The Yellow Vests: Spontaneous Anger or Precursor to Revolution?

The Yellow Vests: Spontaneous Anger or Precursor to Revolution?

          After years of growing anger against a neoliberal administration of austerity, France has descended into chaos as the workers say in their yellow vests: «we’ve had enough.» Emmanuel Macron and his administration are on their last legs, with the French President hiding in obscurity – scared to even speak to the public. His approval rating now sits around a sad 20% and continues to fall despite the government’s rolling back of tax hikes that originally sent French austerity into a tailspin. And while the mainstream media continues to sell the Yellow Vest movement as a fuel tax protest gone violent, slogans calling for Macron’s resignation and a reorganization of the government reflect far deeper societal issues. How did it all come to this?

            Well it`s about more than just a few more eurocents for a liter of fuel. Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, ended his term as the least popular president of the Fifth French Republic. Although sporting the title socialist, Hollande set forth on a neoliberal path of pension reductions and attacks on labor rights. Over 400,000 workers rallied against his reforms in 2016, leading to months-long riots that eventually dissipated. The country was left with an unemployment rate hanging around 10%, migration parameters set by Brussels, and skyrocketing prices.

«The President of the Rich», as the French began calling Macron shortly after his election in May 2017, was supposed to offer Europe centrist solutions. With European capitalists fearing the growth of populism on the far left and far right, this former Rothschild investment banker was globalism’s best hope in France. But things almost immediately went off the rails in August 2017, when Macron followed in Hollande’s footsteps and tried to liberalize French labor laws. The response was country-wide workers’ strikes supported by over half of the population. Fuel prices have increased 15% in the last year alone and to add insult to injury, the government says it’s because ordinary people should foot the bill for global warming. The straw has at last broken the camel’s back.

            The Yellow Vest movement is more than just an isolated spontaneous uprising though. They’ve inspired protests elsewhere in Europe, specifically in Brussels itself – the heart of the EU. Over 400 arrests were made in only a day of protests, adding to the upwards of 2,000 arrested in France thus far. The Egyptian government even had to crack down on the sale of reflective vests, fearing the uprisings may even spread beyond Europe. International capital and the mainstream media are so scared, attempted to discredit the movement using all sorts of wild tales. CNN continuously ran stories focusing on «anarchist elements that might once again infiltrate demonstrations that were supposed to be peaceful». Macron went on television blaming the violence on «opportunists who tried to take advantage of some of the mood in the people». And the Ukrainian government even blamed Russia for the protests. Their intelligence services claimed on Facebook that the Russians were trying «to organize similar provocations in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria and other European countries.»

            But the Yellow Vests are unique for an even more remarkable reason. Their anger encompasses the entire political spectrum and is directed at the globalist status quo. Both Marine Le Pen has publicly demanded Macron start taking the protesters’ demands seriously and Jean Luc Melenchon has called for his resignation. Despite representing right nationalist and far leftist tendencies respectively, they and their constituencies have generally backed or participated in the movement. Public polls suggest 71% of the French population supports the Yellow Vest movement. And while the media continues attempting to frame radicals as fringe opportunists, they continue to seem more like the driving force behind why the movement is still going strong.

            Across Europe a new populist trend is emerging, and it does not care for traditional political divisions. Italy’s marriage of the left-wing Five Star Movement and right-wing League Party took the first serious steps towards cross-spectrum political cooperation. Finding common ground against unbridled migration and economic mandates from the EU, the populists there are giving Brussels a run for their money. Back in October, Italy became the first EU member state to have its budget rejected. Their demands for a significant decrease in their contribution to NATO and expansion of welfare programs for Italian citizens presented a real obstacle to globalism in the EU. Although saying the proposed budget would create too great a debt burden, the globalists in Brussels could not accept such a withdrawal of resources from the EU money pool. There’s even more pressure to fund NATO from President Donald Trump, who’s been pushing for Europe to pay for its own defense. The political marriage in Italy continues to pose a real threat for the unity of the EU, and the neoliberals are doing everything in their power to contain it. But while the Yellow Vest movement resembles Italian populism in its political makeup, it differs in a fundamental way. These spontaneous uprisings in France lack a political party to represent the protesters’ interests. The mainstream media claims the lack of organization is what makes them dangerous and unpredictable, but in reality it puts the movement in a condition of uncertainty.

The first thing that comes to mind is Occupy Wall Street which, while a reaction against austerity and globalism, it’s spontaneous character resulted in little real political progress against Wall Street. No political party or organization came forward to use Occupy Wall Street’s discontent for political aims, as radical Italian political leaders did. And now French populism faces a similar problem.

            As one of the most economically significant EU states, France’s influence will be decisive in the upcoming May 2019 EU Parliament elections. Although still unlikely, supporters of Marine Le Pen and Jean Luc Melenchon, united under the same banner, could seriously change the entire political course of both France and the EU. Populism would find its second stronghold in France, and could work alongside Italy in dismantling the European neoliberal order. But unless an opposition political party wins the trust of the Yellow Vests, it’s likely this will be just another quick uprising for the history books.

Donald Courter
Journalist, Political Reporter, Expert in Foreign Relations (USA)

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June 2024