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PAUL KNOTT: Unhappy France’s hi-vis warning

A gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protestor on the streets of Paris after discontent over taxes and rising fuel prices exploded into violence on December, 1. Photo: Etienne De Malglaive/Getty Images. - Credit: Getty Images

The recent rioting in Paris might seem like just the latest outbreak of civil disorder which occasionally erupts across the Channel. But, says PAUL KNOTT, it should not be dismissed so lightly.

Could two neighbouring countries currently present more of a mirror image than Britain and France? Britain’s Brexit political crisis is paralysing normal government and causing its public realm to be neglected. Yet calm mostly reigns on its streets.

France, meanwhile, has a dynamic government, seemingly enviable public services and a growing economy. But last weekend the most prestigious Parisian streets resembled scenes from the apocalypse as demonstrations by gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protestors exploded into violence.

As the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, ‘each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. His phrase is true of nations too. But beneath the different manifestations of that unhappiness, some of the problems affecting Britain overlap with those of France and almost every other major Western democracy.

France is, of course, a mainly well-run, impressively innovative country blessed with great beauty and a rich culture. As an outsider, it is easy and delightful to lose yourself in its abundant charms. This tendency is especially pronounced as visitors inevitably gravitate towards its most appealing regions and the generally thriving centres of its major cities.

But there is another France. The gilets jaunes protests over the past month have brought the aspects of the country usually overlooked by the casual observer dramatically to the fore.

In truth, few people foresaw the sudden emergence of the gilets jaunes. Their protests, often in the form of roadblocks, sprang up all over the country in response to the Macron government’s announcement of a fuel tax rise. Hence the adoption of the gilet jaune as an impromptu uniform – these are the high-visibility vests that every French driver must by law carry in their car and don in the event of a breakdown.

The relatively modest rise in fuel tax is the kind of event for which the phrase ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ was invented.

It is striking how the gilets jaunes are drawn from a cross-section of regular, everyday people, rather than established political movements or France’s traditionally quick-to-protest trade unions. Most come from the long-declining rural areas and small towns and cities that fill in the spaces between the country’s oases of prosperity. These are also the places were public transport is at its weakest and making essential journeys by car is unavoidable.

The protestors speak emotively of their everyday struggles and feelings of long being ignored. All offer variations on the same themes of long-term sources of jobs disappearing, stagnant pay packets, the impossibility of affording the small pleasures of life such as an evening out and the fear of being unable to put food on the family table at the end of the month when their wages run short.

The fuel tax rise triggered this outpouring of anger because of its impact on acutely-stretched household purses. But the very fact that the decision-making elites considered it so small and insignificant also perfectly encapsulates their failure to comprehend the lives of many people.

It is easy to resort, as some commentators have, to the old cliché about the French public regularly demanding change and then protesting when someone actually implements it. The Macron government usurped the old political parties and rode to power on a promise of change like no previous administration. But it has made huge mistakes on tax policy. Regardless of the theoretical economic arguments in favour of them, its decisions have been atrocious in real-world terms. By first reducing taxes on the rich, then increasing a tax that falls disproportionately on the less well-off, what message do they think they are sending to the hard-working but struggling sections of society?

These decisions meant Emmanuel Macron and his team effectively labelled themselves as ‘a government of the rich’, even before their opponents did so. The president should surely have been more aware that the situation he inherited was one in which inequality has been increasing for years. This matters immensely in a country where equality sits at the heart of its liberté, égalité, fraternité ethos.

The divisions are exemplified by another, at first glance unconnected, story that has dominated the headlines in France over recent weeks; the arrest of the boss of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi car-making alliance in Japan, Carlos Ghosn. In the more affluent circles that drive politics and the media, debate has centred around the supposedly dubious nature of the charges against Ghosn of failing to declare his full income.

Amongst the gilets jaunes, talk focuses on the unfairness of one man being paid such vast sums and granted so many VIP residences. The contrast is infuriating for people barely getting by on monthly incomes that have not kept pace with prices for years and which often barely scrape into four figures, if that.

There are ever more people in this position around the Western world. Anyone who saw Sean McAllister’s remarkable documentary A Northern Soul on BBC2 last month (and those who did not should seek it out), will recognise the parallels between the gilets jaunes and its central character, Steve Arnott.

Arnott also sports a hi-viz vest in his role as a struggling warehouse worker in Hull. He and his French counterparts are the folks who did the right thing by working hard all of their lives. Yet they have little to show for it apart from debts and debilitating insecurity about whether their job will still be there in the morning.

Inequality and unfairness are the true crisis in Britain and France. The headline-making news is largely a distraction from it. By making Britain poorer, Brexit will, of course, make these problems worse, not better. Indeed, Brexit has largely been exposed as a scheme by a clique of wealthy Brexiteers to benefit themselves further at poorer people’s expense by establishing an economy with even lower-taxes and less employee protections.

The notion of Brexit being fuelled by the ‘left-behind’ has always been overblown. Most people who support it are far from fitting that description. But the Brexiteers’ blame-diverting nationalism and bogus promises of making people better off did draw support from some of those who are struggling.

Similarly, the attention-grabbing violence in France is a distraction from the real issues. It quickly became clear that the culprits were far-right and far-left extremists who opportunistically latched on to the main gilets jaunes protests. Many gilets jaunes condemn the violence, seeing it, probably correctly, as detrimental to their otherwise popular cause.

The ambivalence expressed by a minority of them, though, serves as a warning of where events could lead if the protesters grievances are not addressed. As one woman in Marseille told TV5Monde ‘violence is not the solution but may help to make the government understand. If our gentle methods don’t get their attention, then maybe stronger ones will’.

Resolving the immediate crisis in France will be tough. It is difficult to negotiate with a largely leaderless and spontaneous movement loosely organised by numerous local groups. One group of 10 gilets jaunes has put themselves forwards as representatives. But it remains to be seen whether their demands for more direct democracy really represent the aims of the majority of protestors.

What is clear is that France, Britain and most of the other major Western liberal democracies need to take radical steps to resolve the deep-rooted issues of inequality. These problems are blighting people’s lives and undermining our societies. As we are already seeing, the upheaval they give rise to can take many localised forms. But, unchecked, it will continue to wreak ever more destruction and chaos.

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