Chronicle of a political disaster long foretold

Features Foreign Affairs
Paris, France, 24 novembrer 2018. Protestors stand in front of the police during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs near the Arc of Triomphe on the Champs Elysees. Security forces in Paris fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters. (Photo by Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Something quite extraordinary — and revealing — occurred in Paris on February 9, in the middle of France’s new normal, the Yellow Vests’ weekly rampage. According to a pattern established in mid-November last year, and reenacted every Saturday ever since, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the capital and in many other cities throughout the country, chanting slogans against Emmanuel Macron’s government, confronting the police, and attempting to storm public buildings. And as had been the case almost routinely for the three previous months, some Yellow Vests, or thugs (casseurs) acting in their shadow, engaged in much more serious depredations. What was, however, special about this Saturday, dubbed by the protesters as their “Act Thirteen”, was that one casseur was filmed for about four hours, from 2pm to 6pm, by a hidden police camera team which followed him as he progressed, among the Yellow Vest crowd, from the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower on the Left Bank to Avenue George V on the Right Bank (readers more familiar with London than with Paris should perhaps think of a ramble from Tottenham Court Road via Marble Arch to Sloane Square).

The man, dressed in full urban-guerrilla black attire, complete with knapsack, helmet, goggles, gloves and hammer, but wearing the iconic yellow fluorescent vest as well, systematically smashed shop windows, destroyed items stolen from shops and public offices, and set cars alight, including three empty police and army vehicles. He was finally arrested as he was heading towards the Champs-Elysées and identified as Thomas P., 25, with a record as a far-left rioter and casseur. The police immediately issued a detailed, minute-to-minute report, and saw to it that mass-circulation media, such as Le Parisien, a left-leaning daily, were handed both the film and the report. They emphasised that law enforcement officers had not deliberately allowed him to indulge in his criminal activities for such an extended period of time and in so many different places just in order to arraign him in the face of cumulative and compelling evidence, but rather had been forced to “postpone his arrest” due to the tacit support of “a hostile crowd”. Indeed, French police forces are being instructed to avoid street fighting as much as possible, a practice that goes back to the accidental death of 22-year-old Malek Oussekine during a student demonstration in 1986; the Yellow Vests crisis had been no exception in this respect so far.

Still, a lot of fascinating insights could be derived from the Thomas P. incident. It shed a crude light on the casseurs’ tactics and modus operandi. It raised awkward questions about the relationship between Yellow Vests and casseurs. The former were born in the spring and summer of 2018 as a taxpayers’ revolt defending “peripheral France” — the country outside the largest urban centres — while the latter are well-trained urban guerrillas; what brought them together? Last but not least, how come French public opinion still backed the Yellow Vests, in spite of their association with thugs and their own frequently violent behaviour? According to a YouGov poll released on February 7, 64 per cent said they supported the protesters, and 77 per cent said their demands were essentially “right”.

One possible answer is that the Yellow Vests crisis, while happening in the realm of politics, power and government, had much to do with things that are located beyond politics proper, in the realm of metapolitics — the many cultural, religious or fantasmic “appeals” that, to quote the American conservative political thinker Peter Viereck, are intertwined with supposedly rational collective activities and decisions. Politics and political ideas are usually seen as an extension of down-to-earth interests: markets, commodities, class, income, race, gender, personal competition. But the opposite may be true: culture may precede politics, fantasies may transcend interests. Indeed, the current French protests, which came as a complete surprise to President Emmanuel Macron and his administration — so much so that they still do not seem to have found an adequate riposte — were in fact anticipated long ago both in “highbrow” academic or literary culture (essays, novels), and “lowbrow” popular culture (the internet, social media, YouTube). For years, every best-selling author in France has talked of impending disaster, a growing rift between the elites and ordinary people, civil war and revolution, from the former socialist president François Hollande to the far-right Gaullist turned Maurrassian polemicist Eric Zemmour to the sociologist Christophe Guilluy, the theorist of “peripheral France”, to the novelist Michel Houellebecq. Every one of them can be criticised in some way, but it cannot be denied that they captured something about the mood of the country, and that Macron, for one, should have paid more attention to them.

Take Houellebecq, for instance. A brilliant, bitter and successful writer — the last French literary author to sell hundreds of thousand of copies of each of his books — Houellebecq has always enjoyed a reputation as a soothsayer of sorts. In Plateforme (2001), he foresaw the repeated Islamist terrorist onslaughts that would be carried out against an indulgent Western civilisation, from the 9/11 attacks in the US to the 2015-2016 killings in Paris and Nice. Soumission, which envisages the election of a “Muslim-Democrat” president in a substantially Islamicised France, was published on January 7, 2015, the very day Islamist terrorists massacred the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, including two octogenarian cartoonists, Georges Wolinski and Cabu. Now, Sérotonine, Houellebecq’s latest book, which was published earlier this year, but was written in 2018, depicts a grassroots rebellion of impoverished milk producers in western France looking very much like the Yellow Vests. The rebellion ends in a pitched battle with the gendarmerie at one of the countless highway interchanges that have become a feature of the late-20th-century and early-21st-century French landscape, and have been used over the past months as rally points by the Vests.

But YouTube culture provides even more impressive forecasts than bookish culture. Take the case of the comedienne  Anne-Sophie Bajon, a.k.a La Bajon, 39. She started as a stand-up in the early 2010s, dealing mostly with “women’s issues”. Some three years ago, she lost weight, changed her hairstyle and turned to short, sharp political videos, impersonating shameless, reckless characters — business executives, political aides — who take pride in exploiting people and ruining the environment for quick profit. The 2017 electoral campaign, a disaster for the political establishment, with the collapse of the Socialist Party, a media lynching of the conservative candidate, and a meteoric success for Macron and his hastily-gathered followers, was a bonanza for her. So was Macron’s no less rapid fall in the summer and autumn of 2018. However, her skits have grown more violent and bizarre.

“The Richest Heiress in the World” (La plus riche héritière du monde) was released a year ago, in March 2018. La Bajon plays another absolutely horrendous character: the spoiled daughter of “the world’s richest banker” who parades in a fur coat since her “homeless skin coat” was sent to the dry cleaner. Soon enough, we are told who she is supposed to be: her mobile phone rings, she says “Oh Daddy, it’s you,” and we see “Jacob Rothschild” on the screen. She explains that her father and his family own the largest banks in the world, which in turn own the largest corporations and have every politician, including their “former employee Emmanuel [Macron]”, on their payroll. She adds that they don’t mind destroying the world and reducing people to abject poverty as long as they make more money. There is a further anti-Semitic innuendo when she mentions the Partouche casino chain as part of the conspiracy. There are two main casino chains in France: Partouche, which is Jewish-owned, and the much bigger Barrière, which is not. La Bajon targets only Partouche.

This goes on for about three minutes. The next three minutes look like mere preaching. The heiress is haunted by several grim visions (her own past as a little girl, the future that will emerge from her family’s wrongdoing). Finally, she wakes up in a devastated landscape as the last survivor of the human race, with nowhere to go to and nobody to speak to.

Another video, “Public Purse” (Trésor Public), released last November, when the Yellow Vests’ protests were gathering strength all over France, is about a nice young baker evicted from her shop and then from her late grandfather’s home by greedy tax officials (played by La Bajon and two other comedians). As the baker wonders why famous politicians manage to get  rebates or not to pay any tax at all, the chief tax official (La Bajon) cryptically answers: “This is another case altogether since they are from the family.” Again, the comedy part lasts only half the video: the second half features, so to say, God’s Judgment. While the young baker brings her newborn baby to church to be christened (in a Latin ceremony, no less), the three tax officials succumb to violent deaths: one is poisoned, the second is bitten by a venomous snake, and the third (La Bajon) perishes in a car bombing. When I first watched these videos, I quickly concluded that nobody would be amused by the second halves and that La Bajon was losing her touch as a comedian. I was wrong: she went viral on YouTube. A third video, a Christmas story featuring a civil war between an arrogant king and poor peasants led by a populist Joan of Arc (La Bajon herself, playing a good person for the first time ever), was no less successful. In retrospect, one has to admit that she intuited quite correctly that a very large consistuency in France — which coalesced as the Yellow Vests — relishes such a mixture of anti-capitalism, tax revolt, religious nostalgia, tales of murderous or suicidal violence, and — last but not least — conspiratorial anti-Semitism.

The extent to which anti-Semitism has pervaded the French protest movement is appalling. A photograph taken on December 20 from a car window, and then circulated on social media, showed a typical highway interchange squatted by Yellow Vests. Two large banners had been posted for the benefit of the passing traffic. One said: “To Disobey Unfair Laws Is Eveybody’s Ethical Duty.” The second and more prominent banner, was just a list of names: “Macron=Drahi=Attali=Banques=Media=Sion.” Which is shorthand for: “President Macron is the puppet of Patrick Drahi, the French-Israeli high-tech tycoon who was one of his earliest supporters, and of Jacques Attali, a pop philosopher of Jewish descent who once served as Socialist President François Mitterrand’s chief of staff and currently writes an influential pro-Macron column at L’Express, one of the weekly press flagships; both Drahi and Attali are in turn creatures of the Jewish banks that rule the world and the media from their stronghold in Israel, as explained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” To make things even more graphic, the A’s were drawn as Free-Masonic triangles, and the S’s as runic Nazi letters. Three more fantastic strata are thus added to the existing anti-Semitic slogans: Judeo-Masonic conspiracy, Judaism as the new Nazism, and, by implication, the Holocaust as a hoax.

On February 14, another Jewish philosopher, the iconic Alain Finkielkraut was confronted near his Parisian home on Boulevard Montparnasse by a small group of Yellow Vests. While some just asked him to don the vest, others, the leader of whom was later identified as a French Muslim, said that they were “the people” and urged him to “go back to Tel Aviv”. The incident, which “smacked of pogromist violence” according to Finkielkraut, was widely reported and widely condemned, including by President Macron, the Socialist Party and National Rally leader Marine Le Pen. On March 16, during extremely violent riots on the Champs-Elysées, Palestinian flags were prominently displayed. According to an Ifop poll for the NGOs Fondation Jean Jaurès and Conspiracy Watch, released on February 11, 44 per cent of the Yellow Vests believe in a “worldwide Zionist conspiracy” compared with 22 per cent of average French citizens. Some solace is to be derived, however, from the prevalence among Yellow Vests of similar weird delusions: 62 per cent of them believe that pharmaceutical companies are covering up, with the complicity of government officials, the lethal side-effects of some vaccines; 59 per cent are convinced that Princess Diana was assassinated; 43 per cent think that the CIA is behind drug-trafficking worldwide. Likewise, it is noteworthy that Yellow Vest sympathisers tend to express more balanced views, whatever the issue, than militant Yellow Vests themselves.

Metapolitics is not just the key of the current crisis. It may explain a lot about Macron’s political fortunes and misfortunes over the past two years.

In the first ballot of the 2017 presidential election, Macron came first with 24 per cent of the vote: not bad for a “boy candidate” in his late thirties, whose only political experience had been to serve briefly as President Hollande’s chief of staff and then as a controversial finance minister, and who had never run in any previous election. In the second ballot, he won a stunning 66 per cent of the vote. Likewise, his centrist party, La République en Marche (LREM), won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly elections with 307 seats out of 577. Experienced political observers knew that there was a Pyrrhic element in these victories. In the first presidential round, three other candidates (the national-populist Marine Le Pen, the conservative François Fillon and the Corbynesque hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon) had reached almost similar levels — a bit over or under 20 per cent. In the second ballot, Macron’s good fortune was that, under French electoral law, he faced only Marine Le Pen, who had come second in the first ballot but whom a majority of French citizens decidedly rejected. As for the parliamentary elections, his followers’ success was essentially due to a more than 50 per cent abstention rate.

Macron’s real, reliable, political base thus amounted to only a quarter of the vote. This should have been in itself a source of some concern — and of caution. An additional worrying factor was that Macron and his followers had largely made their way as newcomers on the political scene by cannibalising France’s two traditional moderate parties: the conservatives — Les Républicains (LR) — who fell from 27 per cent in the first presidential ballot of 2012 to 20 per cent in 2017, and the socialists — Parti Socialiste (PS) — who underwent an unprecedented meltdown, from nearly 29 per cent in 2012 to 6.3 per cent in 2017. The erosion of the right and left moderates paved the way for the right and left radicals, Le Pen’s National Front, rebranded as National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN), and Mélenchon’s Indomitable France (France Insoumise, FI), who now looked like the real opposition, with a combined electoral potential, as measured, again, by their returns in the 2017 presidential first ballot, of more than 40 per cent.

In earlier times, the differences between the two radical constituencies, of right and left, would have been deemed to be unbridgeable. But that was no longer true. From 2012 to 2017, Le Pen had put forward a statist and near-socialist agenda, very similar to Mélenchon’s, and won a large part of the working-class vote as a result. Both radical leaders expressed anti-EU, anti-Nato and pro-Russian views; both urged sweeping constitutional reforms implying proportional representation and a wider use of referenda. In the second presidential ballot of 2017, Mélenchon had stubbornly declined to endorse Macron against Le Pen, and 50 per cent at least of his first ballot voters followed his tacit advice, either by abstaining or by switching to the National Front leader. As Le Pen later observed in an interview with Valeurs Actuelles, the only issue that still divided Mélenchon and her was non-European immigration, which she rejected and he supported. Even there, Mélenchon frequently hinted at more flexible views, akin to those expressed by Sahra Wagenknecht’s far-left anti-immigration movement Stand Up (Aufstehen) in Germany.

However, in the summer of 2017, most French people were not paying attention to such hard facts. They were willing to give the new president and his team a chance: all the more so since — in a marked difference from the shabby Hollande years — he seemed intent on behaving in a dignified and semi-monarchical manner. Even the oddities of his private life — such as his marriage to his former school teacher Brigitte Trogneux, a woman 25 years older than him — were overshadowed by the fact that they both came from a traditional, bourgeois, Catholic background, and that he seemed to maintain good relations with his wife’s children and grandchildren.

After all, the more depressed a country is, the easier it may be to indulge in charismatic or messianic expectations.

For a while, it looked as if Macron could make it after all. He had run as an unifying Europhile candidate, standing “at the same time” — his favourite expression — for right-of-centre and left-of-centre issues. As president, however, he seemed to turn more decidedly to the right, even if lip service was still being paid to such liberal dogmas as ecology, climate change, gender equality and diversity. He picked a 47-year-old former conservative, Edouard Philippe, as prime minister, and appointed several other conservatives as senior ministers: Bruno Le Maire (economic affairs), Gerald Darmanin (budget), Jean-Michel Blanquer (education). Two senior ministers with a socialist background, Jean-Yves Le Drian (foreign affairs) and Gérard Collomb (interior), were seen as conservative-minded as well. And indeed, the cabinet got to work implementing a set of reforms that previous nominally conservative administrations, under Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, had eschewed.

A first step was to abolish ISF, a wealth tax inherited from a socialist government, and replace it by a much more limited tax on real estate. Other taxes were also at least partially dismantled. A second step was to simplify and modernise a retirement system replete with “special statutes” and other privileges. Blanquer undertook a no-nonsense reorganisation of public education, largely supported by educators and parents alike. Collomb had a Right to Asylum and Immigration Act passed by parliament, far less lenient than previous legislation. Some LREM members of parliament, especially the former socialist wing, were dismayed; protracted strikes were held in some sectors (especially public transport) and some street violence erupted on May 1 (Labour Day). But many classic conservative voters — the LR constituency — and the bulk of the business class took the long view and considered supporting Macron at some point in the future, or at least some kind of Macronist-LR coalition.

Then, during the late spring and the summer of 2018, everything unravelled. There was the case of Alexander Benalla, a highly-paid 26-year-old aide who was disclosed to be involved in many dark, unaccountable and even stupid activities, yet nevertheless enjoyed the president’s steadfast support. There was an outburst of erratic behaviour on the part of the president that did not fit at all with the gravitas he had mustered until then, stating publicly that Benalla was not his lover, inviting a multiracial, transgender pop group to the presidential residence, and being photographed, on a trip to the French West Indies, with half-naked male locals. There were too many extravagant expenses, like ordering a new china dinner service from the Sèvres factory for the Elysée Palace or ordering a swimming pool at Brégançon, the presidential summer castle on the Mediterranean. There was a succession of strictly political setbacks. Macron was about to convene the Congress (a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate) to pass a constitutional revision, and then defered it sine die. In August Nicolas Hulot, a famed TV journalist turned minister for ecological transition, resigned, citing differences with the cabinet. So did the reassuring Collomb five weeks later: he decided to resume his former role as the mayor of Lyons, France’s second-largest city.

And finally, there was the diesel blunder. The Macron-Philippe cabinet decreed a 23 per cent increase in diesel taxes (and thus on the price actually paid by the average car driver), to please its Green wing; and it planned a ban on diesel vehicles by 2024. What they did not take in account was that no fewer than 61 per cent of all French cars ran on diesel, especially in “peripheral France”: the distant suburbs, small towns and rural areas where there is no life without a car; and that a collateral effect of the proposed ban was a sharp drop in their resale value. A stroke of genius was for the growing numbers of protesters to interconnect through social networks and then to sport the bright yellow vests all drivers must carry in their vehicles in case of breakdown or accident.

The metapolitical advantage that Macron had enjoyed as a young “Jupiterian” monarch blessed by the gods was gone: he was now portrayed as the new Louis XVI and his wife as the new Marie-Antoinette. While a pragmatic administration would have swiftly rescinded its anti-diesel measures, Macron and Philippe insisted for several weeks that they were “staying the course”. The diesel protest transmogrified into a major political crisis that, should a 1 to 9 Richter Scale of revolutions exist, would probably have been ranked 6 or 7.

And now? By Christmas, Macron had rescinded the diesel tax, raised the minimum wage and granted other benefits to the working and middle class. Under the 1958 constitution, he could have then resorted to scores of far-reaching decisions: bringing in a new prime minister and a new cabinet, calling a snap election, ruling by presidential order, declaring a state of emergency to quench street violence, turning to a referendum. Instead of that, he launched a three-month “great national debate”  in order to “listen to the French” and approve “a new national contract”. Apparently, his calculation was to wear out the Yellow Vests until the European Parliament elections in May, and then let the French decide between rationality and lunacy, order and chaos, him and the protesters. Quite a gamble. His popularity rate had fallen to an abysmal 21 per cent last October. It was back to 34 per cent by February. Most of this recovering support stems from the classic conservative Right.