Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The yellow vests and Macron's working-class problem (but nary a mention of race or ethnicity)

National Public Radio's most recent coverage of the three-weeks of "yellow vest" protests in France puts elites/elitism v. working class concerns/realities squarely at the center of the conflict.  Most obviously at stake is a gas-tax hike that was set to go into effect on January 1.  Macron's government announced today that the tax increase has been put on hold.  Here's a quote from this morning's story:
"Originally, the yellow vest protesters were people from rural areas who have to drive long distances as part of their daily life. They said they couldn't afford the hike in fuel prices. Protests appeared in pockets around France to denounce Macron's green tax and then quickly grew into a larger movement that includes members of the working and middle classes who are expressing their frustration about slipping standards of living. They say their incomes are too high to qualify for social welfare benefits but too low to make ends meet. The movement has no official leadership and was organized initially through social media groups." 
The protests' initial target was the fuel tax — but they quickly homed in on Macron as the man behind the hike. 
"Macron faced down the unions when he passed his labor market overhaul last year," NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris. "So he wasn't worried about the grassroots, leaderless yellow vest movement when it first appeared. But three weeks on, the movement is turning out to be the biggest challenge of Macron's presidency." 
The movement is channeling the anger of working-class people across France who are struggling, Eleanor says, adding, "They perceive Macron as arrogant and deaf to their suffering."
In the version of this (or another) story aired this morning (but for which a transcript is not available online), some French political scientists were quoted, including one who used the word "hatred" to describe how French workers feel about Macron, who represents the elites and has no ability to understand or empathize with worker struggles. Here is some prior reporting on the protests (Nov. 23 and Dec. 3), which have turned quite violent and destructive of property in recent days.

This quote from yesterday's story by Eleanor Beardsley is vivid and illustrative, with many references to geography: small towns, heartland, etc:
Well, they rose up three weeks ago - and they all put these yellow vests that you have to keep - every French motorist keeps in their car - against a new gas tax that's supposed to begin in January. But it's a very different movement. It's not backed by the unions. It has no leaders, so there's - we haven't seen anything like this before. Basically, it's being described as a revolt from the other France - not the France of the big cities, you know, the rich France, but the - from the France that can't make ends meet every month, from the rural areas, the small towns, you know, blue-collar workers, farmers. You know, it's just showing - this movement - how split France is, really, between rich and poor. And these protesters - they also accuse French President Emmanuel Macron of being arrogant and completely out of touch with their problems, the problems of the working and underclass.
* * * 
Now, they're saying Macron loves the powerful, the rich, the CEOs, but he has complete disdain for the people. And this - the woman says, "we're governed by mafia bankers, and Macron is a pawn of Rothschild's bank and JPMorgan."
* * * 
Well, up to now, about 80 percent of the French say they support the demands because they say a lot of people can't make ends meet and they're ignored.
And the New York Times coverage from December 2under the headline, "'Yellow Vests' Riot in Paris, but Their Anger is Rooted Deep in France," includes this vignette of a poor town in central France:
But if it was the shattered glass and burned cars along Rue de Rivoli or Boulevard Haussmann in Paris that finally got Mr. Macron’s attention, the movement — named for the roadside safety vests worn by demonstrators — has in fact welled up from silent towns like Guéret, an administrative center of 13,000 people, lost in the small valleys of central France. 
Far from any big city, it sits in one of the poorest departments of France, where the public hospital is the biggest employer. The cafe in the main square is empty by midafternoon. The hulks of burned-out cars dot the moribund train station’s tiny parking lot, abandoned by citizens too poor to maintain them. 
In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?
Can't help note how interestingly patriarchal that last line/question from Adam Nossiter's NYT story is.  Nossiter continues:
It is not deep poverty, but ever-present unease in the small cities, towns and villages over what is becoming known as “the other France,” away from the glitzy Parisian boulevards that were the scene of rioting this weekend.
So, again, the agitation began in a rural place but had to migrate to the city to get people's attention.  Further, the unrest does transcend the rural-urban divide because what underlies it is profound income inequality; that income inequality is perhaps more evident in rural areas because--as with the "flyover states" in the United States and far northern California within the Golden State, these populations feel unseen.  They don't feel that overwhelming urban and elite decision-makers see their plight, and they certainly don't feel that their pain is prioritized.

I'm showing here some screen shots of Twitter activity about the protests, some of which speak to that sense of feeling overlooked:

Speaking of those involved in the protests, Alissa Rubin wrote in the New York Times on December 3 that protestors are
men and women who rely on their cars to get to work and take care of their families [including] small-business owners, independent contractors, farmers, home aides, nurses and truck drivers [who] live and work primarily in rural towns and in the suburbs or exurbs of France’s big cities, many earning just enough to get by.
Rubin also helpfully details precisely how the movement emerged, starting with a petition seeking support for lower gasoline taxes. That petition was initiated by a woman who has an Internet cosmetics business in an exurb south of Paris, and it eventually went viral with the help of social media.

France is a very diverse country, and a significant percentage of its population is of north African descent.  Many immigrants also come to France from other parts of Africa--and the world.  It is thus interesting that I've seen nothing in reporting on the "yellow vest" protests about race.  I wonder if immigrant communities tend to be on one side or the other of this political divide?  Reporting on such phenomena (politics, protests, income inequality) in the United States inevitably centers race and immigration?  We don't permit whiteness to be transparent, the default.  Why are journalists not doing the same regarding France?

I also can't help think of the parallel to California, where the recent gas tax increase caused particular agitation in the state's rural communities, in part because people in rural California are more likely to be on fixed incomes, financially strapped, and driving longer distances.  I'm also thinking about how this arguably parallels unrest in the Catalan region of Spain, where rural folks have been (and are?) the primary agitators regarding the secession movement--so much so that the tractor became the symbol of the movement.  On that, read more here.

I also can't help think of the role that Europe's recent policy of austerity has played in all of this.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

1 comment:

  1. I have been following this in the news for weeks now. I find it very interesting and a potential foreshadowing of what may be to come here in the United States. The yellow vests appear to be outrages by the economic woes of the working class, largely from rural areas, who are not being heard. Sound familiar?
    I feel like similar sentiments led to the election of Trump. In France the yellow jackets claim Macron is a pawn to big banks. Trump denounced big banks and wall street often drumming up support. Yet, since in office, he consistently places hedge fund managers, bankers, and wall street elites into important administrative positions and has done nothing to "drain the swamp." If the woes for the white working class in American continues for too much longer, we could see a similar uprising here in the United States.