The working class was supposed to have been edged out of active politics, but instead France’s elites have been frightened into making concessions by this winter’s uprising of the yellow vests. Its continuing popularity suggests that it is recasting French politics.
France’s elites have not felt such fear in half a century, and it’s not the usual fear of losing an election, failing to ‘reform’ or seeing their shares slide on the stock market, but fear of insurrection, revolt, and loss of power. The street protests on 1 December 2018 caused some to feel a sudden chill. As BFM TV’s star news anchor Ruth Elkrief shuddered: ‘The most urgent thing is for people to go home.’ The channel was showing footage of yellow vest protesters determined to claim a better life for themselves.
A few days later, a journalist from the pro-business daily L’Opinion revealed on TV that ‘all the big industrial groups are going to give out bonuses, because they were really scared for a time that their heads would end up on stakes. So after that terrible Saturday when all the damage was done [1 December], the big firms called Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, the head of Medef [France’s largest employers’ federation], and told him to “drop everything! Drop it all, or else...” They felt physically threatened.’
On the same programme, the head of a polling organisation claimed top bosses were ‘actually very worried’ and said that the atmosphere reminded him of similar events in 1936 and 1968 that he had read about: ‘There comes a time when you say to yourself, “You have to be able to give away large sums to avoid losing what’s most important”’ (1). At the time of the Popular Front (1936-8), Benoît Frachon, head of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), reported that during negotiations at Matignon, the French prime minister’s residence, bosses had ‘given in across the board’ after a bout of unofficial strikes and factory occupations.
They should actually use their weapons for once [against] these thugs, these bastards from the far right or far left or from the suburbs who come looking for a fight with the police. Luc Ferry
Such a cave-in of the elite is rare, but it also brings a lesson from history: those who have felt fear do not forgive those who caused it or those who witnessed it (2). The yellow vest movement has provoked a reaction that has many precedents because it has proved enduring, hard to grasp, leaderless, speaks a language that institutions do not understand, and remains determined despite police repression and popular despite hostile media coverage of damage done on days of mass protest. In times when social groups crystallise and there is undisguised class struggle, everyone has to choose sides. The centre ground disappears. And even the most liberal, educated and distinguished people drop any pretence of peaceful coexistence. Fear robs them of their composure.
Alexis de Tocqueville was similarly affected when he wrote about the events of June 1848 in Paris in his memoirs. Soldiers sent in by the ruling bourgeoisie, who believed that ‘only the cannon can settle our century’s questions’, had massacred impoverished workers (3). Forgetting his good manners, Tocqueville described the socialist leader Auguste Blanqui as having ‘a dirty look, like a pallid, mouldy corpse. He looked as if he had lived in a sewer and only just come out. He reminded me of a snake having its tail pinched.’
‘League of the underclass’
During the Paris Commune in 1871, there was a similar transformation of thought among intellectuals and artists, some of whom had been fair-weather progressives. The poet Leconte de Lisle was infuriated by ‘this league of all the underclass, all the useless people, all the envious, the murderers, the thieves.’ Gustave Flaubert thought that ‘the first remedy should be to end universal suffrage, the disgrace of the human mind.’ Émile Zola, reassured by the punishment that had resulted in 20,000 deaths and almost 40,000 arrests, thought it offered a moral for the working class: ‘The bloodbath they have just experienced was perhaps a horrible necessity to calm some of their fevers’ (4).
Jacques Chirac’s former education minister Luc Ferry, a doctor of philosophy and political science, may have had the outrageous pronouncements of his predecessors in mind when, in a radio interview on 7 January, he called on the forces of law and order to strengthen their response to the yellow vests, saying, ‘They should actually use their weapons for once’ against ‘these thugs, these bastards from the far right or far left or from the suburbs who come looking for a fight with the police.’
Power usually operates through distinct, sometimes competing, sub-groups — senior civil servants, both French and European, intellectuals, bosses, journalists, the conservative right, and the moderate left. Within this cosy framework, turns are taken in power, and these obey certain democratic rituals of elections followed by periods of quiescence. In Lille in 1900, the socialist leader Jules Guesde had already seen through this political game to which the capitalist class owed its longevity in power: ‘It is divided into progressive bourgeoisie and republican bourgeoisie, clerical bourgeoisie and free-thinking bourgeoisie, in such a way that a defeated faction can always be replaced in power by another faction from the same class, which is also [our] enemy. It’s a ship with watertight partitions which can take in water on one side without being any less unsinkable.’ But sometimes the sea gets rough and the vessel’s stability is threatened. In such a situation, squabbles need to be set aside to present a united front and keep it afloat.
That is what the middle class has done when faced with the yellow vests. Its usual spokespeople, who carefully maintain the appearance of a plurality of opinion when times are calm, have unanimously compared protestors to racists, antisemites, homophobes, plotters and troublemakers — but mostly to ignoramuses. ‘Yellow vests, will stupidity win?’ Sébastien Le Foll asked in Le Point (10 January). ‘The real yellow vests’, Bruno Jeudy suggested on BFM TV, ‘are fighting without reflecting, without thinking’ (8 December). ‘The lowest instincts are prevailing, with no regard for the most basic good manners,’ wrote Vincent Trémolet de Villers in Le Figaro (4 December).
This ‘movement of troublesome Poujadist hicks’ (Jean Quatremer, Twitter, 29 December) led by a ‘hate-filled minority’ (Denis Olivennes, Marianne, 9 January) is easily described as ‘an outpouring of rage and hate’ (Le Monde editorial, 4 December) in which ‘hordes of losers and looters,’ ‘consumed by resentment as though by lice’ (Franz-Olivier Giesbert, Le Point, 13 December and 10 January), give free rein to their ‘noxious impulses’ (Hervé Gattegno, Le Journal du dimanche, 9 December). ‘How many dead will these new hicks have on their consciences?’ asked Jacques Julliard (Le Figaro, 7 January).
Public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, while concerned about these ‘blind, naked hatreds with a will of their own’ (Le Point, 13 December), still deigned to sign a petition in Le Parisien inviting the yellow vests to ‘turn their anger into debate’ (Le Parisien, 7 December). No luck in getting them to do that so, as Pascal Bruckner said, thank God ‘the police have calmly saved the Republic’ from the ‘barbarians’ and the ‘hooded mob’ (Le Figaro, 10 December).
A whole social universe has banded together, from the Greens to the remnants of the Socialist Party, from the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) to the presenters on France Inter’s morning show (a ‘partnership of intelligence’ according to the station director), to pillory any politicians who express solidarity with the movement. They stand accused of undermining democracy and not sharing their fear. Hopefully, these troublemakers could be controlled by the old trick of looking for anything linking any yellow vest spokesperson with any view the far right might have once expressed or defended. But wouldn’t such a line of reasoning mean that violence against journalists had to be encouraged, just because Marine Le Pen called it ‘the very negation of democracy and respect for others, without which there is no constructive exchange, no democratic life, no social life’ (Le Figaro, 17 January)?
‘Down to the last euro’
The reflex reactions of the bourgeois bloc that forms Emmanuel Macron’s electoral base were starkly revealed when Le Monde published a sympathetic profile of a family of yellow vests, ‘Arnaud and Jessica: down to the last euro’ (16 December). There were hundreds of angry comments in reaction to the story online: ‘Not a very smart couple... Isn’t true poverty in some cases cultural rather than financial?’ ‘The pathological problem of the poor: their ability to live beyond their means.’ ‘Don’t let’s imagine we can make them researchers, engineers and creatives. Their four children will be just like their parents: a burden on society.’ ‘What do they want the president to do? Go round every day to make sure Jessica takes her pill?’ The journalist who wrote the piece was stunned by this barrage of attacks, with their ‘paternalistic’ overtones (5). But paternalism suggests just a family dispute, while the readers of a reputedly moderate paper were actually sounding the alarm for class war.
The yellow vests movement marks the failure of a project born in the late 1980s and later led by the evangelists of social liberalism, to create a centrist republic in France that would end ideological upheavals by pushing the working class out of public debate and political institutions (6). The working class, though still the majority of the population, was too fractious, and would have to make space — all the space — for the educated middle class.
France’s ‘turn to rigour’ in 1983, the liberal counter-revolution driven by New Zealand’s Labour Party (1984), and in the late 1990s the third way of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schröder, all seemed to have carried out this plan. As social democracy bedded down in the apparatus of the state and made itself at home in the media and on company boards, it banished its former working-class supporters to the political wilderness. (During the 2016 election campaign in the US, there was little surprise when Hillary Clinton told campaign donors that core Trump supporters were a ‘basket of deplorables’.)
The situation in France is little better. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a socialist who shaped the views of many of Macron’s inner circle, explained in a book in 2002 that his party’s base had to be ‘members of intermediate groups, consisting overwhelmingly of salaried workers, savvy, informed and educated, who form the backbone of our society. They assure its stability, because of their attachment to the “market economy”.’ As for less savvy members of society, their fate was sealed: ‘Of the least well-off group, alas, one cannot always expect peaceful participation in a parliamentary democracy. Not that they are uninterested in history, but their irruptions sometimes manifest with violence’ (7). Those people needed to be considered only once every five years, and then usually to deplore the number of them who voted for the far right. After that, they could return to oblivion and invisibility (when Strauss-Kahn wrote this, road safety laws did not yet compel all drivers to carry a yellow vest in their cars).
The strategy worked. The French working class was excluded from political representation, and even physically excluded from the centre of France’s big cities: with just 4% of new home-owners from the working class each year, Paris in 2019 is like Versailles in 1789. They are also excluded from the television screen, where 60% of those who appear in news programmes come from the highest qualified 9% of the population (8). As far as Macron is concerned, the working class might as well not exist. He believes Europe is ‘an old continent of petit bourgeois who feel secure living in material comfort’ (9).
But this social world, which was supposed to have been obliterated, deemed too resistant to academic effort and training and therefore responsible for its own fate, has come to life again under the Arc de Triumph and on the Champs-Élysées, and at roundabouts across the country. A confused and perturbed Jean-Éric Schoettl, councillor of state and constitutional expert, described ‘a reversion to a primitive form of class struggle’ in Le Figaro (11 January).