Summary: The “yellow vests” protests in France are another momentous event in a continent that has had many of them in recent years. The analysis of it in the news is superficial. Here are important things that they ignore.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, also called the Great Rising, was the largest medieval uprising in England. It had a leader, Wat Tyler, but no organization or goals. On 15 June 1381, Tyler and his forces met with King Richard near London. Tyler spoke with the king and gave his demands. The King thanked Tyler for sharing, and ordered him killed.
Peasant’s protests are difficult to cope with, no matter how futile they usually prove to be. Although their odds of overthrowing the government are microscopic, they sometimes (rarely) seriously damage its legitimacy – sometimes (very rarely) for the long-term (as the May 1968 protests did in France).
But more important is the damage they can do. People’s protests are just mobs in motion. Venting their frustrations, dreaming peasants’ dreams of a better future, without organization or rational goals. Whatever their original intentions, they tend to become more violent over time. Giving in to their first demands is like dousing a fire with kerosene. It only provokes more demands.
Indications of weakness provokes more aggression and more violence. It puts a leader, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France, in a bad spot. He has nobody to negotiate with. He can ask the mob for leaders, but he has no certainty that those that step forward can bind the mobs (there are always more than one) to an agreement.
Now for the bad news. The mob has many dreams, many goals. But there is one objective that will satiate the mob, for a moment at least: bringing down Macron. Of course, that will make the mob hungrier.
The usual solution
“What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with the cannon? The rest would take themselves off very quickly.”
— Napoleon’s reaction to sight of a French mob massacring Swiss Guards at the Tuileries Palace in Paris on 10 August 1792. On 5 October 1795 he proved his theory, dispersing a French mob with “a whiff of grapeshot” (in the words of Thomas Carlyle).
The Occupy camps were as well-behaved as mobs can be, with a modicum of organization. The US governments could have waited for winter to break up them up. But a show of force often provides a more decisive solution. On the evening of November 14, coordinated raids were made on Occupy camps across America – and the world (Wikipedia). The Occupy Movement was over.
Force breaks up protest movements, atomizing them into fleeing individuals. Almost always. Except in those rare cases where it forges a mob into a cohesive group, with goals (usually big ones) and leaders. It is a gamble that government leaders are willing to take when mobs threaten to end their careers. Macron may be rolling those dice. Reuters reports that the French government fears major rioting this weekend, and plans a major mobilization to fight: 89 thousand members of the security services (including “about 10 armored vehicles belonging to the gendarmerie”).
The “yellow vests” movement comes when Europe is under tremendous strain. Britain is leaving the EU. Other nations, such as Italy and Poland, are in near-rebellion. The flood of immigrants is producing fantastic stresses on the societies across Europe. Now one of Europe’s largest nations has street protests backed by a large majority of its people. The bolts are coming out from Europe’s social machinery.
This could get interesting for France’s leaders. Survival is always interesting.