Tuesday, March 19, 2019

GILETS JAUNES ON THE WANE; GUN CONTROVERSY; UN SPEAKS OUT; ANTISEMITISM; CLIMATE CHANGE


GILETS JAUNES LOSING SUPPORT


If you are getting fed up with the weekly Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) demonstrations in France, you are not alone. Even some of the GJ themselves are dropping out, with the number of active protesters down from an early nationwide high of 287,000 to 32,300 this past weekend (10,000 in Paris alone). For the first time since the start of the GJ movement in mid-November 2018, polls are now indicating that a majority of the French (56% according to a February Elabe poll) want the Saturday protest marches to stop, even though they still support the GJ agenda. They approve of the grassroots group of widely varying ages and backgrounds that succeeded in forcing the government to cancel a planned fuel tax hike, but seem less convinced of the usefulness of continuing demonstrations now that the GJ's initial demands have been met and their new claims are less clear. 

Fouquet's vandalized and set on fire
Saturday, March 16, saw the 18th consecutive weekly GJ protest turning into one of the most destructive ones since the start of the movement four months ago. Numerous videos taken on the Champs Elysées in Paris attest to the extreme violence against the police who were pelted with paving stones and assaulted even inside their police vans, while the notorious casseurs (Black Block hooligansunleashed their fury against property along the way as they vandalized and set fire to the famous Fouquet’s restaurant, burned down three newsstands, vandalized and pillaged a number of luxury shops, set fire to cars and to a ground-floor bank in an apartment building where police managed to extricate in extremis a young woman and her child from the fire that completely destroyed the bank offices below her. A tragedy had been narrowly avoided, but the murderous hatred that has infected these demonstrations has begun to overshadow the initial call of the Gilets Jaunes for social justice, and switch public sympathy to the merchants and business owners who have been vandalized (sometimes more than once) or forced to close shop on Saturdays. 

Shops vandalized and looted
The incidents showed once again the difficulty of a government that must allow demonstrations, as guaranteed by the Constitution, but is unable to maintain order with an under-equipped and over-extended police force that is nearing exhaustion after 18 consecutive weekends of battle. Police reported that 42 protesters, 17 police officers, and one fireman were injured in this latest demonstration, while 237 people were arrested and 200 held in custody—later reduced to 87 held in custody, all others released.  

President Macron cut short a ski weekend in the Pyrenees to return to Paris for a crisis meeting with his Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior, and subsequently promised strong measures, to be announced soon, to ensure safe and peaceful demonstrations in the future. We are waiting. 


GUN CONTROVERSY

In addition to the material cost of the widespread destruction, there has been concern for some time over the high number of injuries suffered in the GJ protests. According to Le Monde of January 21st, they then numbered 1700 protesters and 1000 police officers and included light injuries as well as those requiring hospitalization. They did not include the permanent injuries caused by alleged police brutality for which 157 complaints have been filed and 71 referred to the IGNP (Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale) for further investigation. Among these are the loss of fingers or an eye caused by a rubber bullet fired from an “LBD” gun (lanceur à balles de défense) during heated confrontations. These flashball guns are used by riot police in the frontlines—those charged with pushing back demonstrators and therefore most exposed to the angry mob. After the first serious injuries, these police officers were ordered to wear body cameras, which, together with videos and live reports, serve to help the IGPN to distinguish between legitimate defense and undue force. For instance, a flashball is supposed to be aimed below the shoulder, but when a demonstrator ducks to pick up a paving stone or a teargas cannister and gets hit in the face, is this police brutality or legitimate defense? The continued use of the controversial LBD gun was recently approved by the French Constitutional Council which found this gun to be the best defensive weapon for the riot police when faced with Molotov cocktails, fire bombs, and all manner of heavy projectiles in up-close violent confrontations. 


UNITED NATIONS SPEAKS OUT

UN Human Rights boss Michelle Bachelet
As the flashball debate continued in France, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for a full investigation into alleged excessive force by French police against Gilets Jaunes protesters. Her Commission has placed France on its police violence list as the only developed country alongside such wrongdoers as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Haiti. Ouch! In response, the French government reminded Mrs. Bachelet that it is the armed thugs at these demonstrations who are at the root of the extreme violence against persons and property, and not the embattled police who have been facing hostile crowds every weekend since mid-November and have suffered many injuries in that time. Even so, the French courts are again looking into claims of police violence and, unless convinced otherwise by the latest videos, may well end up banning the controversial LBD gun after all.


ANTISEMITISM

Alain Finkielkraut attacked by Gilets Jaunes
While the Gilets Jaunes appear to be running out of steam with dwindling numbers of marchers, the holdouts have hardened in their demands for a citizens’ referendum and a change in government. The discourse is more strident and hateful, and may have found its way into an outbreak of antisemitism that is never far from the surface in France. During one of the recent Saturday demonstrations, well known French-born philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was stopped near his home in Paris by a group of Yellow Vests who hurled insults at him like Dirty Jew, Go back to Tel Aviv, France is OURS!, and more. Shortly thereafter, antisemitic slogans appeared on some public buildings, posters of the widely admired Simone Veil were covered with swastikas, as were a large number of graves in a Jewish cemetery in Alsace while others were heavily damaged and headstones overturned. 

President Macron paid a visit to the desecrated cemetery and forcefully condemned this religious violence which has no place in a lay country such as France, but no government has been able to effectively eradicate the ever-simmering antisemitic sentiment in this country. 




CLIMATE CHANGE

March 15 was the closing date for President Macron's 2-month-long Grand Débât, but it also was the beginning of a new weekly protest when thousands of French high school students skipped class that Friday afternoon to take to the streets to demand government action on climate change. Following the example of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who gained worldwide attention by speaking out at the Davos Economic Forum where she accused irresponsible adults (including her audience of captains of industry) of ignoring global warming for too long and called on youth to take over. She had been demonstrating every Friday afternoon since last August with a sit-down strike in front of her school or the Swedish Parliament where her quiet determination soon inspired teenagers all over the world to do the same on Friday afternoons. In the first such protest tens of thousands of French students skipped classes on March 15 to demonstrate, followed the next day by some 45,000 people of all ages who marched peacefully in Paris for climate change action, while the Gilets Jaunes held their noisy and destructive protest in another part of town. The contrast between the quiet climate change march and the slash-and-burn Gilets Jaunes march could not have been greater.  



WHAT'S NEXT?

In an attempt at rapprochement with those who had accused him of being out of touch with ordinary citizens, Emmanuel Macron instigated a Grand Debate of weekly meetings with mayors throughout France between January 15 and March 15. He also proposed that mayors invite citizens to express their concerns in Books of Grievances made available at city halls until March 15. These Books have now been collected and, once digitalized and summarized, will be submitted to the government, which has promised to respond before the end of April. 

On Monday following the disastrous GJ demonstration, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced some of the "strong measures" President Macron had referred to earlier:  No more demonstrations on the Champs Elysées as well as two areas in Bordeaux and Toulouse that have been repeatedly vandalized; increased fines for those who participate in unauthorized demonstrations and jail time for the organizers; possible use of surveillance drones to pinpoint and identify outside hooligans; cancellation of the demonstration as soon as the presence of hooligans is detected. Oh, and the Paris police chief was fired for having given confusing instructions on the use of the LBD guns.

It is to be hoped that this will allow the government to take back control. Macron needs to win this one to regain the popularity he lost over claims of "arrogance" and being "the president of the rich" while overtaxing the poor, which was the spark that set off these Gilet Jaunes protests to begin with. Will it be enough to turn voters around? That may depend on his April response to the problems raised in the Debates and the Books of Grievances. In the meantime, he will be watched closely for his dealings with the Yellow Vest crisis and the missteps in his own government. 

Stay tuned...  


Sunday, February 10, 2019

RAINBOW OF PROTESTS

A RAINBOW OF PROTESTS

As the weekly Saturday demonstrations of the Gilets Jaunes continue in France, this Yellow Vest movement has spawned a number of other color-coded protest groups. The Foulards Rouges (Red Scarves) have been demonstrating against the violence of the Yellow Vest protests and in defense of the country's governmental institutions; the Gilets Verts (Green Vests) marched against the government's lack of action on climate change and filed a petition in court signed by 1.8 million citizens; and the Gilets Roses (Pink Vests) of licensed childminders have been out protesting against a proposed cut in their unemployment coverage. It's colorful and largely peaceful, except for the Gilets Jaunes (GJ) demonstrations that continue to be plagued by thugs who cause material damage and chaos wherever they go.

Of this colorful palette of protesters, the Yellow Vests remain the most visible and prominent. Although their initial demand for fuel-tax relief was granted, they now want nothing less than a Citizens' Referendum and the resignation of President Macron. On February 2nd, 58,600 GJ demonstrated throughout France (down from 64,000 the week before), denouncing police violence and carrying photos of fellow protesters who had suffered serious injuries, many of them caused by the controversial "flashball" gun. These injuries included at least fourteen cases of an eye lost due to a flashball shot. Just days earlier, the Conseil d'Etat had ruled the continued use of the flashball gun legal because it is the police's best defensive weapon in the face of molotov cocktails or home-made explosives. Crowd-dispersing methods such as tear gas and water cannons have proved inadequate against the armed thugs who inevitably infiltrate these protest marches and are extremely mobile, having at times managed to encircle the police.

French symbol Marianne in yellow vest
While Paris remains the focus of the GJ protests, their Saturday marches have been taking place throughout France and occasionally centered on particular provincial towns, such as Bourges and, most recently, Valence. Given the seemingly inevitable clashes and damage these protests engender, the mayor of Valence called for a lockdown of the city center during the GJ march, asking shops, bars and restaurants on the protest route to stay closed another loss for these businesses on their busiest day of the week after a poor Christmas season due to road blocks and riots which kept visitors away. It is clear that the right to demonstrate for some can outweigh the right to safety for others.

In response to the GJ crisis and the accusation that he is out of touch with the people, President Macron initiated a nationwide Grand Débat on January 15th, where once a week until mid-March he will meet in different regions with some 60 mayors of small towns to discuss their local problems and grievances in open debate. These town-hall meetings regularly run up to six or seven hours and, even though they can be raucous, they have gained Macron four points in a late-January interactive Harris poll since his all-time low in December if not for actual improvements then for courage and stamina. Even Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a less gifted speaker than Macron, has been pressed into service in a show of government outreach and communication where none existed before.
Nevertheless, another recent Elabe poll indicated that two thirds of the French still support the GJ movement and a little over half want their protests to continue during this Grand Débât. Carried by their early success and the people's support, their Facebook orders are "Don't stop now."

On February 5th the Parliament passed a watered-down version of the proposed Loi anticasseurs, which gives the police wider powers to stop thugs (casseurs) from breaking into peaceful demonstrations. No longer will face coverings be allowed and those who break the rules will be registered and banned from future demonstrations. It was a contentious issue, and among those who voted against it (communists and socialists called it "liberticide") were 50 members of Macron's own party.

Macron's party En Marche brought to a halt
At the same time, the CGT, one of France's largest trade unions, called for a nationwide general strike on February 5th to demand fiscal justice and higher wages, and to express their support for the Gilets Jaunes movement. Between 14,000 and 18,000 strikers (depending on sources) marched in Paris and vowed to do the same in different cities every Tuesday the "Mardis d'Urgence Sociale." Even if this is unlikely to succeed, it points to a convergence of grievances from laborers, employees, self-employed, retirees, and small business owners about over-taxation, loss of purchasing power, and increasing inequality. The resentment is growing despite Macron's weekly Grand Débât meetings against a distant government of technocrats obsessed with numbers and budgets who fail to see the results of increased taxation on the lower and middle classes. 

The Cour des Comptes (Court of Auditors) has just issued a warning concerning the growing public deficit as a result of the reduced taxes and increased expenses announced in December, including €10 billion worth of concessions to GJ demands. Consequently, the shortfall for 2019 will amount to 3.2% of GDP instead of the projected 2.8%, and exceed the limit of 3% set by the European Commission.

Considering that France spends a record amount of 56.5% of its budget on public expenses and that no amount of cutting social benefits or public programs will suffice to cover the multi-billion-euro shortfall, there appears to be no other solution than raising taxes elsewhere, including the reinstatement of the hot-potato ISF wealth tax that just won't go away and has now come back as a demand by unions, politicians of the left, and in the weekly town-hall meetings. Even though this tax would only bring in about €5 billion, its psychological value is incalculable. With all his efforts in the weekly grand debates to repair the damage done by his perceived arrogance and favoritism of the rich, Macron will have to carefully weigh whether to reinstate the wealth tax ("give in to the street") or hold firm and risk continued social unrest.

CROSS-BORDER INSULTS

Luigi Di Maio (red tie) with French Gilets Jaunes
While his government is feverishly looking for sources of revenues (such as taxing the American tech giants GAFA on income earned in France but declared in low-tax countries where they have their headquarters; seeking ways to eliminate tax fraud and corruption; etc.), the Italian deputy vice presidents Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio capitalized on the social unrest in France by inciting the Gilets Jaunes to oppose Macron's government. Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star movement, even met recently with leaders of the GJs near Paris to offer them his support and the use of his party's web platform, and to invite them to Italy and connect with their counterparts there. Later that day, he declared that "A new Europe is being born with the Yellow Vests" and "The wind of change has crossed the Alps." For Emmanuel Macron this direct political interference on French soil was not only an "outrage against our country" but it was one provocation too many, and he recalled his ambassador to Italy for consultations in Paris.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right anti-immigrant League party always jockeying for first place with his co-vice president Di Maio had said earlier in a Facebook video: "I hope that the French will rid themselves of a terrible president and will not back his party in the European Parliament elections in May." He is closely allied with Marine Le Pen, French far-right leader who shares Salvini's euroscepticism and anti-immigrant stance, and is Macron's biggest rival at the European elections. 
Savini vs. Macron
Relations between Italy and France had been strained for a while but have now turned toxic, with Di Maio and Salvini surpassing each other in insults and provocative statements about the arrogance of France that "has never stopped colonizing countries in Africa" which they called one of the reasons for the flood of African migrants to Europe. When Macron called their hostile remarks "insignificant", it only heightened the tension and hardened Italy's resolve to whip up the anti-Macron vote in the upcoming European elections. Obviously, the Italian bad boys are trying to score points at home, but their main goal is not to humiliate Macron, but rather to enlarge the populist base and score big at the European Parliament elections.

European Parliament in Strasbourg
With the ongoing Brexit uncertainty, the growing nationalism and europhobia across Europe, and a weakened Germany as pro-European ally, Macron is fragilized indeed and needs all the help he can get to keep the 27-member EU together. He won't get it from neighboring Italy, co-founder of the original European Union but today a disenchanted member, nor from a number of his own fellow countrymen who are hearing the nationalistic siren song of Marine Le Pen and her Italian fellow populists. The stakes are high, and we are looking at the May elections with some trepidation.

At the best of times the French can be an unruly lot, but the Gilets Jaunes movement may have set off something that feels more lasting than the usual street protests that come and go and are soon forgotten (yesterday was Act XIII of their people-supported weekly marches throughout France, with a planned demonstration in front of the National Assembly in Paris). This Facebook-spawned rebellion has found imitators abroad, and in our borderless new Europe might coalesce into a new political force.

Could this happen? Trump happened. 




Sunday, January 13, 2019

NEW YEAR - NEW HOPE?


NEW YEAR, NEW HOPE? NOT QUITE YET

Street artist's mural à la Delacroix
The start of a new year comes with the usual personal resolutions and wishes for peace and prosperity to all. This time in France, those wishes included an end of the Yellow Vest demonstrations that have been taking place every Saturday since mid-November 2018 and have won the protesters major concessions from the government at a total estimated cost of €4 billion in actual damage to public property and lost business. (Example: fully two-thirds of all roadside radars in France were vandalized during the demonstrations, with replacement costs varying from €60,000 to €200,000 a piece). At the peak of the destructive protests in December, President Macron went on national television and, recognizing the legitimate concern of the lower middle class for their loss of purchasing power, he granted €10 billion worth of increased wages and tax breaks to low-wage earners and small pensioners, and cancelled the planned fuel tax increase that had set off the Yellow Vest protests on Facebook. 


Radars vandalized
Against expectations, and despite the Yellow Vests' success in obtaining redress, their movement did not die down but has shifted into a harder core of holdouts, who now seem focused on bringing down the Macron government. The agitators' heated rhetoric, the anti-Macron placards, and the inevitable infiltration of "casseurs" (thugs) in the protest marches, have led to attacks on the Arc de Triomphe and on the Ministry of Communications in Paris where protesters drove a piece of heavy construction equipment through the locked gates and entered into the courtyard, where they began breaking windows as police quickly evacuated Government Spokesman Benjamin Griveaux from his office. Elsewhere, protesters had set fire to the préfecture de police in Puy-en-Velay and attacked a gendarmerie in Dijon. The Gilets Jaunes (GJ) movement, which sprang from a widely shared concern over lost purchasing power due to over-taxation, has come to resemble a protest against all government authority and the symbols that represent it, including the police. It still is a leaderless movement without party affiliation, but also without a clear purpose now that its main demands have been met.

In his conciliatory speech in mid December, a visibly uncomfortable President Macron tried to calm the waters by cancelling the hated fuel tax increase and meeting most of the protesters' demands. Two weeks later in his New Year's address to the nation he took a firmer line as he called for order to be restored and outlined his plans for implementing his proposed reforms, including pension reform and a tightening of unemployment rules a delicate task in the current climate. He also invited all citizens to participate in a National Debate, organized in town halls across France between January 15 and March 15, where people can express their concerns and suggestions in a Register of Grievances which would then be transmitted to the government in Paris and acted on this spring. A gesture toward those who have felt neglected and "unheard" by this Administration and, in the words of Prime Minister Philippe, a chance at "building together the France of Tomorrow." 

And yet... in Act VIII of the GJ's January 5 protest in Paris, the demonstrations deteriorated again into chaos and vandalism, but also with acts of extreme violence against the riot police. When the marchers deviated from the designated route and started crossing a bridge that leads to the National Assembly, police tried to stop them but were attacked by a mob that included an ex-professional heavyweight boxer who was filmed punching a policeman into retreat and kicking another one while he was down. Scenes of violence also occurred in Toulon, Calais and Rouen. Clearly, the president's attempts at appeasement were not working.

As more facts and figures are coming out, the collateral cost of this uprising is cause for alarm: to date, more than 43,000 claims have been filed for full or partial unemployment benefits following temporary or permanent business closures. Among those closures are family businesses such as small trucking companies that have not been able to deliver due to weeks of road blockages and toll closings, or shop owners who have lost most of their Christmas sales that represent 20-30 percent of their annual income. One may wonder if the GJ were aware of how much their actions would hurt those they claim to represent.

Loss of confidence is another problem: The country's business outlook fell in December to the lowest point since November 2016 and new orders declined for the first time in 34 months, contrasting sharply with the strong growth recorded throughout 2018, according to IHS Markit.

Prime Minister Philippe announces sanctions
In a televised response on January 7, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that, while upholding the right to demonstrate, the government would no longer allow unsanctioned protest marches; all masks or other face coverings would be prohibited at future demonstrations; a police file would be set up of identified casseurs who would be banned from future protests and also be held accountable for the damage they caused (casseurs payeurs). Where their violent acts used to be punished with a fine, these would henceforth be treated as a criminal offence. Laudable as this proposed new law (to be voted on in early February) may be, it seems timid in the context of today's inflamed mood and the obvious disregard for the rules of civil society, as evidenced by the GJ reactions on Facebook and Twitter and their unflagging determination to keep demonstrating. A nervous government decided to deploy 80,000 riot police throughout France for Act IX on Saturday, January 12. It paid off when 84,000 protesters showed up (vs. 50,000 the week before), mostly in Bourges, a historic city in the center of France, and in Paris, but no serious incidents were reported. On the other hand, the GJ are considering a change of tactics and called on their followers to massively withdraw their money from the "banks that really run this country" i.e. a bank run. Even though economists don't believe this will do serious damage to the banking system, it is further proof of the hardening of the GJ movement.

President Macron's generous response in December may have been interpreted as weakness of a president in trouble, who is now hostage to the success of a faceless movement that has tapped into that well of discontent that seems an integral part of the French soul. Has the lid come off Pandora's box? It seems unlikely that this crisis will pass without more demands for one thing or another by a variety of people who have had legitimate claims for years, such as nurses or teachers, who may feel encouraged to press their own charges now. And in the meantime, the GJ's original protest against the fuel tax has evolved into a nebulous demand for "a better life" and the resignation of President Macron.

In changing course and canceling his fuel tax Macron had sought to stop the violence of this leaderless, unknown quantity called Gilets Jaunes by choosing the slippery slope of concessions. It did not stop the violence and with the growing loss of confidence in his government it is as yet hard to see where this will end. According to a January 9 Elabe poll for BFMTV, 60% of French people still support the GJ today. In a letter to the French people to be published next Tuesday, Macron will try to diffuse the tension and reassure the country, but the radicalized GJ are unlikely to stop demonstrating and may force Macron into repressing their movement or negotiating with it. Now more than ever, it would be good to see some senior, seasoned politicians among the young technocrats of Emmanuel Macron's government.

Awaiting further developments, Macron has cancelled his attendance at the World Economic Forum on January 22-25 in Davos due to his "busy agenda" (a more elegant explanation than President Trump's cancellation due to "the Democrats' intransigence").

Di Maio (left) and Salvini announcing support for GJ
Clearly, Macron is facing some serious obstacles at home today, but also on the European front where Italy's joint vice-presidents of the extreme right and left, Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, have given their enthusiastic and public endorsement to the Gilets Jaunes and encouraged them to fight on. Add to that the unresolved Brexit problem, the growing nationalism in Eastern Europe as well as a newly formed extreme-right, Europhobic party in Spain, and Macron's plans for reforming France and strengthening the European Union seem a fading dream today. What started with such promise less than two years ago a young president with a project to reform an entrenched, tradition-bound and rules-hampered government may be undone by a Facebook-fueled wave of insurrection that could be a throwback to the 1968 student rebellion that ultimately led to the resignation of Charles de Gaulle. 

May wisdom inform our rulers and preserve peace in this complicated but democratic society with its history of revolutions from which today's laws and freedoms have sprung.
That is my New Year's wish.



Friday, December 21, 2018

A TENTATIVE QUIET RETURNS


GILETS JAUNES QUIET FOR NOW BUT DISCONTENT SPREADS TO POLICE

Gilets Jaunes, Act V
Last Saturday's demonstration by Gilets Jaunes protesters on the Champs Elysées, the fifth in a row since mid November, came and went without major material damage. The police was well prepared with armored vehicles, tear gas and water cannons, but fewer protesters showed up (down to 66,000 from 136,000 the previous weekend) and there were far fewer hooligans. The movement was beginning to unravel and public support was waning after the Gilets Jaunes had won major concessions from the government.


Those who continue to block traffic circles and toll stations are being forcibly removed by police, but not before a few more toll stations in the south had been set on fire and destroyed this week. VINCI, one of the toll road operators, estimated the damage due to vandalism and lost toll income at tens of millions of euros, and overall loss of business in all sectors has climbed to an estimated €2 billion to date. Even though the Gilets Jaunes have become less visible, the movement is far from dead and is now calling for an RIC (Référendum d'Initiative Citoyenne), a Citizens' Referendum. Small encampments of GJ have sprung up near road crossings or toll stations where they plan to spend Christmas, encouraged by supporters who stop by with hot meals and an occasional Christmas tree. The GJ promise to be back with more demonstrations after Christmas to push their demand for a Referendum as a counter power against the government.

As calm seemed restored in Paris, at least for now, the government announced a one-time €300 bonus to thank the police force for its hard work under exceptionally difficult circumstances. For five weekends in a row they had been on active riot duty, and a terrorist attack in Strasbourg (which claimed a fifth fatality this week) had put the entire force on highest alert. Many law-enforcement officers had been injured by hooligans who, a police spokesman said, were particularly aggressive and not just out for a stone-throwing fight with the police but prepared to kill them. Their exhaustion and disappointment at what they considered a "puny" bonus soon led to a pervasive disgruntlement and old grievances that gave birth to the gyros bleus movement (named after the whirling blue lights on top of police cars).

Gyros bleus on the Champs Elysées
Police are not allowed to strike but they are represented by a number of unions. Encouraged by the government's response to the Gilets Jaunes who got most of what they wanted, three police unions called for a slow-down strike on December 19th, which caused long lines at the Paris airports' security gates and a number of symbolic closings of police stations with minimal service by a skeleton staff. The next day, some 100 police cars, their blue gyrophares flashing, drove down the Champs Elysées to reinforce their demands for better working conditions and salary increases, as well as payment of the €274 million in overtime pay that has been accumulating for a long time. After two days of negotiations, their demands were met and all law enforcement officers received salary increases of €120-150 per month, depending on their rank, while administrative and technical staff were awarded a one-time €300 bonus.

The enormous backlog of overtime covers dozens of years and grows by an average of three million hours per year, according to the Interior Minister, who agreed to meet as soon as next month with police union representatives to work out a payment calendar to begin clearing up this backlog. It looks like there won't be much of a Christmas break for those in this government who have to find the money for all these concessions.

A happy end for now? Perhaps - but could other protests be far behind? President Macron's government does not seem to speak with one voice these days. On several occasions, Prime Minister Philippe has made an announcement that would be contradicted by Emmanuel Macron hours later, and Interior Minister Castaner has been "corrected" as well. Everybody seems stressed and overworked, and under pressure to solve current conflicts this month so as to begin with a clean slate in January. Cracks are beginning to show, but so is the lack of political experience in Emmanuel Macron's young government. Fingers crossed for next year. 

As we wait and see how all this is going to play out, let's relax and enjoy this moment of calm to turn to other matters. Such as food, the main subject in France at this time of the year, with many cooking programs on TV, and truffles, foie gras, game, fowl, marrons glacés, and exotic fruits taking pride of place in food shops. In Aix-en-Provence, the Christmas chalets are lined up along the Cours Mirabeau, and the popular Provençal nativity scene is there again with santons in traditional dress carrying offerings of lavender, olives, wheat or chickens as they descend from their hill-top villages on their way to baby Jesus in the stable. The crowds are out and the mood seems festive, even though the heavily armed soldiers on "Vigipirate" duty are a jarring presence.

As the last of the rubble in Paris has been cleared away, the graffiti scrubbed clean, and the shop windows freed from their protective boards, Peace on Earth may yet prevail this Christmas, at least for a while. Fingers crossed again.



It's been quite a year, here as elsewhere. But things are rarely as bad as they look, so go ahead and enjoy the blessings of the season, including the abundance of food and drink that mark Christmas. Remember that New Year's resolutions exist for a reason, so make it worth your while before paying for it later, helped along by this handy Holiday Workout.



May you all have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and a PEACEFUL NEW YEAR full of the promise of better times ahead. 
Together with champagne Santa, I'll raise a glass to that.





Saturday, December 15, 2018

FRANCE IN TURMOIL


YELLOW FEVER STRIKES FRANCE
 

Armored vehicles on the Champs Elysées
"This is Not a Government" read a newspaper headline (with a wink to Magritte). It featured a picture of last week's violent clashes in Paris between riot police backed up by armored vehicles and demonstrators wearing the yellow safety vests (gilets jaunes) required in every car. Front page news at home and abroad, this yellow-vest protest against a fuel tax hike was deteriorating into urban warfare.

Street protests and strikes are as French as the baguette and part of daily life here. They are organized by trade unions, student groups, or professional associations who usually demand wage increases or object to some government decision or other. But this Gilets Jaunes protest against the sharp increase in fuel taxes next year has no apparent leader, is not affiliated with any political party or trade union, and was sparked on social networks where it set fire to the combustible cloud of discontent voiced by a disparate population of indeterminate age and background that grew to unexpected proportions in record time. Laborers, farmers, employees, small business owners, retirees on fixed incomes they all reject the 23% increase in the price of gas which, being the latest in a string of price increases this year, would significantly affect their purchasing power. Particularly those outside the big cities who need to use their car to get to work, would find it harder to make ends meet. Even if they approve of the government's intended goal of fighting pollution by reducing the number of cars on the road as part of its Ecological Transition Plan, they feel strongly that it is always their group, the middle class, that is asked to pay, and not the rich who got tax breaks or the poor who are exempt. No More Taxes, they cried, Enough is Enough!

ANATOMY OF A MISTAKE

One of the first acts of newly elected president Macron in 2017 was to scrap the wealth tax, the ISF (Impôt Sur la Fortune), in order to stimulate growth. This, more than anything else, has earned him the reputation of president of the rich, even though economists generally supported the measure. In France, like elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and the gap between rich and poor is growing wider. Over time, the resentment against the growing cost of living and the government's deaf ear finally led to the current explosion of anger that is about to enter its fifth week of demonstrations.

The unrest started in mid-November, when to everyone's surprise a strong response to the call on Facebook caused thousands of people to take to the streets, wearing high-visibility yellow vests, to protest against the planned fuel tax. They handed out pamphlets, occupied roundabouts, built roadblocks, blocked toll stations and oil refineries. As usual, the public supported the protesters and soon the Gilets Jaunes took their cause to Paris where the following Saturday they organized a demonstration on the Champs Elysées. This time, their manif, as these protests are called, was infiltrated by outside hooligans and looters (casseurs) in yellow vests who attacked the police with paving stones, threw up barricades, smashed windows, set fires, outshouted the protesters and disrupted their demonstration.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe invited the Gilets Jaunes to meet him at his Matignon office to discuss their grievances, but of the six elected representatives only two showed up and one left after a few minutes. This was a grassroots movement, an amorphous group without leadership or spokesperson, leaving the government at a loss of how to respond or who to talk to. These demonstrators were not the oft-forgotten poor, but working people from the extreme left and right who found common ground in feeling that they were over-taxed and losing purchasing power.

Clean-up at the Arc de Triomphe
As frustration began building and the tone hardened, another march on the Champs Elysées was called on Saturday, December 1st, but this time the authorities had blocked all side roads to the Champs Elysées in an effort to keep out the casseurs and prevent further incidents. Unfortunately, access to the Champs Elysées was still open via the Place de l'Etoile and this is where a large number of hooligans and anarchists managed to mingle with the demonstrators and started defacing the Arc de Triomphe, spray-painting slogans on the façade and breaking into the monument itself, where they wrecked furniture, destroyed a souvenir shop, and smashed the face of a sculpted Marianne, the very symbol of the French Republic. In an extremely violent confrontation with police that caused injuries on both sides, they rampaged down the Champs Elysées where they set cars on fire, smashed storefront windows and bus stops, looted a supermarket, wrenched benches and iron gates from their moorings to throw at police, and left a trail of ruin. Meanwhile, other troublemakers had managed to reach the Boulevard Haussmann, dense with shoppers at the famous department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, where security personnel quickly shepherded shoppers to safety and closed the doors. Lafayette, with its giant Christmas tree under the beautiful glass dome, and its Holiday windows with automated fairytale displays that draw big crowds every year, was a sad sight when those windows were boarded up and the festive lights turned off.

Marianne defaced
The demonstrations had turned ugly and dangerous, affecting not only the retail sector in its busiest season, but also hotels and restaurants, tourism, nightlife, and of course the Christmas markets. Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner had to admit that the security measures had been inadequate and promised that next Saturday, December 8th, the police presence would be doubled (89,000 police nationwide, with 8,000 in Paris alone) and that this time the riot police would be supported by armored vehicles, capable of removing whatever burning barricades the protesters might throw up and provide essential protection to the police who had been badly tested for weeks already and sustained many injuries. Football matches were cancelled, both opera houses and some theaters closed, as were the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, while businesses were asked to stay closed that day and board up their windows.

The authorities prepared the Champs Elysées by removing all items that might be used to hurl at the police, including iron grates and manhole covers, and installed a number of checkpoints where items such as hammers, gas masks, boules, spray paint, and molotov cocktails were confiscated. This time security forces were able to keep control of the Champs Elysées and arrest a large number of troublemakers. Nothing, however, could stop the violence that broke out on and around the Place de la République, which suffered extensive damage. Other cities, notably the beautiful old center of Bordeaux, experienced similar violence and destruction, including the looting of an Apple store that was completely cleaned out. A shaken Mayor of Bordeaux and former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé called on President Macron to break his silence and respond in strong, concrete terms to the Gilets Jaunes' demands.

Hooligans at work
After four Saturdays of increasingly violent demonstrations that caused millions of euros of material damage and an estimated €1.1 billion of business losses so far, as well as 179 personal injuries, six deaths (mostly due to road accidents), nearly 2000 arrests nationwide, and with determined protesters vowing to continue until Christmas and beyond, the Gilets Jaunes protest has turned personal and cries for Macron's resignation have multiplied. They accuse him of arrogance and contempt for their class, and their ranks were soon joined by high school students, environmentalists, as well as union leaders, all with their own demands and all feeling they were "not being heard." This was no longer about tax relief, it was a groundswell of discontent and a cry for social justice that was ballooning into a crisis.

Prime Minister Philippe and Interior Minister Castaner had repeatedly called for calm, reached out to the protesters and given in on a number of demands (including the cancellation of the contested fuel tax). But it was too little too late and, perceiving a crack in the government's determination, they now wanted an increase in the minimum wage, lower taxes on the middle class, and the re-imposition of the ISF wealth tax.

President Macron addressing the nation
A somber-looking President Macron finally spoke on Monday, December 10, in a televised address that was short and sober. Starting off with a firm condemnation of the violence and the promise that the perpetrators would be dealt with severely, he sounded a more conciliatory tone towards the Gilets Jaunes who he said deserved to "live decently from their work." Having already dropped the fuel tax hike, he offered a €100 monthly pay increase to minimum-wage earners as of January, the elimination of the planned tax hike on retirees' pensions, and tax-exempt overtime pay for all employees. But he refused to reinstate the ISF tax on the rich which had so rankled the protesters and given rise to his reputation as president of the rich. The offer was costly (estimated at €8-10 billion) and a severe setback for Macron, but it fell short of expectations and the Gilets Jaunes were quick to announce their next demonstration on the Champs Elysées on Saturday, December 15, calling it Act V.

A closer look at the demonstrators' profile has revealed some interesting facts. The movement counts as many women as men; their average age at 45 is higher than usual; workers and retirees alike are mostly from the lower middle class; and many of them had never demonstrated before.

If this Gilets Jaunes movement proved anything, it is that social networks can quickly bring masses of people together to form a powerful force for or against a common cause, and that this can happen at any moment. A new challenge to those in government.


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

It is hard to predict where this new phenomenon of revolution by social networks will lead, but it is already clear that President Macron's presidency has been damaged. The man who said he would never back down was forced to do just that, at a high price in money and image. His Reforms agenda will surely be slowed down and may have to be curtailed, and the boy wonder who was elected president at age 39 with promises of long-needed reforms has lost much of his luster after 19 months in a presidency marked by some early successes but as many setbacks and missteps. His elite education and unquestioned intelligence have served him well in his rapid rise to the top, but he seems disconnected from ordinary people, the very people who now want to be heard about life in their world, the real world. The success of this Gilets Jaunes movement is only the latest example of this disconnect and what it can lead to.


Is Macron getting it? Not sure, but "the street" has won this first round and won't let him forget it.

Meanwhile in Strasbourg:

Earlier this week a terrorist shot four people to death and wounded 12 others as they strolled through the famous Christmas Market in Strasbourg. He got away but was quickly identified as 29-year-old Shérif Chekatt, a locally-born petty criminal with a long criminal record, and tracked down and killed by police when he was cornered in his own neighborhood 48 hours later. The incident put the police on high alert and the government made an appeal to the Gilets Jaunes to drop their planned Act V in Paris this Saturday to give the exhausted police a break. No response. The march will proceed as planned with the unspoken message to President Macron: You did not listen to us; we will not listen to you.

As I write this, police are investing the area of the Champs Elysées where groups of Gilets Jaunes are beginning to arrive, awaited by armored vehicles and water cannons, ready to do battle once again amid boarded-up façades while desperate shopkeepers look on and count their losses in this crucial holiday season. No sign here of Peace on Earth to Men of Goodwill.



PS:  This battle is not over, and I will keep you posted next week.
Will Christmas soften some hearts and bring protesters and government closer together? Will it open some eyes to the folly of war-like damage that will ultimately have to be paid by all? Will the government recognize that growing economic inequality is the root of all social unrest and find a workable solution?
Facing a less than joyous Christmas and a clean-slate New Year, all we can do is HOPE.