There is a saying in France that the unskilled worker is either on strike or on holidays. It’s not true; it’s an idiom that has gained traction recently as the country tries to work its way through a number of self-inflicted economic issues.
In France currently, there is a major protest movement, which the media have dubbed the ‘gilets jaunes,’ (‘yellow jackets’). The reason they call them the yellow jackets, or yellow vests, is because they wear high visibility yellow vests when they protest.
They are protesting against Emmanuel Macron, the president of France who has proposed some rather savage tax increases that they regard as impacting upon them quite heavily, taxes they feel are not being spread equally across the economy.
They are a gluttonous, selfish lot, already feeding freely on a highly generous, social system, that includes workplace benefits, a comparatively low retirement age, as well as free health and inclusive education opportunities that other EU countries don’t share.
Their anger is directed at Macron, who they regard as having betrayed their initial trust in him. Their protest strategy is to take advantage of secure employment during the week and then spend their weekends disrupting everyone else’s leisure time. The aim is for those, who would like a little bit of free time for social engagements during the weekends, enjoying whatever it is that they do, to also feel the brunt of their anger.
Oddly enough, there is an equal amount of sympathy and scorn for the movement among the broader French population.
Macron knows that if France remains a member of the Eurozone, its social security system is not sustainable without an increase in its revenue stream. Getting this message across to the yellow vests is proving to be very difficult. France does not have a sovereign currency; its membership of the Eurozone reduces it to the level of statehood inside a monetary block where it has no power to create its own currency.
Alarmingly, the yellow jackets have stopped listening to Macron.
This strategy places great demands on the police to work on weekends trying to restore law and order and allow people to go about their normal activities. The yellow vests are quite violent in their protests, smashing shop fronts, lighting fires, hurling rocks and creating as much mayhem as they can. The police respond with batons and tear gas, creating scenes of chaos wherever the protesters gather.
When I arrived in Paris at Gare du Nord one Saturday afternoon in late September via the Eurostar from London, the yellow vests were in full battle order. They had blocked the main streets and the police were everywhere. I went out onto the street to find a taxi only to find a large queue of people doing exactly the same thing. The short supply of taxis was due to the yellow vests blockading the major exits and entrances to the city and movement anywhere had become severely curtailed.
The following Saturday, when I arrived in Toulouse, I found the yellow vests had blocked the roads there, as well. Our bus driver did not know how to get to our hotel. So, she parked the bus in the middle of a bridge and unhitched our luggage. She said, “You have to walk from here,” and pointed in the general direction of the hotel.
So, imagine, if you will, eighteen disillusioned foreign seniors walking down a street dragging all manner of suitcases, backpacks and other paraphernalia towards an intersection where we could see a burning building, tear gas, police fighting against the yellow vests and listening to a noise that resembled that of an AFL grand final crowd. It was mildly intimidating but also somewhat stimulating and exciting.
We walked for fifteen minutes before arriving safely at our hotel. It had been a sober welcome both Paris and Toulouse. A week or so later, again on a Saturday morning, we returned to Paris from Montpellier, this time terminating at Gare de Lyon to experience the whole thing over again.
Reflecting on this, as I did when I returned home mid-October, it occurred to me that the French riots were part of a worldwide trend. Taken in isolation, they seem selfish and self-centred. But connecting the dots and adding other current protest movements like those in Hong Kong, Germany, South America, Italy, Australia and elsewhere, it becomes evident that currently there is a world-wide sense of unrest and rebellion and that its constituent parts have one thing in common: neoliberalism.
Where this is leading to, is anyone’s guess. But it is real and it is unprecedented. We can also include the calamity and hilarity of events we see unfolding in the US relating to Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings and events in the UK relating to Brexit.
One thing strikes me as a no-brainer. If Brexit goes ahead, France will follow. Their inability to fund their social programs within the Eurozone will ultimately lead them to realize their only option is to leave the Eurozone and ultimately, the EU and restore their true sovereignty. If France goes, Italy will follow and gradually, over a period of many years, the EU and the Eurozone will collapse in much the same way the Soviet Union collapsed.
This then exposes Europe to the dangers of war. It’s a chilling scenario. I don’t expect to be around if and when it happens, but my grandchildren will be.
And that really frightens me. My concern is not for my future, but theirs.
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