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