‘What’s gone so wrong with France suddenly? What’s the story with the Yellow Vests?’ Outside of La Hexagone I’m pelted with such questions, as if coming from Paris confers some sort of special insight. It doesn’t. After five months of increasingly violent protest, no one, including the actors themselves, really knows where the roots of the phenomenon lie, and where it’s leading – especially not the actors.
That said, a few things are incontrovertible.
To begin: what was once an amorphous tent of a movement with ample room for discontent from left to right but mostly from the middle – the self-termed ‘forgotten little white folks’ – has shrunk to a hard, dark core, a mass made up of extremists, opportunists, racists, thieves and psychopaths. On November 24, 2018 close to 300,000 demonstrators flooded into the cold streets, 9000 in Paris (Le Monde). By contrast, last Saturday’s extraordinarily violent and destructive ‘civil action’ mobilized only an estimated 32,000 country-wide, 1.500 in Paris (Le Figaro). But they really went to work.
Faced with the mounting destruction and desecration of private and public property, as well as racist and anti-Semitic remarks by ‘gilet jaune’ leaders, public support for the ‘gilets jaunes’ has been eroding at a similar rate. The public figures, writers, entertainers etc., who eagerly jumped on the Gilet jaune bandwagon, have been peddling backwards fast. Ingrid Levavasseur, a straight-talking young mother elevated by the press to major spokesperson for the movement, turned in her vest this weekend, deploring the violence, under a rain of cyber-harassment and threats from her former comrades.
The protests – now generally termed ‘riots’ – have cost the country a small fortune: not only through direct damage to people and property, massive police overtime etc., but as work lost in smashed shops, livelihoods ruined, a deep drop in tourism (nothing like seeing your favorite bistrot go up in flames on YouTube) and the bruised reputation of France’s leaders.
Speaking of police, after Saturday’s debacle the beleaguered Paris chief was fired, while the Minister of Interior Castener, who had given him hand-tying orders, holds on to his job. Perhaps not for long. It doesn’t help that on the previous demo-Saturday Castener was filmed dancing and smooching a stranger in a chic downtown club.
That is a few things. But now I could on… about the infiltration by both extreme-right wing interests from abroad and an international cadre of ultra leftists. About crowd euphoria. About the sheer sadness of seeing a city sacked and pillaged by its own people. About the pathetic ‘catch’ of the police, who have collared hundreds of unlucky often jobless young men who, caught up in the frenzy, stole clothing or had stones in their pockets, while the arsonists and big fish with steel bats got away. About the government’s belated resolve to ‘get tough.’ But I’ll give the last word to the commentator-philosopher Luc Ferry (also a keen early supporter of the GJ), who noted yesterday that France’s history is specifically charaterized by radical social protests which all began with justified grievances and rational demands, and slid over time into ruthless repression, paranoia and violence.
– That’s Luc talking, though. Not me.