It’s October 2021. America is in a state of turmoil – so much so that the ongoing felony trial of disgraced former president Donald Trump seems only a footnote. The chaos of the 2020 election has meant no honeymoon for Beto O’Rourke, the 47th president, whose narrow win over the GOP’s Nikki Haley (the Republican convention in Charlotte having rejected President Pence) had only enraged both the right and an increasingly angry left, which was still insisting that Democrats had cheated Bernie Sanders out of the nomination at their divided, brokered convention.
Still, President O’Rourke had small Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and – after a summer of record heat waves had left more than 250 dead in the Los Angeles wildfires and seen Hurricane Gigi swamp many of the same New Orleans neighborhoods that had been inundated by Katrina – the charismatic, Kennedyesque chief executive had convinced Congress to pass, by exactly one vote in each chamber, a 40-cent-a-gallon gas tax to promote solar and wind power and subsidize electric cars.
Within hours, angry truckers had parked their rigs across the entrance to every tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In small towns across America, protesters – encouraged by Sean Hannity on Fox News and by fake stories on Facebook that the O’Rourke administration planned to reopen Trump’s Texas detention camps for immigrants and use them to imprison tax resisters – gathered at gas stations. Many of their rallies were infiltrated by the political fringes – neo-Nazis of the right and Black Bloc anarchists of the left – and there were scattered reports of violence. In Charleston, S.C., a CNN reporter was reporting from a full-blown riot when gunfire was heard in the distance, just a cannonball shot away from historic Fort Sumter.
You’d think the rapid decline of Western civilization would get more news coverage in America – normally, flaming barricades in the shadow of the iconic Arc de Triomphe and hundreds fleeing tear gas in the heart of the French capital might be considered must-see TV, especially when the other option is a panel of aging Watergate prosecutors – but the latest chess moves in the Trump-Russia scandal and the embattled White House continue to trump most other headlines.
Still, Saturday’s news out of the City of Light, now illuminated by the glow of flaming cars, was both shocking and yet somewhat familiar, as the protests engulfing France raged into a fourth weekend with no immediate end in sight. This go-round, a massive police presence – an army, really – of some 89,000 officers turned Paris into a police state, with most tourist attractions and high-end stores boarded shut at the height of the holiday season. The law officers sought to put a lid on the so-called “Yellow Vests," or gilets jaunes, before things got out of hand. Tear gas and water cannons were deployed early and often and 1,400 were arrested in an effort to limit damage from the casseurs – young (mostly) men out for violence.
The protests continued even though French president Emmanuel Macron has promised to roll back the fuel tax – part of the government’s response to climate change – with plans to address the nation on Monday in a televised plea to end the unrest. I imagine one reason the mayhem in Paris hasn’t been viewed with much alarm here in the United States is the notion of French Exceptionalism, that those crazy Gauls have always gone off the deep end with their protests – remember 1789? – and this is just one more.
Perhaps. But everything I’ve seen so far out of France is singing loudly that, yes, it’s a small world, after all – and that what’s happening on the barricades is both a reflection of what’s going on in much of the developed world and a screaming alarm for what could come next. You don’t need Google Translate to see the casseurs as their versions of our own torch-bearing white supremacists or black-scarfed antifa, while the gilets jaunes – heavily male and middle-aged, from the “forgotten towns" far from chic Paris, dependent on their cars and affordable gas for jobs that allow them to barely scrape by – sound very much like America’s Fox News demographic, finally rousted from their couches and out into the street.
“We don’t agree with the current system anymore; it doesn’t represent us,” an electrician named Julien Lezer who drove all night from his town near the Mediterranean to protest in Paris told the New York Times. “It’s not in the regions that things change. It’s in Paris. It’s when the people from the regions go to Paris that the politicians listen.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the connection between Lezer and other “Yellow Vests” I’ve seen quoted and the American Tea Party movement of 2009 or the kind of protests that likely would have been stirred up by Fox News or talk radio if Hillary Clinton had been elected on Nov. 8, 2016, instead of Donald Trump. Indeed, Trump’s so vain, he actually thinks the riots are about him (although it should be noted that the protests had nothing to do with the Paris climate accord and not one soul chanted “We want Trump!”).
That said...yes, it can happen here. Here’s three key reason why we should be paying closer attention to France, even with the American presidency imploding.
– Economic inequality and rural resentment. Western elites breathed a sigh of relief last year when French voters rejected the candidates of the far-right and the far-left to hand their presidency to the young, charismatic, centrist – and grossly inexperienced – Macron and his just-invented political party of like-minded neophytes. But any era of good feeling was almost guaranteed to be short-lived.
Macron’s policies – tough on middle-class workers while rolling back France’s historically high taxes on the wealthy – have caused his presidency to post approval ratings that make Donald Trump’s numbers look Lincolnesque. The gasoline tax caused those tensions to boil over because, according to the French rank-and-file, pampered Paris elites don’t understand how rural workers must drive long distances just to eek out a living wage.
That’s hardly a uniquely French complaint. Similar tensions between cosmopolitan, urban elites and the “forgotten people” in the countryside have led far-right, anti-immigrant parties in Germany (never a good thing) to gain strength as the Angela Merkel era winds down and to England’s rolling turmoil over Brexit.
Here in the United States, that same conflict didn’t only give us Trump but underlies antidemocratic moves in states like Wisconsin (where a top GOP lawmaker suggests that votes from urban Milwaukee and Madison shouldn’t count). And moves like Amazon bringing even more six-figure jobs to New York and D.C are exacerbating these cross-currents. Paris is a guide to how things could go south.
– “Fake news” on social media is getting worse. Although most media coverage has focused on the gas tax, there’s been some mystery about where the completely leaderless “Yellow Vest” movement came from and how it grew so quickly. The answer, as a BuzzFeed News report revealed, traces back to social media – mainly Facebook – and a disturbing web of conspiracy theories rooted in outright fictions and backed by various forms of prejudice or ignorance.
“The Yellow Jackets communicate almost entirely on small, decentralized Facebook pages,” reported BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick. “They coordinate via memes and viral videos. Whatever gets shared the most becomes part of their platform.” But many of France’s so-called “Anger Groups” on Facebook are highly conspiratorial – stating that France’s problems are caused by a Masonic cabal of “global bankers” – and linked closely to other out-there beliefs like chemtrails or anti-vaxxers.
It all sounds remarkably similar to the QAnon wackiness that has flourished in Donald Trump’s America -- with the only difference that right now the "Q"-believers are more motivated to attend Trump rallies than to protest in the streets ...for now.
– Climate change is hard and going to get harder. The raft of new scientific evidence -- including the latest report from our own federal government -- and yet another long, hot summer in 2018 of deadly wildfires and 1,000-year floods have made it clear that immediate and more drastic action is needed to combat climate change, to stop a global catastrophe as we get deeper into the 21st century.
The middle-class isn’t on board with this – not in America, where consumer demand for less-fuel-efficient SUVs and small trucks is a key factor behind the General Motors layoffs at its smaller-car factories, and clearly not in France. And we know now that the federal government will do nothing of substance on climate change during the next two years, with Republicans controlling the White House and the Senate.
What that means is that, even if Democrats who’ve pledged to address climate change do regain control in 2021, their proposed remedies will need to be even more dramatic to have an impact. The route initially taken by Macron – placing the burden on the working class and not the rich – seems a nonstarter. But what, at this point, could reconcile younger, more progressive Americans who demand a Green New Deal with older conservatives still convinced by Fox News or on Facebook that the whole thing is a hoax?
The black smoke rising from the streets of Paris can be seen as a warning cry, but also as a guide for what not to do going forward. The tragedy of the Trump presidency isn’t just a criminal wack-a-do occupying the Oval Office but that the current crisis is preventing America from doing the things it needs to be doing. That means policies to address income inequality – universal health care, forgiving college debt and a meaningful minimum wage – as well as climate change, and rebuilding journalism and the information infrastructure to blunt the impact of fake news. The best way to stop another civil war tomorrow is to start making sense today.