World

A Tax Revolt in France

A French riot policeman stands next to a burning car as youth and students protest against the French government’s reform plan in Nantes, France, December 6, 2018. (Stephane Mahe/REUTERS)
The democratic peoples of the West have tired of the politics of the sensible center and are demanding change.

Finally, France has a bona fide working-class riot. Rather than the usual, a riot of bourgeois students on behalf of a notional working class.

They are wearing the yellow vests that all motorists are required to possess in case their car is disabled. The protest began with outrage against the imposition of new fuel taxes that hit those outside the metropolis particularly hard. The government has already delayed the taxes, but people are still in the streets, and their grievances are multiplying.

French truckers and farmers are calling a strike in support of the Yellow Vests. The Macron government is seeking out “leaders” who can speak for this movement, and with whom it can negotiate. This is French politics as we know, love, and fear it; where faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions is low, and faith in demotic anger somewhat higher.

Finally, a Color Revolution comes to a Western government, one that is definitely not supported by or coordinated from the U.S. State Department.

Oh, I know that is quite a thing to say. But what else to call the Yellow Vest protest? Like the Color Revolutions of Eastern Europe, it is now a catch-all brand for a variety of causes being advanced against a centralized state that is felt to be unresponsive. You can get a sense of the panic from a Guardian editorial that begins, “For Europe’s sake, Emmanuel Macron needs help.”

Macron has proven to be a fantastically unpopular French ruler, although many believe his unpopularity is a sign of his political courage. Long before the Yellow Vest protests started, Macron vowed that, unlike other French leaders, he would not let his agenda of reforming the French economy be stalled by popular protest. The Yellow Vests are putting him to the test.

The fear in the air is that, like Italy, France is vulnerable to a populism that combines the grievances out on the peripheries of left and right and advances them against the liberal center. The background issues are the same as they usually are in France: rising costs of living set against sluggish or non-existent growth in wages. Demographic change, fear of losing French national identity, resentment at the intrusion of powerful corporations into commercial or even social life.

It is also precisely because the Yellow Vests do not have a single leader or vision that makes them so dangerous for Macron’s government. They are an expression of dissatisfaction with the government, and so people of many and contrary political dispositions can project their hopes and ideas onto the Yellow Vests.

We live in odd times, when many conservatives see working-class people pitching a riot in France and instinctively sympathize with them. And at the same time, many liberals are tempted to defend the political leader who started the uproar with the imposition of a regressive tax, and who finds his primary support among financial workers in London and the establishment at home. Liberals will admit that some of the protesters have legitimate concerns, but then they rush to assure you that most just suffer from a false consciousness induced in them by Facebook, or by some other nefarious force in the world.

Emmanuel Macron was supposed to be the rallying figure for the “liberal world order.” He was the establishment’s populism. He was the man who denounced liberalism, tried to demonstrate his hope in a grand, bold, regenerated, and federal European Union. He condemned nationalism in front of Donald Trump. He was the Socialist-party member who was loved by high finance.

But he’s been a dead man walking for months politically. There is no firewall in France. Maybe it is a mood, or the harbinger of some awful collapse. Maybe it is just one generation rejecting the certainties of a previous one. The democratic peoples of the West have tired of the politics of the sensible center and are demanding change. And in France, that change usually begins in the streets.

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