France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Emerged Spontaneously, without Leadership
Prof. Jean Bricmont explains that the ‘yellow vest’ movement is an expression of decades of frustration with declining living standards due to the dismantling of France’’ welfare state
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron made a major concession to nationwide protests this week when he decided to postpone fuel tax hikes and promised to freeze electricity prices. Macron took a while to make the decision, and just prior to the announcement tried to justify not reversing the tax hike.
EMMANUEL MACRON: You can’t be for the environment on Monday and against the fuel price rises on Tuesday. You can’t decide on a carbon tax a few years ago and then denounce the cost of fuel today. Now, I remind you that this tax was voted in 2009, 2014, 2015, committing political figures of various persuasions to it.
GREG WILPERT: Macron had to backtrack, though, after France was engulfed in three weeks of protests of what came to be known as the yellow vests movement, based on the protesters wearing yellow emergency vests that all cars in France are required to have. Last weekend the protest turned particularly violent, when protesters clashed with the police and also caused over $4 million in damages, destroying storefronts and burning cars. About 100 protesters and police were said to have been injured, and several hundred were arrested. There’s a lot of controversy though in France as to exactly who and what the yellow vest movement represents.
Joining me to help make sense of what is happening in France is Jean Bricmont. Jean is a mathematical and statistical physicist at the University of Louvain, and author of several books, including Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. He’s based in Brussels, but joins us now from Paris, where he witnessed the protests up close. Thanks for being here, John.
JEAN BRICMONT: Thank you for having me.
GREG WILPERT: So on the face of it it seems that the main grievance of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, is that the fuel tax hike is too much, which is quite understandable. I mean, if you put it in terms that a U.S. audience would understand, the price of gasoline went up approximately 25 cents per gallon, to around $6 per gallon. That’s nearly three times as much as what gas costs here in the United States. What would you say about what these protests are about at the moment?
JEAN BRICMONT: Well, I think this was the trigger mechanism. You know, this tax hike. The problem is that people are really fed up. And I’ve been critical of the neoliberal policies ever since they started, with Mitterand and even Giscard. But I did not expect the level of misery that I hear in the testimonies of people saying they can’t make ends meet, they don’t have anything to eat after the 20th or the 25th of the month. People describing the situation in the hospital, which used to be one of the best medical systems in the world, being absolutely dramatic. Waiting lines. You know, I mean, all these things, I mean, just unbelievable how much France seems to be being destroyed.
And I think the problem is not Macron. Macron, of course, was speaking publicly like the elites are speaking privately, by showing utter contempt for the people. And you know, that, of course, made him unpopular. But I think the problem is much, much deeper, and has to do, I think, with what we call globalization. I mean, it’s the same thing as in the United States. I mean, you delocalize, either directly or indirectly. For example, you probably know–I don’t know if you know those stores, Ikea. It’s a famous Swedish department store for furniture and things like that. I mean, everything there is Swedish, but it’s make believe. Everything that they sell is made in China, or somewhere like that. Some places like that where the salaries are low. So in fact you see there’s a real problem of delocaliation. And then people don’t have, you know, they don’t have jobs. And then their fake jobs, bureaucratic jobs are created artificially. Then they don’t have the public services that they used to have, especially in the rural areas. And they need their car to work, and et cetera.
Also, as a parenthesis, you might say, you might notice that France is one of the least CO2 producing country because of the nuclear energy that they get their electricity from. It’s much less than Germany, for example. And the other thing is that the so-called elasticity of the price. So if you increase the price you have to see how much it will affect the consumption. Probably not very much. And if you are talking about the few percent of CO2 emissions worldwide, and the other countries don’t decrease them, the effect of the temperature is going to be absolutely negligible. I mean, it’s easy to make a computation, even using IPCC figures. So, you know, this measure is used to fill up the deficit. The problem is really the deficit.
The deficit, you see, it’s a huge deficit. And it’s the case of all European countries, and even the United States. I think it’s related to the lack of production, the fact that you don’t produce what you consume. You get it from abroad. And then of course you have to create artificial jobs, and you have to subsidize all kinds of people who don’t have real productive jobs, and so on. And that’s what builds up the deficit. But the problem is much, much older than Macron.
GREG WILPERT: Now, there’s a lot of speculation that there are far-right elements behind the protests. One of individuals who called for them seems to have been Frank Buhler, who used to be with the National Front, but was kicked out for being too racist. But on the other hand, more recently one could see also leftists supporting the protests. So first of all, how did the protests come about? And secondly, as far as you can tell, who’s organizing them?
JEAN BRICMONT: Well, I pretty much believe it’s spontaneous. You see, I don’t know who organized it. There seemed to be all kinds of people who have been doing that by the internet, and so on. I mean when there’ve been color revolution elsewhere, people don’t necessarily believe that they are organized. I mean, I think it’s pretty spontaneous.
There’s the business about the far right. It’s very interesting to see that this is one of the talking point of the media and of the government. They hunt for some racist remarks somewhere, or some anti-Semitic remark, that’s even better. But you know, I can put a yellow vest on, go in the street, and shout heil Hitler, Allahu Akbar, or free Palestine, something like that, and that will get the media completely crazy. But I mean, it’s totally unstructured movement. There’s no, you know, they don’t police their own movement, they can’t expel people from the movement. Anybody can put a yellow vest. Of course there’s been far-right people there.
But I don’t think it has anything to do with the far right as we know it in other countries. In fact, it is to be credited to the French that this movement is largely French and Republican. OK? But of course if you start thinking that everything that’s French in the sense of being patriotic–they sing the Marseillaise, they wave the French flag, et cetera–if you assimilate that to the far right, then of course the Resistance was on the far right, the French Revolution was on the far right, and any other movement. And then of course we are going to real trouble, and the left has been doing that for years, to associate every form of patriotism to the far right. And that’s one of the reasons why the left is not presenting that movement. There are people on the left in that moment, and there are people on the left who try to join the movement.
But the problem is that the left should have been leading this movement for years, you see, and it hasn’t been doing so. And it hasn’t been doing so for two main reasons. One is the embrace of the European dream. They all say well, we’re going to create a social Europe, et cetera. it’s impossible. OK? Impossible. You can’t change the treaties. The treaties have been made on a [inaudible] basis. And they have created the euro, that creates imbalances between economies within the euroone, because there is no transfer of wealth between the rich countries and the poor ones. And it’s impossible to have the same currency between countries which used to have huge fluctuation between their currencies. When de Gaulle introduced the New Franc, it had the same value as the Deutsche mark. And when the euro was introduced, it was three Franc for the Deutsche Mark. So you see the same thing with the Lira in Italy, and so on.
So if you have these fluctuations, then suddenly you say all these countries have the same value. But how would you do that? It’s a free market economy. We didn’t go to a planned economy, as far as I know. And then how do you prevent these fluctuations? You prevent these fluctuations by austerity measures. That’s what they’ve been doing.
GREG WILPERT: I want to return to the question of the ecological aspect, which you addressed earlier. As we saw in the clip, Macron has been defending the tax increase as something that’s needed to develop a green economy in France. Now, is this appeal to ecology resonating with people in France at all?
JEAN BRICMONT: I don’t think so. Not very much, no. I don’t think, because people, as they say, we are worried about the end of the month, not the end of the world. They are worried–I mean, it’s really amazing. I mean, you can’t do–I mean, I’ve said that for many years. You can’t have any–I mean, you can have these either, you know, suicidal measures, as we call it. I mean the [inaudible] or ecological measures. The people aren’t satisfied at the socioeconomic level. You have to take care of that first. But taking that, taking care of that first does not mean throwing money at problems, which is more or less what the left is doing. The left is always saying, well, you have to, you know, you have to subsidize this, subsidize that; you have to help this and represent that. No, you have to save the industrial base.
And that’s actually what de Gaulle did when you came back in ’58, after another crazy–so then there was the Fourth Republic. And it seems to me that we are living something like the end of the Fourth Republic without, of course, a de Gaulle waiting in the wings. But de Gaulle, of course, what he did is made a huge loan from the population, not from the bank, and then used it to build all the modern French economy; namely aeronautics. You know, space, high-speed railroads, [inaudible], et cetera. There is nothing comparable now, and nobody has any idea what to do.
And so we are in really deep trouble. Because of course, I think, eventually the government will control the yellow vests. I mean, the only alternative would be a revolution, but there is not going to be a revolution. It would need for the police and army to turn against the government. The police is quite fed up, but they are still sufficiently disciplined to impose their will, you know, to side with the government. And if things don’t go into revolution, then eventually, of course, it will die out, this movement, temporarily. But the frustration is enormous.
And I fear, of course, that eventually there will be a French Trump. I can even give you the name of whom I think will be the French Trump, Dupont-Aignon. But that’s just a conjecture. But there will be, you know, because the anger is enormous, and there is no, there is no real solution. I mean, I don’t think the French Trump would be a solution, either. But it may appear to be.
GREG WILPERT: OK. And we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but we’ll probably come back to you once we see how the situation develops. I was speaking to Jean Bricmont, professor at the University of Louvain, joining us from Paris. Thanks for having joined us today.
JEAN BRICMONT: Thank you very much. Thank you.
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