Paris, France, December 8, 2018 (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

The ‘Yellow Vests’ torch cars as President Macron decrees happiness

Returning to England from France, I happened to find in an antiquarian bookshop a pamphlet titled “The Great Week in Paris.” It began:

The events which have taken place in Paris have been so extraordinary, that it would require the pen of a Gibbon to give them a suitable colour. 

The writer described the situation in France as follows:

There are among the first ranks of society men . . . who sentimentally adhere to those rotten branches of a decayed trunk! some from habit, others from gratitude for past favours, and many from a consciousness of their total unfitness to figure in the new order of things. 

Plus ça change: The great week in Paris referred to in the pamphlet, by an eyewitness to it, was in 1830, the week in which the unpopular monarch, Charles X, was overthrown by revolution. A man who sometimes works for me in my house in la France profonde calls President Macron “Napoleon the Fourth,” though perhaps “Charles the Eleventh” would be as apt.

General dissatisfaction is in the air, and it is not because of the levels of carbon dioxide in it. Millions of Frenchmen are far more concerned with their pouvoir d’achat (their purchasing power), which has risen very little in the last ten years and may actually be declining, than with allegedly saving the planet by reducing carbon emissions — unlike the Parisian elite.

The elected monarch’s concerns seem to them exactly the opposite of those of most Frenchmen: First he reduced the speed limit on France’s excellent but mainly empty rural roads from 90 to 80 kilometers per hour, to many people’s intense irritation, and then he increased taxes on fuel, particularly diesel. You have to be rich these days in France to be able to live without a car, and it is not long since the government encouraged the population to buy the diesel vehicles that it now wants to eliminate for supposedly ecological reasons. This strikes much of the population, which is struggling to maintain its standard of living, as let-them-eat-cake-ish in spirit.

Disdain is probably more hurtful to people than hardship, and M. Macron has the unfortunate characteristic of exuding it like a secretion, whatever the real state of his feelings, if indeed he has any. His contempt for les beaufs — the uneducated provincial Frenchmen, ignorant, vulgar, prejudiced, bigoted, of gross habits and enjoyments, in short the French equivalent of the American inhabitant of Mrs. Clinton’s capacious basket of deplorables — is evident. The problem is that the definition of a beauf is as flexible as that of a racist and comes to include all those who do not share the views and tastes of the highly educated but not necessarily deep-thinking metropolitan elite. Populism feeds on the self-satisfaction of the bien-pensant, in France as elsewhere.

The spontaneous movement of Gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France is a symptom of the subterranean dissatisfaction of much of the population. It enjoys widespread public approval, and even the heir to the French throne, Louis XX, has expressed his support for it. The adoption of the luminescent gilet jaune as their uniform is highly symbolic, for every motorist in France must, by law, carry such vests with him both for himself and all his passengers in case of accident. Whether the tens of millions of vests have saved many, or any, lives is probably unknown; but it is certain that they represent what is in effect a tax on incomes, to the benefit of their manufacturers. The gilet jaune is thus emblematic of the corporatism that is perceived as dividing French society increasingly into a mass of people living on skimmed milk and a small elite bathing in cream.

Whether this is a true reflection of French society or not is hardly the point: In politics, perception counts for more than reality. But even so, the Gilet jaune movement is highly contradictory. It is acephalous, and without specific or agreed demands; it is a belch of dissatisfaction rather than a project for concrete reform. The French pride themselves on being Cartesian, that is to say logically consistent reasoners, but in fact they are just as confused as everyone else, and sometimes seem even more so.

On no subject are they more conflicted than that of money. They hate the rich but are by no means themselves indifferent to wealth. They believe themselves egalitarian when actually they are merely envious. They believe themselves crushed by taxes but demand that the state take care of them to an exceptional degree. (A few years ago, the professional tattooists in France, who have, alas, increased very rapidly in number, demanded that the state officially recognize their métier.)  

Dirigisme is inscribed in French intellectual DNA, as it were. Shortly after my return from France, I dined in London with a French nephew of mine in a restaurant whose cost per head considerably exceeded (to my chagrin) the weekly minimum wage in France. He worked in London in a well-paid job in a field that owed its very existence to billionaires. He was no admirer of Macron, who, he said, had given a cadeau, a present, to the rich (those with more money than he), and this justified the Gilets jaunes’ anger.

What was the cadeau that Macron had given to the rich? He had suppressed the capital tax on fortunes (not very large ones, incidentally), except for those consisting purely of real estate. In other words, by refraining from taxing financial assets, Macron was giving money away: which, of course, he could do only if the money was his, or the state’s, to give away in the first place. This is rather like the robber in the street who allows his victim to keep a little of his money for his train fare, believing himself thereby to be acting with chivalrous generosity (I have known such robbers). To adapt slightly one of the psalms of David, money is the government’s, and the fullness thereof. What we earn or make is in effect a dole, insofar as we are allowed to keep it. As to the actual economic effect or rationality of the tax on fortunes in the first place, it did not enter into consideration, and still does not in many Frenchmen’s thinking. It is likely that most of the Gilets jaunes believed that taxing the rich was the answer to the world’s woes, the way of meeting the demand for lower taxes on themselves while maintaining or even increasing public expenditure.

In his television speech to the nation, watched by an even higher proportion of the population than had watched the final of the soccer World Cup, in which the French team had played, M. Macron, after the fourth weekend in succession of unrest throughout the country, made not so much a heartfelt as a brain-felt confession that he had not appreciated what ordinary Frenchmen were suffering, and promised higher wages and lower taxes, all to be achieved painlessly. He would thereby decree satisfaction, as it were; but dissatisfaction is the permanent condition of mankind, and already the demonstrators, at least those who have given their opinion on air or on Facebook, say it is too little, too late.

What they want is . . . well, they are not quite sure what they want, but they are sure that they do not want what they have got. M. Macron’s best hope is that the Gilets jaunes, having neither head nor doctrine, will squabble among themselves, as when a self-appointed spokesman among them was discovered to have been a civil servant paid about $3,000 a month for the last ten years for doing nothing. It was the violence in Paris that caught the world headlines, of course, not the roadblocks manned at many points in provincial France, mainly by middle-aged persons many of whom appeared to me to have arrived at the roadblocks in quite expensive cars, certainly not in old jalopies.

The rioters in Paris, who have cost the country very dearly (7 percent of its GDP is accounted for by tourism), were of a different ilk, being quite clearly young and determined vandals of an anarcho-socialist bent. Like Boy Scouts, they came prepared: prepared, that is, for looting, tear gas, etc. Street violence has long had a certain cachet in France, and now rioters will be able later in life to show selfies of themselves in balaclavas or gas masks in front of burning cars on the Champs Élysées, to the admiration of their grandchildren (if any).

Throughout the unrest, there has been a curious incident of the dog in the nighttime, namely that all the demonstrators, peaceful or violent, have been français de souche, that is to say French of nonimmigrant stock, at least of non-recent-immigrant stock: and this will no doubt not have gone unremarked in the banlieues, where a kind of grumbling, low-intensity civil war is in chronic progress. A presumed terrorist killed five people at the Strasbourg Christmas Fair, escaped for a time, and in turn was shot dead. A career criminal with no fewer than 27 convictions for crimes, many of them violent (what does this say of European criminal-justice systems?), he is reported to have been “radicalized” in prison, though the darkened spot on his forehead suggests that he has long been pious in the sense of praying regularly, and it is likely that his exploit will not be universally condemned by the Muslim youth of the banlieues. They will now be able to argue that the distinction between the law-abiding average citizen of France, français de souche, and the Islamists has been reduced if not eliminated. Both desire profound change, not necessarily (indeed, necessarily not) by constitutional means.


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