Gilets jaunes: striking at the heart of French republicanism

12 Apr 2019


Last Saturday, gilet jaune protestors brought Paris to a standstill for the 21st weekend in a row. Their demands? Too many to summarise, but most would make it onto a best hits album of contemporary populism. Lower fuel taxes. End to austerity. No more neoliberal President shrugging his shoulders at France's rural dwellers from the safety of his Parisian palace.


French and British media have correctly classified the gilet jaunes as a populist movement.  Certainly the group — if such an eclectic bunch of individuals and interests can be compartmentalised thus — tends to comprise working-class and lower-middle class workers who feel increasingly marginalised by globalisation.


In France, the movement draws its main support from the country's vast countryside and regional centres. After all, the protests began in November last year in opposition to planned rises in diesel taxes, which clearly would have pinched pockets more in rural areas, where car ownership is nigh-on obligatory. By donning high-vis jackets, they are showing that they are a visible force to be reckoned with.


What, then, separates France from the wave of similar movements toppling established political hierarchies across Europe from Italy to Hungary?


In short, the gilets jaunes tend to divorce populism from nationalism. In Britain, those Brexit supporters who inveigh against the ‘establishment’ do so to attack the state, not the nation. Their view, supported most earnestly by the Eton and Oxford-educated Boris Johnson, is that leaving the EU remains a terrific idea mucked up only by political ineptitude. Over the pond, Trump-supporting populists rally around the nationalist slogan to end them all — Make America Great Again.


During protests in Paris, however, the tricolore is conspicuous by its absence amongst the sea of yellow.

Paris is a dirty word for all those living outside the périphérique, the perennially congested ring road hermetically cutting the capital off from its own suburbs. It is by no means a surprise that last weekend, the group called an 'assembly of assemblies' — mocking France's National Assembly — to be held not in France's capital but rather in Nantes, a quirky city in Brittany about the size of Coventry.


However, Paris represents more than corporate greed and cultural superiority. It embodies ideal Frenchness. Since the cult of the nation in France finds its natural administrative, political and spiritual epicentre in its centralised capital, nationalism is hardly a palatable ideology for all those stuck in the provinces.


A quick perusal of the history books should help explain why wearing a yellow vest is not the start of something new and unexpected. Rather, it is a more acute and violent manifestation of opposition to something that cannot feasibly be changed — the French republic and its heavy-handed defence of universalism.


When French peasants and artisans clubbed together to overthrow a moribund monarchy in 1789, they probably did not think their politics would still be debated in 2019. Yet as it stands, France is still very much the “indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic” that it was in the turbulent times of Louis XVI and Robespierre.


This causes fractions within a multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic society. Wearing the veil is illegal in French schools, and not too far back many of the country's innumerable intellectuals became very hot under the collar about proposals to offer a halal alternative in schools. Sometimes, the clinical separation of church and state reaches yet more farcical levels. For instance, liberty and equality come crashing headlong into each other when, seemingly every Christmas, impassioned arguments flare up as to whether or not crèche scenes should be allowed in public places.


In short, loyalty to the nation is expected above and beyond all other affiliations. Centralised power reinforces this desire for national unity, which explains why Paris holds most of the country's political institutions, elite universities and publishing presses.


This is not to say that the gilet jaunes are all angry regionalists vying for more devolution, as is more the case across the Pyrenees in Catalonia. Rather, this ill-defined movement reaches out to all those fed up with enforced loyalty to a paternalistic state that no longer caters for all its citizens equally.


Looking at a map of France, it is fair to say that all roads lead to Paris. Culturally and politically, the statement also stands. Revolutionary progress cannot last forever, and the gilets jaunes are merely the latest movement to question what it truly means to be French. And, with 4,000 people injured on both sides thanks in part to a violent police reaction, it is a question that is being brutally brushed under the carpet.

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