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Nabila Ramdani: Will UK yellow vests go the gilets jaunes way?
January 12, 2019
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The tools of radical political change are still dominated by French exports. Enlightenment philosophers from Descartes to Voltaire forged ideas that continue to drive the evolution of western liberal democracies.

To such intellectual brilliance, we can add numerous far less idealistic Paris creations. They include terrorism itself – a term that originated in the city during la Terreur, when a committee of public safety was executing enemies of the state during the French Revolution. All of these developments – both good and evil – spread quickly around the world, causing mass upheaval and subsequent reorganisation.

Now it is the turn of made in France gilets jaunes realpolitik to try its luck as a catalyst on the international stage. The ramshackle movement, which started out protesting against fuel price rises in provincial filling stations, is spawning tribute acts across Europe, and as far away as the Middle East, South America and the United States. The yellow vest name comes from the bright jackets that motorists carry in their car boots, and they are appearing in the most unlikely places.

One is College Green, Westminster, where rabbled Brexit extremists are turning up in their own high-vis tops next to the British parliament. Lacking the strategic acumen of their Gallic counterparts, they wave nylon Union Jacks while chanting obscenities at their elected representatives and associated TV presenters.

The sheer nastiness of the handful of UK yellow vests is already apparent. It has led to House of Commons speaker John Bercow likening them to fascists. Even those who are normally passionate defenders of free speech think they have gone too far.

Back in France, ambitions have moved far beyond insulting people, and indeed the cost of diesel and petrol. Proper gilets jaunes have got to the stage of calling for another full-blown revolution. Their demands currently range from the resignation of president Emmanuel Macron himself, to the wholesale reform of political institutions. The very destruction of the Vth Republic, and its replacement with a VIth, has been mooted.

It is not just about posturing either. Gilets jaunes populism has already delivered tangible change which, at least in the short term, has benefited millions. Macron’s rattled administration has initiated €10bn (£9bn) worth of concessions, all in response to weeks of rioting and other disturbances, including the blockading of oil refineries and major roads, and the burning down of motorway toll booths.

Astonishing as it sounds, the largely leaderless activists only started mobilising on social media in mid-November. Success has been swift and massive. Despite their horribly violent excesses, they have captured the imagination of those who applaud a refreshingly honest expression of anger at a self-serving and complacent Paris establishment. The accepted system is failing them, the gilets jaunes argue, and they want to stand up to the corruption and greed of politicians and big business.

Yes, French gilets jaunes have something in common with the foul-mouthed British hecklers. All tend to be anti-EU, and have a distinctly reactionary mindset – one centred on patriotic myths, and a suspicion of foreigners. The majority of gilets jaunes are white, vehemently opposed to immigration, and fiercely nationalistic.

In other words, they have no interest whatsoever in collaborating with yellow vest movements in other countries. The small numbers of Britons boorishly copying the French are simply latching on to a high-profile label that they have seen on TV, or on Facebook and Twitter. Dislocated, insular groups are by no means allies.

Macron’s huge mistake in dealing with the only genuinely effective version of the yellow vests was to capitulate to their rioting. Like all of his recent predecessors, he bowed down to the turbulent street, scrapping important features of an ecological reform package in a forlorn attempt to keep the law-breakers happy.

Abandoning green taxes on fuel was woefully misguided, as was rushing through stupendously generous fiscal measures that France can by no means afford, such as increasing the minimum wage by 7 per cent.

The result was not peace, but even more confrontation. Saturday insurrections are now institutionalised in Paris, and also across the country, as far as Marseille and Toulon.

Some 80,000 law and order agents, including 5,000 in the capital, will be mobilised this weekend, along with armoured cars, water cannons and apparently unlimited supplies of chemical weapons. Luc Ferry, a former conservative education minister, has already suggested that live ammunition should be used to quell growing attacks on police.

The truth is that Macron had every chance to treat the gilets jaunes as a legitimate expression of mass dissent. Pressure groups play an important part in the democratic process, and he could have responded to their grievances in a manner that was measured and sensible.

Instead, the inexperienced head of state turned them into a fearsome weapon of those who desire near-instant upheaval. Now every type of disaffected citizen, even those who despise the right-wing leanings of the gilets jaunes, can simply put on a vest and join in the chaos.

France’s overtly xenophobic parties, and most notably Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (until recently the Front National), are desperate to piggyback on initial gilets jaunes triumphs, as are similar elected rabble rousers in countries such as Italy.

Beyond Macron’s naive largesse, the principal reason for the gilets jaunes ascendancy is that they can mean anything to anybody. Opinion polls naturally reflect significant backing for those who want a reduction in the cost of living, including far lower taxes. In line with their Constitution, most French people want a freer, more egalitarian, more fraternal France. When ordinary people shout about this, then they get an ephemeral pat on the back.

What is far more complicated is translating democratic principles into sustainable policies – ones that will allow France to prosper in a rapidly changing, increasingly competitive world.

If the gilets jaunes tried to make the jump to real world politics, then in all likelihood they would be reduced to fringe non-entities. As it stands, Macron has given them overinflated credibility through bad decisions, and he is now regretting it. In the face of tinpot yellow vest imitations, there is absolutely no need for countries such as Britain to follow his disastrous example.

The Independent

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