I was in Paris on November 11, 2018, and drove 200 km north to Lille to participate in the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day with the people of the township of Levantie where my regiment fought during the Great War. Paris was as beautiful as ever especially as one drove along the Champs de Elysees past the Arc de Triomphe. Sitting at a roadside cafe, one could sense how busy Parisians were with their lives. The multitudes of ethnicities and faiths could be sensed in the hustle and bustle of lunch hour. French President Emmanuel Macron, in a long coat and thick woollen scarf, looked immaculate and confident on television as he welcomed world leaders for the Armistice Day celebrations and even offered advice on resolving the world’s problems.
Within a week after my return, everything seemed to have gone berserk in Paris. In France, after every few years, this happens with fair regularity. This time it’s the Yellow Vests rebellion, the name coming from the high-visibility vests that the protesters wear. My recall of France inevitably starts with the French Revolution of 1789, which in many ways gave the world the lasting socialist slogan. ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’, the motto of the French Revolution may have many interpretations but France keeps returning to that socialist clarion call ever so often.
The street rebellion of 1968 removed as iconic a leader as Charles de Gaulle. These are the most violent protests since then. It is being said that this time it’s all about an ecological transition; earlier rebellions in the not-too-distant past were against the markets and globalisation.
Not too many people are really aware how this started but apparently protests and demonstrations have been on in almost 2000 locations all over France since early November. Despite being social media instigated and triggered, somehow it took the political communities of France and Europe by relative surprise. It’s Macron’s supposed obsession with his own sense of responsibility which many times does border on idealism. He is committed to ecology and wishes to see France transit very early to clean fuels, renewable energy and the likes. Putting it simply, the trigger is the increase in fuel prices, done primarily to reduce consumption of hydrocarbons, reduce harmful emissions and force the transition he has in mind. He probably hoped it will reduce private transport and force people to use public transport in a much bigger way. Nothing wrong with that but the execution is akin to Marie Antoinette’s famous quip: “If the people don’t have bread, give them cake.” Macron’s perception of public transport is probably limited to cities such as Paris, Nice and Marseilles. In the little driving that I did around, in the smaller towns in the north I found no public transport worth the name. People have to use private vehicles and the fuel price increase has hit them hard. Diesel prices would increase by 30 cents a gallon and petrol by 17 cents if Macron’s proposals are finally implemented.
Yet, fuel price hike is only a trigger. Beneath that lies much more than meets the eye. It’s a lot to do with France’s societal makeup today. Macron who was enthusiastically voted to power with a 66 per cent vote over the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is today largely considered a rich man’s President. He scrapped wealth tax on taxpayers worth 1.3 million Euro and hiked taxes on the pensioners and retirees. Very few think he has an understanding of the financial predicament of the common French people. The protests are also fuelled by the presence of immigrants and are a cause of worry regarding the security of the cities. Just two years ago, France was the victim of horrific terrorist violence perpetrated by the ISIS, an entity which still exists in the virtual networked state. Such situations with high public antipathy can give the opportunities transnational terrorist organisations seek. The Yellow Vests are in no mood for compromise although Macron has partially learnt his lessons and is willing to roll back fuel prices. They are now seeking higher pensions and minimum wages. In one of Europe’s highest taxed nations, France is unable to generate jobs for its restive young. This being a leaderless rebellion, with low profile online leaders, it’s going to be difficult to focus on neutralisation of the leadership.
Besides the immediate problems of instability in France, Macron’s future is at stake. Earlier, he was placing himself as a potential successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the leader of Europe. Macron‘s chances of re-election would be greatly reduced unless the economy witnesses a turnaround. Fresh elections now could throw up unpredictable results. It could also have a snowballing effect on other European nations in the manner of the Arab Spring. That could see a resurgence of nationalism and an advantage to the right wing which, two years ago, were on the rise but whose growth was arrested by a spate of centrist parties. Security wise that would not be a very conducive thing in light of the continuing crisis all over Europe with increasing presence of immigrants.
If there is a lesson for the world in these events it is about the necessity to keep channels open for talks with different societal groups. We have yet not seen the fully unleashed power of social media as a facilitator of getting far-flung regions and people together to express their discontentment, often quite violently.