I was in Paris on December 1, 2018, when some of the most violent of the gilets jaunes demonstrations happened, especially at the Arc de Triomphe. I should have posted this a week ago when I composed most of it. Apologies. It belongs in the line of essays I wrote about France a decade ago.
Prologue: Normandy, AD 996: When Commoners Complained
In 996, Neustrian peasants chafing under the rule of Norman lords who arbsiimrogated rights of forest and river (hunt, fish, traffic) to themselves, gathered in groups and tried to reassert their rights as free men. Here is the earliest (but clearly hostile) account:
In order to ratify these new decrees, each of the rebellious peasants’ groups chose two envoys who brought the decisions for confirmation to an assembly held in the middle of the land. As soon as the duke [Richard] heard this, he sent Count Raoul [d’Ivry] together with a group of soldiers to suppress the rustics’ insolence and to dissolve the peasants’ assembly. Promptly following these orders, he rapidly seized all the envoys and some others, and cut off their hands and feet and sent them, no longer of any use, back to their fellows to restrain them from like conduct and warn them by their own fate against suffering worse. Having seen this, the peasants hurriedly dissolved their assemblies [conspirationes] and returned to their ploughs.
How far we have come in the last millennium! Today, French commoners – citizens – can gather under an egalitarian law that grants them that right; they can petition in peace; they can make public claims, and have a press (and historians) potentially sympathetic to their plight.
On December 1, 2018, we saw an near inversion of the situation in Y1K, when upstart commoners were the victims of violence: some ‘protesting civilians’ – gilets jaunes – engaged in violently aggressive behavior, while the forces of order (the Duke’s men) stood down.
Soiling the National Monument to France’s Military Virility
Unobstructed, the most violent among the protesters took over the arc de la Triomphe, scrawled silly graffiti on its august appearance.
They then broke into the inside and smashed the face of the very martial spirit that the gilets jaunes claim to represent: angry liberty leading the way to freedom.
Never since the beginning of its construction in 1806, the arc of triumph had been vandalized, ravaged. Yesterday, it was decided to evacuate the cordon of CRS that protected it and thus to abandon it to the hands of thugs, vandals, criminals. Yesterday, the fight to be carried out, the one that would have been in honor of our representatives and our forces of law, was to defend this high symbol of France’s history and glory. Yesterday, we had to protect this monument and the tomb of the unknown soldier. It was an honor and a duty. Concentrate our forces, fight foot, don’t let go. But an opposite order was given. The Prime Minister and the minister of the interior were on the spot on the operations They gave the orders, they must be removed from their duties.
Jean Paul Garraud, political figure from the Gironde.
What to make of this behavior, which people both within and without the movement denounced?
France, of course, has a penchant for crowd violence. The first analytic history, La Psychologie des foules (1895), comes from Gustave Le Bon, a French intellectual of the fin de siecle, with many an occasion to observe the crowds close-up, from the commune to the beginning of the Dreyfus affair. A fellow who grew up in Geneva told me, “when i read about the violence, I thought, that’s so typical of the French, especially Paris.”
The obvious comparisons here are to mai ’68, when French youth rose up against their corrupt elders, fought the cops with cobblestones, and splattered the streets with clever and imaginative graffiti. Certainly, the more semiotically-aroused among the enthusiasts, interpreted the sudden awakening as a long-awaited sign of their redemption. Others, soixante-huitards themselves, denounced this violence as coarse, authoritarian, alarmingly ‘right-wing.’
Gilets Jaunes, The French Commoners Speak Up
According to a news media which many the gilets jaunes consider hostile, and in some cases, themselves attack, what distinguishes this movement from earlier such insurrectional behavior, is that these rioters are neither the students of ’68, or immigrants and minorities from the suburbs who have provided the main thrust of violent protesters in France these past decades. On the contrary, they represent (what one no longer refers to as) les ‘francais de souche,’ white, native, French who live in the provinces, le terroir, now become part of the global periphery, work hard and feel like they are the neglected victims of a globalization that may benefit metropolitans and cosmopolitans, but leaves them, the middle and lower-middle classes, laid out on a moving carpet to the dustbin of history.
They feel (justifiably) that the ruling French technocrats including Macron, who neither know, remember, nor care about what it is to make ends meet every month, heap the tax burdens of their policies – in this particular case, anti-global-warming measures – on an increasingly under-represented population. They do not like the immigrants from the third world, the banlieusards, whom they believe the government indulges at their expense.
Indeed, they resemble to some extent the delorable Americans who elected Trump and those Brits who voted for Brexit, people who have seen the rules change to their disadvantage, and when they protest, get called fascists and xenophobes and people of such small brains they can’t understand how the real world works. People who have learned the hard way not to trust the mainstream media, at least when it came to certain issues. They present themselves as honest, patriotic citizens.
Our friends the police and other forces of order, you’ve seen these yellow-vests. You’ve spoken with them, they offered you coffee and warm croissants, they’re nice, they’re funny, the full of love for their country and their fellow citizens… You’ve seen the distress and disarray, their need to live better, with greater dignity. You’ve seen these men and women, old folks with white hair and even children and babies in the carriages. You can see that they’re neither breakers (casseurs) not rif-raf (racaille). They are not violent people, but pacific, and they display their unhappiness which no one wants to hear.
They speak for la France profonde which is at long last fed up (ras-le-bol general) of being sacrificed to the “the absurd and costly decisions and taxes” of an elite that cares more about whales and immigrants (and, of course profiting from the global economy) than it cares for its own people, whom, according to the social contract, wield power for the people. “They have betrayed France and lied to the French (20:13).”
France metropole vs France péripherique, where France péripherique = US fly-over red states.
There’s much here to consider, much to recognize. This is a voice that those who did not drink the Europe-will-run-the-21st-century Kool-aid have been waiting to hear for some time. They have, indeed, small and large scale, been the beasts of burden of the ruling classes.
That was the norm in pre-modern, Prime divider polities, where the elite (men like duke Richard), systematically exploit manual labor. Democracies (and Republics) claim to do better, claim to rule by and for the people, claim to care and empathize with the people. At least, in civic polities the inevitably mixed results get discussed and improved. Now les francais moyens want to speak; and French elites should listen carefully, if not credulously.
The political elites, in the habit of abusing this silent minority, responded badly. Like Hillary, they treat the own commoners as contemptible (a strong aristocratic medieval trope). When violence broke out in late November, they pulled out the verbal stops. The prime minister and the minister of the Interior spoke of the ‘ultra-right,’ of ‘brown-shirts.’
In some senses, these are the same proto-fascists that Christopher Browning sees at work in making it possible for Trump to turn America into a fascist state… les déplorables who just can’t get with the program of globalization, open borders, and the demands of climatologie. They are the deeply problematic recalcitrants, who balk at the arc of history that inevitably bends to “greater emancipation, equality, and freedom” (and, hence, prosperity and peace?). What alarms the gilets jaunes – for example the UN efforts to increase migration world-wide (i.e. into Western countries like France), what gilets jaunes, call “le pacte de Marrakesh – journalists will dismiss as so much fake news.
These people experience the attitudes of their political elites (including journalists) as contempt, arrogance, and worse, mauvaise foi, deliberate public humiliation. They hear: ‘Why don’t you just double up in carpools, and stop bellyaching.’ As a result, the gilets jaunes speak readily of the violence of the state, which, they claim, explains their anger and even their violence. In their minds, symbolically at least, the enarques, like the Norman aristocracy, want to cut off their hands and feet and send them back to the factory, gilet jaune in hand. Macron is now marked as an enemy of the people.
Violence, Looting, Desecrating
But the violence done by and alongside gilets jaunes seems inappropriate to the nature of their protest. Granted the ‘casseurs’ those who did the most violence and damage, were a tiny minority among them; granted long and contemptuous neglect can create resentment and anger; granted blocking things to draw attention to one’s plight might be necessary. But the real violence that had increased with each Saturday demonstration, reached disturbing proportions on December 1, from the deliberate desecration of what the French call a lieu de memoire, to the destruction of the property of other hard-working citizens (including those who drove to Paris to demonstrate and had their cars burned), to kicking collabos when they’re down, whether it was the forces of order, or journalists, with whom they were under orders – whose? – not to speak. Even Marine le Pen came to defense of the journalists (!).
The most shocking violence of December 1 (and until now, of all the weeks of violence since Saturday, November 17), took place at the Arc de Triomphe, a powerful symbolic site – the very incarnation of French military glory – the police retreat before masked men wearing gilets jaunes, leaving one man behind, who gets wrestled to the ground and kicked by several yellow jackets before running to join les collègues (who had left him to his fate). A masked yellow jacket kicks at him as he scampers off. Humiliating videos to add to the shocking site of the Arc de Triomphe tagué with graffiti for the first time in its two-centuries of existence, and the face of the allegorical leader of France’s revolutionary forces, smashed in.This behavior seems profoundly at odds with the gilets jaunes’ self-image as funny, generous, pacific, caring, citizens and patriots, and many say just that.Why alienate that wide audience of French who, you hope, will register their likes on your Facebook page? The desecration and vandalizing of the Arc de Triomphe on Saturday December 2, replete with cop-shaming episode(s?) doesn’t come from these folks. Would some group target l’arc de Triomphe in order to humiliate Macron who had just held a global peace forum there the previous week? Who hates him enough to trash one of France’s proudest monuments just to blacken his face? The FEMENS who protested his bringing war criminals to that ‘peace party’? The gilets-jaunes with a A on their jackets for ‘anarchistes,’ the real casseurs (09:30)?
The forces of order seize upon the bavures to put the demonstrators on the defensive; the people who still don’t know what to think of the movement, want answers; the reporters and talking heads ask hard questions. Fake and manipulated news exaggerates both the violence of the gilets jaunes and the forces of order. With a movement that is the product social-media, there’s no clear leadership, no clear rules. Erratic, if talented people claim the mantle. Everyone wants to get in on its popularity. Far Left (Melanchon) and far Right (Le Pen) want their support.
On December 3, another purported delegation of gilets jaunes headed to speak with the government, received death threats from members of their own ‘movement,’ including threats to their children. Now normally, at this point, one would expect a discussion of where this revolutionary violence is coming from. What streams in this movement that sees itself as an aggregator, talk in these terms, issue such edicts against its own (obviously contested) leadership? What did other gilets jaunes say about these threats?
After all, it took the revolutionary French fewer than 4 years from gaining power to take that cannibalistic turn. And yet, here we see it from the start of the movement. And anyone familiar with the suicidal behavior of communists when their party turned against them, has to be anxious at such early signs of power-abuse, especially in a movement that represents itself as the embodiment of a citizen movement, acting within the public space democracies afford them as non-violent actors.
But all of a sudden, there’s a strange disconnect: those who insist the gilets jaunes are pacific if not pacifist, have problem denouncing things done in the name of their movement, at their demonstrations. Indeed, there’s a kind of unreality to the discourse one hears on TV from people who claim to represent the movement (visible by their wearing or holding the gilet jaunes as they speak). Here there reigns an aporia as the pomo French like to say (incomprehensibility) of discourse. The technique is widespread: mumble disapproval; speak of anger and impatience; blame Macron and the state for the violence. “Il ne faut pas oublier la violence de l’etat!” they warn, even as the forces of order retreat rather than fight back.
After the violence of December 1, one gilet jaune on TV explained:
We want to be pacifists, and what’s happened is deplorable. But the reason it happened is because the government isn’t changing is direction [i.e. giving into our demands]. If you don’t understand, then there’ll be a civil war.
Far from finding violence problematic, people speak freely of ‘insurrection’ and ‘revolution.’ One middle aged, francaise de souche, who could have been a school teacher, says blandly “revolutions are not made without violence.” Another speaks of an “insurrection which is now being born (en train de naître).” High hopes for a dramatic near future. People speak hopefully of current events in terms of 1788 (the year before the Revolution).
Discourse of Incomprehension
This discourse disturbs in part because it’s hard to believe they mean it, but also because it’s hard to believe that the language they use – anger, violence, revolution, insurrection – is so insubstantial, so inconsequential, despite how meanginglessly they use it. People can and will misunderstand you, including your ‘followers.’ Just because you’re thinking of all the people in the dairy industry, doesn’t mean some in the audience won’t think what you actually say, namely ‘cheesemakers.’ And when the names you throw around serve to channel hatred – journalists are collabos (with the evil powers that be) – the results can be destructive.
It is as if pomo discourse had penetrated to the most traditional layers of French society and now permit people to speak in ways that have little to no meaning. Or, rather, their words have little connection to real emotions, to a real world outside the solipsistic bubble of discourse in which people rehearse their anger and believe that what they feel, if liked by enough people on Facebook, are indisputable facts to which their foes – Macron and his enarquistes, must yield… ‘or else.’ They talk like students on campus; they assert feelings as facts. We are menacés de mort.
One of the more amusing elements of the news, then, is watching gilets jaunes interact with journalists (and politicians) who challenge them about the violence. They get answers that do not compute according to the pre-pomo rules of reasoning. It’s not as bizarre as when modern meets premodern; instead it has an eerie quality of insubstantiality. There is much honor-shame discourse of humiliation and lack of dignity, of disrespect (mépris), as if that were political currency.
Asked about the death threats he had received from his own people, one delegée manqué went straight from establishing equivalences to blaming the government. Refusing to meet with officials as long as “our safety cannot be assured” (as if the government were somehow also a threat to the lives of the delegates), he moved on to the real problem: ‘state violence,’ and that state’s leader, Macron, who doesn’t change direction, who doesn’t understand the facts (of our anger), who has to go.
Here one can detect a revolutionary voice of les gauchistes: insurrection, revolution, end of the senate, citizen’s assembly. These are, in fact radical measures, that concern the very way the country is run. It’s not Macron that needs to go, but the structure of the (5e) République. From this angle, violence seems makes sense: without it, such radical restructuring won’t take place, with it, gilets jaunes is a movement of “incredible power (puissance incroyable).”
Hence, I think, the difficulty at least some of the leaders of this nascent movement – une insurrection en train de naitre – to denounce even the worst of the violence, and the readiness to paint the authorities in near-dualist terms, as that evil with which anyone associated is a collabo. These people think they are true patriots. They sing their national anthem at the Arc de Triomphe and honor the flame to the unknown soldier. So who’s desecrating the flame, who’s covering the Arc de Triomphe with huge graffiti, who’s smashing the inside vandal-style, breaking for the sake of breaking, smashing the face of Liberty?
The Role of the Suburbs
There is much talk among the gilets jaunes and others of the casseurs from the banlieues, the very people the gilets jaunes have arisen to oppose. As one man whose store had been plundered before his eyes put it: “they weren’t gilets jaunes at all, but “le profile de la casquette straight up” (referring to the rap-inspired caps the banlieusard like to wear). The temptation is so clear to the “pilleurs des banlieues” that some even think the TV news (esp BFM) shows these scenes to sucker the banlieusards to come in and ruin the movement, to deplace it on the backs of the plundering suburbs.
Indeed, some of the violence looks a lot like the low-level intifada against the French that’s been going on state for decades. After all, the last time la toute France exploded into rioting (Ramadan 2005), they were the major players, even as the French intelligentsia denied it.
Indeed, the similarities in the style of confrontation of the casseurs so resembles those of the Arabs pushing for Mubarak’s resignation during the so-misnamed ‘Arab Spring,’ that a number of Egyptian commentators identified the attacks on the Champs Elysee as a Muslim Brotherhood operation. And just like the Arab Spring started with a cry of popular anger, and got hijacked by Muslim Brotherhood operatives, so was, in this analysis, the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood living in the Paris suburbs – Tunisian, Moroccan, Algerian – were exploiting the cries of the gilets jaunes to further destabilize a country that, in the words of Muslim Brotherhood leader al Qaradawi, they sought to conquer. The Muslim Brotherhood in France, aware of how this might anger the French, disavowed any involvement, even as it interpreted events as a continuation of the Arab Spring, and entirely consonant with their own goals of “overthrowing
Certainly, from the point of view of any Caliphater, ‘soiling’ (to use Macron’s word) l’Arc de Triomphe, France’s monument to military glory, the symbolic backbone of her army, makes perfect sense. France’s face was blackened on that day. Put that together with smashing and shutting down the Champs Elysées just before Christmas, and like 9-11, it’s an attack on the dual symbols of Western economic and military might. Indeed, the Champs Elysees have been a site of suburban gang and Muslim violence such for over a decade. We may never know what happened at the Arc de Triomphe, but my guess (professional hazard of being a medievalist), is that the driving force was Caliphater banlieuesards, eager to blacken France’s face, and if some ‘gauchistes, anarchistes’ were involved, they were swept up on the destructive enthusiasm. That many of my French friends can’t be sure that such desecration did not come at the hand of anarchistes speaks volumes about the degree of self-hatred among French revolutionaries.
When hopium-filled francais, playing revolution, give a green light to people whom they cannot expect will observe their red lights, trouble is brewing. Is there a difference between a gilet jaune with a gas mask, and a gilet jaune with a face mask? The actions of the gilets jaunes to distinguish themselves from the excesses in the capital on December 8, those in Marseilles, who chased the casseurs from their midst, offers hope in this sense. After the violence of December 1, however, the temptation of violence and revolution seemed to override caution, despite the stakes involved. Or because? Many a gilet jaune will assert blandly that without violence, we won’t get our way. And, as the French say, l’appetit vient en mangeant (appetite grows from eating), so whatever the government concedes, will strike the radicals as insufficient, mere”cacahuetes.”
Worse, if the anarchistes in gilets jaunes see the Caliphater casseurs as allies in an effort to dislodge the ‘ruling class,’ they will make the same error the Iranian communists did in 1979 when they allied with Khoumeini and ended up liquidated, and, I’d argue, what the animators of the 2003 anti-war demonstrations did by allying with what they thought were anti-war Muslims. They are inviting in a force that wants to (and may indeed) devour them; they are sorcerer’s apprentices.
On some level the work is already done: it’s almost as if the gilets jaunes had learned key techniques from their enemies. They speak of humiliation and disrespect as if that were a clear-cut causus belli. They take the mantle of victimhood (“on a capté tous les misères du monde… une souffrance énorme.”). They appeal to masochistic authorities to excuse their violence, indeed to take the blame for it. The ‘moderates’ tell you on the one hand, not to make l’amalgame of the vast majority of pacifists with the tiny minority of extremists, and on the other, to ‘listen to us moderates or the movement will get radicalized… and it will be your fault.’
In 2016 Pascal Bruckner spoke of l’Israelisation de la France, and it shows up repeatedly in this drama. The same way the Israelis were blamed for Palestinian anger and violence, the government’s violence is to blame for the ‘desperate frustration’ of the gilets jaunes, even for its worst excesses. Just as the Palestinians claim the Israelis behave like the Nazis (who didn’t do it anyway), the gilets jaunes act as if the state were as cruel and oppressive as the Norman lords who cut of the hands and feet of protesters a millennium ago. They are innocent victims who, in a sense, have no choice but to… Their violence is a response to years of abuse, humiliation, and frustration that they can no longer, will no longer tolerate.
And the violence follows the pattern of the intifada – like the Palestinians, the protesters keep it at a low boil, with occasional bavures of real violence, then retreat for a while into quotidian violence. Like the Israelis, the police, terrified of the PR and real-life consequences of pictures of them even accidentally killing civilians, maintain high rules of engagement, conflict averse, readily retreating, forbearing. It’s the way we post-moderns think our police and military should behave. Are the gilets jaunes merely putting to good use the techniques pioneered by Hamas earlier this year, of weekly demonstrations that push the limits of tolerable violence, a strategy that had huge success with the French media.
The result of this clash between an honor-shame culture, conflict and violence disposed, and a post-modern culture, conflict and violence averse, results in the ‘weaker culture’ pushing the stronger around, and even, as in the case of the policeman at the top of the Champs Elysee, to humiliate them. Make concessions as a way to calm the situation? You provoke further demands. Similarly, in the same way BDS seeks to ban normalization which might legitimize Israel and Israelis, fighting to maintain as much hostile distance as possible, so the radicals within the gilets jaunes try to forbid discussion with the press, make death threats to those who would talk to those in power, etc. How can you make a (necessarily violent) revolution when you humanize the oppressor?
Of course, the French can’t possibly learn from Israel because their elites have been poisoned against it by soon two decades of lethal journalism, in which their media has fed them Palestinian war propaganda as news, at once inciting Jihad in their very midst and stigmatizing their natural ally. The French media (and beyond) has acted for so long like dhimmi leaders of yore, policing their ranks to weed out anyone who might ‘insult’ Muslims and enthusiastically taking on the Muslims’ enemies as theirs, that the French today are in a state of near-complete disorientation. French officials kept back the evidence that the attacker in Strasbourg was shouting Allahu Akhbar as he shot up a Christmas market place, insisting on the utmost prudence before jumping to the conclusion that it was a jihadi attack.
Nor can the journalists, so durably intimidated by both radical Muslims (Da’wa Caliphaters) and their colleagues who hound them for being Islamophobes, that they cannot be relied on to tell the public the truth even if they knew it. In fact, not even the gilets jaunes seem ready to talk about the problem. At their most honest, people use the well-known euphemisms – profile de casquette, jeunes, voyous, banlieusards, racaille – nothing to link them to the imperialist religious ideology that targets France (and Europe).
Let me return to 996, when the French really suffered from the violence of their militarized rulers, with their castles and the mounted, armored, warriors, when the rulers amputated the limbs of protesters, when in the night of long famine-stricken winters, parents made the calculus of which children would live and which would die.
And yet – not to dismiss their pain, but at least to contextualize it – from the point of view of commoners crushed under the burden of an elite’s exploitation in prime divider societies, the complaints of the gilets jaunes about their weak purchasing power ring strangely, uncomfortably, entitled… not very convincing testimony to their “misère qui explose”) (9:09). When someone complains that it’s not just gas prices that stand at the heart of the protest (and now we expect something profound), but also decreased speed limits and increased radar-tracked fines for speeding, and penalties for not observing pedestrian priority, it begins to sound like a Monty Python skit: “What have the Romans done for us lately?”
Between “I can’t buy my children pleasure,” and “I can’t do anything,” there come many intermediary stages: having ‘nothing’ in the fridge at the end of the month is not like having to decide, as in a prime divider society, which child will not get fed that winter so the others can survive. When a gilet jaune explains the frustration that produces the violence with an analogy to a child who asks nicely for candy and when he doesn’t get it, et bien, evidemment, he kicks you in the butt (1:46-2:00), life begins to imitate parody. It’s a bit like the Israeli left trying to join their neighbors in an (imagined) Arab ‘Spring’ in 2011, calling for ‘social justice!’ by protesting the price of apartments in Tel Aviv. Or Pope Francis explaining to you why, obviously, Muslims slaughter people who offend them.
This is not a fight over who tops the misery index, because if in that case we have to admit that the refugee women in camps, at the mercy of their merciless men, forced to wear the veil just in order not to get raped, certainly look more like victims of the kind of oppression characteristic of pre-modern, prime-divider societies. After all, if anyone on the planet cuts off people’s hands and feet in this century, it’s the jihadi wing of the Caliphaters, for whom it’s the 15th century.
We, in the West have come a long way since our 15th century. We have governments and media outlets which, at least in principle, and even in practice, exist for the good of the people, guaranteeing that no religion will use the mechanisms of political power to enforce its beliefs on a free public. We have created civic arenas in which people can hope to live peacefully and in plenty. Indeed, unlike the medieval ruling elites, who wanted nothing more than an illiterate and isolated peasantry, todays elites empower the people with levels of communication most previous regimes would have kept an elite monopoly. This movement, like the Women’s March, began in a (still free and open) online public sphere.
And, perhaps suited to such a post-modern, technology empowered movement, the demands have an oddly unreal quality, certainly in comparisons with the complaints of history’s losers, victims, oppressed. We are not being able to live a “happy and expansive life, to grow up in peace and security, to go to school, university, leisure, houses of worship, to live free and free of fear…” No medievalist can imagine such expectations among protesting peasants.
In fact, according to a 13th century source, those peasants sang a song that objected to the deep racism of their Norman lords:
We are men like they are
We have same limbs as they do.
We have hearts like they have.
We can suffer as much as they can.
From a medieval commoner’s point of view, current society sounds a lot like Micah’s idea of the messianic era: “each under his own fig and vine and none to make them afraid,” translated, mutatis mutandis, by modernity, into ‘a good car and full tank.’ If we consider the car as the Y2K version of the horse in Y1K, we can see how far we’ve come: it may not be as grandiose as the millennial dream, but it’s a lot more real. Where the horse was the monopoly of a class of castellans and knights who made life miserable for the inermes, the unarmed; the car is the empowerment of that commoner class. No one is telling the gilets jaunes that their misery and subjection was God’s punishment for ‘original sin.’
So as arrogant, contemptuous, and exploitative as French government officials today may behave, then, it’s nothing compared to the behavior of real ruling elites historically… (and, alas, today in many places around the world).
What seems to be lacking here is any sense of acknowledgment of the good that civil society brings. It’s one thing to fix some problems, even deep problems; it’s quite another to put a civil polity at risk out of impatience for more of everything and an ill-thought out faith in the long-term benefits of chaos. As I listened to the gilets jaunes complain, I kept thinking of a remark very popular with Israeli kids and unpopular with their parents: ba li – it’s coming to me: ‘I deserve it. But rather than work responsibly, I prefer to demonstrate loudly and, if necessary, violently, to get what coming to me. Cacahuètes (peanuts) will not do.’ What a self-indulgent way to make a very important case for a revamping of the elite’s attitudes towards the commoners.
If this were, like 1968, a time when the West didn’t even know that Islam had world conquering ambitions and few Muslims thought that now was the time to realize them, when, even with the Soviet enemy and its useful infidels in the West, no one was predicting the coming fall of Europe, then maybe playing with fire like this might not be so dangerous. But if you play revolutionary in Europe today, if you allow death threats to become a part of your movement, you risk starting a fire you can’t stop.
Because, no matter how nasty the francais de souche want to get, no matter what the cleansing violence to which their revolutionaries aspire, they cannot compete with their enemies, the Caliphaters. And whatever they think toppling Macron (or Trump) will do (prove their ‘soft power’?, shake things up so they’ll move in the right direction), they have no idea how the destabilization will play out. Let them not forget that the Muslim Brotherhood fully approves of getting rid of Macron, not because his policies are causing them problems (au contraire), but because getting rid of any democratically-elected president in the West is a win for Caliphaters.
In the final analysis, there’s something childish about the gilets jaunes; and it’s deeply inappropriate to their legitimate complaints about not being heard or given consideration. They seem to be playing at revolution, somewhat inebriated by their sudden moment in the spotlight, on le plateau of the TV talk shows of the news media they claim to hate. There’s something disconcerting about someone telling you how desperate she is, looking in the pink of health, smiling and assuring you she’d rather be at their son’s birthday party than in the streets of far-away Paris. There’s something alarming about playing revolutionary on the national stage in a tinderbox.
Were I a Caliphater, I’d be rubbing my hands for joy. As Nidra Poller puts it, they’re exporting fitna (civil war) to the West. And people are worried about Russia messing with our democratic processes? What, Muslims are too stupid to do just as well, if not better?
The marvels of modern society abound: we have technology to communicate among like-minded people as never before; we have states committed to allowing peaceful demonstrations and popular assemblies; we have technology and problem-solving tools far beyond any past society. But, not being a messianic world, prime-divider tendencies continue to exercise their gravitational pull: abusive elites, media propaganda, easily duped public. Until the days of some magical millennium… those problems will always be with us. The only thing we can change is how we deal with the abuse when we recognize it.
The gilets jaunes have many legitimate complaints about the new ‘ecumenical’ Euro-elites who begin to look like a neo-seigneurial aristocracy: their trans-national loyalty to others of their class overrides any commitment to their own people (the very definition of liberal nationalism), and they can use both the ideologies and funds of a new, soft-power world, to indulge themselves at the cost of their people. Granted it’s hardly as vicious and mean-spirited as real seigneurial attitudes, more thoughtless selfishness than deliberate malice, but, certainly by modern standards, worthy of rebuke.
Thus, the ‘commoners of Y2K’ have indeed been misused, abused, and disrespected, in many more ways than merely automobile policies. They have important issues to raise. What matters now is what happens next? Do the gilets jaunes start policing themselves, as they did in Marseilles on December 8? Do the elites listen? What about the public? What does it mean for large numbers of them to approve the gilets jaunes, but disapprove their violence?
POTUS Donald Trump claimed the French wanted him and that their anger proved his wisdom in renouncing the Paris climate treaty. And in some senses, he’s right. Even the French government recognizes the problem and the Prime Minister has dropped out of the next climate conference in Poland.
But, let the French avoid the catastrophe that has stricken the American public sphere in the age of Trump. Rather than pause and wonder what might have led so many Americans to vote for so unseemly a candidate, American progressive elites rapidly missed nary a beat, before returning, rededicated to Trump-bashing, dismissing and crushing those deplorables who stand in the way of the ‘arc of history,’ and to driving what they view as an illegitimate president from office. Let the French people, now that people are listening, learn to speak honestly; let the elites learn to listen to their (many) complaints; and may everyone have the courage to deal fairly with the shit that comes to the surface.
Moments like these can be epoch-making, if we are up to the challenge.