Fu­elling the French re­bel­lion

In his zeal for re­forms, Pres­i­dent Macron has ut­terly failed to un­der­stand the hard­ships of his peo­ple

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I was in Paris on Novem­ber 11, 2018, and drove 200 km north to Lille to par­tic­i­pate in the hun­dredth an­niver­sary of Armistice Day with the peo­ple of the town­ship of Le­vantie where my reg­i­ment fought dur­ing the Great War. Paris was as beau­ti­ful as ever es­pe­cially as one drove along the Champs de El­y­sees past the Arc de Tri­om­phe. Sit­ting at a road­side cafe, one could sense how busy Parisians were with their lives. The mul­ti­tudes of eth­nic­i­ties and faiths could be sensed in the hus­tle and bus­tle of lunch hour. French Pres­i­dent Emanuel Macron, in a long coat and thick woollen scarf, looked im­mac­u­late and con­fi­dent on tele­vi­sion as he wel­comed world lead­ers for the Armistice Day cel­e­bra­tions and even of­fered ad­vice on re­solv­ing the world’s prob­lems.

Within a week af­ter my re­turn, ev­ery­thing seemed to have gone berserk in Paris. In France, af­ter ev­ery few years, this hap­pens with fair reg­u­lar­ity. This time it’s the Yel­low Vests re­bel­lion, the name coming from the high-vis­i­bil­ity vests that the pro­tes­tors wear. My re­call of France in­evitably starts with the French Rev­o­lu­tion of 1789, which in many ways gave the world the last­ing so­cial­ist slo­gan. ‘Lib­erty, equal­ity, fra­ter­nity’, the motto of the French Rev­o­lu­tion may have many in­ter­pre­ta­tions but France keeps re­turn­ing to that so­cial­ist clar­ion call ever so of­ten. The street re­bel­lion of 1968 re­moved as iconic a leader as Charles de Gaulle. These are the most vi­o­lent protests since then. It is be­ing said that this time it’s all about an eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion; ear­lier re­bel­lions in the not-too-dis­tant past were against the mar­kets and glob­al­i­sa­tion.

Not too many peo­ple are re­ally aware how this started but ap­par­ently protests and demon­stra­tions have been on in al­most 2000 lo­ca­tions all over France since early Novem­ber. De­spite be­ing so­cial me­dia in­sti­gated and trig­gered, some­how it took the po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties of France and Europe by rel­a­tive sur­prise. It’s Macron’s sup­posed ob­ses­sion with his own sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity which many times does bor­der on ide­al­ism. He is com­mit­ted to ecol­ogy and wishes to see France tran­sit very early to clean fu­els, re­new­able en­ergy and the likes. Putting it sim­ply, the trig­ger is the in­crease in fuel prices, done pri­mar­ily to re­duce con­sump­tion of hy­dro­car­bons, re­duce harm­ful emis­sions and force the tran­si­tion he has in mind. He prob­a­bly hoped it will re­duce pri­vate trans­port and force peo­ple to use pub­lic trans­port in a much big­ger way. Noth­ing wrong with that but the ex­e­cu­tion is akin to Marie An­toinette’s fa­mous quip: “If the peo­ple don’t have bread, give them cake.” Macron’s per­cep­tion of pub­lic trans­port is prob­a­bly lim­ited to cities such as Paris, Nice and Mar­seilles. In the lit­tle driv­ing that I did around, in the smaller towns in the north I found no pub­lic trans­port worth the name. Peo­ple have to use pri­vate ve­hi­cles and the fuel price in­crease has hit them hard. Diesel prices would in­crease by 30 cents a gal­lon and petrol by 17 cents if Macron’s pro­pos­als are fi­nally im­ple­mented.

Yet, fuel price hike is only a trig­ger. Be­neath that lies much more than meets the eye. It’s a lot to do with France’s so­ci­etal makeup to­day. Macron who was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally voted to power with a 66 per cent vote over the far-right can­di­date Ma­rine Le Pen is to­day largely con­sid­ered a rich man’s Pres­i­dent. He scrapped wealth tax on tax­pay­ers worth 1.3 mil­lion Euro and hiked taxes on the pen­sion­ers and re­tirees. Very few think he has an un­der­stand­ing of the fi­nan­cial predica­ment of the com­mon French peo­ple. The protests are also fu­elled by the pres­ence of im­mi­grants and are a cause of worry re­gard­ing the se­cu­rity of the cities. Just two years ago, France was the vic­tim of hor­rific ter­ror­ist vi­o­lence per­pe­trated by the ISIS, an en­tity which still ex­ists in the vir­tual net­worked state. Such sit­u­a­tions with high pub­lic an­tipa­thy can give the op­por­tu­ni­ties transna­tional ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions seek. The Yel­low Vests are in no mood for com­pro­mise al­though Macron has par­tially learnt his les­sons and is will­ing to roll back fuel prices. They are now seek­ing higher pen­sions and min­i­mum wages. In one of Europe’s high­est taxed na­tions, France is un­able to gen­er­ate jobs for its restive young. This be­ing a lead­er­less re­bel­lion, with low pro­file on­line lead­ers, it’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to fo­cus on neu­tral­i­sa­tion of the lead­er­ship.

Be­sides the im­me­di­ate prob­lems of in­sta­bil­ity in France, Macron’s fu­ture is at stake. Ear­lier, he was plac­ing him­self as a po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor to Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel as the leader of Europe. Macron‘s chances of re-elec­tion would be greatly re­duced un­less the econ­omy wit­nesses a turn­around. Fresh elec­tions now could throw up un­pre­dictable re­sults. It could also have a snow­balling ef­fect on other Euro­pean na­tions in the man­ner of the Arab Spring. That could see a resur­gence of na­tion­al­ism and an ad­van­tage to the right wing which, two years ago, were on the rise but whose growth was ar­rested by a spate of cen­trist par­ties. Se­cu­rity wise that would not be a very con­ducive thing in light of the con­tin­u­ing cri­sis all over Europe with in­creas­ing pres­ence of im­mi­grants.

If there is a les­son for the world in these events it is about the ne­ces­sity to keep channels open for talks with dif­fer­ent so­ci­etal groups. We have yet not seen the fully un­leashed power of so­cial me­dia as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor of get­ting farflung re­gions and peo­ple to­gether to ex­press their dis­con­tent­ment, of­ten quite vi­o­lently.

The French Pres­i­dent’s chances of re-elec­tion would be greatly re­duced un­less the econ­omy wit­nesses a turn­around

Syed Ata Has­nain

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