By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
Week after week, the French “yellow vest” protests continue despite the government’s grand plan to open nationwide consultations in the hope of ending the demonstrations. The three-month consultation period risks becoming a permanent talking shop between the deaf and the blind, since neither seem to be listening to or even acknowledging the other.
Group therapy failed in France 200 years ago, and it is unlikely to succeed this time, despite all the good intentions employed by the government to lift the increasingly squeezed lower-income sector of society from economic hardship.
Things could escalate from a winter of discontent to a spring-summer revolution that President Emmanuel Macron will pay for with his career. There are parallels with King Louis XVI, whose failure to implement reforms in the late 18th century meant he paid for the discontent of the French Revolution with his life.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Macron’s career is at stake and the waiting game played so far by both sides could lead to a disaster, as it is still uncertain who will blink first. Clearly, it will not be the hardcore alliance of left- and right-wing ultra-radicals, who will lose nothing from staying in the street and disrupting France’s social and economic life.
What started as a protest against higher taxes on fuel escalated to reveal what every French person has known for decades: Their lifestyle must be reformed if the state is to balance its budget. Every president and prime minister for at least the past 30 years has tried but failed to bridge the deficit gap that affords citizens generous social security while not increasing the nation’s ballooning debts.
The French welfare state is one of the most generous in Europe, and the French hold on tight to the privileges and perks that make them the envy of many Europeans. Others on the continent feel that the French have always enjoyed a lifestyle, or “joie de vivre,” over and above the rest, partly thanks to the egalitarian benefits the state afforded its citizens, against all financial and monetary policy wisdom.
In France, the pressure on people’s disposable income is not new, and usually such pressure hits the poor before the rich, and the people living in the countryside before those living in cities. But if the state is to remain viable while delivering all these perks, it needs to be reformed — this is what French people both on the left and on the right have been resisting for decades.
The national debate that Macron launched last week is unlikely to satisfy the protesters, as it has been framed to include four main themes of taxation, green energy, institutional reforms and citizenship. That will not answer the whims of every protester, as they see in the debate a chance to table motions to discuss growth, unemployment, the deficit, migration, integration, and state and institutional reform, which are seen as off limits by Macron.
The protests were initially led by citizens of the French countryside who rely heavily on fuel for their economic activities, but they were joined by a wider cross-section of society early on.
Recently, however, it seems they have also been joined by members of far-right and far-left movements, including — according to French media reports — anarchists and neo-Nazis from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. They are apparently trying to sow chaos and maybe hope for the state to cave in, hence the government’s urgent need to contain the protests before they spiral out of control.
In 1789, King Louis XVI summoned the country’s aristocracy, clergy and commoners to discuss ways to repair the crown’s dismal finances and quell popular discontent over rampant poverty and taxation, which ultimately sparked the French Revolution. Within a few months, all of the king’s reform plans had failed, and four years later he was beheaded.
Two centuries on, Macron — often criticized for his so-called monarchical manners and the appearance that he is deaf to the calls of France’s poor — has also set up a big national debate to appease protesters, whose uprising has set Paris ablaze and shaken his administration. They could, if they persist, topple him.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.