From the January-February 2019 News & Letters
The uprising of the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) against French President Emmanuel Macron bears no comparison to the revolutionary events of 1789, or 1968, as some have claimed. It is a movement entirely of our time, with all its brutal contradictions.
It broke out Nov. 17 when hundreds of thousands of protesters, wearing the yellow vests French drivers are required to have, blocked roads and fuel depots across the country in opposition to a proposed fuel tax hike. Protests spread to Paris, where Macron’s Elysee Palace was placed on lockdown.
Police have responded brutally, with 15 people losing eyes to rubber bullets deliberately fired at head level at close range.
Macron was forced to “delay” implementation of his tax hike. In other concessions, he promised to raise minimum wages by 100 euros per month, cancel tax increases for poor pensioners, and make overtime pay and year-end bonuses tax free.
CONTRADICTIONS IN THE MOVEMENT
These economic demands are supportable. But the movement has also been tinged with racism, including attacks on Black supporters of Macron as “non-French,” anti-Semitic claims that Macron is a “tool of the Jews,” and turning over immigrants to the police.
There have also been attacks on journalists, who have been forced to travel with security guards while covering demonstrations. Most Yellow Vests appear to have voted for either Far Rightist Marine Le Pen or dubious “Left populist” Jean-Luc Melenchon, with both courting the movement.
The yellow vest symbol spread to other countries in just as contradictory a fashion. In Belgium, Germany, Finland, the UK, and Canada anti-immigration groups adopted it. As far away as Taiwan it was used to symbolize economic demands. This is the unity and brutal disunity of our time.
REMAKING THE EUROPEAN UNION
Italy’s Far Right “populist” Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini praised the Yellow Vests and sees them as potential allies in his plan to remake the European Union with Italy and Poland as leading forces replacing France and Germany.
Macron represents the European Union’s technocratic elite. He owed his initial success to not being Le Pen or Melenchon. In the end he may be consumed by the contradictions they and their supporters represent.
When French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb resigned in October, he said of Macron: “In Greece there is the word hubris. It is the curse of the gods. You get too sure of yourself, and think you will sweep everything before you. There’s the saying, ‘The gods blind those they want to strike down.’”