Gilets Jaunes: Lost in the FunhouseBy Nidra Poller | December 16, 2018 | Flashpoint 53
8-11 PM December 11 Strasbourg: Terrorist attack at the Christmas market. The shooter, wounded and on the run, has been identified as 29–year-old Cherif C. a multi-recidivist criminal who has been flagged as a security risk since 2016. The current tally is two dead, a third victim brain-dead, thirteen wounded, six of them critically.
Since November 17, I have been gathering available information on the Gilets Jaunes (GJs), or “Yellow Vest Movement”, observing, analyzing, and testing my insights against accepted opinion. With rare exceptions, the GJs have been received with exceptional indulgence. The violence they spawn is both condoned and denied…attributed to the GJs and lifted from them by hair-splitting distinctions, as if, in a raging crowd of thousands, one could separate the real GJs from the opportunistic thugs, all dressed in yellow vests, all surging in the same direction. Murderous hatred and unprecedented destruction are dismissed with a Gallic shrug as an epiphenomenon that can’t discredit the voice of the people crying for justice.
What about jihad (the so-called terrorist attacks) on these same streets and boulevards such a short time ago and one after the other? Some commentators and officials did mention the danger of creating opportunities for terrorist attacks in the midst of a Gilet Jaune “demonstration.” But, I told myself, these GJ actions are in themselves terrorism, and these common ordinary Frenchmen are behaving as if they were inspired by Islamic mobs in Kabul, Peshawar, or… Gaza.
How blind, deaf, and dumb to create chaos in an already beleaguered democracy. And now the inevitable has happened. A jihad attack between one Yellow Saturday and the next. The baseless speculation that President Macron would declare a state of emergency to put an end to those pointless actions is becoming a reasonable option.
I still feel as though I have to apologize for my harsh judgment of giletjaunisme. But I will trust my intuition.
Lost in the funhouse
How can the Gilets Jaunes “movement” be evaluated on the basis of a bowdlerized version of their grievances, propositions, and actions, packaged in comparisons with the French Revolution and mai 68 to make a palatable story adapted to a variety of tastes? That narrative cannot encompass the scope, the concrete realities, and the glaring contradictions of an incendiary outburst of negative energy in the heart of a European democracy.
From my vantage point in the center of Paris, the disconnect between commentary and action is stunning. Gilets Jaunes “messengers” (they have no leaders or spokesmen) join with elected officials, specialists and journalists in lively debates broadcast on all-news TV channels from Sunday to Friday. On Saturday, those same channels offer real-time coverage of unprecedented uncivil violence in the center of the capital of a highly centralized nation, with side trips to local GJ brigades blocking intersections, refineries, and shopping centers in cities and towns everywhere.
Much has been said and written about the legitimate aspirations of the GJs, their sociology and geography: low wages, high taxes, irritating regulations imposed by an arrogant government that looks down on this neither here nor there population. Neither qualified for the startup future promised by the wunderkind President Macron, they seem, nor needy enough to live on government subsidies. Law abiding—they’re not crooks and drug-dealers— honest citizens, decent employees, long silent, abandoned by labor unions and the leftist parties that sustained previous generations, they suddenly coalesced into a fireball of anger, hatred, wrath.
Roughly speaking, this explains the 70% or more combined support and sympathy for the GJs measured in public opinion polls and sustained from their first major action in mid-November and up to the 10th of December when President Macron broke his long silence in a 13-minute recorded speech that combined some modest handouts and an offer to forge a new social contract via dialogue and democracy.
The “movement,” allegedly triggered by a carbon tax on fuel, had been rushing full speed ahead while the president they detest “dragged his heels.” It took three weeks, an eternity on the calendar of a self-respecting GJ, for him to back down on that phony ecological tax. Now he’s offering a few euros here and there. That’s not what we meant by hard cash. “Determined.” That’s the word relayed by stand-up journalists, usually young women, reporting from windswept intersections. “Too little too late. We want direct democracy. We’re the ones that should make the laws. We’re mobilized, we’ll block this intersection until Christmas, until kingdom come.” GJs present in TV studios before, during and after the president’s admittedly wooden speech, seemed to be angrier than ever.
Only a fool would have imagined that they would say merci beaucoup, now let’s shake hands and prepare a bright future for one and all. President Macron offered a bit of money to help make the financial ends meet and a long-term project of participative democracy to make the political ends meet. It is reported, but difficult to verify, that many, perhaps a majority of GJs haven’t voted for the past 20 years.
Determined as they may be, the GJs are going to face a new obstacle: the media are losing interest in them. It’s getting repetitive. It’s losing its sparkle. After bending over backward to lend a sympathetic ear to invited GJs and allowing them copiously to insult and even threaten invited governing party deputies and ministers, after giving them rosy spotlights and indulgent microphones, the media seem to be tired of hearing the same discourse day in and day out, covering the same horrifying violence week after week, and now bumping into the wall of stubborn refusal that, in fact, reveals the true face of giletjaunisme.
In retrospect, this is embarrassing for journalists. If what we had been seeing were protest marches, if the GJ is a popular social movement, a familiar demand for civil and economic rights, then it would be time to bury the hatchet and begin the negotiations. And, finally, if the Gilets Jaunes are peaceful, who has been sacking and burning the center of Paris (and Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon, etc.) for the past three Saturdays?
In fact, giletjaunisme was putschiste from the start, in October, when two truck drivers in their early thirties, Eric Drouet and Bruno Lefevre, relayed an online anti-gas tax petition launched in May by Priscilla Ludosky. Leaping into action, Drouet and Lefevre organized the November 17th road-block operation and simultaneously vowed to march on the presidential palace and bring down the government. Since then, from Yellow Saturday to Yellow Saturday, the Facebook-created conglomerate has been punishing the nation.
Their goal is power to the people! Get rid of the legislature, the president, the elites, and let the people run the show. That’s their idea of democracy. And how would the empowered people fix the economy? Various lists of grievances and extravagant, imperative demands have circulated. They all add up to “punish the rich.” Slap them with taxes—the confiscatory ISF (wealth tax) is a favorite—get rid of Macron, the rich president of the rich. Tax the GAFA, double tax multinationals, triple tax Total, raise the minimum wage to €2,000 net per month, cap maximum wages at €10,000, restore the retirement at 60, increase all subsidies to the poor, eliminate all incentive subsidies to industry, squeeze the rich until they pay up or croak. The Venezuela Solution. Aren’t those gilets yellow with envy?
GJ Laetitia Dewalle: “He can’t be president. He’s a banker. He was at the Rothschild bank.”
Banner on the Champs Elysées: “People’s initiative referendum / the bankster in prison.”
Parisians under house arrest
Saturday the 8th of December, the fourth Yellow Saturday—the Gilets Jaunes call it Act 4 as if they were doing street theater—Parisians were under house arrest. Shops, museums, public buildings, parks, and more than 30 métro stations were closed. Residents were warned to stay off the streets. We were, however, able to follow events in real time on 24-hour news channels…when they weren’t exploding under our windows.
The day began peacefully. If the dozens of GJs speaking to the media are to be believed, this is what they wanted: the right peacefully to express their anger, to be heard, and to be gratified with relief from unjustifiable fiscal suffering. Eric Brouet, who is under investigation for “incitement to crime and unlawful assembly” after his latest public call to storm the presidential palace, left center stage and retired to the ring road where several attempts to block traffic were foiled.
So, on Saturday, with memories of the December 1st havoc still smoldering, the peaceful hundreds and then thousands of GJs peacefully strolled up and down the Champs Elysées. Up to the wall of riot police protecting L’Arc de Triomphe, down toward Concorde where they were barred from heading peacefully to the presidential palace. The American embassy, too, if anyone was interested. Lost in the long sweep of the Champs Elysées, the small cluster of GJs ambled or marched, up and down, back and forth, a sort of bridge to nowhere. Could anyone imagine they would pursue, for hours on end, the pedestrian equivalent of aimless chatter?
The number of arrests was tallied as the day went on. In an attempt to avoid violence, the police detained people armed with the usual street warfare kits and confiscated gas masks and soothing eye drops. After all, what’s the use of teargas if only the riot police are unprotected? Cars were searched on the gates to the city, backpacks were searched on the Champs Elysées, at train station and métro exits. Journalists were posted at hot and cool spots in Paris and the provinces. All calm and orderly, with a touch of local color. What do they want?
Moderate GJ: “Macron démission!” (equivalent of “off with his head”).
Just when it might seem that the government had overdone the lockdown, the first scuffles begin. Flaming barricades, torched cars, attacks against the police countered with teargas, billy clubs, and vigorous shoving. Molten lava of enraged GJs pour into the side streets and get pushed back onto the Champs Elysées. Protective boarding is ripped off and turned into barricades. The façade of the Drugstore is smashed.
A small GJ contingent gathers at la Bastille, gets bored with the lack of action, and heads for the Champs Elysées, smashing windows and ATMs on the way. They barge into the Grands Boulevards. Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, the tourist-magnet department stores, are shuttered. The destruction of a Starbuck’s near Gare St. Lazare is signed PCM (“Parti communiste maoiste,” explains a specialist of the far left).
Now they’re racing down rue de Bretagne, the food-market street of the Marais, chased by mounted police. At nightfall, the action coalesces at Place de la République. By then, GJs are a minority lost in the dark masses of racaille, the banlieue thugs. Round about midnight, angry skies deliver a Shakespearean storm of merciless howling wind and icy rain that pings and pangs like rocks bouncing off of a riot policeman’s shield.
How did the peaceful moderates pleading for a living wage turn into a raging mob seething with anger and more or less willingly operating alongside the racaille? How do you separate the good guys from the bad guys when they are all wearing yellow vests? They are visible in Yellow Saturday footage, committing criminal acts of violence. Court records show a corresponding breakdown of those arrested: a minority of extreme left and extreme right operatives, slightly larger minority of racaille, and a majority of common ordinary GJs, never before in trouble with the law. Here and there, GJ messengers simultaneously deny and justify their uncontrollable anger, claim the police provoked them, and complain that the professional looters run away so fast, leaving them behind to be arrested.
An end to 18 years of laxism?
It is true, as commentators endlessly recalled, that law enforcement had been following a hands-off strategy adopted after the death of a 22 year-old student on the fringe of a demonstration in December 1986. Malik Oussekine was chased down after walking out of a jazz club in the Latin Quarter, and fatally clubbed by motorcycle police. The nation’s conscience was touched to the quick. The “flying motorcycle duos” were disbanded.
And, since 2000, we have witnessed a shocking degradation of law and order. Attacking the police has become a no-risk sport. The watchword was zero fatalities (among protestors) because, as we saw in 2005, the death of a (Muslim) youth could inflame the banlieues.
Stunned by the December 1st debacle, the unlikely Interior Minister Christophe Castaner finally decided to let law enforcement enforce the law. On the 8th, there were no humiliating scenes of riot police retreating, swarmed, lynched, and pelted, or scrambling out of burning patrol cars. From morning to night they had the upper hand. The consequences, statistically speaking, are close to 2000 arrests overall in France, leading to 1700 detentions. Of the 179 injured, less than 50 are policemen. And yet there was more property damage than the infamous 1st of December when the Arc de Triomphe was desecrated and wildmen on the rampage were left to sack and burn for 18 hours, undeterred by teargas, water cannons, dispersion grenades and battalions of riot police in heavy armor.
But this can’t go on from Saturday to Saturday with no end in sight. Overall short term losses to the economy are calculated at several billion euros and the long-term losses in tourism and investment are enormous. This explosion of negative energy, this dilapidation of an already struggling economy is not an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise forward–looking salutary movement; it is a concrete expression of the Gilet Jaune attitude: Venezuela. The destruction of wealth in the name of equality and fiscal justice. There is more hatred of the rich than determination to get a fair share, and there is zero grasp of economic realities.
François Hollande, the regular guy president with his jolly, plump cheeks, was so inconsequential that public opinion seems to have forgotten that he was actually president of France until a short while ago. Though he and his ex-companion Ségolène Royal were so rich that they paid the ISF, Hollande slapped a disastrous 75% income tax on revenue above one million euros — the kind of measure that would please a Gilet Jaune… but he abandoned it after two years.
The funhouse mirror
Gilet Jaune is not a movement. It is what it expresses: an inchoate cauldron of emotions: anger, resentment, frustration, hatred and stubborn persistence. It is what it does: block traffic at intersections, block entry to shopping malls, stomp around Paris every Saturday proclaiming pacifism and sparking violence. It is what it shows: GJs work the TV circuit, getting free publicity, showing their faces, showing off, telling off deputies, arrogantly criticizing President Macon’s arrogance, and rattling off extravagant demands that must be instantly satisfied.
What can explain the popular support for the Gilets Jaunes? Giletjaunisme functions like a funhouse mirror that reflects the wishes of the beholder. Anti-immigration/anti-Islamization currents think they see GJ resentment of Muslim immigration that siphons money out of the economy. The anti-globalization crowd sees the GJs as the salt of the earth defending their nation against an undifferentiated culture and merciless international job market. Bright hopeful enthusiasts applaud the emergence of horizontal social network democracy where citizen energy circulates freely, unhindered by pyramidal structures, for the greater good of humanity. International Trumpists see the revolt of the people against the elites.
The Gilet Jaunes are not a movement; they are anarchy. That is why they cannot breach the seamless connection to banlieue looters (what I call the punk jihadis), Black Blocs, extreme left, extreme right, non-aligned and freelance thugs. A democratic society can protect its citizens, an anarchic cluster of disparate mobs cannot protect itself or the territory on which it aimlessly operates.
IT technician Idir Ghanes, omnipresent media voice of the GJ, explains why they refuse to request authorization for their manifestations. “We’ve been put down for twenty years already. It’s enough. We’re not going to declare our demonstration and get parked like sheep in a pen. We go wherever we want. Our aim is to destabilize the government.”
Giletjaunisme is a religion of peace
How did this minority cluster get a modern democracy in its grip? At its peak, there were about 300,000 GJ boots on the ground. The number is decreasing. They say “we’re the people.” Commentators echo: “You can’t govern against the people.”
A young GJ woman booing the president as he examines damage from the December 1st action: “We’re the people. The president has to listen to us.” NB: listening, in GJ talk, means obeying. Convert or die.
Banner on the Champs Elysées: “Le people aux abois / Tuons les bourgeois.” [The people at bay / kill the bourgeois]. These are not empty words. On December 1st, a mansion near l’Etoile was set on fire. The residents escaped. This time.
Whatever the justified gripes and legitimate aspirations of giletjaunistes, however disconcerting the nickel and dime economic measures practiced by the Macron government, and despite the combined ravages of endemic unemployment, top heavy welfare state finance, and the real cost of indiscriminate immigration, there is no rational explanation for Gilet Jaune brutality in the streets or death threats within the clusters and against elected officials.
If the GJs are “the people,” why can’t they organize democratically and acquire political weight? In the context of journalistic debate, they have been proudly asserting their free-wheeling “each one decides for himself” operating method. It soon became obvious that each is afraid what another might decide. Though GJs demand instant satisfaction from the government, they plea for indulgence for their young movement. “We haven’t had time to organize.” In fact, if they abandon their totalitarian mode, they will have to negotiate with each other to reach consensus… or tear apart on the fault lines of their inner contradictions. If they articulate their demands, their program, their notion of direct democracy, it will be revealed as shaky nonsense. By maintaining the Macron démission stance, they sustain the illusion of having something better to offer.
The Gaza Effect
5 PM December 12th: I suggested, above, that journalists were losing interest in the Gilet Jaune story. Today, they are losing patience. Maxime Nicolle, one of the most virulent and most popular figures, facebookwise, posted a conspiracy theory that is spreading like wildfire through the ranks. In short, the government fabricated the Strasbourg attack to clip the GJ’s sails. Founding father Eric Brouet tweeted: “Too little too late (the president’s offer). See you on Saturday (for another Yellow action).” The Strasbourg killer’s allahou akhbar is still chilling the nation’s blood. He’s still on the run. Sorely tried law enforcement is on the front lines still and again. And the GJs plan to taunt and batter them on another Saturday of chaos? Yesterday’s GJ darlings are looking like obstinate children.
The uncritical indulgence enjoyed by the Gilets Jaunes over the past weeks resembles treatment of the “Mideast Conflict.” Rational discourse in cozy media clashes with murderous Palestinian brutality on the ground. Legitimate aspirations are disconnected from “suicide bomber” atrocities. Vocabulary is insanely disconnected from reality. “Mideast conflict” for genocidal Jew hatred, “suicide bomber” for crazed serial killer, “activist” for combatants and, in recent times, “march of return” for a genocidal attempted invasion. Journalists, parroting the extravagant demands of the “victims,” shout at Israeli officials, “Why don’t you give them something? The colonies, half of Jerusalem, the right of return. Don’t you realize they would stop killing you if you only listened to their heartfelt pleas?”
No, the Gilets Jaunes are not genocidal killers! But the uncritical indulgence, the surrender to threats and intimidation, the inappropriate vocabulary —e.g. calling their actions “demonstrations” — and fine distinctions between moderates and the radicalized echo habits formed since September 2000 (see Troubled Dawn of the 21st Century). Do responsible citizens condone murderous attacks on the police? The 7-kilo paving stones thrown at them in Paris today are the “stones” thrown at “over-protected” Israeli soldiers that hit back with “disproportionate force.”
These misconceptions come back with a bang in the face of French society. They hit the Gilets Jaunes too. Disgruntled honest citizens with legitimate gripes have been fed the lethal narrative of the Palestinian plight and Israel’s guilt. They have watched, year in year out, the whitewashing of atrocities. They have seen the racaille, the youth branch of international Islamism, sack and burn, and attack the police. Antisemitic violence, death threats against “Islamophobes,” mass killings, violent peace marches…this brutality seeps into the ground the honest citizens stand on and pollutes their tormented yearnings.
Banner hung from an overpass on the A6 highway: Macron pute à juifs [Macron, the Jews’ whore]
Social media reek with pornographic antisemitic GJ insults against Jewish women in the Macron government. Hatred of the rich and mob rule have never been good for the Jews.
If the government does not have the courage to impose the law and prohibit another Yellow Saturday, the Gilets Jaunes may finally get their martyr on the Champs Elysées.
Prelude as epilogue as prelude
Here is what I wrote on the eve of the December 8th action:
PARIS ETAT DE SIEGE
1:05 PM Friday December 7, 2018
A blast of icy wind blew in tonight, chilling us to the bone as we wait on the edge of the precipice. Paris is in lockdown, but état de siege is the more suitable expression.
On TV or in our neighborhoods we witness the profligate expense of negative energy. Shops are boarded up for a bizarre sort of hurricane watch, work sites are dismantled, heavy machinery is taken off the streets. Metal grills around municipal trees are packed up and trucked away for the duration. Humble municipal workers are mobilized to level the playing field and give the forces of law and order an advantage over the adversary. Somewhere near Place de l’Etoile, center of last week’s pitched battles, it looks like they are building a makeshift wall to keep out what exactly? To keep the assailants from cutting off pieces of the ornate grills and using them as spears?
Interior Minister Castaner declared at this afternoon’s press conference that his forces are ready, in greater numbers than last week and, more important, with a revised strategy. This time they will not stand back and let the Gilets Jaunes build barricades, set them afire, torch automobiles, banks, shops, and elegant mansions. They will not be pursued and overrun by the enraged mob. Finished the outmoded protest-march stance. This is war and the government will fight to win.
A skeptical journalist asked how the Minister could be sure his forces would really meet with havoc (insinuating that they were overdoing it). Castaner sketched out details of one case: a person whose call for action via social media attracted attention, led to a search warrant and a small arms treasure. Two handguns, a backpack filled with a variety of harmful objects and substances, and a gilet jaune decorated with an anti-franc-maçon (Masons) declaration. Franc-maçon is often a code word for Jew.
A delegation of moderate GJs met with the Prime Minister for an hour and a half this evening. One of them, Bernard Cauchy, spoke to the media. The PM listened thoughtfully. He was serious and sympathetic to their plight. They were satisfied with his reception, left him their list of demands and hope that he would act quickly and favorably because the anger of the people cannot be put on hold for more than 48 hours.
These are the moderates. And no government in its right mind would satisfy their demands. While the reasonable GJs were meeting with the PM, a familiar figure was holding forth in the studios of LCI: Jose Espinosa. A recurrent theme of Gilet Jaunisme is “we want to be respected, the elites have contempt for us.” But the GJ Espinosa is something of a dancing bear as he repeats, with dauntless certitude, the strict minimum concessions that must be made immediately. Two-hundred euro per month wage hikes for everyone, interest-free loans for consumers and small businesses, a Christmas bonus for the handicapped and, of course, the restoration of the ISF. This impôt de solidarité sur la fortune, a confiscatory tax slapped on the wealthy, is the holy grail of the GJs. Deaf to every sane and solid argument against the ISF, a counter-productive measure that acts as a repellent to potential investors, they love it precisely because it satisfies their economic credo: take from the rich and give it to “the people.”
All day every day the GJs sit in the limelight of ongoing never-ending informative debates (I follow them on LCI and BFM all-news TV channels). Lately, the proportion of foreign-origin GJs, primarily from the Maghreb, has been increasing. Some are soft spoken and respectful, others speak through clenched teeth and stare through steely black eyes. Sometimes they look as if their next step will be to choke the upstart journalist, deputy or philosopher that dares to question their vision of reality. Whatever their origin—recent immigrants or 5th generation or French forever—the GJs are united in their antagonism toward the wealthy and their ignorant indifference to the law of the land. Whether they deplore the weekly Saturday orgies of violence with a yes but or justify it with no reservations, they have no doubt that their anger justifies their actions. An IT technician named Idir Ghanes pompously dismisses legalities, because “the laws are no good.”
The question tonight, as Paris huddles down like a city in distress, deprived of everything that makes it so endearing—animated streets, bustling cafés and restaurants, charming boutiques, glitter and luxury and delicious markets, joie de vivre, common people, smart Parisians, abundant tourists, magnificent monuments—the question is: will this Saturday be better or worse than last Saturday and what will that portend for next Saturday?
Will the muscle and hardware deliberately displayed, including armored vehicles that can resist light gunfire, discourage all but the most determined combatants? Will the GJ “movement” split evenly between moderates and jusqu’au boutistes, depriving the latter of the alibi of the former, the peaceful ones unfortunately caught between the smashers and the riot police? Will the punk jihadis pour in again from the banlieue or will they be frightened away by the heavy armor?
If the show of force effectively calms the mob rage, and the property damage is kept to a minimum—to the point that the smug commentators can claim that the Interior Minister made much ado about nothing—then there will be a chance for some kind of healing. The government will lean to the Left for a while, the overwhelming majority of GJs will pocket their preposterous demands and reserve them for the café de commerce, and Paris will breathe a sigh of relief.
Or the “urban unrest” will come closer to genuine warfare. With exchange of fire and deaths on one or both sides of the battlefield.
I fear it will be the latter. But I hope I am wrong.
Nidra Poller has been Paris Editor of Pajamas Media. Ms. Poller is an American novelist and translator, most recently of The Humanism of the Other. She has written for the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, among many other publications.