LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE | FEBRUARY 2019
Opposite page Paris Commune, 1871: a ‘pétroleuse’ about to set fire to buildings in Paris
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plan. As social democracy bedded down in the apparatus of the state and made itself at home in the media and on company boards, it banished its former working-class supporters to the political wilderness. (During the 2016 election campaign in the US, there was little surprise when Hillary Clinton told campaign donors that core Trump supporters were a ‘basket of deplorables’.)
The situation in France is little better. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a socialist who shaped the views of many of Macron’s inner circle, explained in a book in 2002 that his party’s base had to be ‘members of intermediate groups, consisting overwhelmingly of salaried workers, savvy, informed and educated, who form the backbone of our society. They assure its stability, because of their attachment to the “market economy”.’ As for less savvy members of society, their fate was sealed: ‘Of the least well-off group, alas, one cannot always expect peaceful participation in a parliamentary democracy. Not that they are uninterested in history, but their irruptions sometimes manifest with violence’.7 Those people needed to be considered only once every five years, and then usually to deplore the number of them who voted for the far right. After that, they could return to oblivion and invisibility (when Strauss-Kahn wrote this, road safety laws did not yet compel all drivers to carry a yellow vest in their cars).
The strategy worked. The French working class was excluded from political representation, and even physically excluded from the centre of France’s big cities: with just 4% of new home-owners from the working class each year, Paris in 2019 is like Versailles in 1789. They are also excluded from the television screen, where 60% of those who appear in news programmes come from the highest qualified 9% of the population.8 As far as Macron is concerned, the working class might as well not exist. He believes Europe is ‘an old continent of petit bourgeois who feel secure living in material comfort’.9
But this social world, which was supposed to have been obliterated, deemed too resistant to academic effort and training and therefore responsible for its own fate, has come to life again under the Arc de Triumph and on the ChampsÉlysées, and at roundabouts across the country. A confused and perturbed Jean-Éric Schoettl, councillor of state and constitutional expert, described ‘a reversion to a primitive form of class struggle’ in Le Figaro (11 January).
Who’s right and who’s left?
The plan to remove the majority of the population from the political arena may have gone awry, but another item on the ruling class’s agenda is enjoying unexpected success, and that is the blurring of distinction between right and left. The idea, which became dominant after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was to push any position that challenged the neoliberal ‘circle of reason’ (in the words of essayist Alain Minc) to the discredited extremist margins. Political legitimacy would no longer depend on a vision of the world – capitalist or socialist, nationalist or internationalist, conservative or emancipatory, authoritarian or democratic – but on the dichotomy between those who are reasonable and those who are radical, between open and closed, progressive and populist. The rejection of the distinction between right and left, which journalists currently blame on the yellow vests, is the working-class version of the bourgeois bloc’s longstanding policy of blurring distinctions.
This winter, demands for tax justice, improved living standards and rejection of state authoritarianism are the focus of attention, but the struggle over employee exploitation and social ownership of the means of production has been almost entirely absent. The reintroduction of the solidarity wealth tax; a return to the 90 km/h speed limit on minor roads; tighter control of politicians’ expenses; a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC): none of these will challenge the subordination of workers in the workplace, the fundamental division of income or the hollow nature of popular sovereignty in the EU or a globalised world.
Of course, movements learn as they go; they set new objectives as they encounter unexpected obstacles and opportunities. At the time of the Estates General in 1789, there were only a few republicans in the whole of France. Expressing solidarity with the yellow vests is therefore a way to encourage their action in the right direction, towards justice and emancipation, while remaining aware that others are encouraging it in the opposite direction, and counting on social anger benefiting the far right in May’s European elections.
Isolating the yellow vests politically would encourage such an outcome; the authorities and media are trying to make them unacceptable to the progressive middle class by exaggerating the significance of any bigoted statement one of them might make. The possible success of this effort to discredit them would validate Macron’s strategy since 2017, which has been to reduce political life to a clash between liberals and populists.10 Once this divide has been established, he could condemn his own ‘basket of deplorables’ on the right and the left, relating any domestic challenge to the actions of a ‘populist internationale’, which would lump together Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Matteo Salvini along with Polish conservatives, British socialists, German nationalists and La France Insoumise (the leftwing party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon).
Macron will have to resolve a paradox, though. As his support comes from a narrow social base, he will only be able to implement his ‘reforms’ of unemployment insurance, pensions and public services at the cost of a stronger political authoritarianism, backed by police repression and a nod to the hard right with a ‘big debate about immigration’. The irony is that, having lectured ‘illiberal’ governments all round the world, Macron may yet borrow most of their playbook ◼
They should actually use their weapons for once [against] these thugs, these bastards from the far right or far left or from the suburbs who come looking for a fight with the police Luc Ferry
1 ‘L’Info du vrai’, Canal Plus, 13 December 2018 2 See Louis Bodin and Jean Touchard, Front populaire: 1936, Armand Colin, Paris, 1961 3 Auguste Romieu, Le Spectre rouge de 1852, Ledoyen, Paris, 1851, quoted in Christophe Ippolito, ‘La fabrique du discours politique sur 1848 dans L’Éducation sentimentale’, no 17, Pau, 2017 4 Paul Lidsky, Les Écrivains contre la Commune (Writers against the Commune), La Découverte, Paris, 1999 (1st edition, 1970) 5 Faustine Vincent, ‘Pourquoi le quotidien d’un couple de “gilets jaunes” dérange des lecteurs’ (Why the daily life of a yellow vest couple disturbs readers), Le Monde, 20 December 2018 6 See Laurent Bonelli, ‘Les architectes du social-libéralisme’ (The architects of social liberalism), Le Monde diplomatique, September 1998 7 Dominique StraussKahn, La Flamme et la Cendre (The flame and the ash), Grasset, Paris, 2002. See Serge Halimi, ‘Flamme bourgeoise, cendre prolétarienne’ (Bourgeois flame, proletarian ash), Le Monde diplomatique, March 2002 8 ‘Baromètre de la diversité de la société française’ (Barometer of diversity in French society), 2017 figures, Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel, Paris, December 2017 9 ‘L’histoire redevient tragique: une rencontre avec Emmanuel Macron’ (History becomes tragic again: an encounter with Emmanuel Macron), Alexandre Duval-Stalla and Michel Crépu, La Nouvelle Revue française, no 630, Paris, May 2018 10 See ‘Not the world order we wanted’, Serge Halimi and Pierre Rimbert, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2018
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