Raging 'yellow vests' protests know no ideological barriers

Raging 'yellow vests' protests know no ideological barriers
A view of the Place de la Republique as protesters wearing yellow vests gathered on December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Yellow vests, which are compulsory accessories for cars in Europe to be used by drivers in the event of an emergency have been banned in Egypt for fear that citizens aping the French protesters, who wore the vests, could revolt. In some other countries, the sale of yellow vests has been restricted as there are signs of the protests spreading to Belgium, Netherlands, Poland and Hungary.

In democracies, which are favouring the rich, the poor are becoming restless on account of increasing prices of fuel and other commodities. The regimes in these countries are afraid that the yellow vests will be used by protesters there also.

The world has just witnessed how President Emmanuel Macron, till recently an iconic figure and a darling of the world media, has made many concessions in the face of the relentless protests over the last four weeks. But there is no sign of the protests ending. As it often happens with such popular movements, the issues have become broader and more fundamental. It has shaken the foundations of French democracy with a new alliance between the right and the left. The fear is that this revolt may spread to the rest of Europe and change the traditional equations of left, centre and right.

The French revolt began when suburban protesters wore their gilets jaunes (yellow vests) and marched to Paris essentially against the fuel tax levied by Macron to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement even though France has a relatively good record of reducing emissions.

Macron did not seem to have realised that the measure would hurt those who commute from the suburbs to the cities and not the city dwellers. The revolt was fuelled by the image of Macron as favouring the rich, evidenced by the tax structure he has designed to promote creation of wealth. Macron, having failed to stop the violent protests by suspending and later withdrawing the fuel tax, was forced to tell the nation in a solemn televised address that he had seen the error of his ways. He offered €15 bn in financial relief for the angry people from suburban France who have been blocking provincial roundabouts and protesting on the streets of Paris and other cities since 17 November. His offer included a de facto 6% increase in the minimum wage, a tax-free Christmas bonus for low-earners and the partial abolition of a hated new tax on pensions. He expected that his compromise statement would pave the way to end the revolt.

But France faces the possibility of many more weeks, and possibly months, of economically crippling disruption and violence. A large part of the yellow vest movement is now determined to go all the way to oust Macron. The practical demands have been met, but social media and the fighting fraternity are urging to continue the struggle.

The gilets jaunes have developed apocalyptic ambitions like bringing down representative government in France and replacing it with a bottom-up government of the people. They have turned against the centrist and business friendly policies of Macron without any practical alternative to suggest. Violence by a leaderless group of farmers, factory workers and other weaker classes may herald a bizarre and chaotic political and social crisis. The situation defies leftist or rightist ideologies of the past. The left seems to be meeting the right rather than fighting it.

A 25-point gilet jaune manifesto circulated last week is “unofficial” but mirrors the jumble of statist and non-statist ideas that win viral support on yellow vest “anger” groups on the internet. They are demanding halving of all taxes; massive new spending on rural areas and suburbs; a 40% increase in the minimum wage and welfare payments; the repudiation of the national debt; departure from the European Union and Nato; popular referendums for all laws; and tough restrictions on migration.

Gilets jaunes say that the rebellion is not just about Macron. It is about distrust of all parties, including the established far right and far left; it is about distrust of the “official” media. It is about persistent unemployment; welfare cuts; low wages; high prices and high taxes. Macron is certainly a part of the problem, but the demands point to the fragility of a democratically elected government against the vagaries of popular discontent. The yellow vests have become a symbol of discontent around the world, prompting the government of Egypt and others to stop the sales of these vests!

Experts say that there are two reasons why the protests will not end without more concessions by the president. First of all, many French people still have a romantic attachment to the French Revolution of 1789. “We almost like to rerun the French Revolution over and over. We debate things in such a way as if we are fighting a permanent peaceful civil war over what our country should be,” they say. For this reason, French protests have a higher rate of success than in other countries.

Secondly, the French presidency is so powerful that France is often referred to as a “Republican Monarchy.” In the case of the French president, the buck really stops with him as he is not required to consult the Parliament or any other authority to bring about changes.

Fareed Zakaria sees some similarity between the French and US situations as they have emerged recently. He quotes an Israeli historian as pointing out that the three most powerful 20th-century ideologies — fascism, communism and democratic capitalism — put the ordinary person at the centre, promising him or her a glorious future.

“But today, we seem to need to chart the course for the future. So in France, in Britain, in the United States, the ordinary person, who doesn’t have a fancy degree, who doesn’t attend TED Talks, who doesn’t have capital or connections, will reasonably wonder: Where does that leave me? To that question, no one has a good answer,” says Zakaria. The French protesters may well be seeking an answer to this question without any ideological barriers.

Many have begun to question the belief that an elected government has the right to rule as long as it has the support of the majority in the legislature. Democracy has meaning only if the people are happy with the policies of the governments. If the governments cease to enjoy the support of the people, they will have to face the kind of protests witnessed in France, which transcend political differences among the people.