When a social movement lacks clear leadership or specific aims, like the “yellow vest” protests wracking France, it’s hard to know what to make of it or where it’s heading. Pick your preferred diagnosis for the world’s ills, and you probably can find evidence on the streets of Paris.
Is this about frustration with an out-of-touch elite, in this case personified by French President Emmanuel Macron? Somewhat. A globalized economy fueled by cheap labor in developing countries and financial manipulation that benefit glittering cities? Partially. Anger about efforts to combat climate change (as President Trump claims)? A bit — though not in the way Trump says it is.
It probably is more accurate to think that the protests express an angst that combines elements of left and right — the Occupy and Tea Party movements. They reflect some of the same frustrations that brought us the Trump presidency and the Brexit debacle.
Macron ignited the protests with a fuel tax increase (since suspended) that was supposed to help pay for France’s efforts to combat climate change. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound unreasonable, and overall the French do seem committed to limiting global warming. But this tax increase fell primarily on people in the provinces who already are struggling economically and feeling forgotten. The country has suffered high unemployment and low growth for many years. Those most affected by the proposed tax increase lack the good public transportation of the bigger cities; they need to drive to work.
The tax was imposed by a leader who has demonstrated a grasp of the big picture, but comes across as cold and aloof. Macron correctly called out Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin last month on the dangers of nationalism, and he has tried to rally support for reforming and deepening the European Union. He was shrewd enough last year to realize just how clueless France’s more traditional political parties were, and make an end run to the presidency.
A former investment banker, Macron set about trying to make France more competitive. His highest-profile initiatives were cutting taxes, which quickly benefited the wealthy, and reforming labor laws, reinforcing for many an elitist image. His popularity has plummeted, and Macron is now on the hot seat. The one thing he’s unlikely to do is suddenly discover a common touch. This is a case in which style and substance amount to pretty much the same thing.
So the protests are now about the difficulty of making ends meet, the contrast between metropolitan and more rural areas, and the feeling that the system is rigged by the privileged for the privileged. There are echoes of Occupy and the Tea Party in that. You can hear similar complaints from the Trump base, and from some Brexit supporters (as well as from plenty of people who vehemently oppose both).
That’s also why the protesters were so violent when they made it to Paris.
A new European conservative movement?
A movement without clear leadership risks dissolving over time. That would solve Macron’s immediate problem. However, it wouldn’t do anything for France, or suggest any long term solutions. So maybe the best thing for now is to step back and try to really survey the landscape. That’s where author and Columbia University professor Mark Lilla’s look at French conservatives in the New York Review of Books is particularly valuable.
Lilla says we’re mistaken if we think conservatism will look the same in France as it does in the United States, or if we assume there is nothing more to it than France’s mainstream Republican party (“no governing ideology apart from globalist economics and worship of the state”) and LePen’s movement (“a refuge for history’s detritus”). In between, he finds social conservatives organized largely around traditional Catholic values. Their candidate might be president now instead of Macron if his campaign hadn’t imploded because of a corruption scandal. In particular, Lilla focuses on groupings of young conservative intellectuals. His description of them is striking:
“They predictably reject the European Union, same-sex marriage, and mass immigration. But they also reject unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, and AGFAM (Apple-Google-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft).”
They tend to be strong environmentalists, he says — and they’re all fans of Bernie Sanders. They are highly critical of what they see as rampant individualism. One wing of the movement seems most comfortable espousing traditional values. Another is looking for nothing less than a culture war with their elders.
In either case, they frequently cross over what have become common concepts of left and right. Lilla sees in them a possible building block of a new Europe-wide conservative movement. Any such effort would have to try to reconcile the nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-democratic policies that currently predominate in Hungary, for instance. That’s a tall order — and it’s not at all clear who swallows whom. It’s very possible that the more strident triumphs.
But if the lesson of recent years is that the urge for greater European integration and openness to immigration have passed their peak, then it would be wise to keep an eye on these new conservatives. In one way or another, they will be an important part of the picture going forward.