Summary: The “yellow vests” movement in France has the classic form of a peasants’ protest. It has the usual causes – and a uniquely modern twist that almost guarantees its failure. Just like the Occupy and Tea Party movements in America.
“President Emmanuel Macron talks about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.”
— Slogan of the Yellow Vest movement.
The “Yellow Vests” protests are spreading across France, but the news coverage is paper thin about what is happening. The protests began on November 17th, when hundreds of thousands of people across France turned out to protest fuel taxes that Macron imposed as part of a plan to reduce energy consumption and tackle climate change. The news media report the facts without understanding.
Bloomberg describes the events with their usual incisive reporting: “France’s Dangerous Yellow Vest Protesters” by Gregory Viscusi. It is well worth reading in full.
“Macron’s …election in May 2017 all but obliterated the two establishment parties that had run France for 30 years. His own political movement had been launched less than a year before and his closest opponent for the presidency was from the far-right. By positioning himself as a reformer, Macron, 40, had hoped to establish a centrist consensus. …
“The ‘Yellow Vests’ – ‘gilets jaunes’ in French – reflect France’s frustration at a young leader whose agenda is perceived as favoring the rich and whose manner is regarded as aloof and arrogant. ‘The gilets jaunes movement will probably peter out, but not the anger, which is likely to go on and take new forms maybe more dangerous for Macron,’ said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University in the U.K. “It’s hard to see how he can complete controversial reforms like pensions and unemployment insurance without yet more blood on the pavement.
”The grassroots movement, organized through social media and without real leadership, has led to two weeks of sporadic and mostly peaceful blockades of roads, fuel depots and warehouses. A protest Saturday in Paris exploded into violence that left over 100 injured and more than 400 arrested, as well as burned cars and looted stores in the heart of the capital. Named after the colored vests motorists must keep in their cars for emergencies, the campaign began as a protest against higher gasoline taxes to reduce emissions. It’s now expanded to other demands and has the support of three-quarters of the French public, polls show. …
“The movement itself is split between moderates who want to create a structure to negotiate with the government, and radicals who reject any form of leadership. An attempt by eight local spokespeople to create a national committee was disbanded after four days when they received threats. Only two of the eight invited leaders showed up for a planned meeting Friday with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.”
The NY Times gives its usual good reporting (well worth reading), slipping in what the French security services tells them.
“But it was in Paris that the protests took a more sinister turn as they were joined by extremists on the left and right, along with anarchists, all seeking to capitalize on the simmering discontent.”
The BBC adds an important factoid, contrary to the NYT. This reminds us that this could easily happen in America.
“This is the 50% of the French population, that we don’t really see very much. This is not those thriving in the big cities. This is not the impoverished people in the high immigration areas. This is the other 50 percent who live out in small towns, around the country. People who feel that they are completely forgotten economically, culturally, politically. The protesters have no apparent leaders, making it difficult for the French government to negotiate or meet with them.”
Macron lead a “national government” of the establishment’s left and right wings. Much like Merkel’s coalition which has ruled Germany for over a decade. The protests were sparked by opposition to specific policies, but quickly expanded into broad opposition to their rulers – as people realized that France’s elites govern in their own interests – not France’s. But the only alternative choices offered the public were the bonkers far-Left and far-Right parties. So the opposition burst outside the political system into violent protests, as has happened so often in France (e.g., 1848, Spring 1871, and May 1968). These could spread from France across Europe, as has happened before.
Why they fail: reason #1
The key thing to know about peasants’ protests: they almost always fail to accomplish much (except when they allied with, or were pawns of, powerful special interests (see a list). That was true in the Great Rebellion of 1381 in England, in the peasant revolts of Edo period in Japan (1603 – 1868), and in modern China. The figureheads in the government might change (Macron was toast anyway, due to the public’s dislike and absence of any supporting party structure). Minor concessions will be made (small retreats in elite’s policies, delay of their programs). Many contrite words will be said.
Protestors vent their frustration, getting their moments of attention. Afterwards they feel better and go home.
Peasants’ protests fail because they are peasants. Organization, planning, rational goals, internal discipline – all these are foreign to peasants’ nature. But modern protest movements put a special twist on their protests: no formal leadership. The Arab Spring revolts, the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement – all went to glorious failure flying the “no leaders” flag (details here). This more than offsets the advantages that modern communication tech gives protests.
Why they fail: reason #2
You can’t beat something with nothing.
— Ancient wisdom.
The great peasant rebellions of the past had little or no more or ideological justification for opposition to their rulers. All their moral systems justified unlimited rule by their elites. So they can list minor grievances, but not propose meaningful reforms. Also, the lack of large and powerful goals makes it difficult to build group cohesion among the protesters, as they have their own favorite grievances.
Why we can win
We have a tradition of collective action through which leaders emerge that citizens can follow. We have a moral and ideological basis for opposition to our ruling elites when they no longer govern in our interest.
Neither of those things makes our people into citizens, or guarantees victory of citizens over unjust elites. These just mean that we can try with hope of winning.