PARIS — Paris is bustling with Christmas shoppers, almost as if nothing happened last Saturday, or the Saturday before, and the one before that, when protesters wearing yellow vests, the gilets jaunes, went on rampages. But the vestiges of violence are everywhere in the center of the city: cracked and shattered windows remain taped up as merchants and café owners wait days for replacement estimates, then days more to discover how much their insurance will cover. Slowly, smashed ATMs are being replaced and refilled. And as neighbors talk to each other, they compare and trade cellphone videos of some brutal violence.
Not far from my apartment, a young man on a high floor recorded a lunatic scene of thugs smashing and burning a little Smart Car. Filmed from above in the dark, the reflective yellow vests gave the vandals the look of nocturnal beasts, faceless, swarming: first one, then two, then three, joined by others without vests. And then the flames and billows of smoke pouring down the street.
Nobody I talked to in my neighborhood wants to see that happen again, but after President Emmanuel Macron spoke to the nation on Monday night, trying to restore order and faith in his leadership, few people thought the troubles would end, and many are dreading the Saturday to come.
The critical question, yet to be answered, is whether passive support for the gilets jaunes in the polls—which has hovered between 80 and 60 percent—begins to drop dramatically below 50 percent now that most of their more reasonable (if expensive) demands have been met.
Their initial protests a month ago were against gas taxes and inspections targeting their cars for the sake of the environment. But those were all rolled back early last week.
Then Macron addressed the suffering of people just scraping by with a promise to raise the minimum wage by €1,200 ($1,368) a year—a gift from the government that businesses won’t be asked to pay, plus other measures likely to put more money in the pockets of the relatively poor.
But it’s clear that for the intransigent core of the protest movement, that’s not going to be enough, and the first polls after Macron’s speech suggest they still have popular backing. Some 57 percent of those questioned by the Elabe Institute, as reported by BFMTV, did not find Macron’s outreach convincing, and 60 percent doubt his claim he will be listening more to “the people.” Meanwhile approval of the gilets jaunes mobilization actually went up a point to 73 percent.
It is hard to see how the situation can be resolved. The leaderless demonstrators trashing French cities or standing by watching while anarchist and fascist and for-the-hell-of-it casseurs do the job for them, have put forth long lists of inchoate demands about which there’s no consensus. But one big issue does remain that has resonance with the wider masses.
They want Macron to reimpose a wealth tax on top of France’s already very high income taxes. Although the revenues from the “solidarity tax on fortunes,” known as the ISF, might go to good social causes, that’s not the reason for its political importance. It’s a popular idea because it’s punitive. French society was traditionally, famously jealous of wealth, and angered by it, long before the current problems of inequality created by global financial markets.
As Dana Kennedy pointed out in The Daily Beast last week, for centuries the vast peasant population of France lived in horrible conditions. There was a long history of pitchfork-wielding popular uprisings against an indolent aristocracy, and by the time of the Enlightenment, that popular anger was turning against bourgeois merchants as well.
During the Reign of Terror after the revolution of 1789, one of the bloodiest demagogues of those days declared (citing for authority the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau), “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
That tirade by the Terror’s general prosecutor, Pierre Gaspar Chaumette, was not aimed at the aristocrats, many of whom were dead by then, but at the city’s merchants, whom he accused of catering to foreigners and manipulating currency to victimize the poor.
Figuratively, that sentiment was apparent in the vandalism and riots of the last three weekends, which focused on the richest neighborhoods in Paris and other cities—ones where, as it happened, the population is dense with people who used to pay the wealth tax on total assets greater than about $1.5 million. (Macron exempted all holdings except real estate.) In the 16th arrondissement, hard hit by vandals, there are more than 14,000 households that paid the old wealth tax. In the 17th there are more than 6,000. In the whole of Paris and its wealthier suburbs, including Versailles, records show some 100,000 households used to pay the wealth tax, according to official government records.
And where do the gilets jaunes come from? According to the police, who booked almost 1,000 people in Paris last Saturday, 80 percent were from the provinces, and overall this is very much a rural and small-town movement.
It’s worth remembering that only about a fifth of France’s population lives outside the country’s metropolitan areas, but life is getting harder for those people all the time.
Demographer Hervé Le Bras has noted a striking overlap between the areas where the gilets jaunes first became active and what’s been called “the diagonal of emptiness” stretching from the northeast of France down to its geographical center. In that entire area populations are declining.
As numbers go down in those parts of rural France, businesses and basic services are shuttered, and people depend more and more on their cars — which is why they saw Macron’s taxes and inspections as so onerous. But as Le Bras points out, with their cars the common denominator among an otherwise very diverse group, it’s hard for them to agree on other issues.
Le Bras sees no particular overlap between the yellow vests and any political party, even though the extremists of left and right are “closing in on them a little like wild animals to divide up their prey.”
In France it is natural for those who want to keep the movement alive to focus on resentment of the rich and Macron as “the president of the rich.”
But the would-be leaders embracing that cause might take another glance at their revolutionary history. Chaumette, who had talked about eating the rich, and who jailed and beheaded merchants he claimed were gouging the poor, eventually felt the whistle of the guillotine on his neck as well.
Another adage that comes to us from those times: “A revolution devours its own.”