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Yellow Vests Pan Europa: A Revolt Against the Post-Democratic Status Quo


Dr. Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

People across Europe and the wider world are now watching France, where protesters who “take their name from the yellow safety vests French motorists carry in their vehicles” are coming out in numbers facing the opposition of the police and other safety forces. The Associated Press reminds us that these “protests began in November against fuel tax hikes but have morphed into a general expression of anger at the government of President Emanuel Macron.”

The Republic of France is now in its fifth incarnation, set up in the aftermath of World War II (1940-45), and in 1958, Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) promulgated the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which centralised political power so that the President residing in the Élysée Palace became the ultimate authority in the land. A fact which, as explained by the historian Herrick Chapman, turned popular street protests and manifestations into the only possible way of expressing dissatisfaction with government policy. And today, the Élysée is face-to-face with the Yellow Vests (or Gilets Jaunes, in French), expressing the people’s discontent with the policies promoted by the “president of the rich,” the former investment banker-turned-président de la République, Emanuel Macron who assumed office on 14 May 2017.

It has been five weekends in a row now that these Yellow Vest protesters  have demonstrated across Paris and other cities of France. The origins of the apparently leaderless movement seem to have been completely organic and driven by ‘eight people’  (5 men and 3 women aged between 27 and 35) posting messages on Facebook on 10 October 2018. These Yellow Vest displays of popular discontent have now also managed to spread across other European cities and countries, notably Belgium and the UK. In spite of President Macron’s publicly announced concessions last week, some 60,000 Yellow Vests mobilised in Paris last weekend and about 400,0000 people took to the streets in various locations throughout France over the past weeks. These numbers might seem quite large, but far fewer numbers of protesters turned out last weekend than on previous occasions: according to the French Interior Ministry, last week a whopping 125,000 Yellow Vests had been “counted.” The police arrested 168 individuals, while seven people died and more than a thousand were injured in the unrest on Saturday, 15 December. The French state-sponsored propaganda broadcaster France 24 reports that police “in Paris fired water cannon and teargas to disperse groups of protesters in sporadic clashes on the Champs-Elysées and adjacent streets” and that “[b]rief clashes were also reported in the cities of Nantes, Bordeaux and Toulouse, but elsewhere the protests were largely peaceful.” Yellow vest protesters also occupied dozens of traffic roundabouts in France on Saturday, with some remaining put on Sunday (16 December), despite a call by Interior Minister Christophe Castaner to free the roundabouts and liberate French traffic. Though the protests appear to lose momentum, the political establishment as well as public opinion are still very much on edge at the moment.

Last week’s Yellow Vest event acted as a wake up call for the French government and its self-declared “Jupiterian” président de la République – with Yellow Vests emerging in “street battles with riot police in Paris, hurling missiles, torching cars and looting shops.” Subsequently, 48 hours later, on Monday (10 December), President Macron delivered a solemn “address to the nation.” Eating humble pie on primetime television, the French President declared the following: “We want a France where one can live in dignity through one’s work and on this we have gone too slowly. I ask the government and parliament to do what is necessary.” Macron “said people on the minimum wage would see their salaries increase by €100 a month from 2019 without extra costs to employers. Pensioners earning less than €2,000 would see the recent increase in social security taxes scrapped. Other measures promised include the abolition of taxes on overtime pay in 2019 and asking profit-making companies to give workers tax-free year-end bonuses,” as announced by the French state-sponsored propaganda broadcaster. But Macron did not touch his most egregious achievement, the scrapping of the so-called ‘wealth tax.’ This taxation measure was originally introduced by the Socialist President François Mitterand (1981-95) in 1982. At the time, the measure was aimed to be an “extra income tax on the very rich, a corporate tax on expense-account entertaining and other perquisites of top executives, higher taxes on luxury yachts and hotels and a ‘windfall profits’ tax on banks and oil companies,” as related by the New York Times‘ Paul Lewis. In 1982, only “about 108,000 French taxpayers, or seven-tenths of 1 percent of the total,” had been affected by this new taxation. In fact, today in the 21st century, France was the only EU member left with a veritable ‘wealth tax,’ as many if not all other European countries had abolished their own. Reuters new agency’s Michel Rose maintains that Mitterand’s measure has “led to thousands of rich French families to move to countries such as Belgium to avoid paying the tax, including most famously ‘Green Card’ actor Gerard Depardieu and members of the Mulliez family, owners of the Auchan supermarket chain. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has estimated some 10,000 people with 35 billion euros worth of assets [have] left in the past 15 years.” And now, France’s current “Jupiterian” président de la République has gone and done away with this impôt sur les grandes fortunes (IGF), introduced by last millennium’s long-serving Socialist President Mitterand.

A Populist Movement: From Facebook to France via Russia?!??

The Yellow Vests have clearly set the alarm bells ringing in Paris; and, Emanuel Macron has heard them. His Monday “address to the nation” (10 December) was the direct outcome, leading him to make a number of arguably cosmetic concessions. But the French public was not convinced, as voiced by a car mechanic called Jean-Marc speaking to the news agency AFP: Macron “is trying to do a pirouette to land back on his feet but we can see that he isn’t sincere, that it’s all smoke and mirrors.” And hence, the Yellow Vest ‘unrest’ continues, as a “popular movement of no clear political view or ideology.”

The Yellow Vest events of Saturday (1 December) in Paris saw graffiti sprayed on the  Arc de Triomphe proclaiming that “We have chopped off heads for less than this,” hinting at the possible demise of ‘Marie-Macronette,’ a popular slur referencing the French Revolution (1789) and the executions of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette (both died on 21 January 1793). While those marching along the Champs-Elysées on that day shouted slogans like “We are running the revolution” and “Macron to the Bastille.” The RTL journalists Thomas Prouteau and Sarah Ugolini have uncovered that a sub-section of the French police (Renseignement territorial), tasked with gathering information on possible nationwide domestic disturbances, has identified the individuals responsible for the initial spark that has led to the Yellow Vest protests. And that these 8 individuals possessed a “neutral profile”  without any connections to any form of militant engagement or ties to known “groups” or oganisations posing a “risk” – they are simply Facebook friends sharing a passion for “car racing.”

Mainstream Media Claims of ‘Russian Influence’

In spite of all this, the mainstream media (MSM) in the West seems dead set on discovering some kind of Russian angle, in another attempt to uncover yet another “Flemingesque storyline,” a term I suggested some time ago. The German state-sponsored broadcaster DW, for instance, unashamedly states that “Russian social media trolls reportedly helped stoke the ‘yellow vest’ protests — France’s largest demonstrations in years.” In the next instance, DW explains that “information provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD), an initiative by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) that monitors Twitter accounts thought to be under Russia’s influence,” reinforces such blatantly absurd allegations. The ASD was set up as a “bipartisan, transatlantic project” in July 2017 “to counter Russian disinformation campaigns,” relates ReutersDustin Volz. And, as the saying goes, ‘if one has a hammer one tends to look for nails.’ In the same vein, RT, the Russian state-sponsored broadcaster, now reports that even the BBC, the British state broadcaster that has for decades portrayed itself as a bastion of objective journalism, does not shy away from perpetuating fanatastical stories:

“on Sunday [, 16 December], RIA Novosti released a set of screenshots, purporting to show a conversation between BBC journalist Olga Ivshina and a France-based ‘stringer’. The journalist urged the stringer to find anything Russian linked to the protests, explaining that the ‘editorial board wants blood.’ Ivshina’s messages contained insights such as suggesting to the stringer that maybe ‘some Russian business is making big bucks’ on the protests.”

In due course, the BBC sent an e-mail missive to RT, explaining that “As the French Foreign Minister had spoken publicly about media reports of a possible Russian influence in the protests, it was perfectly reasonable for our correspondent to raise the subject.” For his part, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian stated last week that he’d “heard of this rumour [concerning Russian intervention]. There is an inquiry that is being led by the Secretary-General of National Defense. The results of that inquiry will be available soon enough.” But, as reported by the French periodical, Le Journal du Dimanche, quoting an anonymous official, “[a]t the moment, it has not been possible to establish [any Russian] influence in the [Yellow Vest] movement.” At the same time, the same periodical indicates that “Macron’s popularity has dived to a low of 27% on average.”

The Yellow Vests versus the Post-Democratic Status Quo

In the aftermath of the fourth weekend of Yellow Vest demonstrations across France, the Turkish journalist Ceyda Karan conducted an interview with me for Sputnik Türkiye. In the course of our conversation, I put forward that “[o]ne should not regard the Yellow Vests as a phenomenon that is peculiar to France alone,” though there are clearly certain typically French circumstances, such as the abolition of the sole surviving ‘wealth tax’ in Europe or the hyper-centralised state system arguably more amenable to street protests and manifestations as popular political responses. Instead, I would argue that this is a “development that is completely concerns Europe, or rather the EU.” Such popular protests could be traced back to the summer of 2011, when London became the scene of violent riots and looting: “[n]ow there are the Yellow Vests, which have also affected places like the Netherlands and Belgium.”

As such, the fifth installment of the protests even managed to cross the Channel, where the public somehow managed to incorporate a Yellow Vest rhetoric in the ongoing Brexit debacle: “[i]t is not really possible to see this development as limited to certain particular European countries. These events need to be seen as the outcome of EU policies . . . As the EU was actually conceived as a project to build a unified European continent. But, at the moment there are two different sets of worldviews in place; these differing worlds live side by side and are trying to influence one another . . . The first is the [Neoliberal] economy and the latter, democracy. In accordance with the commonly accepted value system, democracy will have to operate in line with the demands of the economy.”

Already in the year 2000, the political scientists Colin Crouch coined the phrase post-democracy to describe our current era. This means that the economy is dominant. And that the European populations can no longer withstand the demands of the economy. In fact, Professor Crouch holds that “virtually all the formal components of democracy survive” today, but that “citizens have been reduced to the role of manipulated, passive, rare participants.” In the further course of the interview, I explain that “[t]here are indeed elections, and politicians. The public might think that it is in a position to change the world by means of casting their ballots in electoral contests that occur at regular intervals. But this is not true. Ballots are being cast. But then the real power emerges; and that is the economy. The EU is completely dependent upon a viewpoint favouring the economy.” In other words, the EU exemplifies the post-democratic status quo ruling the day, a status quo sometimes referred to as the Neoliberal system or the forces of globalisation: “[t]he Yellow Vest protests will spread, and are spreading” as we speak.

As already indicated, last weekend the Yellow Vests also crossed the Channel into pre-Brexit Britain, where Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) and her true successor Tony Blair (1997-2007) have all but ensured that post-democracy has been in place for many decades already. The libertarian think tank Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards optimistically eulogised Thatcher in the following flowery effusion: “The revolution was launched by Margaret Thatcher. She came to power determined to revive the stagnant British economy with market-based reforms. Her government deregulated, cut marginal tax rates, repealed exchange controls, and tamed militant labour unions. But it was privatisation that became her most important and enduring economic legacy. Thatcher popularised the word privatisation, and she oversaw the sale of many major businesses, including British Airways, British Telecom, British Steel, and British Gas.” In this way, she laid the groundwork for the 21st-century post-democratic status quo that sees politicians nominally in charge having abdicated real power to corporate overlords shamelessly reaping the rewards of exploitative businesses deals and low taxation. Her ultimate heir and successor, Tony Blair, all but solidified her ‘achievements.’ The Conservative MP Conor Burns recalls how Thatcher in late 2002 told an interlocutor asking her about her ‘greatest achievement’ that she unflinchingly declared the following: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” Burns rightly recaps that as a result, “socialism was off the agenda and the middle of the road had been firmly moved to the right.” Following the destruction wrought by the unlikely pair that was Blair and Thatcher, successive governments led by David Cameron (2010-16) and Theresa May (2016-) continued their ‘good’ work introducing another novel noun replacing and augmenting privatisation, namely ‘austerity.’

The combined results of widespread privatisation and the ‘austerity programme,’ introduced in 2010, have all but reduced the United Kingdom to a sorry state. In order to investigate that state, Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was despatched to the Britsh Isles recently. Following his inquiries. Alston published his “Statement” on 16 November 2018, starting off on a positive note, declaring that the UK is “the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth, [and] its capital is a leading centre of global finance.” But then, in the next instance, he reveals matter-of-factly that “14 million people, a fifth of the population [of the UK], live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.” But rather than focusing solely on economics and an unfair distribution of wealth and opportunities, Professor Alston quite plainly maintains that “the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering. Successive governments [in the UK] have brought revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it.” In other words, the UN Special Rapporteur appears to say that the UK establishment has been at pains for years to redesign the nation’s social landscape, particularly by systematically dismantling the “social safety net,” in order to drive home the point that the reality of a post-democratic status quo is the only natural course for society to follow. Alston summarises briefly that the “experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice.” And just like the concept and practice of ‘privatisation’ was successfully exported across the world, the notion that a ‘austerity programme’ is the key to success has by now become a universal tenet of the various ‘puppet governments’ around the world, and in the present context, particularly in the EU and the various nation states that make up the bloc.

The EU’s Winter of Discontent or the European Spring

In the face of such a harsh reality, it seems but natural for the man-and-woman on the street to take direct action, protesting and demonstrating in an effort to stop the 21st century from returning to a 19th-century state of affairs – when a small coterie of industrialists and bankers were able to amass huge fortunes on the backs of innumerable exploited industrial workers and their hapless families. As a result, the Yellow Vest revolt against the “president of the rich” has now raised its not-so ugly head, while in Britain austerity-ridden protesters take to the streets decrying the EU and clamouring for a ‘real’ Brexit to take back ‘sovereignty,’ apparently oblivious of the fact that Margaret Thatcher all but ushered in the current rush towards a post-democratic status quo. At the same time, the central-European nation of Hungary, in the EU since 2004, is also rocked by sometimes violent protests against its own ‘puppet government,’ so blatantly representing the interests of rich and wealthy, having recently even introduced a so-called ‘Slave Law’ – a new labour law that allows employers to ask for up to 400 hours of overtime work per year (Hungarian lawmakers passed the proposal with a 130-52 vote margin, and one abstention, on 12 December 2018). In fact, “[t]his past month has been really rough on the EU, as protests, both violent and non-violent, have consumed some of the largest countries in the bloc,” as related by none other than RT – in addition to the above-mentioned unrest in France, Belgium, Netherlands, the UK, and Hungary, protests also rocked the Czech Republic,  Norway, Spain, Italy, and Greece. These winter months have seen the emergence of a popular revolt against the powers-that-be in the EU. On Twitter the hashtag #EuropeanSpring is trending, in reference to these manifestations of popular discontent with the current status quo.

In my already-mentioned conversation with Ceyda Karan, I also noted that “Europe could in the coming years be on the threshold of a [veritable] civil war,” explaining further that this has a clear “economic dimension.” In conjunction with the increasing numbers of Muslim migrants and refugees currently upsetting many Europeans, these material concerns could find an easy outlet in violence against the ‘other’ at the very heart of ‘Christian Europe.’ In this context, it seems either fitting or ironic that the ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM)’ was signed in Marakesh on 8-9 December 2018. More than 150 countries have signed on, with the notable exception of Italy, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and the U.S. The GCM aims to put a humane face (“holistic and comprehensive”) on the plight faced by “large numbers of refugees and migrants,” by means of forging “international cooperation on migrants and human mobility.” Though a consensus has been reached at the highest level, on a street level, the GCM cannot but engender massive amounts of resentment and incomprehension. German chancellor Angela Merkel, a figure that has dominated Europe for the past 13 years and that currently faces many critics, at home as well as abroad, remarked that the “pact is worth fighting for. It’s about time that we finally tackle migration together.” In contrast, the Trump administration released a highly jarring statement (7 December 2018): “We believe the Compact and the process that led to its adoption . . .  represent an effort by the United Nations to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of States to manage their immigration systems in accordance with their national laws, policies, and interests.” But, in reality, all these words and terms being proclaimed at opportune and less opportune moments, like sovereignty or national interest, are nothing but attempts to hide the real portent of the matter behind a blinding array of “smoke and mirrors,” to quote the car mechanic called Jean-Marc speaking to the  AFP.

Whether these current popular and/or populist manifestations of the EU’s Winter of Discontent (hashtag #EuropeanSpring) will have any direct or indirect effects or consequences remains an open point. But, on the other hand, some might argue that the Yellow Vest movement is nothing but the opening shot of the coming civil war engulfing the EU and Europe, pitting rich against poor, local against migrant, and Christian against Muslim.

If these are indeed only the early stages of this movement, then brace yourself for impact.

***
21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has  a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in Today’s Zaman and in Hürriyet Daily News. In the next instance, he became the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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