Less than a month after President Emmanuel Macron welcomed world leaders in Paris for a moving commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice which concluded World War 1, Paris was this weekend again the scene of horrific urban violence, a sad backlash against a model of society that no longer appears to be working, writes james Mayor.
On Saturday, a surprisingly small number of demonstrators, ten thousand, faced nearly as many police in the French capital. The gilets jaunes, as the movement is known, are angry, tenacious and sometimes violent to an extent that would seem excessive to most English or Portuguese demonstrators.
The gilets jaunes seem however to have touched a sensitive spot in French public opinion, as they are supported by 66% of the population. This widespread backing contrasts with President Macron`s dismal 23% approval rating. The new hope of French politics, elected President only eighteen months ago at the age of 39 and acclaimed at the time as a Napoleonic figure, now has his back against the Elysee Palace wall and is no doubt wondering what, if anything, he will be able to accomplish in the remaining three years of his presidential term.
The French have a long tradition of vociferous and sometimes violent protest, dating back to the Revolution of 1789. Macron, brilliant, technocratic and elitist is not going down well in France. He displays little empathy for the man or woman in the street and often appears both tactless and out-of-touch. Does this disconnection between a politician and citizens sound familiar...?
Although the French ras le bol certainly in no way constitutes a revolution, in the sense that the Arab Spring movements were revolutionary, this form of contestation with its accompanying civil unrest invites reflection on a new model of society. Perhaps one with fairer taxes, an accelerated ecological transition, democratic participation in societal changes… it is evident that this type of crisis, with its rebuttal of main stream politics, can only serve to promote the destructive policies of extreme parties…and indeed they predictably turned up at Saturday´s demonstrations to turn them into something more closely resembling civil warfare.
The French may do a manif particularly well, with their boarded-up luxury shops and hotels, armoured cars and tear gas, and smoked filled streets… but the claims of the gilets jaunes are not that different to those of citizens in many other developed countries. A divided society in the US produced Trump, a different form of divided society in the UK produced Brexit, and several European countries are partly or even totally governed by right-wing politicians, risen to power on the tails of popular anxiety.
The myths that have fuelled the mobilization of the gilets jaunes movement are based on fear… of the other, of deteriorating economic conditions, of scarcity, or simply of an uncertain future.
Some societies seem gloomier than others at the moment. Portugal was recently given the accolade of Best Destination in the World at the 2018 World Travel Awards. Some of the Portuguese themselves might have found a certain irony in this attribution. Distribution of state aid for instance, following on the Monchique fires four months ago, has become bogged down in the customary bla-bla of political incompetence, while the queue of corrupt politicians and business leaders lining up for trial outside courtrooms sometimes appears like those religious processions of yore: nice to look at, but does anyone in power actually care? I`m not suggesting that the Portuguese make a bonfire of every BMW on the street, but I can`t help thinking a little more pressure could be exercised on the political establishment to encourage it to do what it`s elected for.
So how about the good news? Well, in Paris, the climate change march was maintained, with seventeen thousand people demonstrating, seven thousand more than the gilets jaunes.
Then, Leonardo de Caprio announced he was donating an impressive 100 million dollars to combat climate change. I can already hear grumblings that it`s easy to give when you already have a lot… may I be forgiven for suggesting here that this is missing the point. The need for reasonable people today, those of us who reject extremism, is to work together to develop a more sustainable, and equally peaceful, model for our societies.
An important step was made in this direction last week by Spain, which announced a plan for 100% renewable electricity by 2050. This is fantastic… even though it`s over a generation away and could have been targeted sooner. Come on Portugal, stop talking and take a leaf from your neighbour's book.
And this week, on Tuesday 11th of December, we have the House of Common`s verdict on Theresa May´s Brexit deal. Most readers will have already looked at and tried to grasp the implications of the several scenarios on offer… and none of us have a clue which one it will turn out to be. Britain has often been good at debating and resolving issues in a practical manner… let`s hope the country can do it again.
©James Mayor, 2018