The weekend just gone, Manifestation 23, marked a seismic shift in the five month battle between the Gilets Jaunes and the French state. The Notre Dame fire has brought into the open the strategic shift in public opinion that has occurred over the winter; shifts all to the advantage of the Gilets Jaunes. While the cold winter months with their looming darkness only allowed us to glimpse two equal parties grinding away at each other in the gloom, the advent of spring and its clear light, reveals how the Gilets are gathering reserves of strength all over France, and how, now, they are slowly winning in Paris as well. The sight of French police surrounding Notre Dame and denying access to its ‘own’ population, starkly illustrates what the state seeks to deny. After all, these sort of monuments are the materiality through which states demonstrates their connection to the population, their right to rule and their own power.
The Neo-liberal state is crumbling and Macron is going be the sacrificial lamb. At this stage he will be lucky to last two months. His clumsy handling of the Notre Dame blaze has outraged and enraged more sections of the French population. Indeed throughout the five months of protest, and despite the wall to wall media propaganda, opinion polls consistently show continued and unwavering sympathy and support of the Gilets Jaunes.
In the sharp light of spring it is clear that Macron’s winter strategy: the Great National Debate, has achieved nothing for the government and more tellingly perhaps, has further revealed Macron’s own incapacity to either change himself or shift course. As one anonymous French state official reportedly said: ‘Mitterrand gave them an extra week’s holiday, but Macron can’t manage anything’. He simply seems unable in any form to communicate with either the Gilets or the people of France. His constant speeches, with their casual insults and lack of empathy, remain one of the best recruitment tools the Gilets possess.
His recent pronouncements continue this trend. His promise to rebuild the cathedral in five years was met with scorn – ‘this is not a railway line’, said one commentator, while his invitation to the world (a typical empty gesture) angered and aroused traditionalists. Indeed, as has been widely reported, his endorsement of cash donations from billionaires, simply provided the Gilets with yet more free sticks to beat him and the state.
Even his big showpiece speech was cancelled when the Cathedral burst into flames. And what was his big announcement? A freeze on hospital and school closures, the index-linking of pensions to inflation and the closing of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the university that produces the country’s political and civil elite, all of which, particularly the last, were seen as too late and totally irrelevant. After all it doesn’t put food on the table or help the people get to the end of the month with any money. As I noted in previous articles, this is typical of Macron, revealing only how his personal authority is slipping away, and strangely enough, how irrelevant he is becoming to the entire debate.
Above all, Macron is guilty of being one of those stupid/intelligent middle class people; the sort neo-liberalism delights in providing for us in many guises: administrators, legacy media editors, heads of departments, councillors, politicians. He is bright, he is buffed, he has aspiration, he can speak fluently on subjects for hours, yet for all of that, every speech he makes simply inflames the situation. And this, coupled with his inability to convey a shred of empathy and his apparent lack of understanding concerning both politics and national history, reveal him to be nothing so much as a messenger boy for the rich and the powerful. Once again none of this escapes the French population.
Clearly Macron much prefers international summits to meeting his own people and in truth his dreams of the future, which is all he has, are as banal as Marinetti’s.
All of this was starkly obvious in the course of the great National Debate. Billed as a listening exercise, every photo showed Macron not listening, but lecturing, while his rolled shirt sleeves made him look like a boy, inexperienced and out of his depth. The state PR is simply not working and one can’t believe that any worker in France was fooled by this nonsense.
So Macron is finished and he’ll be gone soon, but the question remains where does this revolt go from here? For the manner in which his removal occurs, how long it takes and who replaces him, will determine the next stage.
Unfortunately for the French neo-liberal state, Macron’s dismissal will not solve the problem. Firstly because, in an immediate sense, there is no alternative candidate within ruling circles acceptable to the Gilets. Secondly, because it is becoming increasingly apparent that neo-liberalism as a form of governance can only succeed in a climate of profligate personal credit, which, along with rising house prices (not counted as inflation), remains the only method available to Neo-Liberalism for generating wealth among all social classes. They simply are unwilling or unable to give anything to the people.
The dismissal of the Paris police chief and the calls by the state for the police to use greater violence and employ more weaponry, simple confirm the gridlock which has entangled the neo-liberal state and its bureaucratic class. A gridlock which not only depresses and represses the rest of us, but also, within the current ruling dogma, is impossible to transcend; violence and exclusion are all the contemporary state has left.
And what of the Gilets? Well, they are everywhere. Every week Facebook is full of online Gilet house-parties, where films, discussion and reinforcement abound. When they don’t demonstrate they talk.. Nor, despite the toil required, is there any sign the people of France are quitting the movement. My roundabout still has people each week-end, as they have been every week-end through what was a cold and desolate winter, and in this they are simply duplicating events at the other twenty or so occupied roundabouts in Gers and all through France. Recently the group at my roundabout distributed a flyer saying that they were finding it difficult to continue every weekend and could others come and assist them, something which according to locals, met with an influx of new recruits. ‘Nous le faisons pour vous’ is their standard speech as they hand out flyers to passing motorists, almost all of whom appear friendly and sympathetic; something entirely to be expected, given all of them are locals.
Some liberal commentators still persist in presenting the Gilets as supplicant Oliver Twists, begging for more from their superiors table and these same commentators love to speak of the revolt as being the periphery verses the centre. As I have made clear in my previous articles, this is the opposite of the truth.
For the Gilets are showing rising levels of political consciousness; with an apparent endless enthusiasm for debates concerning violence, socialism and their demands – debates which are still, even after five months, managed online with toleration and respect for the diversity of people’s opinions.
Additionally, from a strategic perspective the Gilets have already demonstrated their capacity to bring every major French city to a halt. Toulouse, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyon, have all seen large, persistent demonstrations coupled with massive arrests.
Concurrently, smaller provincial centres like Tarbes in the south west continue to host their own weekly demonstrations, something duplicated in similar centres all over France. And with that is rising, both a hatred of the police, particularly the metropolitan police, and a sense of unity and determination among the Gilets. Naturally most of this escapes the metropolitan elite and the official media, preoccupied as they are with head counts and privates on parade. Yet even in Paris, there is considerable evidence of the movement’s growing support, with people increasingly prepared both to manifest at demonstrations and to express sympathy in media interviews, phone-ins and online.
This narrows the state’s room for manoeuvre drastically. In short the invisible hand is now visible. Something clear when the government, in a brief and crude attempt, sought to blame the Gilets for the Notre Dame blaze – accusations howled down and swiftly rescinded.
Slowly, slowly this battle is developing into a life or death struggle for the neo-liberal state and we can, over the next few months, expect them to intensify their violence during demonstrations, inaugurate house arrests, seal of more railways routes and Paris monuments and ultimately intensify various false flag operations aimed at splitting the movement and fermenting inter-communal conflict.
For the Gilets, this sense they are winning will only increase their determination. If I could make a prediction this will lead ultimately to increased demonstrations, perhaps beyond the self-imposed week-end boundaries, as well as larger, longer blockades of railways and motorways. The French word for demonstration is manifestation and that is a useful word here, because in every sense and every action the Gilets are manifesting their unity, their vision for France and their commitment to that vision.
The last week has been a good week for those who believe that neo-liberalism is a con trick, incapable of providing most a reasonable life, or indeed frankly of governing an increasingly sophisticated social world and an increasingly savvy citizenry. The simplistic nostrums of neo-liberalism remain incapable of confronting the huge problems facing us as a species – a simple truth which is becoming increasingly obvious.
Finally, this week, both the Gilets Jaunes and the Extinction Rebellion in London, are revealing that, despite massive surveillance, militarized, violent policing and the state’s propaganda apparatus, contemporary populations are developing new methods and new visions capable of surmounting these obstacles and finally, after this endless decade of stagnation, moving us forward in a positive, inclusive and effective manner.
David Studdert is a political commenter and musician. His recent books include “Conceptualising Community: Beyond The State And The Individual” (Palgrave 2006) and “Rethinking Community Research” with Valerie Walkerdine (Palgrave 2016). He has also released 18 albums of his own music world wide, some of which can be found here. His forthcoming album ‘For the Early Shift at Charles De Gaulle’ will be released in May on Gaga records available on Spotify.