The scenes from France have been stunning: tens of thousands of ordinary, mostly rural, citizens wearing fluorescent yellow road safety vests and enveloped in clouds of tear gas, as they protest a rise in the fuel tax.
Of course, the revolt of the “yellow vests” – which has also turned against French president Emmanuel Macron - is about something larger than a tax on petrol. The protests are the cri de coeur of wage earners who can’t make it through the month on stagnant salaries while the French 1 percent grow ever richer.
There is much that is particularly French about these protests that makes them an unlikely model for the aggrieved in America’s heartlands.
Yet there are definitely lessons for Americans in the eruption of the gilets jaunes all across France.
The protests arose spontaneously and spread via social media after Macron imposed a new tax on fuel aimed at protecting the environment. For rural working poor who need to drive, this was a sign that Macron, and the entire political establishment, was tone deaf.
And, in a particularly French fashion, protesters turned to the streets with a demand for economic justice, a right openly enshrined in the preamble to the French constitution.
“We have a culture of equality,” explains Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director of Le Monde. “It is a fundamental value inherited from the French Revolution but transmitted from generation to generation. The yellow vests are very angry because they see inequalities growing. The 1 percent is richer than it used to be and wages are lagging behind.”
In times past, that French demand for justice might have been channeled via mainstream political parties, primarily on the left. But the mainstream French socialist party is in tatters, as are social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe. Ditto for the French Communist Party, and the once strong communist-backed CGT union. (The mainstream conservative right party is also having trouble finding its bearings.)
Moreover, the main populist leader on the right, Marine Le Pen, discredited herself in the presidential election (although polls show her party has strong support among the yellow vests).
Macron, with his brand new En Marche party presented himself as the candidate for change – and has been trying to reform a stagnant economy and encourage growth. But he failed to grasp the economic and social despair in areas far from Paris.
With the political establishment in disarray, a spontaneous eruption on the streets was a very French response to the anger of a large segment of the population. (The violence at the demonstrations was mostly the work of youthful gangs from the slums who latched on to what had been peaceful protests.)
Contrary to President Trump’s tweets, these protesters aren’t targeting immigration or the global pact on climate change. (Nor did they cheer for Trump, as the president claimed.) The yellow vests focused narrowly on their quality of life and fears that it will never improve.
But on a broader level these protests reflect the failure of French political institutions to help citizens navigate their way through a period of immense economic and technological changes. “It’s a new phenomenon born out of this political and social vacuum,” says Kauffmann.
Macron has rescinded the fuel tax and offered some economic sweeteners to low-salaried workers. (And the vaunted French social safety net, including health insurance, ensures that no one is starving.)
Yet if French political leaders cannot address the despair in rural and rust belt France, populist fearmongers on the right may reorganize and reap the benefits in coming elections.
Which brings us to the warning the rise of gilets jaunes presents to the United States.
Unlike Macron, Trump has found the antiestablishment, anti-immigrant vocabulary that soothes the fears of many of globalization’s losers. Moreover, Trump has tools that French and other European leaders lack: He can pump prime the U.S. economy with tax cuts and run up mammoth deficits because foreign countries like China are so willing to park their surpluses in dollar-denominated Treasury bills. Yet this profligacy will cost our country dearly in the not-too-distant future, with interest rates rising.
Moreover, Trump’s deficits and trade wars have not addressed the prime problem of the heartland: Technology is draining decent paying jobs and will continue to do so. Neither Trump’s GOP, nor the Democratic Party, have figured out how to provide the skilled workers America needs, and provide decent jobs for high school grads who would have done well in the factories of the 1960s.
So far, Trump has been able to camouflage reality by revving up anger against foreigners and “traitors.” And unlike France, America lacks any tradition of worker uprisings, with hope springing eternal to make it into the 1 percent.
But the yellow vests are warning us of the risk when economic inequalities become so huge that those on the lower end can no longer stand the humiliation. If political leaders can’t rise to the challenge, bad things will happen.