PARIS IS BURNING
By Prosper Keating
The slogans scrawled in indelible marker on the activists’ fluorescent yellow jerkins are succinct: Democracy My Eye! Go Fuck Yourselves! Police State! Liberty Equality Fraternity? Macronitude! People Action is the Solution! Money Before People? I come in peace/Don’t shoot me! I Love My France But I Hate The Killer State!
When French people say of the Gilets Jaunes movement that there hasn’t been civil disorder of this magnitude on the streets of Paris since the May 1968 student uprising, what they really mean is that civil disorder is usually confined to the suburban ghettos where the locals burn their own neighborhoods down, while the police stand by watching. The majority of Gilets Jaunes activists are from rural France where protests tend to be limited to disrupting traffic by circling roundabouts on tractors at 5 mph all day long or driving into town and dumping a few tons of manure in front of the town hall or the tax office, while the police stand by watching.
One of the more amusing stories to emerge from the Gilets Jaunes unrest in France concerns some wag sending President Macron’s office an MPEG of the World War One-era Doughboy jazz song How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm? The next line is After They’ve Seen Paree. President Macron wouldn’t have been amused. Anonymous sources in the Elysée Palace described the President as “shitting himself” when the Gilets Jaunes threatened to sack the presidential residence and lynch the presidential couple and alleged that a helicopter was kept warm on the palace lawn to evacuate them African despot-style if necessary.
Who are the Gilets Jaunes and what do they want? If you asked ten Gilets Jaunes activists, you’d get more than ten answers as some of them changed tack halfway through. One of their more coherent demands is “less money for the politicians and more money for the people!” a rallying call that strikes chords across the social spectrum. Surveys suggest that 28% of the Gilets Jaunes movement consists of people who voted for the hard-left France Insoumise party of Jean-Luc Melenchon. 36% voted for Marine Le Pen’s hard right Front National, recently rebranded as the Rassemblement National in an attempt to love away from the party’s image as a refuge for fascists and anti-Semites.
Some people romanticize the Gilets Jaunes as the heirs of the Sans Culottes of the French Revolution of 1789. Perhaps they are but the Sans-Culottes were so-named because they were too poor to afford underwear whereas the Gilets Jaunes can all afford the reflective yellow safety jerkins every French motorist is required to have by law. Many Gilets Jaunes claim to be workers and peasants but are for the most part the people advertising and marketing executives used to describe as the C2 and D consumers. They are the people who believed the capitalist sermons about self-improvement through acquisition. They are the people who want more, like many Trump voters in the United States.
France and Usonia, to borrow Frank Lloyd Wright’s term, have more in common than some French and American people like to admit. The political systems are quite similar, comprising a bipartisan hegemony with a few swivel-eyed right-wing, left-wing and eco-fascist extremists in the wings and a heavy Alternative Facts dependence.
The romantic mutual appreciation of each other’s culture and sub-culture aside, both nations consist of a sprinkling of sophisticated conurbations surrounded by festering rustbelts and fallow farmland, punctuated by crumbling towns and malls full of abandoned shops, bars and motels in which anything might be happening––and probably is.
These hinterlands are inhabited by a self-professed underclass who like to tell anyone standing still long enough that they are invisible to the parasitical urban elites running things and living the high life on the backs of honest workers or, more precisely, what is left of the working classes after decades of capitalist expatriation of industry and jobs.
The difference is that while many rural blue-collar Usonians live in real poverty, their French counterparts belong to one of the most state-subsidized societies on the planet outside Norway and a few Arab monarchies and dictatorships. From cradle to grave, the French benefit from low-cost or free housing, free health care and free education. Heavily subsidized though they are, however, the French lower classes are increasingly cash-poor. The tearful mother in her gilet jaune telling television reporters that she goes hungry to feed her children after the middle of the month is not lying. She is describing her reality, a reality for more and more people in recent years, regardless of which party is in power.
It is sometimes said that the difference between democracy and dictatorship depends on how much lube government uses when shafting the populace. A cornerstone of the social contract guaranteeing civil order is the onus on the ruling elites to ensure that the proletariat has enough cash each month for a few treats like booze, cigarettes and McMeals for the kids. Making sure the proles can afford the gasoline or diesel for the cars and trucks they were encouraged to buy when government slashed spending on national rail and bus networks as a prelude to privatization is another important element in this social contract, which, once broken, opens the door to discontent, disorder and political extremism.
Macron and his accomplices are neo-liberals, which makes them more toxic than the traditional snout-in-the-trough politician of popular lore. In fairness to the Macronists, however, they are telling the French people what previous governments have chickened out of saying: that France is to all intents and purposes bankrupt. As the song goes, however, it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. Imposing higher taxes on already overtaxed fuel was never going to please cash-poor people in rural areas ill-served by public transport. Telling them it was all about saving the planet by discouraging over-use of polluting vehicles was a spectacularly arrogant insult to their intelligence.
The adoption of the high-visibility yellow vest as a uniform by this self-professed underclass of largely rural blue-collar people who like to tell anyone who stands still long enough that they are invisible to the elites running the country and living the high life on the back of the workers et cetera is a clever piece of branding. So is describing each weekend of civil strife as an Act, as if this insurrection-in-installments is a theatre piece ending in the inevitable fall of the Macron regime. Each Act is numbered in the Roman style vaguely evoking the revolutionary Republican Calendar used from 1793 to 1805––and the Italian Fascist calendar of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Pointing to media coverage of anti-semitic incidents involving thugs wearing the high-visibility yellow jerkins adopted as a uniform by the movement, some say the Gilets Jaunes are more like the Brown Shirts of Nazi Germany. As an argument, this smacks of the intellectually lazy You’re-a-Nazi debating tactic deployed by those losing a debate.
At a stretch, there are some vague similarities between the Gilets Jaunes and the early Brown Shirts of pre-Nazi Germany before the ultra-conservative, neo-imperialist faction headed by Adolf Hitler suppressed the leftist elements of the Nazi Party, a purge implemented to placate the industrialists and bankers backing the Nazis against the Communists. Some of those early Brown Shirts of Weimar Germany agreed with Hitler’s description of Jews as the “traitors of 1918” but others saw the solidly German industrialists and bankers who would demand the 1934 Night of the Long Knives purge as the real traitors. Most Gilets Jaunes don’t blame immigrants or Jews for their woes. They blame the Establishment.
Some of the 15% of the French electorate who reliably vote for the fascists in the shape of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National or National Rally––formerly the Front National founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen––are certainly racist and anti-Semitic although the FN/RN now has plenty of black, brown and Jewish members. Even so, younger French Identitarians, who see themselves as closer to the roots of true German and European National Socialism before it was hijacked by the neo-imperialist and ultra-conservative faction led by Adolf Hitler, reserve their fury for the treacherous elites orchestrating the Great Replacement of white people. Think Anders Breivik.
Any popular movement attracts sinister elements pursuing dubious agendas and the Gilets Jaunes movement is particularly vulnerable because of its lack of leadership. It is easy to discredit such a movement by, for example, sending a few people into the crowd and photographing them with their right arms extended in the Roman or Hitlerian salute. The mainstream media widely reported the Jew-baiting incident last February involving French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and thugs in gilets jaunes. Articles in respected newspapers like the New York Times stated that that anti-Semitic incidents in France increased by 74% in 2018.
Of course, it suits the French government to cast the Gilets Jaunes as fascists, neo-Nazis or ‘populists’, to use the code deployed by European federalists against anyone who objects to how the European integration project is evolving. Some Gilets Jaunes activists are pushing an anti-European Union Frexit agenda, like Brexit, which scares the authorities.
Playing the anti-semitism card against the Gilets Jaunes movement is reckless in a country like France with ample reason to be ashamed of its part in the Holocaust. Finkielkraut’s aggressors were certainly genuine Jew-haters but they were known Islamic radicals disguised as Gilets Jaunes, although the henna-dyed jawbone beards were a bit of a giveaway. It is also very disrespectful to French Jews and to Finkielkraut himself, whose father was a French Shoah survivor. Finkielkraut was born stateless in Paris in 1949 because France had not yet restored the citizenship stripped from French Jews by the French government in Vichy during World War Two.
As a society, France has evolved since the 1940s and while around 15% of the electorate votes for a party whose founder was prosecuted several times this century for Jew-baiting, any threat to French Jews today comes more from alienated youth in the country’s housing projects, radicalized by Islamic State propaganda on the web and in underground mosques. There are also some parallels with the American Occupy Wall Street movement. The Gilets Jaunes are bringing their fight to the posh 7th and 8th arrondissements of Paris, where the ruling elites work and play when not week-ending in their country homes or vacationing in exclusive Alpen resorts and tropical climes.
As Shakespeare’s Octavian remarks in Antony and Cleopatra: “This common body/Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream/Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide/To rot itself with motion.” The weakness and the strength of the Gilets Jaunes movement lie in its aimless motion. It is a movement without any tangible purpose other than to express discontent. The French elites are visibly rattled by the Gilets Jaunes insurrection, as evidenced by their ill-judged dependence on outrageous police violence and easily debunked media agitprop like the Finkielkraut incident. On that level, the Gilets Jaunes have the upper hand but they are leaderless and while this is a strength, it is also a weakness––as the OWS partisans learned.
In this sense, comparisons with the Communard movement in Paris in 1871 seem valid. The Communard micro-state was underpinned by its pseudo-anarchist rejection of the concept of hierarchy and was undermined by what might be described as proto-Bolsheviks whose violence gave the government the excuse it needed to use extreme violence in return. Some estimates allege the number of French citizens killed and summarily executed by the Army during the suppression of the Paris Commune to be as high as 20,000. Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that the French Establishment has a long record of using extreme violence against The People when ordered to do so by the government.
The forces of law and order haven’t killed any Gilets Jaunes activists yet but they have blown a few hands off and put a few eyes out through improper use of non-lethal weaponry like stun grenades and plastic bullets. Asked about the excessive police violence, the Interior Minister initially fell back on a Lenny Bruce-style defense: what violence?
Later, the Minister seemed to suggest that any Gilets Jaunes activists injured by the police had been treated in accordance with France’s traditions as the land of the Rights of Man. However, he might not have been aware of what he was saying as he is a keen night-clubber and party animal who likes to boast of a youth spent hanging out with gangsters. After the scenes of mayhem on the Champs d’Elysées during Act XVIII were televised around the world, the Paris Prefect of Police was sacked by the Prime Minister for not using sufficient extreme violence on the Gilets Jaunes and President Macron ordered the Army to be mobilized for Act XIX.
If the antics of the Macron regime are any indication, there is no lack of the requisite political will to unleash lethal forces against the Gilets Jaunes. Violent reaction by the French Establishment to any challenge to the status quo is nothing new because the ruling elites want no repetition of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. The conspiracy theorists are active. One theory is that the movement was started by the government in order to facilitate the enacting of legislation banning protest marches and freedom of speech. In fact, such legislation already exists in France––and other democratic countries––and can be applied when a state of emergency is declared.
The truth is that France has no need of civil unrest or emergency legislation to behave dictatorially. After the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the French Establishment decided to make sure it would not happen again. A major element of Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s involved effective crowd control. The new city consisted of broad avenues and boulevards linking roundabouts and places, each of which had artillery, cavalry and infantry barracks nearby. Any mob could expect to be bowled over by cannon shot, sabred by cavalry and shot and bayoneted by infantry, all of which makes a few eyes and hands lost to stun grenades and plastic bullets seem mild.
In 1871, the provisional government of a France defeated by Prussia persuaded the Prussians to bombard the Paris Commune on its behalf. The Vichy government of 1940-1944 imposed violent fascism with relative ease. French forces in Algeria, a French département, murdered as many as one million brown-skinned French citizens between 1954 and 1962.
If the Gilets Jaunes really were the invisible underclass of their collective imagination or paranoia, they would behave accordingly, burning down their own homes or dumping manure on the mayor’s doorstep. But they are the people who want more. They are the stuff of which revolutions can be made and that is what scares the living shit out of the ruling elites.