In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir writes, “What distinguishes the tyrant from the man of good will is that the first relies on the certitude of his goals, while the second asks himself in an incessant interrogation: Is it really the liberation of man that I work for?”
This is perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves in the current political climate, in France, and especially in America. I spent the fall of 2018 studying abroad in Paris, and I was lucky enough to witness the beginning and first peak of the gilets jaunes (which translates to “yellow vest”) movement. In witnessing the protests, I was really excited to see the movement ask important questions and pose critical challenges to establishment economic and political power. In doing so, it reveals the ultimate power-hungry cynicism that dominates and threatens the survival of humanity. But although the gilets jaunes represent specific political and economic frustrations, their movement is being appropriated by these same cynical, political actors to maintain a cycle of domination and oppression.
The gilets jaunes movement began in October and November of 2018 in response to a planned fuel tax and the general rising cost of fuel. Truck driver Eric Drouet, who has become a figurehead of the movement, is attributed with calling for “angry drivers to deliberately block or slow traffic in their area on 17 November,” according to the BBC. Since then, hundreds of thousands of protestors wearing yellow high-visibility jackets have disrupted traffic and more notably massed at central locations often symbolic of political and economic power. This was to the initial chagrin, yet continuous cruel violence of the CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité), the French national police, who use batons, tear gas, flash ball grenades, water cannons, all to great effect.
While the CRS has been cruel, people associated with the gilets jaunes movement haven’t been entirely peaceful either. Stores have been looted, cars have been burned, individual policeman have been snatched away and beaten.
In response, the gilets jaunes have accused government forces of inciting violence. From my experience watching and engaging in the movement, I believe this to be true. But, it is very important to remember, members of the CRS are in incredibly stressful situations, and with the amount of firepower they have at their disposal, their willingness to attack protesters is not unsurprising. This is, however, not to excuse their violence.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the gilets jaunes is that they are entirely decentralized. In France, every driver is required to have the yellow high-visibility vest for safety reasons. As a result, the main symbol of the movement is ubiquitous, and anyone can anoint themselves as a member of the group simply by wearing what they already own. Large groups on Facebook have been the common tool for mobilization.
But the movement has also shied away from a central leadership of any kind. For instance, an attempted meeting with Édouard Philippe, the French prime minister, was cancelled due to “death threats from hardline protesters warning them not to enter into negotiations with the government.” I do not condone or agree with these death threats, but they are indicative of the anti-establishment feelings of the gilets jaunes.
So, perhaps the primary question is what motivates this movement and the extreme feelings that accompany it? Since it began, the movement has morphed from being solely opposed to the fuel tax to being anti-Emmanuel Macron, the current French president. In the 2017 French presidential election, Macron handily defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, capturing 66 percent of the vote. Le Pen is the infamous daughter of the infamous Jean-Marie Le Pen, who described the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps as “details of history.” But Macron’s overwhelming victory in the election is a little misleading.
Before becoming a politician, Macron worked as a banker for the investment bank Rothschild & Co., and one of his first majors policies as president was to reduce taxes on the rich, with the stated intention of boosting investment. As a result, he earned the moniker, “president of the rich.” In addition, Macron pushed forward a reform of the SNCF, the French national rail service, which unions describe as “ a covert step to future privatisation of SNCF,” according to the BBC, provoking highly-publicized strikes by rail workers.
In short, Macron is just another neoliberal politician, a friend of corporations and their executives. He has no qualms about giving the rest of France the short end of the stick. The gilets jaunes protests represent an awakening of this inherent unfairness in the capitalist system, with Macron as one of the symbols of the wealth and power that continues to oppress a large population of the world. As a result, Macron’s mid-December approval rating was at a genial 23 percent. The fuel tax that ignited the protests was, in order to avoid cliché, the drop of tear gas that left the protester blind.
More importantly, the fuel tax is indicative of the cynical attitude of the government. Its supposed intention was to reduce the amount of carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere in an effort to slow global warming by discouraging the use of cars. However, the tax would have affected poor people more than the wealthy, and many people in rural France do not have the option of using public transport. The reality is that the fuel tax was proposed by Macron as a way of appearing eco-friendly and for an ecological transition, all the while maintaining and continuing the economic system that is the root of our current existential crisis. If Macron was actually interested in saving humanity, he would be targeting the wealthy and the largest corporations—after all, those in the top 10 percent are responsible for nearly 50 percent of all carbon emissions released.
Last August, Minister of the Environment Nicolas Hulot resigned on live radio, declaring his frustration with the fact that the environmental crisis “is always relegated to the bottom of the list of priorities” in the Macron government. Notably, the ministry is officially referred to as the Ministère de la Transition Écologique et Solidaire (which translates to “Ministry for the Ecological and Solidary Transition”).
So, the anger of the gilets jaunes originates from neoliberal policies that have enriched a select group of people, at the extreme detriment of the rest of the world. The question is whether this anger and frustration is actually targeted at the root of the problem. French newspaper Le Monde compiled a list of gilets jaunes demands and then assigned them to one or more of the political candidates of the previous election. Although the results were a little fragmented, left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (which translates to “France Unbowed”) aligned the most directly with their varied demands.
But as the movement has spread internationally, it has also been appropriated and modified politically. While the movement in Belgium has demanded decreased taxes and increased purchasing power, like in France, the gilets jaunes which have sprouted in Canada are distinctly more interested in right-wing populism, such as protesting the carbon tax and globalism. Although there are certainly valid concerns with regards to globalism and specifically the United Nations, the Canadian gilets jaunes are indicative more of a general frustration with the neoliberal system, rather than solid propositions to resolve systemic injustices. In Italy, leaders of the populist, anti-immigration coalition government including deputy prime ministers Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of Lega Nord (Northern League), endorsed the gilets jaunes movement. Di Maio wrote on his blog, “Macron’s government is not up to expectations and some policies are de facto dangerous, not just for the French, but for Europe.” Even in France, there are some hints the movement could swing toward the xenophobic populism of Le Pen.
“It’s not that people are extreme right, but they find in it a way of saying, ‘We don’t agree,’” carpenter François Huvé explained in an interview with the New York Times. “Then they say, ‘Well, we’ve tried everything except the extreme right, so why not?’”
This is my fear—that power-seeking individuals will capitalize on the right-wing possibilities of the gilets jaunes movement and use it to launch themselves into political power, at the expense of the most vulnerable people on Earth. At the moment, the gilets jaunes have rejected political leadership of any kind, but that cannot last forever. Already members of the movement are organizing public debates, searching for solutions to the impediments of the Macron government. But at least that’s a start. In America, there is not a hint of a similar gilets jaunes protest. The explanation that I tend towards is the lack of class consciousness in the United States, combined with the absolute media control and political sensationalism that distracts from the more pressing problems. Because the institutionalized problems that exist in France certainly exist in the United States as well.
It is time to stop pretending that contemporary governments act in the best interests of the people they have dominion over. In the quest for the liberation of humanity, humanity must first question itself. Incessantly.
Cormac Chester is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at email@example.com.