Les Gilets Jaunes: Neon vs. Neoliberal

Over the past few years, I have become painfully aware of the insulation that exists with regards to the news we receive in America. It may sometimes seem to the average, uninformed American that  the world encompasses only America and the current political zeitgeist that threatens our hallowed homeland (North Korea, Iran, illegal immigrants, etc.). A dearth of nuanced and diverse information exists regarding global affairs from “mainstream” or “establishment” news outlets (although there admittedly seems to be a lack of nuance in much of the news in America). Yet, to fully understand the intricate complexities of a globalized world, it is often best to turn your gaze afar to the world around you, not merely the immediate surroundings that you can see with your ‘infallible’ eyes.  Right now, across the Atlantic Ocean, there is a sea of neon-yellow breathing vigor into the people of France, who feel as if they have been waterboarded in the murky, moldy, putrid waters of neoliberalism. Except this time, their torturer is le président des riches, Emmanuel Macron.

Beginning on online forums earlier in 2018, the Gilets Jaunes or “yellow vests” (so named for the vests worn by the protesters) began protesting in earnest when physical manifestations of discontent (manifestations being the befitting word for “protest” in French) were staged in roundabouts and toll booths throughout the country in order to protest a new fuel tax introduced by Macron’s administration. This fuel tax was regressive, and would have largely fallen upon the shoulders of the poor and working class in rural France due of their dependence on driving for work, as opposed to those in larger cities who have access to more extensive bike routes and public transportation systems.

Continuing up until the time of writing, the protests have turned into a general protest against the pro-business and pro-metropole (large cities such as Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and their immediate suburbs) policies of the neo-liberal Macron administration. During Macron’s time in office, the government has scrapped the wealth solidarity tax on the rich, introduced a tax on pensions, and is well-known for being pro-big business. Compounding on these neo-liberal transgressions, the new fuel tax triggered the largest, and perhaps the most important, protests France has seen in the last decade.

Macron, who is known for his unyielding responses to criticisms, was for the first time forced to relent and offer concessions in the face of the yellow vest protests: he scrapped the fuel tax, instituted a 6% increase in the minimum wage (€100 a month), encouraged a tax-free Christmas bonus for those who earn the least in struggling regions of France, and mandated a partial repeal of the changes to pensions. To some in France, this was enough, but for many others within the movement, they were not satisfied because the protests are steeped in the broader economic issues facing those on the periphery in France. The protests have continued to go on, with a reflection of the disconnect between the government and its people still remaining at the heart of the protests: a democracy without the demos.

An in-depth look at who is protesting highlights why Macron had to give in, and why this movement goes beyond protesting a tax on fuel. Those who are protesting lie on all sides of the political spectrum, from ardent supporters of Le Front National (the right wing party in France) to card-carrying socialists and everyone in between. So while immigration and xenophobic concerns are prescient for some, they have not yet come to define the movement. This is due to the diversity of the protesters involved as well as the centralization around economic issues and the disillusionment of all members of the political jungle. Whereas many leaders or leading candidates in past and future elections have laid their claims in anti-immigration, neo-fascist populism, this is a movement without a clear leader – a movement by, and for, the people. It has been less susceptible to coercion by these demagogues who have thus far been unable to take over a considerable portion of the movement because of this diversity of opinion on social issues  (such as immigration – a central point of the campaign of Marine Le Pen) and the unification around the economic woes of a forgotten populace. This diversity has arguably made it more difficult to unify the people under a specific, existing party (such as Le Front National) because many leading neoliberal (i.e. Macron and Hillary Clinton) and right-wing populist (i.e. Le Pen and Trump) share a common economic interest which favors the elite and directly opposes the unified economic interests of the movement at large.

Though the movement is diverse in its makeup, its goals rest on legitimate concerns over the well-being of those in the ever-shrinking middle class, who find themselves outside of the protective sphere of inner Paris and France’s network of elites. Therefore, Macron and other neo-liberals have been unable to claim the all too common positions of a moral, centrist high ground when propositioning themselves in comparison to right-wing politicians, namely a position which claims to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, and progressive, but which lacks tangible, progressive economic benefits for many in France who see no way out of their daily struggle to make ends meet. Therefore, Macron was forced to “concede” and relent to some of the demands of the movement. However, these concessions will require cuts or increased taxes elsewhere (as have been stated by those within the Macronian sphere). Unsurprisingly, these cuts will not come from a reintroduction of the wealth tax (in any form or to any degree), and the working class will likely be responsible for paying for the assistance themselves.

Given the likelihood that this vicious cycle will proliferate, where does the Yellow Vest movement go from here? It has not yet been called off, even after Macron’s concessions, and it seems to be at a critical turning point. The movement has lost some of its overwhelming support (though the majority of people in France still support the movement in some form). After the December 11 terrorist attack in Strasbourg which left 5 people dead and 11 wounded, some of the public concern and attention was momentarily diverted elsewhere. At the time, it seemed entirely too possible that the movement will go no further and no meaningful change will result. However, the movement has pushed forward from the strength of their victory (if only a momentary one), and the protests have continued (though in smaller numbers)  No matter the outcome and the future, this movement will remain as one which clearly demonstrated that the neo-liberal policies of Macron are ultimately abysmal failings for many people à la périphérie, who are most vulnerable both to falling into economic despair and being swept up into xenophobic rhetoric from fascists who seek power in the age of mass globalization.

bernie trump

The materialization of our own yellow vest-esque movement in the United States. – Image from Five Thirty Eight

Neoliberalism has left many in its wake, from immigrants and ethnic minorities on the fringe of society to a once vibrant-working and middle class. This is only one example of how people are responding to these rapid and oft negative changes. From the rising tide of right-wing politics in countries such as Hungary, Poland and Brazil, to the left-wing movements in Spain and Greece, people are taking a stand against status-quo neoliberalism. The populist movements within the United States, on both the Left and the Right, are not unique, nor are they insignificant. They represent a globalized world no longer in ostensible stasis. Everyday people have become staunchly aware of their plight and have decided to take action all around the world. Just as we can better understand ourselves by interacting with those around us, by paying attention to these global trends, we can better understand our own place in this rapidly-changing world. In this case, les peuples Français have made their voices heard all around the world. However, only history will tell how momentous these manifestations truly were. Perhaps generations will don their neon vests in solidarity, or perhaps they will go back to their quotidian function of keeping people safe on the roads. Either way, they will represent the heart of French democracy: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

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Featured image courtesy of Benoit Tessier for Reuters.

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