The French have an expression that sums up as “we’ve had it, up to our ears.”
And today France, one of our closest and oldest allies, is at a boiling point, challenged by street demonstrations that have turned violent and at the same time received massive popular support. Worse, the forces at work have sprung from social media with no leadership to negotiate with the government. The serious nature of the situation is such that the government is not certain to survive.
What can explain this sudden outrage?
The country is suffering from a slow but sure decrease in the quality of life for a significant portion of the population. With each new election there was hope that somehow health, education, and unemployment costs could continue to be entirely assumed by the government without adding to the already heavy tax burden.
The election in May 2017 went to Emmanuel Macron, a charming, young, attractive, intelligent political outsider who promised that the French could reform government spending while the Providential French State could continue the French dream, or fantasy, that government aid and services could continue untouched: all gain, no pain.
After 18 months of Macron as president, the downward slope continued with increases in the cost of living and increased taxes — with France taking first prize away from Denmark as the most taxed country in Europe.
Two weeks ago a spark ignited what had been a silent majority, disconnected to the unions and political parties.
The spark was in the form of “Les Vestes Jaunes,” the Yellow Jackets.
Someone, or maybe no one particular individual, realized that the jackets that are legally required to be kept in the trunks of all vehicles and that are evidently available at the push of a trunk button can serve as a weapon.
This is because of the vivid yellow color, chosen to be visible on the road side in case of an accident is the most visible color as a tool to demonstrate solidarity and anger.
To help explain how and why yellow jackets worn at street demonstrations turned violent and caused political turmoil throughout the country, it is interesting to make the comparison with the United States, where we also have political polarization, but where extreme street anger and violence is thankfully absent and not in the realm of possible political expression.
In both countries the populations were fed up with traditional political parties.
Both countries elected as president someone who had never been elected to political office before, and in the case of the United States our president has never served in any administrative capacity or in the military.
In France the elected president was the prototype senior manager technocrat. He came from a family with no political importance and he never was politically active in the community where he was born and grew up. His background was as a well-placed investment banker with the Rothschild investment bank and then as a very successful, upwardly mobile member of the French bureaucracy in the capacity of advisor to a president and then cabinet minister, without any support from traditional political parties.
In the United States we have a president who does not come from the technocracy but in a similar fashion held no previous political office. Donald Trump succeeded in defeating the most prominent and best known Republican candidates to win the nomination for the presidency, even at the expense of rejecting traditional Republican Party values: American international and multilateral commitments, interventions militarily overseas, Russia as an enemy, reduction of budget deficits, and respect for the independence of the judiciary and Congress.
Trump admittedly does find himself in a situation where considerable opposition has built up against him because, as it has become evident, his new brand of politics has meant a certain distain for opposition politicians, the media, and also as we have recently seen, for the judicial system.
However, contrary to France, popular anger in the United States' opposition to the president has not fueled street violence. Anger has been confined to political rallies.
This is because the United States has a fundamental anchorage in democratic values, where freedom of speech and separation of powers are sacred and have produced a country with an exceptional ability for institutions to spring to the fore and in fact represent the people. The people are heard. Not just through the president, however fervent and vocal his followers, but through the Congress, the Judiciary, and through local representatives at the state, city, and county levels.
The United States has the resources and cultural roots in compromise, and has never, with the exception of the civil war, allowed even the most violent demonstrations against racism in 1960’s and opposition to the Vietnam War, to threaten the State itself.
The Trump presidency can be explained as a vehicle to express the built up anger and as a means to bring about change.
His election and presidency act as an escape valve, perceived by many as a means to empower ordinary people.
A certain fusion has developed between the president and those who can only aspire to wealth and power. Years ago each school child was told that he could become president. Today many Americans, however frustrated at their inability to succeed financially and socially, believe in the example, the symbol of Trump’s success.
In France, despite the tradition of human values and human rights, progress came through revolution, not against George III, a foreign occupying power, but against its own privileged classes.
Throughout the 19th century and even in the May 1968 insurrection, confrontation even to the point of bringing down governments, was the way to bring about change.
Today the spark of the Yellow Jackets represents certainly the opportunity for change but also a danger to the political and social stability of the country.
Mark L. Cohen has his own legal practice, and was counsel at White & Case starting in 2001, after serving as international lawyer and senior legal consultant for the French aluminum producer Pechiney. Cohen was a senior consultant at a Ford Foundation Commission, an advisor to the PBS television program "The Advocates," and Assistant Attorney General in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He teaches U.S. history at the business school in Lille l’EDHEC. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.