While I sympathise wholeheartedly with the frustrations of France’s ‘yellow vest’ protesters who feel the government has turned a deaf ear to their problems, such uprisings are rarely fruitful and, moreover, risk devastating outcomes. Mass demonstrations that begin peacefully are invariably hijacked by bad actors.
The aims of ordinary folk keen to shine a spotlight on their economic or social woes are overshadowed by destruction of property, looting and violence eliciting government crackdowns. Ultimately there are usually no winners.
What began as a protest against rising fuel taxes has morphed into a volley of disparate demands. Some call for France to quit the EU and for President Emmanuel Macron to step down. Others want lower taxation and a higher minimum wage. On Saturday, he answered by deploying over 80,000 security forces around the country ordered to act proactively.
Over, 1,400 have been arrested and hundreds injured, among them police officers. In a dramatic plea to youths throwing projectiles, a female officer was seen in video removing her jacket before kneeling in front of them crying “Kill me but do not ruin Paris”.
Paris was in virtual lockdown. The government is mulling a state of emergency. Retailers have lost more than a billion euros in revenue. Investors and tourists are heading for the hills. The US, UK, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and Portugal have issued unprecedented travel warnings.
The democratically-elected president isn’t going anywhere unless he chooses to resign; he has the backing of Parliament and there are no viable contenders. However, his authority has been weakened with regard to his influence within the European Union and it is unlikely he can now proceed with his bold economic and labour reforms. US President Donald Trump is gloating. He’s been tweeting support for the protests, falsely claiming demonstrators are chanting “We want Trump”.
Waiting in the wings is a Trump admirer — the doyenne of the Far Right Marine Le Pen whose popularity is soaring; an ominous trend given that Italians have elected a right-wing populist government and for the first time since General Franco’s demise an extreme right-wing party has won substantial seats in a Spanish regional election.
Major democracies, including the US, Britain and France that spends a whopping 30 per cent of its GDP on welfare, appear to be caught in a downward spiral of public discontent and division, understandable perhaps when poverty and homelessness is expanding in nations that top the planet’s wealthiest! Over 14 per cent of French citizens subsist below the poverty line. Working couples struggle to make ends meet. Taxation is highest in the Eurozone with the exception of Belgium. Provided the protests do not escalate to untenable levels triggering negative consequences, the ‘yellow vests’ may have succeeded in focusing the government’s mind on their needs at the very least.
Fringe elements in France calling for revolution and insurrection should be careful for what they wish for. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran delivered oppression and decades of isolation. The so-called Arab Spring cheered on by the West was a nightmare from which several countries are still recovering.
As an aside, I’ve noticed that Arabs on social media are comparing the international reaction to their governments’ crackdowns on violent protests with attitudes towards France’s heavy handedness. Arab states that used water cannon and tear gas were savaged for being authoritarian infringers of human rights. So far France has escaped such labels despite mass arrests and injuries.
Ukrainians, those who rose up to oust their elected leader encouraged by Western states on the promise of freedoms and prosperity, have been bitterly disappointed. There is no EU or Nato membership in the offing. Ukraine has been robbed of Crimea and conflict still rages in eastern regions now under martial law. It’s easy to romanticise revolutions, many of which do have valid causes but the reality is that in recent history there have been no good outcomes. Sadly, those who sought a better life are the ones that pay the heaviest price.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.