When Americans have a “tax revolt,” they mostly complain and express their opinion by voting. In France, tax protesters are rioting, burning cars, smashing shops, and vandalizing the Arc de Triomphe. But what is happening in France with the “Yellow Vest” uprising is symptomatic of larger political problems, not only in Europe but in the United States.
It started back in November when French president Emmanuel Macron announced the imposition of a carbon tax on fuel designed to combat global warming. It would only add the equivalent of 30 cents to the cost of a gallon of diesel (which fuels many European cars) and 17 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. The French were already paying about $6.50 per gallon.
But just as the small tax on tea ignited the American colonies–not because of the size of the tax but because of the principle of the thing–ordinary French citizens took to the streets. Another patronizing French law requires all vehicles to be equipped with florescent yellow safety vests, to be worn in case of accidents or breakdowns. So all of these aggrieved drivers put on their yellow vests.
As many as 300,000 working and lower-middle class protesters, largely from small towns and rural communities, poured into the streets of Paris and other cities, manning the barricades as their revolutionary ancestors did. The angry crowds started destroying things. Though the demonstrations were initially a grass-roots, seemingly spontaneous phenomenon, they kept getting bigger. Both leftists, always eager for a revolution, and rightists, with their anti-immigration grievances, joined in. Then the students, then the unions, then just about everybody. Polls showed that 72% of the populace support the Yellow Vest movement, though 85% decry the violence, in which four people have been killed and hundreds injured.
Each weekend for the last three weeks, the Yellow Vests have demonstrated. President Macron finally responded, first by postponing the tax increase (which did not assuage protesters) and then by cancelling them altogether. But the Yellow Vests say they will keep protesting. Their demands are pocket-book issues, not fitting into any distinct ideology: increase the minimum wage, increase subsidies for companies to hire young workers, pay men and women the same, and–above all–reduce all taxes.
The civil uprising might seem to be an over-reaction. If drivers are used to paying $6.50 for a gallon of fuel, having to pay $6.81 would not seem to make much difference. And the demands seem rather prosaic. But the rhetoric used by the protesters shows what this is really all about.
Protesters condemn Macron’s “elitism.” His “arrogance.” How he “ridicules” them. How he favors “the rich.”But isn’t Macron liberal? He pushed the fuel tax in the name of saving the planet. He is the great champion of the European Union. He embodies tolerance for all, welcoming immigrants of all sorts, bringing Islamic diversity into France, as the new arrivals compete for scarce jobs. Yes, he is described as a pro-business centrist, but virtually all liberals are pro-business these days, as the affluent college educated culturally elite take up the liberal mantle from the working class.
The Yellow Vest movement, which is now spreading to Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and possibly other European countries, is a symptom of the same phenomenon that we have seen in Donald Trump’s election, the Brexit election in Great Britain, the anti-immigration insurgencies in Germany and Sweden, and other populist movements throughout the world.
Politicians have not only lost touch with the people, the people have the sense that politicians and the culturally elite in general look down their noses at them. What lost the election for Hillary Clinton, arguably, was her comment about the “deplorables” who were supporting her opponent.
I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy, about the woes of America’s Rust Belt and rural working class. The author, J. D. Vance, tossed off a penetrating insight that politicians would do well to heed. He described a ne’er-do-well whose life is a mess, who would never dream of asking anyone for help, and who is strangely mean about it. Vance says that he is mean, defensive, and has a chip on his shoulder, because he can’t stand for anyone to “judge him.” Proud, though beleagured, people of whatever nationality can’t handle that.
France has a political culture of popular uprisings. Not only did they have the big revolution in 1789. They also had similar revolutions in 1830, 1832 (of Le Miserables fame), 1848., and other popular uprisings, such as the student riots in 1968.
We should decry the breakdown of civil order. Revolts like this can become usurped and manipulated by ideologues and authoritarians. But they can teach us lessons that we and our leaders of all parties need to hear.
UPDATE: Read this, which argues that what the protests are really about is the decline of France and the decline of the West.
Photo: “Manifestation des Gilets Jaunes” [Demonstration of Yellow Vests], 17 November 2018, by Obier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74483210