I know, I know. It’s Thanksgiving. I should be talking about Mom and apple pie. And I fully intended to. Really. I mean, we’ve risen to the occasion here at Folio Weekly, producing a hella ‘Murrican issue for this hella ’Murrican holiday. There’s football. There are cars. There’s country music.
And my weekly editorial was to be a thing of bipartisan beauty. I planned to give thanks to our readers for the healthy dialogue (see Mail) and encourage even more engagement. Folio Weekly is, after all, the place for our community to express opinions of all stripes (even though, yes, as an alternative weekly, we do have a proudly progressive editorial voice. Here we stand. We cannot do otherwise.)
Anyway, I was already patting myself on the back for pulling it all off. Then the French ruined it all.
Full disclosure: I have a love-hate relationship with La France. I lived on its periphery, alternately in Brussels and Luxembourg, for nine years. As a touring musician, I’ve played France more than any other country besides the U.S. It’s a large and diverse nation, so it’d be intellectually dishonest to make any sweeping statements. But since it seems France is lining up to be the next domino to fall to a strangely international nationalist movement, I better collect my thoughts and express them the best I can.
This past weekend, tens of thousands of French folks threw on safety yellow and attempted to barricade highways in protest against their president Emmanuel Macron’s new eco-tax on fuel. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests), as they’re called, were lauded in some media as a leaderless, grassroots movement, evidence that the French are mad as hell and aren’t gonna take it anymore. The story has just started to filter into the English-language media sphere. Let’s see what happens next.
Of course, I had to take the bait. Not just for my own sake, mind you, but also to correct a few false assumptions we Americans hold about the French—namely that, as a nation, they are the polar opposite of us. In reality, we are too similar.
Brethren from another mother, we are two of the world’s oldest surviving republics (although they’re currently on their fifth republican constitution). And neither has quite perfected the art of compromise. To wit, as much as American conservatives point to France as a typical “European-style” (whatever that means) socialist state, the French people are and have always been riven by the same political quarrels that divide us.
These gilet-jaune demonstrations, for example, took place in the hinterlands not because the urban populations are reliant on public transport, like our New Yorkers. (Parisians drive. Very poorly, to be sure. But they drive.) No, it’s because these events are part of an age-old pattern of rural discontent with the “elites” in the cities. Sound familiar?
Now, to be clear, some of these instincts are sound. The right to be represented is fundamental. The right to assemble and demonstrate in pursuit of said representation is equally fundamental, even if it disrupts business as usual (see News Bites, “Rawls Well That Ends Well”).
But what if the “elites” are not really elites at all? What if they’re simply the other 50 percent of the national populace, the folks who live in densely populated urban areas and have different ways of living and relating to their neighbors?
What is so disturbing about the advent of the gilets jaunes—and what indicates that it is not at all a grassroots movement but a PR stunt—is how closely it aims to mirror the culture wars that spawned the alt-right here. It’s a focused narrative, a catechism describing a spontaneous tax revolt (like the Tea Party) morphing into something so much more. Yada yada yada. This is really an attempt to paint Manny Macron as another Hillary Clinton and thus pave the way for another Donald Trump.
Most damning of all is the movement’s anti-union rhetoric. Every gilet jaune ambassador talks in abstract about the failure of the unions. What does a fuel tax have to do with unions? And what do these provincial demonstrators have to do with unions? Nothing.
Keep in mind, however, that the current U.S. administration’s path to victory (at least in the Electoral College) began in the Bible Belt but ended in the Rust Belt. Our alt-right gained the upper hand by turning just enough Northern working folk against their unions and just enough (white male) hipsters against the original utopian values of rock and roll. Someone in France has been taking notes.
And we should be taking notes, on both sides of our political divide. The French are not a limp-wristed nation. They didn’t “surrender” in 1940. They joined Nazi Germany. There was a robust, homegrown French fascist movement ready and waiting to take over when the Wehrmacht came a-knockin’. They allowed Hitler to occupy the north of the country and set themselves up as a “neutral” but friendly sovereign neighbor, governed from southern Vichy.
There were and there remain some gnarly forces at play in fair France. And those same elements are itching for another go at power. It’s clear now that they’re taking a page from the American playbook and looking to forge an Astroturf alt-right coalition to topple Macron.
And they might pull it off. One thing I learned about the French over the years: they will blithely adopt the worst of American culture even as their famous Gallic chauvinism seems impervious to our better ideas. At the end of the day, I guess this is my gripe with that great cheese-eating nation.
What would it mean if they were to succeed? Well, twice in the last century we saw what “nationalism” in Europe looks like. So when you see the gilets jaunes on your TV screen, be mindful of where the Yellow Brick Road might lead.