“Če nimajo kruha, naj jedo potico”
(parafraza Rousseujevega opisa karakterja francoske kraljice Marije Antoinette – “Finally I recalled the stop-gap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat brioche’” (Rousseau, Les Confessions, 1782))
Marija Antoinetta je svoj ekstravagantni način življenja in aroganten odnos do podložnikov plačala s smrtjo. Macron bo najbrž svoj “trenutek Marije Antoinette” s številnimi darili v zadnji minuti socialno najbolj ogroženim (dvig minimalne plače, davčna oprostitev božičnice itd.) fizično in statusno preživel, toda politično je mrtev. Njegove reformne revolucije, ki jo je napovedal pred začetkom mandata, je konec. Ostalo mu je le še trgovanje z darili ljudstvu, da mu pusti formalno ostati na oblasti do konca mandata.
In Soviet times, Russia’s Jews told a joke about a man named Rabinovitch who was distributing pamphlets in Red Square. In a matter of minutes, the KGB had found him and taken him to headquarters. Only there did the agents realize that the sheets of paper were completely blank. “But there’s nothing written here,” one of them said. Rabinovitch said: “They know quite well what I mean.”
For two months, the French government has been unable to make head or tail of the blank sheets of paper handed out by the gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests, this decentralized, leaderless movement that has no explicit agenda or demand apart from the abolition of a fuel tax. While Emmanuel Macron’s government has blindly concluded that this sudden, violent movement bereft of any clearly articulated purpose has no other goals, movements don’t block major intersections just to protest hikes in gas costs.
Numerous French historians have remarked upon the similarities between the Yellow Vests and earlier protests. For Sophie Wahnich, a specialist on the French Revolution, the organizational method of the Yellow Vests “corresponds to that of the sans culottes,” the commoners in the earliest moments of 1789, “only with more women.” She adds that, as during the revolution, the Yellow Vests have become radicalized because their various outstanding demands for greater social justice have gone unanswered. Mathilde Larrère, another historian of revolutionary periods, argues that the Yellow Vests are a “typical form of mobilization” in French history. That said, “this isn’t a working-class movement, but a consumer movement; these people share the experience of diminished purchase power and consequently hunger. Once, it was the price of bread; now, it’s the price of gas. This situation is far more explosive because it affects an entire category of people who work.” On the whole, historians agree on this point: the Yellow Vests embody a revolutionary gesture. The unspoken message that the Yellow Vests are relaying to the power elites is “No more.”
At this point, the concessions Macron’s government has granted to placate the Yellow Vests’ demands—a six-month moratorium on fuel-tax hikes, followed by its outright cancellation—seem too little, too late. “Doesn’t anybody up there get that we’re all on anxiety meds because we’re that miserable?” asked one protester. “We’re not asking for the moon, we just want to have decent lives.” The overwhelming majority of the Yellow Vests want, at a minimum, to bolster their purchasing power, to improve low wages, and increase retirement pensions and unemployment benefits.
Finally, after almost six weeks of silence since the emergence of the Yellow Vests, Macron addressed the nation on Monday night. Describing a “state of economic and social emergency,” he announced various measures to remedy the situation, including a €100 per month increase of the monthly minimum wage (amounting to about €0.60 per hour, less than a dollar) and the cancellation of the tax increase for retirees who get less than €2,000 per month. For the rest, he promoted the idea of an extensive national consultation with the unions, employers, and local mayors—the very “intermediary bodies” he had so neglected before. As for the wider question of taxation, the key driver for the mobilization of the Yellow Vests, Macron refused to reconsider his abolition of the “wealth tax,” while pledging that “the richest must help the nation.” How this would be done, he did not say.
This left most of the Yellow Vests who were questioned on French TV dissatisfied. Some allowed that the president had made an “opening,” but the vast majority rejected the speech as “disappointing.” As one protester told France 2, “No fiscal shock”—meaning that he saw no immediate progress toward tax justice, and no movement on ending the retirement pensions freeze, let alone their revaluation. “You have to stop believing that we do not understand anything,” said another Yellow Vest. Finally, a third argued, “If President Macron is confident in his proposals, he should submit them to a referendum. We’ll see the result.”
As the evening wore on, the idea of a referendum on Macron’s measures swelled, as if the word had gone out: direct democracy, that is all we will accept. The likelihood that the president in this situation will accept such a plebiscite is infinitesimally small. But with this new demand, the Yellow Vests have ratcheted up the pressure on Macron.
Vir: Sylvain Cypel, New York Review of Books