The French are revolting, and not for the first time obviously. They more or less invented it a couple of centuries ago, and they are at it again, and they do seem to do it better than almost anyone else.
Last month many an increasing number of French citizens, donned high-vis jackets and hit the streets. Primarily the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) as they became known, blockaded roads and streets all over the country, protesting against tax rises in diesel fuel. The French auto industry invested heavily in diesel and the country uses more proportionally than most other countries. Recent rethinking of the polluting effects have led to calls for a radical reduction in its use. French President Macron hiked up fuel tax as a disincentive… it turned out to be a bit of a bad move. Peaceful protests began to turn ugly very quickly on successive weekends as protesters descended onto the streets of Paris. The capital’s famous streets and landmarks became targets, strewn with burning barricades. Scenes of riot police firing tear gas, and charging at lines of demonstrators outside the chic boutiques of the Champs Elysees spread around the world. Macron caved in and cancelled the tax hikes, however the demonstrators had a taste for blood, and pushed for more. Lacking a single leadership, or united voice the yellow vests were suddenly hijacked by anyone with a grievance it seemed. Lists of demands were circulated on social media. A disjointed manifesto at best it called for lower taxes, higher pay, leaving the EU and a host of loosely connected, and often contradictory demands, but it did speak clearly with one overriding voice. People have had enough.
It is the same voice, more or less, that we have heard from Middle America in electing Donald Trump, it has echos in the Brexit vote in the UK. Last month in regional elections in Andalucia in Spain far right politicians from the Vox party were voted into power, the first from the right since the dark days of Franco. Sweden, Germany, Holland, Austria, Hungary, and Italy to pick a few names all see a growing movement, rejecting their traditional small cabal of established political parties, in search of, well, anything really. The headline figures of economic prosperity sell a good lie these days, rising GDP, rising average wages, reducing unemployment all look good, but scratch below the surface and you see that inequality is rising, and there are an awful lot of people who missed the cut. The truths of this decade, for a great many are that of rising costs, stagnating pay, running down of traditional industries and their communities, and dim prospects of it changing much for them, or their children.
The last general election in France distilled to a straight fight between anti establishment figures, Macron from the left, a new man, with no allegiance to traditional party politics, and Marine Le Penn, from the far right. Macron won, of course, and in the year and a half of his term is as unpopular a president as there has ever been. In the eyes of many, one of the Parisien elite, out of touch with those who backed him, and more interested in his image on the international stage than the problems facing the French middle classes. You can’t help but think that if that election were run tomorrow, Le Penn might emerge as winner, with all that it would entail.
You can hurl any number of criticisms you like at established political parties in the developed world, and many of them will stick, but in the main, they do at least understand the mechanics of politics, you might not like what they do, but they do at least know how to do it. The same cannot be said of these ‘mavericks’ that come out of left field these days. Trump and Macron stand as examples of those who talk the talk, riding the crest of a popular wave, but when it comes to the day to day grind of actually delivering on their promises, look out of their depth. Traditional, experienced politicians are going to have to listen a lot more intently to these growing voices of discontent, and start getting a little closer to the people who put them where they are, and can easily remove them, if they are to survive.
Often in politics people rally to a cause, sometimes people can take the voice of the disaffected and channel the accumulated energy for their own ends, that one rarely ends well.
By Phill McCoffers