Yel­low Vests need to shake off the Brown Shirts in their midst


From the mo­ment the French gov­ern­ment can­celled its planned fuel tax hike in the face of mas­sive protests, it was ob­vi­ous that the move would be per­ceived as in­ad­e­quate, in­signif­i­cant, and above all in­ca­pable of hav­ing any calm­ing ef­fect. Hon­our to whom hon­our is due: the “Yel­low Vests” claim to be an ex­pres­sion of the sov­er­eign peo­ple. But they now bear a heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity.

For starters, they must an­nounce a mora­to­rium on demon­stra­tions and block­ades for a pe­riod long enough to ac­com­mo­date the di­a­logue pro­posed by Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe, if not longer. In par­tic­u­lar, they should re­nounce this week­end’s much-touted “Act IV” of the move­ment, brew­ing on Face­book since Satur­day night, which ev­ery­one ex­pects to be more vi­o­lent, de­struc­tive, and tragic than the pre­ced­ing in­stal­ments. There have been enough deaths, in­juries, and dam­age (in­clud­ing to some of the most fa­mous mon­u­ments in Paris).

If the Yel­low Vests de­cide the ma­chine they have un­leashed has over­taken them, and they can no longer stop Act IV, they must be pre­pared dur­ing the protests to help the po­lice flush out the vi­o­lent “brown vests” who will be cir­cu­lat­ing among them. Be­cause the wreck­ers of the far right and far left will surely reap­pear to van­dalise, ter­rorise, and des­e­crate; it is up to the Yel­low Vests to say again, this time as if they re­ally mean it: Not in our name. Whether the Yel­low Vests de­clare a mora­to­rium or con­tinue to protest, noth­ing would serve their cause bet­ter than to dis­so­ci­ate them­selves — de­ci­sively and un­am­bigu­ously — from all the po­lit­i­cal prof­i­teers who would cap­i­talise on their mis­ery.

The cast of op­por­tunists is well known. Here is Jean-Luc Me­len­chon, who, hav­ing fin­ished fourth in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion won by Em­manuel Macron, is des­per­ately seek­ing a new fol­low­ing. There is Fran­cois Ruf­fin, the leader of the an­ti­aus­ter­ity move­ment Nuit de­bout, with his ir­re­spon­si­ble an­tire­pub­li­can calls of “Re­sign, Macron!” And over there is Ma­rine Le Pen, os­cil­lat­ing com­i­cally be­tween tak­ing pride in and re­pent­ing her call to oc­cupy the Champs Él­y­sees last Satur­day, thereby be­com­ing ac­count­able for the worst of what was said and done there.

And there are the in­tel­lec­tu­als who, in the man­ner of Luc Ferry and Em­manuel Todd, sug­gest that it was per­haps not “by chance” that the wreck­ers had such an easy time ap­proach­ing, storm­ing, and sack­ing the Arc de Tri­om­phe. Such rhetoric lays the worst of all traps for a pop­u­lar move­ment: the trap of con­spir­a­to­rial think­ing.

In other words, the Yel­low Vests are at a cross­roads. Ei­ther they will be bold enough to stop and take the time they need to get or­gan­ised, fol­low­ing a path not un­like that of Macron’s own La Republique en Marche!, which, in hind­sight, might ap­pear to be the Yel­low Vests’ first-to-ar­rive twin. Macron’s move­ment, too, had right and left wings. And it knew that it was a new po­lit­i­cal body, en­gag­ing in a di­a­logue or even a show­down that would lead to an hon­est reck­on­ing with poverty and the high cost of liv­ing. If the Yel­low Vests build a move­ment that rises to the height of Macron’s, it may end up writ­ing a page in the his­tory of France.

Or the Yel­low Vests may turn out to lack that bold­ness and set­tle for the pal­try plea­sure of be­ing seen on tele­vi­sion. They will al­low them­selves to be­come in­tox­i­cated by the sight of lu­mi­nar­ies and ex­perts of la France d’en haut (elite France) seem­ing to eat from their hands and hang­ing on their ev­ery word.

But if the Yel­low Vests al­low pas­sion­ate hate to win out over gen­uine fra­ter­nity and choose wreck­ing over re­form­ing, they will bring only chaos, not im­prove­ment, to the lives of hum­ble and vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple. They will ca­reen off into the dark­est side of the po­lit­i­cal night, and end up in the rub­bish bin of his­tory, where they can rub el­bows with those other yel­lows, the early 20th cen­tury “Yel­low So­cial­ists” of the proto-fas­cist syn­di­cal­ist Pierre Bi­etry.

The Yel­low Vests must choose: demo­cratic rein­ven­tion, or an up­dated ver­sion of the na­tional so­cial­ist leagues; a will to re­pair, or the urge to de­stroy. The de­ci­sion will hinge on the his­toric essence of the move­ment — whether its re­flexes are good or bad, and whether, in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, it pos­sesses po­lit­i­cal and moral courage.

So the ball is in the Yel­low Vests’ court. They have the ini­tia­tive as much as Macron does. Will they say, “Yes, we be­lieve in re­pub­li­can democ­racy?” And will they say it loud and clear, with­out equiv­o­ca­tion?

Or will they place them­selves in the tra­di­tion of para­noid ni­hilism and pol­lute their ranks with the po­lit­i­cal van­dals that France still pro­duces in abun­dance?

Bernard-Henri Levy is one of the founders of the New Philoso­phers move­ment

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