French protests show Western democracies need rapid reform

Published by The i paper (3rd December, 2018)

Paris is burning once again. Masked protesters have been tearing up paving stones, torching buildings, building barricades and setting vehicles ablaze in the city’s worst violence for a decade. Banks were vandalised, luxury fashion boutiques attacked and a flagship Apple Store that just opened to hoover up festive spending had its windows smashed while police responded with tear gas, baton charges and water canon. ‘We are in a state of insurrection,’ said Jeanne d’Hauteserre, one local mayor. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

This was the third weekend of violence in the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ revolt, leaving three people dead. It began with online petitions that evolved into people blocking roads to protest fuel prices rises, adopting the high-visibility vests that French drivers must carry by law as their uniform. Their anger, sparked mainly by a global rise in oil prices, is aimed at long-standing green policies to protect the environment. But now this Poujadist movement has spiralled into the most serious challenge to Emmanuel Macron’s 19-month presidency, with talk of a state of emergency being imposed as extremists from left and right hijack the protests.

There is cruel irony in seeing a lucky man who rode the anti-politics wave to power now grappling to contain similar forces. The difference was Macron swept to power with support from young, liberal, affluent and urban voters, winning Paris and its prosperous suburbs by a landslide with his pro-European Union, pro-business brand of centrism. His rival Marine Le Pen did best in sparsely-populated and higher unemployment areas of the north and fringing the south-east. Yet the hefty margin of victory flattered his En Marche movement since many were voting against the far-right rather than out of enthusiasm for the brash former banker.

Macron’s ratings have crashed while polls have shown strong support for the street protesters. The ‘Gilets Jaunes’ spotlight again the febrile nature of French politics and tradition of dissent that make reform so tough. For all his grandstanding on the world stage, looking increasingly isolated as he tries nobly to defend globalisation and multilateralism, those smashed windows on the Champs-Élysées symbolise his intensifying domestic difficulties. Economic and tax reforms have failed to spark growth or slash unemployment, while he has looked imperious, lost key aides and become embroiled in a scandal over his bodyguard beating up a demonstrator.

Yet just as the populist insurgency that led to Brexit was about much more than the European Union, so this uprising is about much more than the price of petrol at the pumps. It exposes fissures that lay buried dangerously below the surface of French politics: between old and young, city and countryside, globalists and nationalists, the affluent and the struggling, people confident in the future and those fearful of change. Yet France is far from alone in seeing this division, as we know to our cost in Britain, for these are now familiar themes that confront the decades-old certainties of Western democracy.

Macron sees himself as the outsider shaking up French politics, but to many citizens he is just another politician, a distant elitist with hollow soundbites and smart suits. On the UnHerd website, veteran French correspondent John Lichfield quoted a retired man blocking roads near Caen: ‘We’ve been betrayed by every President and Prime Minister for 40 years. We demand a referendum so we can get rid of Macron but we don’t want just to replace him with another Macron. Hollande was just as bad. And Sarkozy. And Chirac. We don’t have any trust in any of the mainstream political parties.’ For good measure, he also loathed Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon too.

This man underlines why the protests go way beyond green taxes. They embrace many things from inequality and stagnant wages through to rural speed limits and rail services. Yet the quote also captures the nihilism of such revolts. There is incendiary anger and often wide range of grievances – some entirely justified – but it is combined with lethal lack of faith in any of the politicians grappling with corrosive modern problems.

Mainstream politicians have not helped themselves, all too often displaying arrogant contempt for their voters. But while protests are fine, solutions come largely through politics – and certainly not through snake-oil populists offering simplistic answers to fiendishly – complex global concerns.

For all the stunning success of Western societies in improving health and wealth, these protests underline that we live in an age of growing public disillusionment with democracy. This is the core issue of our age. A huge recent poll of 125,000 people in 50 countries indicated more than half the world’s population think their voice is irrelevant. Figures were worse in democracies than in other nations – with French people among the most downbeat, far worse than places such as Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. This is the real backdrop to those people out on the streets of Paris – a view that they have less say in their future than citizens of Tehran, Moscow and Riyadh.

This belief is nonsense, of course, but that is irrelevant. These protests show again the need for rapid decentralisation of power to give communities and individuals more control of their lives. They show the urgent need for politicians to be more honest with their electorates, to communicate better, to stop playing silly games, to reach across divisions and abandon tribal boundaries in order to fight inequality, fund public services, tackle climate change and control new technologies. But the big question for our age is whether all Western leaders accept the real message that lies behind the burning fury, barricades and flames seen once again in France?

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