Monday, November 4, 2013

Ras le bol: Les Bonnets Rouges

Photo credit: Vincent Mouchel

Something ominous is afoot. The opposition to Hollande has begun to change character. Until now most of the talk has been about the rising threat of the Front National. That threat remains, to be sure, but it has inherent limitations as a national political phenomenon, since a substantial majority still considers Marine Le Pen to be an unacceptable alternative to the mainstream parties.

The Bonnets rouges represent a new threat. Hastily assembled to protest the "ecotax" on truckers, the movement initially seemed to be a routine affair of an interest group harmed by a policy reacting in self-defense. But the movement has spread and grown more violent. It seems to be coalescing into a regional revolt against any number of consequences of government actions and inaction. The issues range far beyond the ecotax, and all manner of anti-Hollande elements are getting into the act: 
Les organisateurs du rassemblement, regroupant pêle-mêle le Medef, le NPA, la FNSEA, FO ou encore le Parti breton, sont pourtant bien incapables de prévoir la suite du mouvement.
Strange bedfellows indeed. But Hollande must take note. Brittany has been une terre de conquête for the Left, but it now seems to be slipping away, as its agrobusiness interests succumb to international competition (the meatpacker Gad has had to lay off hundreds of workers) and angry truckers attack the "electronic gateways" that had been erected to monitor the passage of trucks in preparation for collection of the ecotax.

Meanwhile, Hollande's approval rating has sunk out of sight, barely above 20%, the lowest ever recorded in the Fifth Republic, while a recent poll shows that more than 90% consider the government to be on the wrong track. It hardly needs emphasizing that these are disastrous results, and the government seems to have no response--not even the standard pseudo-response of un remaniement ministériel.

What is interesting is that no party, not even the Front National, speaks for this movement, which expresses rather a generalized ras-le-bol and disgust with the absence of a "political offer" that it can understand. It's not so much that the government lacks a policy. Even its enemies acknowledge that it  has one. What it lacks is an explanation of its policy, a plausible rationale that what it is doing will lead to improvement in any of the areas that concern the proliferating ranks of the protesters. "Show us--not that your plan will work but that it can work," they are saying, and meanwhile rejecting the few incoherent answers they have received.

This is a moment of maximal danger, not just for Hollande but for the establishment generally. Legitimacy is rapidly draining away. And when it is finally gone, who knows what comes next?


Mitch Guthman said...


I would like to focus on one aspect of what you wrote. I'm not sure that I agree that most people know what Hollande's plan is or even how "success" would be defined in the context of that plan. Indeed, I suspect that my understanding of Hollande's plan is somewhat different from yours.

I thank Hollande is following Andrew Mellon’s prescription and in just biding his time while this depression “liquidates itself.” At some point, then, the “rottenness” will have been purged by the system and the natural business cycle will take effect and things will probably improve a bit, at least by comparison to the depths of the depression.

Still, and I know that I keep coming back to this but this new development suggests that these questions are inescapable:

1. Can we find a way to deal with globalization and it's destructive consequences by reaching a consensus on a replacement for neoliberalism?

2. Will the superrich moderate as did their predecessors at the end of the First Gilded Age thereby allowing us to have the considerably more just societies we now enjoy or are we in a “pre-Revolutionary period”?

So, where does that leave us? In many ways, the France faces the same choice today as it did in 1790, just as England and America face the same choices in this Second Gilded Age as they did in the first, namely, whether the superrich will seek a total domination in our societies so that they look more like Third World countries with their small number of superrich, slightly larger “middle class” of personal servants of various kinds, politicians, bureaucrats and so forth, with the bulk of the people becoming what the Conservatives in England openly call “proles.”

Essentially, I think we can’t find a way to change course and preserve the social welfare state, we’re heading for a war of all against all in which the only remaining question is simply, who will liquidate whom. As we are seeing, the anger of the working and middle classes may be unfocused by it's very real and very dangerous.

There is an article in the latest edition of Paris Match (which I haven't read yet) with the title "Le FN premier parti de France?" Unimaginable just a few years ago. Perhaps it is 1789 again. These seem to be enough similarities that everyone should be worried.

I think you’re right about what the rise of the FN and the of this Bonnets rouges signifies. Basically, if it comes down to it, there’s probably a lot of French people who might be ready to change the name of the Place de la Concorde back and get busy with the “nouveaux aristocrates” before they would agree to sacrifice their families' futures and live like peasants in a banana republic.

FrédéricLN said...

I agree at least on broad lines with Mitch Gutchman.

When I read "It's not so much that the government lacks a policy. Even its enemies acknowledge that it has one," well, I'm not an enemy of this government, but I have no idea of its policy.

I had one in the first months: raise taxes, in order to prevent bankruptcy, and get low interest rates. Hollande succeeded in that. But this is not sustainable, if you don't ignite (or foster) the economic revolution that will pay these taxes. And there is hardly a sign that anyone in this government understands what economy is about, not to say technological revolutions. (Remember only one Ministre had an experience in a business, and that was Jérôme Cahuzac). When we look at Obama or Merkels policies, we just can notice that yes, it would have been possible to open eyes and take decisions, also in France.