Is Paris burning? Paris is an evocative name that conjures all manner of images including those of protest in its myriad forms. I arrived in the capital the day after the fourth Saturday of gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in the 8th, 17th and 16th arrondissements.
1848, 1968, 2005 . . . the French have a habit of getting out on to city streets to protest against the state machine and its politicians. The recently published work Une histoire populaire de la France du XIVe siècle à nos jours (A history of working-class France from the fourteenth century to the present day) by Gérard Noiriel is an essential read. Not yet available in English, perhaps a canny British publisher will pick it up.
Originally triggered by a petition posted online arguing against a fuel tax, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement spread around France by way of demonstrators camping on roundabouts, blockading motorways, and staging what were initially peaceful demos in cities across France.
Supermarket chains Leclerc, Carrefour and Casino sold diesel and petrol at cost price – without their own mark-up – until 30 November.
“This isn’t about Left or Right,” said one elderly woman on the evening news, “we can’t make ends meet despite having one, even two, jobs. We want to be heard.”
Referendums have become a key demand of the movement. A “citizens’ initiative referendum” could be triggered if 700,000 people signed an online petition supervised by an acknowledged independent body. The concept dates back to 1793. An interview with a professor of constitutional law at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University, Dominique Rousseau, outlines the possible political outcomes in magazine Les Inrockuptibles.
With 70% of the French people behind them – the vicious violence on all sides has been condemned – the gilets jaunes have no leader or central manifesto. Predominantly working and lower middle class, they have their counterparts in countries across Europe and in the UK, all of whom feel betrayed by a political elite and an economic system that ignores their needs.
Add to these grievances the simmering discontent in the banlieues and it’s a tinderbox. One lit match and BOOM! Watch the explosion . . . Rage against the elitist, affluent machine was reflected in the graffiti adorning shop fronts and walls around Place St Augustin near where I was staying.
This disenchanted, disaffected other world is the antithesis of the affluent metropolitan chic of central Paris, and is portrayed in this year’s Goncourt-winning novel, Leurs Enfants Après Eux (And Their Children After Them) by Nicolas Mathieu which centres around teenagers growing up in a forgotten, peripheral region of eastern France in the 1990s. “Nicolas understands the destitute, the working class, in a way that most writers don’t,” states his publisher.
Extreme-right and extreme-left “professional” demonstrators and “casseurs” from the banlieues surrounding Paris where unemployment is over twice the national rate infiltrated the peaceful protests, burning cars, hurling paving stones at riot police and smashing and raiding shops for luxurious loot.
The first luxury brand to be attacked in the Champs Elysées was Dior since Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, the world’s leading luxury products group, backed President Macron’s election campaign.
Making a reality of the spirit of liberté, egalité, fraternité in our disaster-capitalist society means having what everyone else has, right? Means having celebrity-endorsed Pumas and Rolexes, right? Wrong . . .
Nicolas Gaudemet’s just-published satirical novel La Fin des Idoles was five years in the making. It is an informative and entertaining read for fans of Frédéric Beigbeder and Le Canard enchaîné. Lyne Paradis infiltrates a TV channel and creates a subversive reality show with the aim of curing bulimic media star Paloma of her addictive obsession with bling-bling celebrity. The results are mind boggling and outrageous as the roots of modern misery and material desire are exposed.
Between the mid-1950s and the 1960s clusters of high-rise apartment blocks were built on the outer fringes of the big cities, Paris in particular. Considered to be the zenith of architectural modernity at the time, these bleak concrete-slab ghettos have become the burial grounds of hope, and are abandoned by those who can afford to leave. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do and zero social mobility.
In the early 2000s, Interior Minister Sarkozy instructed the police to concentrate on providing public safety and combating crime, and not on social work. Then Prime Minister Raffarin cut subsidies for local associations and community programmes.
After the urban uprisings of 2005 hollow promises were made about dealing with the inequalities in the banlieues. The social situation is a massive problem. Sevran is one of France’s poorest places, north-east of the Paris périphérique. The jobless rate is 18%, and over 40% among young people. The cult film of the 1990s, La Haine, was prescient, and remains a timeless classic.
The territory is fertile for political exploitation by extremists backed by the Kremlin or Marine Le Pen, using social media as a tool to incite offline violence. Cyber: La guerre permanente by Jean-Louis Gergorin & Léo Isaac-Dognin looks behind the façade of digital globalization. From jihadist propaganda to electoral interference and targeted manipulation to all-out cyber attack, the virtual global conflict is intensifying – upsetting the geopolitical order and blurring the boundaries between war and peace, security and freedom, oligarchies and democracy.
“It isn’t until the New Year that the economic consequences will truly be felt,” one small indie trade publisher said. “It’s a disaster for small bookshops since the run up to Christmas is the most lucrative time of year for them. We’ve delayed publication of our winter titles until the spring.”
Irony of ironies: it is the entrepreneurial shop keepers who are suffering the most from lost sales. Amazon France is benefiting as people do their Christmas shopping online instead. I went to check out Les Grands Magasins which looked busy and bustling to me, though I’m no Sciences Po economist!
The French government has declared it is dropping the fuel tax from the 2019 budget and will make further concessions to the protesters, even raising a possible rollback on a controversial move to cut taxes for high earners last year. The minimum wage has been increased, and for some retirees pensions will be increased.
But France is far more polarised, and misogyny and racism are far more widespread and entrenched among the ruling elites than in Britain. Pushing through a reform programme was bound to trigger trouble for the government. Michel Houellebecq’s Extension du domaine de la lutte – published in the UK under the je-m’en-foutiste title, Whatever – perfectly captures the nihilistic hinterland.
Although there was a lower turnout last Saturday, demonstrators ignored government calls to stay home following the attack on Strasbourg’s Christmas market and embarked on the fifth consecutive week of anti-government demos. The riotous debate is far from over.
Opinion polls for the 2019 European parliamentary elections show Le Pen’s FN ahead of Macron’s En Marche. Irony of ironies: the centrist French President is enabling the populism he was supposed to defeat.
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