WE IGNORE THEM AT OUR PERIL
Last November the so-called ‘Yellow Vest’ movement exploded across France. A new gasoline tax imposed by the Macron government sent waves of protesters into the streets.
Coming out in large numbers, they donned as their symbol the yellow safety vests the French government requires all motorists to keep in their vehicles in case of emergency.
The protesters called for a repeal of the gas tax. Initial reports pictured them as rural right-wing populists frustrated by the supposedly pro-environment and pro-immigrant policies of the establishment government.
And indeed the protesters included anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic elements, as well as supporters of Marine Le Pen’s nationalistic National Front party.
But this first take of the movement appears to be a stereotype foisted on it by opponents and critics. The protesters, according to subsequent reports, weren’t opposed to the gas tax because they were Climate Change deniers, but because the tax would have fallen disproportionately on lower income people without access to cheap public transportation.
In fact, a much broader range of issues prompted the protests.
In a recent article in The Nation, Harrison Stetler writes: “More and more people were coming to the conclusion that a distant and arrogant elite was to blame. This elite had overseen the steady erosion of public services, from hospitals and schools to public transportation, stewarding rising inequality while abstaining from paying taxes, and stood by as working- and middle-class job security gave way to the precarious fluidity of the contemporary labor market. “What’s more, people were realizing that something should be done about all of this.”
The protests have continued and intensified. What is of particular interest is that protesters didn’t just march and block highways, but called weekly committee meetings in towns across the country to develop strategy and policy. These spontaneous town meetings have been regularized, and have begun to function as alternatives to the traditional governmental structures in France.
The latest development is a national network linking the movement together, not only through social media, but in a representative national assembly, what the Yellow Vests call the “Assembly of Assemblies.” It convened last month in Commercy, France, with about 300 delegates from 75 groups across the country.
What did the delegates decide? According to Stetler, what emerged from the final Declaration “is simply a product of democratic common sense. With a vociferous denunciation of inequality and police violence, calls for the restoration of free public services, a radical response to Climate Change that targets the greatest polluters in society, and a celebration of the cultural differences in France and among the movement, the declaration cuts against the common narrative about the Yellow Vests.”
What does all this have to do with us? We are facing exactly the same challenges as the French.
We too are divided between a growing socially and economically insecure middle class, and an out-of-touch and seemingly ever-richer elite.
We too suffer the consequences of unregulated corporate capitalism,
Climate Change, economic stagnation, social tensions and environmental degradation.
Historically, France has been a model of revolutionary change for other countries.
Insofar as our political institutions are unable to respond to the same issues that are convulsing France, something similar may happen here. It should be recognized, however, that this populist challenge need not be divisive. Note the inclusiveness and humanitarianism of the Declaration of the Assemblies of Assemblies reported above.
The Yellow Vests in France are a warning. We need structural political and economic reform in this country to deal peacefully with our economic, social, and environmental issues before they overflow into open protests.
A constructive solution
might be for France to somehow incorporate the new movement into its political system, giving a real democratic voice to its grassroots. We might look to a similar solution to our political problems.
It was Thomas Jefferson, after all, who thought the American Revolution incomplete until grassroots assemblies were made the basis of government, and fully represented in more inclusive state and national bodies.
Whatever form it takes, democratic accountability is essential to any society based on popular sovereignty. We ignore it at our peril.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College
philosophy professor and
Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.