My reasons for bringing up the current political unrest in France on this blog in articles here and here are simple: the tectonic plates of public opinion on climate change move slowly but inexorably. Identifying where the big quake will happen is of key importance. It might be in Australia or California or Germany. Suddenly, it seems as if it might be in France, and I’ll try to explain why.
That the insurrectional movement of the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) is profoundly altering the political landscape in France, and therefore eventually in the European Union, is no longer in doubt. How it affects the position of environmentalism, and therefore of climate change orthodoxy, is not so clear. The movement started as a grassroots protest against a recent rise in the price of petrol and a rather greater rise in the price of diesel, due in part to increases in the carbon tax. But prices have since fallen, without diminishing the level of protest, which has morphed into a generalised rebellion around the cost of living. The government is standing firm in its determination to put in motion la transition énérgetique, without ever defining exactly what that means. And no-one among the protesters is yet questioning the importance of “l’écologie,” without ever defining what that means.
A demographer gave a most interesting explanation for the strength of the movement, laying the blame on INSEE, the government office of statistics, which apparently decrees that 95% of the population lives in urban, and only 5% in rural areas. A child, or a climate sceptic, could spot immediately the flaw in this statement, but not a President, his government, or the highly educated élite which advises them: It all depends what you mean by urban and rural. So, successive governments have ignored the sparsely populated three quarters of the country, where half the population lives, closing railways, hospitals and post offices, and leaving the mayors of small towns with no industry or commerce worth speaking of to finance their infrastructure from local taxes, with ever diminishing help from central government.
It’s all about Europe of course, and its golden rule of reducing the budget deficit. The pressure on wages exercised by twenty years of austerity dictated by Brussels has forced low paid workers further and further out of the cities into what has suddenly been identified as the périphérie – not the despised banlieu (suburbs) where the lumpenproletariat (often Arabs) vegetate in permanent unemployment – but the small towns and villages inhabited by the working class (or classe moyenne in French) – those whom Macron has described as “the people who are nothing.” And where a decent life is possible only as long as one can afford to drive to work, to school, to the hospital, or to the out-of-town shopping centre.
But what about the environment? That was the reason for raising prices of petrol, diesel and heating fuel, a policy that had the lukewarm support of the entire political class, but only Macron and the far left made it central to their campaigns. Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accord was experienced as a slap in the face to French pride, and hence Macron’s call to “make the planet great again.” Macron’s ardent espousal of the climate cause confirms everything people like me and Ben Pile have been saying for years – that the environmental movement, far from being a grassroots affair, is a cult of the chattering classes, the cool city-dwelling, left-leaning hipsters centred round the opinionating professions; the media, advertising, marketing, and information technology: Macron’s “start-uppeurs,” the social class known in French as “les bo-bos” – the bourgeois bohemians.
After the disastrous scenes of violence on the Champs Elysées on the 24th of November, it was announced that the following Tuesday President Macron would re-establishing his authority with a major speech announcing the formation of the HCAC – the High Council for the Climate; the publication (twice delayed) of the PPE or“Pluriannuelle Programmation pour L’Enérgie;” and an address to the concerns of the citizens, as expressed so clearly in the past three weeks on roundabouts and motorway exits around the country.
Macron spoke for half an hour about energy transition before getting to the subject of the current climate of insurrection. I didn’t hear a word about the HCAC or the PPE, which is hardly surprising. Half the country is wondering whether they’ll be able to get to the shopping centre next Saturday, while the other half will be blocking the entrance. His high councils and pluriannual programmation can go take a running jump. Blathering about the climate for half an hour before announcing that he had nothing to offer the men and women who have been standing day and night for two weeks round campfires on motorway exits was a sure way of keeping the movement going.
The President has two modes of discourse, the technocratic and the emotive. The first half of his speech was in technocratic mode, in which he excels, indeed, Excels. When his piercing blue eyes stare into the camera, gleaming like the lamps on a pair of police cars reflected in the puddles left by a water cannon on the Champs Elysées, you can practically see the pie charts and coloured bullet points which illuminate and energise his dissertation.
He started by announcing that there will be no going back on the planned increase in the tax on fuel promised for January. Instead he announced an increase in expenditure on the transition énergétique from 5 to 7 or 8 million euros per annum, the phasing out of coal fired plants by 2022, and a reduction in the use of nuclear to 50% of electricity production by 2035. There were vague mentions of tidal, geothermal and hydro; and the number of wind turbines is to triple and solar installations to be multiplied by five.
Then he turned to the concerns of the citizens, the gilets jaunes who are supported by 85% of the population and who have helped to make him the most unpopular president at this stage of the presidency in history. He made it clear that he was addressing, not the “seditious,” the “populist lepers,” the “brown plague” (all expressions used by Macron or his ministers recently) who trashed the Champs Elysées last Saturday, but the honest citizens who have made their feelings known in demonstrations which have reduced consumer spending in shopping centres by 30% or so, thus reducing this year’s growth to about 1%, and making it well nigh impossible for France to attain the European Union’s deficit criteria. He repeated a formula popularised by Nicolas Hulot, the ex-ecology minister in a surrealist tearful two hour documentary last week: “Some people are worried about the end of the month. I’m worried about the end of the world,” adding that he was worried about both. (It sounds punchier in French, which is a neat example of how accidents of language can influence vast questions of geopolitics. Only in the French language could you announce with a straight face that you’re worried about the end of the world in the tones of a bonkers death cult like the People’s Temple or the Union of Concerned Scientists.)
For this part of his speech he lowered his head in a gesture of humility, and made that peculiar Gallic gesture of holding his cupped hand before his face and staring intently at it, as if about to inhale the odour of a priceless truffle, and started talking about – his feelings. Buried in the expression of his compassion and comprehension were some announcements. There will be no tax cuts, no moratorium on the hated carbon tax, no rise in the minimum wage, no backtracking on the pitiful below-inflation rise in pensions and public sector wages. All we were offered was three months of consultation at a local level between all interested parties, with each cluster of yellow jackets invited to consult with interested parties in whichever one of the 35,000 communes into which France has been divided since 1789 they happen to inhabit. And he also found the time to criticise the measures to help with the burden of energy prices announced by his Prime Minister a few days previously, admitting that even he didn’t understand the “cheque énérgie” a programme which he was responsible for introducing. The result was a rise in support among the general public for the gilets jaunes from 70% to 85%.
On Friday, 30th November, the Prime Minister invited the gilets jaunes to meet him at the prime ministerial palace at 2pm. At 2.40 a guy in a leather jacket wandered up with his hands in his pockets. Ten minutes later he wandered out again and announced to the waiting journalists that he had refused to participate in the discussion because the prime minister and the minister of the environment had refused his request to film and relay the discussion on his i-phone. Some other unknown person did take part in the discussions, and the prime minister announced that he was very satisfied with the exchange of points of view.
If ridicule could kill, the life expectancy of a politician would be that of a soldier in the trenches in 1914-18. But they kept going for four long years.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I get the impression that the British press, Europhile, Francophile, and Remainophile, will do all they can to suppress news of the vast social and political earthquake occurring here. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this:
I get my information largely from three “independent” rolling news channels, all owned by millionaire oligarchs, and financed by ads which are almost exclusively for fast cars and perfumes – the kind of luxury products which France produces par excellence. In France, less than 8% of the population reads a national newspaper. News is for the élite. I switch to Skynews, and I feel I’ve descended ten rungs on the social ladder, with rather ordinary journalists feeding me rather ordinary stuff for rather ordinary citizens. It’s not particularly informative, but it feels democratic – sort of.
BUT, these French channels are devoting 95% of their time (I’m not exaggerating) to a movement supported by 85% of the population, which is now demanding the resignation of a president recently elected by 65% of voters, plus the dissolution of parliament, to be replaced by some kind of popular assembly. This situation, incomprehensible to the English, is easily explained by the sociological analysis of Emmanuel Todd, to which I have frequently referred, e.g. here.
The English believe fervently in liberty (liberty from the EU, for example) but are not much concerned about equality. The French are divided between a centre and south which believes fervently in liberty and equality, and east and west fringes which share with Germany (as well as Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, Catalonia, and Japan) an authoritarian streak arising from the unconscious belief in the INequality of man, based on the historical principle of primogeniture. Which, paradoxically, gives rise to solid social structures which maintain social cohesion (think of the welfare states in Scandinavia, of the German trade unions, or the practically one party state of Japan.)
The French mix of authoritarianism and égalité gives rise to a kind of tidal flow in its politics, an instability which bewilders the Anglo-Saxon observer. Or did, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the French experienced revolutions, often accompanied by military defeat or civil war, in 1789, 1812, 1830, 1848, and 1870. Which didn’t stop France from being the world’s greatest civilisation for the best part of two centuries. But then, the Anglo Saxon observers, from Laurence Sterne through Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, to Ernest Hemingway, were deeply interested in France. Find me a commenter now in the serious press anywhere with any interest in or understanding of any non-English-speaking country. The Guardian’s news from France in the past three days consists of articles on Macron’s meeting with a Saudi Prince, a French civil servant arrested for spying for North Korea, and something about poor restaurants. Because France is somewhere you go to eat, and therefore somewhere you’re desperately, viscerally determined to stay attached to, like mother’s teat. Is mother suffering some hugely significant change of life? Why should we care, as long as the restaurants are open?
[added 4th December: next Saturday they won’t be.]
Back to climate again. The rolling news channels don’t treat any subject that can’t be summarised in thirty seconds, so climate change hardly gets a mention. The positions remain stuck, as in 1914, with the government saying they won’t renege on their measures to save the planet, and the gilets jaunes saying that they’re all in favour of ecology, but the cost of living comes first.
But the leftwing press, and possibly the leftwing politicians, are starting to see the danger here. Since it is quite impossible to satisfy the demand for a substantial rise in wages or a reduction in taxes without cutting government expenditure or defying Brussels, the left is going to have to start explaining the need for the energy transition. Libération, the equivalent of the Guardian, started yesterday with a detailed demolition of the argument that renewable energy was incapable of providing the energy necessary for a modern state, an argument whose existence they had never previously acknowledged. A hundred thousand readers who had previously swallowed the climatist kool aid without question were suddenly being presented with arguments countering objections to their beliefs which they’d never thought of. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow, and the number of dammable valleys in the Alps is limited. Who’d have thought it? Certainly not our well informed highly educated élite, until a few thousand fed-up, poorly paid workers started blocking motorway entrances, and therefore forced journalists to start delving into the subject.
Political thought is forged in action. It’s Praxis, stupid. This rather banal observation is at the foundation of Marxism, and is therefore never expressed in polite society. Suddenly, it’s being enacted on 24 hour rolling news, with mainstream politicians forced to explain to their electors why the present system is the only possible one. Angry and often inarticulate actors are rehearsing long forgotten arguments initiated by Plato and Aristotle, Rousseau, and Marx, in television studios before millions of spectators. This is the true significance of what’s happening, and not the number of demonstrators on the Champs Elysées tomorrow.
And the cool defenders of the status quo, who believe in no political dogma, who mistrust Anglo-Saxon “liberalism,” have never read Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes, and have rejected both the nationalism of de Gaulle and the Stalinism of the French Communist Party, have only environmentalism to cling to, an environmentalism which the gilets jaunes have said clearly can wait until they’ve achieved their objectives of decent wages.
* * *
The above was written on Friday 30th November, before the events in Paris last Saturday (which are still unclear, by the way. Only this evening, December 4th, we learned on the news that hundreds of demonstrators tried to enter the Opéra, and briefly besieged the Senate.)
This is not the place or moment to publish a match replay, but note, in case your media aren’t reporting the fact, that the first problems occurred at 8.40 am, at the entrance to the Champs Elysées. After the first few dozen peaceful demonstrators had got past the bag and body searches, the crowd behind began to get impatient, and those in front started pushing against the shields of the riot police. The immediate response was to fire tear gas and a water cannon over the heads of the troublemakers at the front, into the peaceful crowd behind, who naturally retreated back up the avenue to the Arc de Triomphe.
I mention the fact because that sequence hasn’t been replayed in the dozens of hours of coverage I’ve seen since. We’ve seen other sequences though, of eight policemen kicking someone on the ground; of the police throwing stones at demonstrators. And there was a death – an old lady closing her shutters was hit by a police tear gas grenade, one of over ten thousand fired on Saturday. That’s not the kind of dangerous gas emission that the government had in mind when they launched this campaign in defense of the environment.