The phenomenon of the Gilets jaunes taking place in cities across France seems to have taken many in the commentariat and news media by surprise. From last Sunday’s demonstrations, it’s clear they haven’t gone away since they emerged on 17th November last year, like many in the French (and wider European) political class would have liked. Certainly, the methods they are willing to use, but also it seems, the anger which has driven them to act as such, completely baffle much of the mainstream. This is strange to me, because all the evidence was pointing in exactly this direction, and much of it is encapsulated in the man himself, French President Emmanuel Macron, and what he symbolises.
Macron won the election in 2017 in a very particular context: the collapse of the establishment centre as voters looked to more radical forces to create movement in French politics; a rejection of the stock agenda of liberalisation pushed since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992; and increasingly obvious French impotence in European affairs, particularly with regard to Germany and the politics of the Eurozone. Macron assumed the mantel for all of these. He was not of any of the established parties, essentially making him an outsider (though as a so-called Énarque, a graduate of the national administrative school, and a former Rothschild banker, this idea was of course dubious). His offer was to modify elements of the liberalisation agenda (summed up as Nordic ‘flexicurity’) in order to accelerate its halting advance, thus restoring dynamism to the French state and society.
From last Sunday’s demonstrations, it’s clear they haven’t gone away since they emerged on 17th November last year, like many in the French (and wider European) political class would have liked.
It was shrewd to tie these issues together, as it gave Macron a justification to tackle the more intractable matter first as a way of dealing with the one the French had already recognised as a problem. On the one hand, the halting advance of liberalisation had in a way left the French with the worst of both worlds – a precarious working-class and stagnant business. On the other, the stagnation of the French economy paralysed France in trying to maintain the country’s parity with Germany, bolstered by the Euro and Reunification, and hence meant events in the world and in the eurozone were out of her hands. Germany’s increasing ability to pull away was based on the reforms in made in the early 2000s; if France did not do the same, she could not catch up with Germany. If she didn’t do that, she could not establish the “European sovereignty” needed to restore the French voice in world affairs and, closer to home, their control over the architecture of the Eurozone.
By embracing these three as aspects of one problem – as an outsider he would alter the liberal agenda in order to break the deadlock and reinvigorate France, allowing her to confront Germany and reassume their shared role at the head of Europe – Macron gave himself the potential for great momentum and utter defeat. Defeat, it seems, is the result of over a year and a half of Macron’s occupancy of the Élysée. His failure to get Germany to move despite bringing down the public deficit and enacting reforms to the labour market has only underscored that Macron is the apotheosis, not the transformation, of the politics of the past 25 years. The French may indeed have been willing to hand Macron a cheque to enact his ‘Jupiterian’ plan, but this cheque was not blank.
Not only has liberalisation been futile in the European sphere, but it has also left the French working and middle classes in a distinctly more precarious economic situation; a situation that Macron seems singularly incapable of comprehending. Following up the abolition of a tax on wealthy property owners with a carbon tax that would disproportionately hit the poor, coupled with his ignorant comments on the state of unemployment, has generated a palpable sense of injustice among this section of the French people. One the Élysée was so unaware of, that the protestors felt it made sense to wear hi-vis yellow jackets in order to make their plight visible to the President and his cobbled-together coalition of centrists hoping they had fended off the worst of the populist insurgence of 2017. They had nonetheless deluded themselves; Macron’s support was paper-thin, born out of a rejection of Le Pen’s nationalism and the collapse of the existing centre. The palpable sense of injustice was already there, and Macron has only exacerbated it to the breaking point. Even with him announcing measures to address the demands of the protesters, Act VIII of the Gilets jaunes suggests that in parts of French society all belief, the basis of representation, in his government has been broken.
Not only has liberalisation been futile in the European sphere, but it has also left the French working and middle classes in a distinctly more precarious economic situation; a situation that Macron seems singularly incapable of comprehending.
The coalition that forms the Gilets jaunes is both nationally based and nationally focussed. Its various uncoordinated demands focus on what should be done in Paris for France. Similarly, Brexiteers on the left and the right hope to achieve their demands for justice and control by channelling the national project of Brexit. On the left, the demands for social justice and economic change are limited to the borders of the British nation. Some do this out of what they see as practical reasons – the British state is under our control and the EU is not – and others come as close to migrant-blaming as makes no difference.
Brexit frames the debate so that the ‘Lexit’ solution is opposed to the various Remain efforts – from the centrist pro-Brussels crowd to those arguing another Europe is possible. It has been deliberately defined as an alternative to all these. The Gilets jaunes are different, however; they are a spontaneous force that has emerged in response to the status quo and have completely rejected the international dimension in formulating their various demands. Both see the international as excluded from the battle to achieve social justice within their respective nations, but the latter remains, not a defined political movement positioned against anything, but a popular outburst. “Province against the city”, as Ulrike Guérot put it on ZDF in early December. A popular rage which has fixed its sights on the national and ignored the international.
Hence a bit of political critique is in order because these circumstances give Europeanists such as myself pause for thought. The fact is, the working and disillusioned people, for whom those like myself in DiEM25 fight, are little aware of our efforts and our intentions to bring about the change they seek. They are unaware they have a voice beyond the nation, that they could have agency and that they can make a difference, as DiEM25 and others aim to, through the internationalism of the Union. Europe has been formulated in political discourse of all member-states as somewhere else, as abroad, as not here and not us. It’s easy to see why such an impression would hold. When the working-classes were brought into the compromise that the state embodies, with the erection of large-scale welfare institutions post-1945, their strategic interest became tied to the nation-state and its power. The nation-state must continue performing its supportive role for working majority for it to justifiably claim it is theirs, and it works for them – a claim Macron has sorely undermined in France. Europe not only doesn’t perform this role in any recognisably capacity, but it may, some suspect, even undermine the nation-state in its crucial task of maintaining the social balance.
The fact is, the working and disillusioned people, for whom those like myself in DiEM25 fight, are little aware of our efforts and our intentions to bring about the change they seek.
The Union already works for other segments of society, with industrialists and banks and landowners provided enormous markets and subsidies, the vast bulk of the bourgeoisie given huge freedom and potential to advance their careers and enjoy the heights of European culture, migrants presented with the opportunity of 28 job markets instead of 1. The poorer and more immobile sections of society, however, have no stake in this game and, it seems, no way of obtaining one; an affront to social solidarity and democracy as European society grows ever-more integrated. Hence, any Europeanist, who believes in those values and understands their persistent absence will only undermine and potentially destroy the Union and its achievements must conclude one thing: transforming the Union to function on behalf and in the name of these citizens as well should be their primary objective.
DiEM25 is among those movements and organisations which have recognised this imperative and the urgency that characterises the task at hand. Several groups have come up with manifestos aimed at trying to address the myriad threats that the Union faces, but few grasp this is the crucial problem which, like Macron himself, leaves the Union with little substantial popular support. Trade unions are largely fragmented at the European level and spending is negligible, the largest single chunk going to the CAP. Popular movements of ordinary, politically engaged people must step into the breach. They must be the means to bring about change.
Several groups have come up with manifestos aimed at trying to address the myriad threats that the Union faces, but few grasp this is the crucial problem which, like Macron himself, leaves the Union with little substantial popular support.
The Green New Deal was aimed for this exact purpose. It is the programme being presented by DiEM25 and its allies (collectively as the European Spring) in the European elections in May next year. As I see it, the Green New Deal should be seen as a first step – not a revolution, but a radical shift. It aims to provide answers within the framework of the institutions that already exist in Brussels, by redeploying them. Part of this is naturally designed to loosen the eurozone, giving European states the space to stimulate their economies and relieve the debt-burden, whilst coordinating Europe-wide investment. Tax-havens must also be rooted out, and workers’ rights, healthcare, and education must be brought up to standard and aligned across the Union. It argues the EU budget must be brought under full parliamentary control, with the power to raise certain taxes, however, it is currently too small and lacks the legitimacy to tax effectively. Given that, much of the new spending it proposes will initially come from coordinated investment and bonds.
The core of this is a Green Investment Programme, providing the basis of a Jobs Guarantee. The Guarantee would rely on a multilateral agreement committing state and local authorities to fund jobs at a living wage in sectors which are meaningful and beneficial to the community. Such jobs will be created through Green investment. €500bn annually would be invested in green energy, the transition, and transport; such investment would come from the European Investment Bank and other public investment banks issuing bonds, which would be backed up by Europe’s central banks. They would ensure the EIB public bond yields remained low and stable. With this massive programme martialling the enormous pools of idle savings in Europe, there would be ample space for the Jobs Guarantee, beginning the climb out of economic stagnation, getting unemployed and underpaid Europeans back into quality work, whilst also moving towards our climate objectives.
Wealth is created socially, together. Hence, its prosperity should be shared among us.
A second big idea in the manifesto is the Universal Citizens’ Dividend, which is put forward on the basis that all Europeans have contributed and hence have a stake in our modern economy, particularly in the case of emerging digital technology industries. To that end, it is proposed Europe has a fund which receives revenue from assets purchased by Central Banks under quantitative easing, those from intellectual property rights and other monopolies on common knowledge, and most importantly, a percentage of capital stock taken at every Initial Public Offering in the Union. Payments from this fund would be made to all Europeans across the Union, regardless of what other payments in the form of welfare benefits or unemployment insurance they receive. Wealth is created socially, together. Hence, its prosperity should be shared among us.
More than a blueprint, the Green New Deal offers an example of the kind of ideas we should be considering to radically transform the Union. It suggests just one path to move to a Europe of Solidarity, between individuals, communities, and nations. A necessary solidarity which must be at the heart of the Union’s values, guide its actions and guarantee Europeans the means to act as free citizens in a democracy. By achieving that, we will restore the dignity of our citizens. We will win back the working poor of Europe, voting for Brexit in 2016 and demonstrating in Paris now. Not within the nation but beyond the nation; that is where the battle for social justice must be fought.
Samuel Hufton is a student at King’s College London and member of DiEM25 since February 2016, involved in the London DSC. Alongside his studies, he writes a blog on European politics and history: Evropaïki Dimokratía.