néo-libérale et de son cortège de fripons, comme ce chanteur qui gagne son argent en France et le défiscalise en Belgique. Il est beau votre monde dans lequel une élite polyglotte vit dans un archipel urbain mondialisé, permettant aux uns et aux autres de se déplacer là où le fisc est le moins regardant. Par ailleurs, votre vision des gens est assez symptomatique d’une caste qui considère, à l’instar de Gustave le Bon, la population comme une foule manipulable constituée de vandales alcooliques (autrement dit des idiots) et d’idéologues extrémistes. Mais faut-il s’étonner d’un point de vue aussi méprisant ?

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