Governments Get the People they Deserve: Anger, Class Snobbery and the Gilets Jaunes
by Laurane Marchive
Still, most of my family and friends live in Paris. When Notre-Dame started burning, I knew about it within four minutes. But when the Yellow Vest riots started, I wasn’t aware of it for ten days. As videos of the protests eventually emerged on my Facebook news feed, I was confused: I assumed they were old clips or even fakes. None of my Parisian friends had mentioned the situation, so how could it really be happening in their neighbourhoods? Upon discussing it with other London French expats, they turned out to share my confusion: they had no idea anything amiss had been going on, as no one in their networks had brought it up either. There were riots in the streets of Paris, and Parisians didn’t seem to care.
Most of my Parisian friends work in the media, in journalism or politics. We all studied politics at Sciences Po Lille, so I assumed they would be interested in commenting on the demonstrations. But the Gilets Jaunes are so demographically different from the capital’s socio-cultural elite that, before the riots, they were virtually invisible.
In his recent book, Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France, Christophe Guilluy writes that now, for the first time in history, the working class in France don’t live where jobs and wealth are created. Globalisation and the new international division of labour mean workers in developed countries no longer have a place in cities. They find themselves ‘relegated to a lower France, the France of small and medium-sized towns and rural areas.' In this new social geography, the poorest segment of the population have become spatially and culturally separated from the cities, which have become citadels for the self-segregating, policy-making elites. To make matters worse, all the best French universities, the ‘elite-forming institutions', are located in Paris or other big cities.
In the UK, it’s different. When I moved here, I met Londoners who had studied in Manchester, Canterbury, or Durham. It’s common for middle-class students to study far from home. And some of the best universities are located outside big cities. In France, on the other hand, most people apply to the university closest to where they live or, if they want to try and get into the prestigious and selective Grandes Ecoles, they take an exam and end up going to whichever school accepts them; but again, most of those schools are in metropoles, and the best are in Paris.
I went to a Grande Ecole. Although it was in Lille, most of the students were from Paris or other big cities. But at the less prestigious Lille University, the students mostly came from the local area. Throughout my degree, I saw very little exchange between the two student bodies – not even a blind-drunk snog in a tacky nightclub. We didn’t even frequent the same tacky nightclubs.
As a result of their self-segregation, city people have little cause to leave the metropoles. Once they have their degrees, the only reason for True Parisians to visit the ‘dirt around Paris’ is to go on holiday. The riots don’t bother my friends, because they take place at weekends when my friends go on city-breaks. An acquaintance even told me the only Yellow Vest she ever saw was on a country roundabout, on her way to someone’s holiday house. If not on city-breaks, Parisians leave France altogether, visiting friends and lovers in Belgium, Switzerland, and London.
When asked, most of my friends claimed they understood the Gilets Jaunes: Macron hadn't been listening to ‘the people', and now the people were rebelling. But the upper middle class implicitly don’t consider themselves part of ‘the people’, even though the French Republican tradition peddles the idea that we are all ‘one people’. Guilly writes that the upper segments of French society maintain class differences by denying the existence of class itself. He calls this ‘class blurring’.
Laurent Wauquiez, president of the centre-right party The Republicans, recently declared that a couple on €6,000 a month belongs to the middle class. But for l’Observatoire des Inégalités, France’s inequality watchdog, the middle class includes anyone between the 30% poorest and 20% richest. Based on their numbers, a couple on €6,000 a month belongs to the upper class. By pretending the middle class is broader than it really is, politicians promote the idea that most of French society is financially secure, thus avoiding any real conversation about class.
Politicians tell us the only segment of France that feels left out are the banlieues – the ethnically ghettoised urban outskirts. The banlieues riot too, but when they do, politicians can shift the debate from class to integration; by conflating socio-economic problems with ethnocultural issues, they can once more avoid talking about class.
The rural white population now harbour strong anti-globalisation and anti-immigration feelings. Their discontent is expertly whipped by extremists like Marine Le Pen, who repeatedly bellows that immigrants get all the benefits and all the attention. As the far left, spearheaded by Mélenchon, fails to capture their hearts, Le Pen now positions herself as the true voice of the forgotten French working class. The social elites, on the other hand, are now so disconnected from the ‘lower France’ that they dismiss the concerns of poor whites as neo-fascism. The working class aren’t allowed to speak out about how today’s economic reality has pushed them to the edges of the system. When they complain, they are labelled as bigoted, small-minded Nazis.
Just before the third weekend of the Gilet Jaunes’ demonstrations, I was in Paris. Every single programme, on TV and on radio, was about the Yellow Vests. How many people had been injured so far? Would the governments deploy armoured vehicles? On the evening news, vox-popped Parisians supporting the movement while calling for peaceful protests were alternated with far-right spokespeople gleefully throwing oil on the fire, blasting the government for its blindness to the plight of the people. Paris, it seemed, was getting ready for war.
I spent Thursday night with my grandfather, a conservative history aficionado. As we watched the news, he mused that the situation was like the popular uprising of the French revolution. Popular unrest is at the core of French identity. Every year, throughout the country, school pupils are taught France is a republic born from a popular uprising. As far as French history lessons go, barricades are sexy. The epitome of Frenchness is Victor Hugo’s Gavroche, the street urchin killed at the barricades in Les Miserables. Protesting is so bound up with being French that even our national football team went on strike in 2010, just before the World Cup. (They were eliminated in the first round, so the public wasn’t impressed; had they won the tournament, we would have celebrated their republican panache.) So even as discontent at the Gilets Jaunes’ violence grew, it was hard to disentangle the chaos of their protests from a certain pride that this is just what we do. If the French government had dramatically multiplied tuition fees like in England, the students would have set the universities on fire. And rightly so.
Like the French revolution, the Gilets Jaunes movement started with local complaints. In December 2018, Buzzfeed ran an article about Facebook’s impact on French politics. The piece described how the Yellow Vests had first appeared on the social network in January 2018 as decentralised ‘anger groups’. That same month, Facebook had announced two algorithm changes that would improve its News Feed by prioritising ‘news that is trustworthy, informative, and local’. Facebook was trying to contain the spread of fake news. But the side effect was to amplify the local ‘anger groups’.
Within a year, those groups had gained enough momentum for the decentralised discontent to manifest as a country-wide phenomenon. On 24th October, a Frenchman's post, urging people to wear yellow vests to protest oil prices and taxation, went viral. Less than a month later, 300,000 Gilets Jaunes mobilised across France. Of course, Facebook is a filter bubble, so what was obvious to the Yellow Vests came as a complete surprise to everyone else. For the first time in years, technology was giving the invisible class the megaphone that would carry their voices to the hearts of the citadels, allowing their anger to erupt in classic French style.
Macron’s answer to the Gilets Jaunes was to organise a national conversation called the ‘Grand Debat.’ But on the night he was to announce its findings, Notre Dame began to burn. Macron postponed his speech and is now using the cathedral as a symbol to unify the country. Unfortunately, the sums French billionaires have promised for the reconstruction have served to highlight how rich the rich really are in France. Awkward, since the Gilets Jaunes movement started in response to Macron’s tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy.
On 26th May, Macron will face Le Pen in the European elections. Once again, the wealthy classes have taken the moral high ground. Macron says he is the only bulwark against fascism and chaos. And he might be right: I certainly don’t want Le Pen elected, no more than I root for Farage or Trump. But it might be wise to listen to the people who do vote for them. Dismissing those people as small-minded bigots isn’t working. In France, like it or not, Le Pen is the politician who has spoken with most electoral success for ‘the small people’: those who dwell outside big cities, who don’t immediately benefit from the EU and globalisation, and who see the world moving forward while they stand still.
The educated classes blast the Yellow Vests for supporting the extremes and for feeding the beast of fascism, but mostly for not being articulate enough to express a coherent solution. But is it fair to criticise the less educated for their lack of education? We mock Le Pen, Trump or Farage supporters uttering political naiveties when the cameras are on. But upper-middle-class voters don’t know how to fix politics or the economy either: they just know enough to phrase their ignorance in a palatable way. The Gilets Jaunes classes have been invisible for a long time, but they are many, and they should have a voice. Governments get the people they deserve. If the French elites don’t wise up to that fact, the anger will grow. And there will be more riots, for that is the French way.