There’s been a lot happening in Europe this week, from the surreal Brexit debate in the UK to the genuinely disquieting risk of war in Ukraine. But the sometimes violent protests in France against the government of president Emmanuel Macron remain one of the biggest stories.
Macron has now backed down on the fuel tax increase, the issue that galvanised the protests. But broad opposition movements don’t necessarily go away when their initial grievance is addressed. And Macron, who in government has often seemed arrogant and out of touch with public opinion, has given the protesters plenty of ammunition.
This is, of course, pretty much normal in France. All presidents run into trouble after a year or two in office, usually over the economy, and popular protest often takes forms that to outsiders seem shockingly violent. The gilets jaunes, or yellow vests (although I confess they look more green to me), are drawing on many centuries of French history.
The BBC has a careful account of who the yellow vests are, but to get the full flavor of the movement you need to go to BuzzFeed’s report. It blames social media for the spread of the movement and vividly illustrates the sort of people it has recruited – anti-Masons, anti-vaxxers, chemtrail enthusiasts, and conspiracy theorists of all sorts.
The nutters are not the whole story, of course. Many French people have entirely legitimate grievances (polls show that the protests, although not the violence, have huge public sympathy), and popular protest is an important tool to keep government responsive. But the yellow vests seem to give a more central role to extremists than is usual in these movements.
Despite the anniversary commemorations earlier this year, this is not 1968. These rioters are not the young and idealistic; they are the old and angry.
Their most obvious precursor is the Poujadist movement of the 1950s, which launched the career of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Poujadists also started out protesting against taxes, but the movement became a more general expression of rural nationalist identity, hostile to democracy, foreigners and modernity in general.
There’s a tendency in some quarters to assume that mass protests have to represent the left, but this sort of rioting is a thoroughly bipartisan tradition in France. It was mass action by the fascist leagues that crippled the Third Republic in the 1930s – and while the yellow shirts lack their paramilitary organisation, it’s not far-fetched to discern similar intentions.
If Australia shared France’s tradition of public engagement, one can easily imagine the anti-Gillard protests of 2011 developing into something like this. They shared the same self-righteous anger of those who consider themselves the “real” people, above such things as parliamentary majorities. It’s hardly a coincidence that climate change denial was an animating force in both cases.
But there’s something else going on as well, namely the complicity of the far left. The far-right National Rally and (more cautiously) the centre-right Republicans have climbed on the yellow vest bandwagon, but so has La France Insoumise, the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Realignments rarely happen quickly, but I have been saying for thirty years that the ideological divide that frames most western party systems has become obsolete, and that politics would eventually reorient itself on an axis of liberal vs conservative or open vs closed societies. The yellow vests are another straw in the wind.
Far left and far right have many differences, but they have common enemies: parliamentary democracy, liberal institutions, the free market. As Europe’s most prominent liberal leader, Macron is uniquely placed to attract their joint hostility.
Fundamentally, it’s no great surprise to find the far right in the streets to uphold nationalism against cosmopolitanism, and the interests of motorists against the environment. But the far left should know better.