France: The Yellow Vests Uprising – End of the World?

The social warfare unleashed by Macron in the past 18 months has sparked anger in the French population. In this article, Frédéric Lordon analyses the gilets jaunes protests.

The collapse of an order of domination is recognizable by the amazement to be seen on the faces of its servants. On Saturday, the show wasn’t just on the street. It was, and still is, the astonished faces on BFM, CNews, France 2, and almost all the TV channels, caught in a radical misunderstanding. What stupidity has in common with stupefaction is expressed in the very etymology of the words. Here the two become indistinguishable, and their common spectacle is offered as a particular kind of continuous ‘news’.

As the human mind likes easy ideas that give it comfort, the trumpeters of a ‘new world’ and the ‘Macron revolution’ – never mind the contradiction – invariably return to the stable of their old categories, the categories of the old world, since this is the world that has given them their situation, their salaries and their dominance. And here they are wandering between the ultra-right and the far left, or the ultra-left and the far right, anxiously seeking presentable ‘representatives’ or ‘spokespersons’, wanting a detailed list of ‘demands’ that can be ‘negotiated’, but finding none, not even a ‘table’ around which to seat themselves. So, in desperation, they frantically join with the government in raiding the props store: consultation with party leaders, debate in the National Assembly, meeting with the unions – their hope for a ‘way out of the crisis’ via a moratorium on the diesel tax. Some kind of Grenelle,[1] perhaps? In other words, a pantomime with everything that is falling apart. This is where the ‘elites’ are at: unable to see that there is no more time, that a whole world – theirs – is falling apart, that the breakdown will not staved off by deferring or reducing taxes, and that they’ll be lucky if the political institutions themselves are not caught up in the general collapse. Because it is not a ‘social movement’, it is an uprising.

It is not a ‘social movement’, it is an uprising

When any form of domination approaches such a tipping point, all the institutions of the regime, and in particular those of symbolic guardianship, rigidify in a profound misunderstanding of the event – wasn’t this the best order possible? – coupled with a resurgence of anger, as well as a beginning of panic when the hatred against them bursts into the open and is suddenly revealed to their eyes. All the more so since, as has been noted, the singularity of this movement lies in the fact that it brings the fire where this has never been before, and where it should be: the seats of the rich. And soon, probably, of their collaborators.

It was reported that the director of BFM-TV was stunned to hear the chant ‘BFM assholes’ on the Champs-Elysées, and that the president of the journalists’ union discovered, with similar shock, that ‘it did not come from militants but from ordinary people’. Powers of this kind, the tyranny of the possessors and their lackeys, always end up like this, amazed and dazed: ‘They hate us as much as that?’ The answer is yes, and for the best of all reasons. It is also that after all these decades, the time has come to settle up and – let’s tell them right now – the bill is going to be a big one. There are too many arrears, going back far too long.

Since the strikes of 1995, there has been a growing awareness that the media, supposedly a counter-power, are hand in glove with the state. Moreover, they themselves worked tirelessly to give more substance to this accusation as neoliberalism deepened, putting people under increasingly unbearable tensions that could only be controlled by an intensive bludgeoning of minds – before it came to a bludgeoning of bodies.

That was the moment when, openly becoming auxiliaries of the Ministry of the Interior in addition to being those of wealth, their tallies of demonstrators became even more favourable than those of the police, dissolving all protest movements under the heading of ‘violence’ – and thus clearly indicating to whom and to what they were loyal.

It is perhaps here, on the question of ‘violence’, that the anger of the lackeys goes off the rails, in proportion to how they feel the situation is escaping them. Moreover, as ‘condemning’ has always been the best way not to understand, besides being driven by powerful interests to voluntary blindness, ‘the violence of the casseurs’[2] has been built up as the last redoubt of the neoliberal order, a definitive antidote to any possible contestation – without seeing any problem in celebrating 14 July 1789 or commemorating May 68. The inconsistent madness of embalmed history, distanced, devitalized, and deprived of any concrete lesson for the present.

It is perhaps here, on the question of ‘violence’, that the anger of the lackeys goes off the rails, in proportion to how they feel the situation is escaping them.

In any case, in the general landscape of violence, the media, and especially television, have always selected what suits them, taking good care to leave the rest invisible: incomprehensible violence, pure evil without a cause. But why, and after what chain of events, did the Continental tyre workers invade the Compiègne sub-prefecture, the Goodyear workers sequester their management, or Air France workers attack their human resources director and tear off his shirt, and why are some gilets jaunes on the point of taking up arms? What has been done to ordinary people, who have the same preference for tranquillity as everyone else, for them to go to such extremes, if not, precisely, that they have been pushed to any extremity?

The denial of social violence is the supreme form of violence that Bourdieu called symbolic violence, done so well that its victims are reduced to passivity: socially violated, and methodically denied any form of legitimate resistance. Since all institutional mediators have abandoned them, their only alternative to complete submission is to revolt physically and be immediately declared odious, illegitimate and anti-democratic – normally the perfect trap. However, there comes a time when symbolic terror no longer holds, when verdicts of legitimacy or illegitimacy go by the board, and suffering is chemically transformed into rage, in proportion to what has been denied. Then it can seize on any target, and it should not come as a surprise if these targets are MPs’ offices, banks, private mansions or prefectures; it is only logical that when everything has failed, nothing is respected any more.

It is true that for those whose position and advantages are tied to the current order, and who have constantly repeated that no better order is possible, even no other order at all, the emergence of this radical ‘outside’ can only be read as ‘aberrant’, ‘monstrous’, or better still, when it is ‘acknowledged’, as ‘violence’. However, it has to remain marginal to be maintained in its status as a monstrosity, and the responsibility of the forces of order must be systematically concealed. And it is these two conditions that are now being destroyed.

The first, because the gilets jaunes profusely offer the oxymoronic figure, incomprehensible to the powers that be, of ‘good/angry people’. ‘Angry’ normally means ‘enragé’, in other words a tiny ultra-radical minority. They can’t be ‘good people’, which either means silent majority or is a contradiction in terms. But they are. Quite simply, you are enraged when you are pushed to the limit. The fact is that after thirty years of neoliberalism, topped up by eighteen months of Macron’s rabid social warfare, entire social groups have been pushed to the limit. So, enraged.

The first, because the gilets jaunes profusely offer the oxymoronic figure, incomprehensible to the powers that be, of ‘good/angry people’.

Believing that what they are talking about doesn’t exist, the media didn’t see these enraged people coming. But here they are, the result of a long and silent accumulation of anger, which has just broken its dam. They will not easily be brought back into the fold. All the less so, since, with the naivety of ‘good people’, they experienced police violence on what was for many of them their first demonstration. At first, they were flabbergasted. Then, having recovered, inoculated for good. And so there are countless people who, originally certified ‘good people’, are becoming what the media call ‘casseurs’ – just as others, stacking pallets on a roundabout to build a hut, unwittingly became ‘zadistes’.[3]

We can also bet that major changes must be taking place in their minds. Because all these people who have been fed by BFM and France Info, from 2016 and the El Khomri law through to 2018 with Notre-Dame-des-Landes and the SNCF ordinances, invited to weep over the windows of the Necker hospital,[4] are now in the structural position of casseurs, experiencing police and media violence, and will know a little better in future what is meant when these two institutions talk about people being ‘ultra-violent and radicalized’. In any case, this affair is very annoying for the news channels: if the meaning of casseur is extended in this way, what will it mean in future?

The other condition is to keep the real actions of the police out of sight. On this front, there is a fight to the death in the TV studios. Lying by omission is general, relentless, thick as dictatorship propaganda. The population would immediately wax indignant if they had the opportunity to see one-tenth of what the mainstream media systematically hide from them, such as the video of an old lady gassed and bleeding,[5] or that of a bludgeoned pensioner.[6] Whereas France Info had fed us to the point of nausea with images of the Necker hospital windows and a burning McDonalds, no midday news flashes last Monday [3 December] had yet informed us of the death of a woman in her eighties killed by a tear gas canister. The BFM robots never confront the police representatives who say that they were ‘clubbed’ (sic!) and ‘injured’ with any conflicting images. But, if words still have meaning, on which side of the flashball or grenade launcher are the blinded and maimed? We wonder whether TV presenters such as Nathalie Saint-Cricq or Jean-Michel Aphatie would keep their lunch down if they were suddenly shown the truly unbearable photos (genuine war wounds) of demonstrators mutilated – literally – by police weapons. Has a single mainstream channel yet shown the ‘good people’ who have not yet become casseurs the video of a young man being beaten up by eight police officers? It would complete their information as to the degree of trust they should have in the ‘republican police’. And there are dozens – hundreds – of videos of this kind.[7]

But there is a general economy of violence, and we know what it leads do once it gets under way: it is reciprocal, divergent and can lead very far. No one knows how far in the current situation, perhaps to dramatic extremes. But who will have triggered it if not Macron who, after declaring social war on his people, has declared police war on them, perhaps soon military war, in the company of the government media who declare symbolic war on them? The sharing of responsibilities is all the more clear given that those subjected to this repression had endured a very long time without saying a word: economic aggression, elite contempt, media lies, police brutality. However, the evil genius of reciprocal violence is a memory, and a long one. On a Twitter thread,[8] a school student, herself bludgeoned for nothing, discovers in amazement what hatred there is towards her and her colleagues, something we also find hard to believe. Undoubtedly all the institutions of neoliberal violence are flabbergasted too. Schoolchildren surrounded and pepper-sprayed[9] by cops accompanied by dogs will not soon forget that moment in their lives when their relationship with the police was decisively formed, and in two or five years’ time, a forgetful police force that crosses paths with them again will be struck by the raw detestation it reads on their faces – and will not understand anything about it.

And now the departmental prefects are in a cold sweat, feeling a little lonely in their grand offices. Since the prefecture of Le Puy-en-Velay was set on fire, we know what these ‘others’ are capable of – yes, of anything now. So it is urgent to negotiate a turn on the wing without delay, to make it known by means of a ‘newspaper of reference’ that Macron and his team have taken leave of their senses, that they, prefects, are aware of the misfortunes of the people, that they could even turn whistle-blowers if they were listened to.[10] We should nevertheless remember that it is these same prefects who, since Nuit debout, have blinded people, tear-gassed them and shot them at close range.

But above all, we will see the return of what could be called the ‘La Boétie situation’, the one that the government constantly tries to make us forget, and indeed that we do constantly forget, as it seems such an incomprehensible mystery: those who rule over us are few, and we are very many. However, the veil is tearing, and exposing this crude arithmetical reality of power. It was touchingly candid to hear the deputy interior minister last Saturday acknowledge that he could hardly commit more troops in Paris when the entire map of France was flashing and asking for reinforcements. A ‘start-up’ manager would probably say that the system was ‘stressed out’. The ‘stress of the machine’ is the return of La Boétie. We are the most numerous. We are far more numerous than them. This is all the more true since the movement still has much more room for development. All this will soon be confirmed: secondary school students, university students, ambulance drivers, farmers, many others.

But then what? The army? The disoriented teenager in the Elysée is quite capable of this. He is already using grenades, weapons of war, against his population, and has snipers with rifles placed on top of some Parisian buildings – one of the most impressive images, surprisingly offered by Le Monde, which is perhaps also wondering whether it is not time to drop its encumbering protégé?

In any case, a terrible moment of truth for liberal columnists. They loved the show of liberation in Tunis or Tahrir Square. But according to them, what was a wonderful start to freedom there is here a filthy populism reminiscent of dark days. So far this line has held up. But suddenly, Macron, whom everyone ‘had to vote for’, could turn into Mubarak… God, what a mess we’ve got ourselves into! And of course, the more you paddle to get out, the more havoc you make. It all comes back, everything gets splattered. But here we are: when the government pays an exceptional bonus to police forces that are becoming ever more odious every day, it is because it fears above all else to be dropped by them and, with all legitimacy collapsed, it is only holding on by its apparatus of force, putting itself completely in their hands. Do what you want, but vote Mubarak.

This government is despised because it has methodically made itself hateful. It is paying a bill that may well go back a long way, but which it has been the most determined to fulfil, and therefore is its most logical endorser. The only choice it has left is bloody repression, perhaps even a military solution. All it deserves now is to fall.

Frédéric Lordon

Notes

[1] [The Grenelle agreement of June 1968, with substantial concessions in terms of working conditions, ended the mass strikes of the previous weeks.]
[2] [Casseur, meaning ‘vandal’, has become the general media term for aggressive or “black bloc” demonstrators.]

[3] [The acronym ZAD stands for ‘zone d’aménagement differé’, i.e. ‘deferred development site’. Zadistes was the name given by the media to militants who occupied the projected airport site at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.]

[4] [On 15 June 2016, while the CRS were attacking a demonstration, windows of the Necker hospital were broken, apparently by a lone man. The mainstream media reported this as the hospital being ‘devastated’ by ‘casseurs’.]

[5] https://twitter.com/albeauvaischiva/status/1066810970532716552

[6] https://twitter.com/jeanhugon3/status/1066357250707648512

[7] https://lundi.am/Violences-policieres

[8] https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1069694887317172224.html

[9] https://twitter.com/BSolist/status/1069953039086379008

[10] https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2018/12/03/face-a-la-crise-du-mouvement-des-gilets-jaunes-les-prefets-sonnentl-alerte-politique_5391904_823448.html