Notes on the Yellow Vests

Since a few people have asked about my take on the Yellow Vests protest movement, I thought I would try to put my thoughts down into writing. Spoiler alert: the situation is not good. In fact, things look really, really bad. Never in my lifetime has the collapse of the French government and the 5th Republic as a whole appeared such a distinct possibility. Like many French people, I’m generally in support of the movement and am glad to see people pushing back against Macron and his agenda, but this doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future for reasons I will explain below. My two main thoughts on this are: 1/ What the yellow vest protest reveals is just how extraordinarily weak and isolated Macron really is and 2/ the left is nowhere near ready to seize this opportunity and that’s bad news for everyone.
Macron’s weakness stem from the overall degradation of the French political ecosystem and his own policy choices and brand of liberal authoritarianism. His empty “neither left, nor right” positioning was enough to get himself elected but now that the chicken have come home to roost, he finds himself very little institutional support outside his own party. What is crucial to note is that absolutely no one outside of a very small, though powerful, (mostly) Parisian technocratic and business elite voted for Macron out of conviction. He was always, at the very best, a compromise, and for many on the left, a Faustian bargain. Since his election, Macron has moved swiftly and ruthlessly to implement a pro-capital, anti-labor set of policies that have contributed to exacerbate inequality and resentment. He has proved himself an arrogant and condescending wannabe monarch hell bent on enforcing his reform agenda even if it means undermining democracy itself. His popularity has tanked and now that the backlash has come.
Fast forward to the last few weeks: a powerful, spontaneous, occasionally violent social movement has erupted outside of all organized institutions whether it be political parties or labor unions. The particular issue which triggered this movement (a proposed fuel tax) is less important than its general object: economic inequality and Macron’s brand of liberal authoritarianism. (For more on the latter see this excellent piece by Ajay Singh Chaudhary). The Yellow Vests protest is a diffuse, decentralized movement with no clear leadership or party line. So far, they have rejected the governments belated, half-hearted attempts at dialogue and conciliation, rightly so, in my opinion. Government officials in Paris are scrambling to extinguish the fire without making any real concessions. They waited three weeks before suspending the fuel tax, a move interpreted by most as “too little, too late” and nowhere near ambitious enough to fix decades of neoliberal policymaking. The protesters demands are much broader and include things like higher salaries, higher taxes on the wealthy, a better social safety net, and democratic participation in policymaking. In short, they will not be content with crumbs and are asking for their fair share of the baguette (pardon the pun). The scope, energy, and effectiveness of the movement so far surpasses what any US or UK based leftist organizers could realistically expect in their own context. (On Nov. 17, approximately 285,000 protesters assembled in 3,000 locations) But, and this is the crucial point, the French left does not have the ideological purchase and organizational capacity to harness the movement and channel its energy to advance an ambitious redistributive policy agenda. Whereas DSA/Sanders’ and Momentum/Corbyn’s efforts to rebuild the left in the US and the UK are beginning to register real political successes after decades of insignificance, the French left has not yet died to be reborn. The socialist party is irrelevant but continues to hang on and the well-meaning efforts of Benoit Hamon and the Generation(s) movement to replicate Momentum and DSA’s success have enjoyed very little uptake. The only figure on the left with the name recognition and the party infrastructure to guide the movement is Jean-Luc Mélanchon. However, his deeply polarizing personality is a deal breaker for a majority of the French population (as of October, Mélanchon was equally as unpopular as Macron), while his nationalistic streak, which at times closely echoes some of Le Pen and even Macron’s rhetoric, renders him incompatible with a large swath of the progressive left (including myself). In short, even if Mélanchon managed to unite the left, which he couldn’t do during the election and even less now, he would face an impossible task in a country whose political culture has taken a sharp turn to the right in the last two decades.
Which brings me to one alarming conclusion: with the terminal weakness of Macron’s center now exposed for all to see, and with the left’s organizational and ideological marginalization, the only political force capable of harnessing the energy unleashed by the Yellow Vest movement is the far right. Marine Le Pen and Mélanchon have already called for Macron to step down and it is a sign of the depth of the crisis that even the most committed liberal commentators find it hard to dismiss this possibility outright. So, what next? We’re at the turning point of Macron’s presidency and the stakes here are far greater than one man’s legacy. because if the center collapses – and who is Macron if not the arch-centrist– there will be no one left but the right to fill the vacuum and suddenly the specter of a Marine Le Pen presidency becomes a very, very real possibility. No one at this stage can tell how the situation will turn out. The movement might exhaust itself around the holidays or it might gather even more steam. Macron may be forced to step down in the coming week/months or he may limp until the end of his term. But the breeding-ground of generalized precarity and inequality from which it sprung will remain. To save his presidency, and the Republic, Macron must shed the trappings of monarchical republicanism and renounce his neoliberal agenda in favor of real distributive justice. The likelihood of that happening are approximately the same as that of Trump becoming a decent person. Macron’s only real support is capital and rest assured that they will not let him forget that should he even be inclined to change course. France’s slide toward authoritarianism is well engaged and Macron is no bulwark but the fire accelerant. The question now is not whether but who, when, and how will stir the process. I wish I had a more positive read on the situation, but I really don’t see another way this can turn out in the medium term. To become a real force again, the left must rebuild from ground zero, institutionally and ideologically. This kind of work takes *decades* and we just might not have enough time.