What Are the France Yellow Vest Protests About? - Rolling Stone
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The French Protests Do Not Fit a Tidy Narrative

The yellow vest protests are more nuanced than American pundits want to admit

Yellow Vests ('Gilets Jaunes') anti-government protests, Paris, 2018Yellow Vests ('Gilets Jaunes') anti-government protests, Paris, 2018

Yellow Vests ('Gilets Jaunes') anti-government protests on Champs Elysees, Paris, December 2018.


“What’s wrong with elitism?” asked Washington Post columnist Max Boot this week on Twitter. Boot posed this in a discussion about the merits of centrism, raised in the context of the “yellow vest” protests against the government of Emmanuel Macron in France.

American media seems to be confused by the protests. Few seem to understand what protesters want, or even who they are. Some outlets describe protesters as Trump-like nationalists aligned with Marine Le Pen, others as antifa-style leftists aligned with Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The marchers actually cut across all political lines, and if anything, both Le Pen and Melenchon are trying to attach themselves to something independent of them. Unifying factors seem to be hatred of Macron and a desire to express this in profane fashion (the New Yorker noted that many of the protest slogans are colorful variations on the theme of people being literally screwed by Macron).

The vest movement, a.k.a. gillets jaunes, began as a localized French grievance about a fuel tax and has spiraled into an international phenomenon.

In Europe, there have been yellow vests in Sweden, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. There are vesters marching in Alberta, Canada (these seem more right-wing and anti-immigration), but also in Basra and Baghdad, where protests are directed at poor living conditions. Egypt banned the sale of yellow vests to stem protests against the al-Sisi dictatorship.

The common thread seems mostly to do with class. However, since we’re more comfortable covering left-versus-right than rich-versus-poor in America, the journalistic response here has been a jumble.

The New York Times editorial “Macron Blinks” recognized the battle lines were between the “marginalized” and the “pro-business program” of “the rich and powerful.” But, the paper said, the “far greater catastrophe for France” would be “if Mr. Macron were unable to stay the course on his structural reforms.”

The former investment banker’s program was aimed at stimulating growth through corporate investment — he kicked off his regime by slashing a wealth tax and pledging to cut 120,000 public sector jobs — which the paper insisted was the right course, even though “the benefits of Mr. Macron’s policies might not be evident for some time.”

Boot wrote a sad column about the yellow vests. He wondered why people on the left, right and in between were mocking a piece he wrote 18 months ago, in which he said, “America needs its own Macron — a charismatic leader who can make centrism cool.”

Macron has a 23 percent approval rating, Paris seems to be on fire, and people are even spray-painting the Arc de Triomphe. How, Boot asked, could all this be happening to such a cool politician? When an online commenter suggested “centrism” was just another word for “elitism,” Boot was again puzzled.

What’s wrong with elitism? Don’t we all want the best at the helm? You wouldn’t want an un-elite airline pilot, would you?

This was the Spinal Tap version of neoliberalism: what’s wrong with being elite?

The inability of pundits to make sense of the plummeting popularity of “centrism” is a long-developing story in the West.

Over and over, a daft political class paternalistically implements changes more to the benefit of donors than voters, then repeatedly is baffled when they prove unpopular.

See: NAFTA, the creation of the WTO and GATT, deregulation of the banking sector, multiple unnecessary wars, tax holidays and other corporate subsidies like bans on drug re-importation, mass construction of prisons during an era of sharply declining crime (coupled with broad non-enforcement of white-collar offenses), and so on.

These policies came gift-wrapped in assurances. NAFTA was to produce one million new jobs* in the first five years. The WTO was supposed to add $1,700 to every family’s income, every year. The 2004 tax holiday, which slashed taxes on $299 billion in offshored profits, would create 500,000 jobs, corporate leaders (and the George W. Bush administration) promised.

The op-ed pages in the late Eighties, Nineties and 2000s were full of chest-thumping editorials about how the global economy was making social problems a thing of the past. Communism’s collapse meant the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism,” as historian Francis Fukuyama famously put it in 1992’s The End of History and the Last Man.

The triumph of “common marketization,” Fukuyama argued, would finally validate Hegel’s prediction of a coming governmental nirvana. We Americans would get to plant the flag on the moment when the “final, rational form of society and state became victorious.”

There would be quibblers around the globe, Fukuyama wrote, but “it matters very little what strange thoughts might occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso.” These were no longer serious intellectual challenges to our superior way of life. After all, he said, “the class issue has been resolved in the West.”

The new neoconservative religion was largely based on mass privatization, eliminating trade barriers, and ending or reducing social welfare programs. There would be pain at first, but it became popular to argue that foreigners who didn’t want to join the prosperity party should be forced to do so, for their own good.

“Those who are unhappy with the Darwinian brutality of free-market capitalism don’t have any ready ideological alternative now,” is how Thomas Friedman put it in his famed “golden straitjacket” argument, the basis of a smash bestseller called The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

Friedman suggested a non-lethal method of spreading “common marketization.” An “electronic herd” of international banking power would invest in countries that got on board with “marketization.” On the other hand, “those that [refused] are disciplined by the herd — either by the herd avoiding or withdrawing its money from that country.”

By the early 2000s the “end of history” was beginning to look premature. Currency and stock-market collapses had led to economic crises throughout Asia, the West and developing “democracies” like Russia and Brazil. Widening economic inequality was becoming a global problem everywhere, perhaps especially in the U.S.

Moreover, as even the Economist observed, even when the “straitjacket” did produce economic growth, that “cannot outweigh the loss of political sovereignty and democratic legitimacy that the straitjacket also entails.”

After 9/11, however, a new solution appeared: spread prosperity by force. Boot, ironically, was a key voice here. His original niche was open advocacy for the conquest of foreign peoples. Here’s what he wrote after 9/11:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.

Why invade a country like Iraq that had nothing to do with 9/11? Wrong question, Boot insisted. Conquering Saddam would make up for America’s weak decision to prematurely end other wars, from the first Gulf War to abandoning “the South Vietnamese in 1975.” We should have stayed and benevolently ruled those places, apparently.

Once we took Iraq with ease, he said, natives all over the region would gladly do our evil-fighting for us:

With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.

Of course, these people were wrong not just about that, but most things. Fukuyama even had to release a book this year explaining the End of History had been postponed.

The WTO did not add $1,700 in annual income to American households. New global markets did spread consumer benefits most everywhere, but they were less often accompanied by human rights or democracy. And our invasions in the Middle East so destabilized the region that multiple nation-states simply dissolved into hell-zones of chaos and nonstop violence. This led among other things to a refugee crisis that is part of the plotline in recent European upheavals.

Folks like Boot and fellow ex-neocons David Frum and Bill Kristol are now rebranding themselves as anti-Trumpers and would-be leaders of #Resistance. They seem to be asking for one last shot. Kristol even let slip that a post-Trump plan for America might be “regime change in China.”

These dolts don’t seem to get that a gasbag like Trump only became a plausible political choice after decades of false promises and misgovernment by people who think we should be ruling the world in pith helmets, and lack the sense to avoid saying things like “What’s wrong with elitism?” out loud.

Their evangelical insistence on pushing centrism — which is just a nicer word for “trickle-down economics” — is what got us into this mess in the first place.

We don’t need a new front to make centrism cool. We need to move on from centrism, to something a little less elitist. Which is different from being elite, as most of the world seems to have realized by now.

*It should be noted that the Washington Post fact-checkers recently reviewed this old NAFTA speech and concluded Bill Clinton never never actually meant to promise one million new jobs. Please make of that what you will.

In This Article: Europe, neoliberalism, Politics


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