I have in my life seen demonstrations (the 1984 protest against the abolition of private education) and even a little rioting from a safe distance, but nothing compared with these scenes from Paris. Tear gas is horrible, through its effect of violently irritating the eyes, nose and throat of anyone who gets a whiff.
This second video is from the press in France, hoping I am not forbidden from linking to it via YouTube without copying it or hiding its character of someone’s intellectual property.
I am out in the country, so I see little gilet jaune activity. I attempted to go to Rouen a couple of weeks ago by car, but had to turn round because the way was blocked. I sympathise with this movement against excessive and arbitrary tax hikes by President Macron, but I have nothing to do with any violence and I take no part in blocking roads and punishing the ordinary population. What good does that do? I have a folded yellow vest on the dashboard of my van, symbol of solidarity with the majority of the movement that is peaceful and respectful of law and order.
The scenes in Paris are terrifying. The police are using non-lethal weapons like tear gas and water cannon, no guns. The rioters and looters are using cobblestones picked out of the road and any throwable object. An old lady has been killed in her house because she was drawing her curtains just at a moment when a tear gas grenade went through the window pane and hit her on the head. There has been a number of deaths, hundreds of injured – both police and rioters – and hundreds of arrests.
The unrest began in mid-November to protest rising costs of essentials like fuel for motor vehicles and electricity. It is definitely a populist movement without any leadership or organisation. Thus it could be infiltrated by groups of anarchists and “professional” rioters and hooligans of both extreme right and extreme left ideas. There is a Facebook page that has been “liked” 54,399 times. The movement spread from the issue of fuel taxes to a wider protest about French economic policy and the growing difference between rich and poor, and the apparent indifference of the establishment elite to ordinary working people.
As I said to my wife this evening, I see things internationally and in the light of history. It isn’t just France. There is the for and against Brexit in my country, fascists in Italy, a revival of Franco’s integralist Catholic ideology in Spain, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. All of a sudden we have an embryo Axis. One by one, other European and non-European countries are going the same way: Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium. How long will it be before budding wannabe dictators tap into the popular energy and hatred to rise to power? I have sometimes read some horrible hateful things written also by Americans on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. In a way, I understand the blowback against liberalism and the kind of capitalism that doesn’t care tuppence about the poor and homeless. On the other hand, it is all so dangerous, an erupting volcano.
What is the political alternative to Macron, if he is prevailed upon to resign? It seems to be down to Mme Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon. Perhaps we have less to fear from the populist right in France than Brazil or Spain. Who knows?
It is worth reading this Guardian article Paris rioting: French government considers state of emergency over ‘gilets jaunes’ protests. What do I think with my experience of French life? The future of this unrest is uncertain. The police and security services will find out (or already know) who the violent rioters are and what unites them. Hundreds of them have already been arrested and will be sanctioned by the law. There seems to be no real ideology or agenda other than violence and destruction for their own sake.
President Macron seems to make the vital distinction and has said he would listen to the legitimate concerns of ordinary people. Will he revise his policies? The ball seems to be in his court to show concern for the people and realise that poverty is for real.
Elsewhere in France, there have been blockages and tyre-burnings in most towns. Shopping centres, roads and toll booths and government buildings have been the main targets of disruption. All the gilet jaune people I have met have been peaceful.
Obviously, the rioters would like to light the flames of revolution to incomprehensible ends. People have been killed, and there is talk of allowing the army on the scene with guns and live ammunition if the rioting continues. There was a state of emergency caused by Islamic terrorism, and there is talk of another, but no decision so far has been made.
Macron seems ready to listen and negotiate the taxes and means to raise money for environmental projects. It is unjust to punish low income people living outside towns having to drive to work because there are no other forms of transport, with a patronising exhortation to “change their ways”. This will cause long discussions about environmental politics. You can only get people to stop polluting when affordable alternatives are offered like electric or LPG cars and reliable public transport. The infrastructures are not in place, even though the railways here are a lot cheaper than in England.
I don’t think we will see the guillotine reinstated in the Place de la Concorde any time soon! I see Macron as the last bastion of neo-liberalism in France and what separates us from the consequences of populism that would sooner or later become a dictatorship. On one side, I want to avoid being alarmist, but on the other, I cannot help wondering how much is going to be consumed in this raging fire.
Here is a sobering analysis of the situation – Why Macron has France in revolt.