Pointing to France’s long history of combining forms of dirigiste policymaking with interest group fragmentation, Jürgen Grote looks at the yellow vests movement and argues that its political implications should not be exaggerated by either mainstream or left-wing forces. The yellow vests do not add anything new to the political business cycle so typical of the country.
Ways of doing things in France and Europe
Here is a means of decision-making which has been typical of certain welfare states in the past: Having consulted economic advisers on how to avoid threatening budget deficits in the year to come, a minister is convinced that there is no way forward but to issue a major tax increase in the following months. The minister immediately calls a series of meetings involving fellow ministers, representatives of capital and labour, civil society, social movements, NGOs, churches, members of subnational government bodies, and other relevant social groups. Consultations goes on for several weeks before a preliminary draft is finally agreed by virtually all participants. The document is subsequently presented to the relevant parliamentary committees where members of civil society have the opportunity to voice their concerns again, thus eventually amending the original proposal. While the first rounds of consultations have been informal, this last parliamentary round is actually formally institutionalised by what the Swiss call ‘Vernehmlassungsverfahren’ (a formal and mandatory consultation procedure).
This hypothetical pattern of arriving at decisions used to be typical in numerous welfare states, particularly in Scandinavia, before neoliberal waves of globalisation started triggering processes of dramatic de-institutionalisation throughout even the most consensus-based democracies. Before that, consultation, incorporation, and participatory forms of governance were the rule in many parts of Europe.
But not so in France! While the state has always been described as a prototype for etatism, its relations to society have been fragmented, occasional, and basically of a more bilateral and personalised nature for most of the post-war period in comparison to other European models. In sociological debates on state-society relations, France has mostly been seen in terms of pluralist fragmentation, whereas the Scandanavian-type countries portrayed above have frequently been described as (neo-)corporatist, inclusive, or as consensual democracies.
While disorganisation now seems to be the general rule everywhere, differences in patterns of interest intermediation continue to persist. The recent rallies of hundreds of thousands of protesters in yellow vests – the Yellow Vest movement – need to be viewed within this broader context.
Two dimensions are of particular importance: firstly, the specific role of the state and state-society relations in France; and, secondly, the general emergence of widespread forms of precariousness hitting the economy, politics, and society alike, not only in France but throughout Europe.
The state and its relations to society
The French state has always been relatively sheltered from societal influence. Driven by a Jacobin ethos, members of the grands corps – here, the blue mandarins – have vigilantly defended the general interest against supposedly illegitimate pressure groups whose activities have frequently been seen as indecent and obscene. Candidates for higher administrative posts have almost entirely been drawn from the grandes écoles, whose recruitment procedures largely privilege members of the country’s elite. When eventually retiring from public service, the very same elites often reappear as CEOs of large public and private corporations – a practice known as pantouflage. This has become the rule elsewhere as well. Yet the French case has supplied the blueprint and can be seen as one of the most closed systems of elite recruitment among developed democracies worldwide (see Hartmann, 2000). This not only relates to functional positions but also to territory. Notwithstanding the regionalisation process set in motion by Mitterrand in the mid-1980s, power in France continues to be hyper-centralised around the presidency, with little input from the regions, provinces, or departments (Grote, 1998; Grote et al. 1996).
A result of this is that independent of charisma or personal inclination to rule, presidents of the Republic are almost by default forced into a kind of double-sided straitjacket combining elements of ‘Bonapartism’ (Karl Marx) and ‘decisionism’ (Carl Schmitt), giving them little chances of escape. Willingly or unwillingly, this straitjacket has been worn by both conservative and left-wing candidates alike. Accordingly, the typical mode of governing was by decree without consultation with political opponents or wider portions of the population. Lacking real connection to those the regulation targeted, many decrees have historically been scrapped because of rising discontent from the lower rungs of society. The time in between the coming into effect and the subsequent abrogation of legislative acts has frequently been filled by mounting mass protests and political upheavals, often gathering steam to a point where presidents have had no choice but to resign from office.
From a historical perspective, the yellow vests protests of the past few weeks are thus nothing special. They rather add to the entangled ups and downs of the political and business cycle so typical of the country. The significance of the yellow vests movement should therefore not be overstated, even in their fifth week of mobilisation.
Examples of suspensions of laws and decrees, as much as of ensuing collapses of government majorities, are countless in France. They may indicate what President Emmanuel Macron might have to face in the coming few weeks and months. While he has managed to withstand massive anti-government protests following the labour code reform, the rail reform, the education reform, the hospital reform, and the normalisation of the state of emergency reform over the past eighteen months of his term of office, Macron now has to give in to at least some demands.
Among these demands are the suspension of the rise in fuel taxes on Diesel cars, a temporary freeze of increases in electricity and gas prices, an abolishment of new vehicle norms hitting users of old diesel cars, and an increase of the minimum income level by 100 euros a month. Last week, government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux even indicated the willingness of the administration to eventually reverse cuts to a wealth tax – a major concern for the yellow vests. Whether these concessions will ultimately help Macron to survive as a leader, or whether they represent the beginning of the end of his position as president remains to be seen. We can examine some examples of what has happened to Macron’s predecessors.
Originally starting with a minor issue (gender-separated bedrooms in student residences), the subsequent turmoil of 1968 came to include wider social and economic issues also of concern to the working class. Both student protests and a general strike eventually urged President de Gaulle to leave the country and retreat to a military base in Germany – if only for a couple of hours.
In 1984, after more than one million people took to the streets, President Mitterrand had to withdraw a key education initiative that denied public funding to Catholic schools (the Savary Law).
Mass student protests against plans to reform the university selection process led to the abolition of Prime Minister Chirac’s Devaquet education bill in 1986.
After mass demonstrations of more than one million people against a first attempt at introducing an austerity programme in 1995, Prime Minister Juppé had to retreat from office.
After years of protests and a final national strike, Prime Minister Jospin had to withdraw plans to alter the pensions of public transport workers in 1998.
Disruptive demonstrations directed against the president were called for by taxi drivers, ambulance staff, and truckers in 2000.
Massive militant protests in French suburbs were spearheaded by marginalised and unemployed youths from migrant communities in 2005. This was soon followed by a strong movement against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE), which sought to encourage the hiring of young people by scaling back their protection against lay-offs during a two-year probationary period, and then further protests against the introduction of a lower wage scale for recent university graduates followed in 2006.
The revocation of portions of a pension reform plan in 2007, originally allowing workers in public transportation and utilities to retire early on a full pension, was preceded by massive protests by public employees.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed re-election as president in 2012 was preceded by the perhaps the most significant protests in France since 1968. Directed against his promise to raise the retirement age, France’s first major anti-austerity protests in the fall of 2010 witnessed seven major protest marches in eight weeks with approximately 1.5 million marchers each time. In just over one week, there were three different marches totalling around three million protesters. By comparison, the yellow vests movement, even in its fifth week, is dwarfed these exceptional forms of mass protest: for the time being, it remains ten times smaller than the 2010 protests.
At first glance, France seems to have gone through several systemic changes. In the immediate post-war moment, the country was described in terms of a dirigiste state with no relation to its people or their organisations. While this broken link came to trigger countless revolts, the government cautiously began to open up decision-making processes to societal interests, albeit only to take the sting out of an embittered population. This has been described as a period of “associational liberalism” (Levy, 1999) and as some kind of a “social anaesthesia state” (Levy, 2008). Dirigiste decision-making, however, has never been fully dropped, and contrary to claims by some observers, (Keeler and Hall, 2001), the situation has not improved much.
By once more personalising power and rejecting what has come before, President Macron helped recreate the world of institutional weakness and disorganisation in which the yellow vests are now flourishing. Since trade unions and civil society organisations have never actually played a noteworthy role, Macron now finds himself having to tackle a leaderless, non-hierarchical crowd whose moods are difficult to both interpret and accommodate.
The precarious condition
For much of the past five weeks, the mainstream media has focused on the damage caused by the riots – especially the graffiti at the Arc de Triomphe – and has downplayed the role of police brutality by massive cohorts of riot police. The diesel tax has also largely been viewed in complete isolation from a deeper malaise representing the real cause behind the protests. Even more analytically inclined reports have missed the point.
There is currently much debate about whether politically deviant behaviour in Europe is triggered by economic factors, or rather, by the defence of old identities and the search for new identities. The yellow vests protest seems to suggest that it is the economy driving people to the barricades. Ultimately, this is nothing but passions, interests, and the need to survive (Grote and Wagemann, 2018). The uprising is organic, spontaneous, and self-determined.
As mentioned by the New York Times (5 December 2018), “it is mostly about economic class. It is about the inability to pay the bills.” Austerity in France has indeed gathered pace dramatically since the times of the financial crisis. Purchasing power is down, and due to inflation, there has been a 14 percent cut in wages in this period. Adding the cuts to social services and tax increases of various sorts (council taxes, etc.), salaries may not even reach 75 percent of 2008 levels. One should not forget the dramatic increase in long-term unemployment and the reduction of spending government money on job-creating infrastructure. Constantly deteriorating economic conditions among the middle class and the working class then find their expression in political and societal forms of anomie, for instance, abstaining from voting, exiting the political arena, or even violence against oneself or against others (Burgi, 2014). Taken together, the triple crisis of neoliberal governance has accumulated to become what could reasonably be called ‘the precarious condition’.
This condition is shared by many across Europe and it is because of this that the French case cannot be insulated from developments occurring in other parts of the continent. Comparing what is currently happening in France with similar, albeit less furious developments in the UK, Germany, and Italy, Christophe Guilluy, a French geographer who has studied the social composition of ‘the left-behinds’, has argued that “the sociology of the people in revolt is the same” everywhere. It is the sociology of those who are suffering the type of precarious condition characteristic of the living situation of large parts of the population across practically the whole of Europe. That the yellow vests have gained support from close to 75 percent of French people reflects the existence of an organic crisis that requires all European democracies to take stock.
The yellow vests protests have been anxiously watched by mainstream media as if they are announcing a cultural revolution that could soon flood other parts of Europe. Conversely, turning to the left of the political spectrum and its enthusiastic claims that “this time it will be different”, such views seem largely exaggerated as well.
It is likely that the yellow vests will soon go on vacation. If they continued protesting on the couple of days either side of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, then perhaps that really would mark a difference. It is reasonable to say that France finds itself in the very same impasse, or interregnum, as other European countries do. It is simply the more rigorous and inflammatory forms by which French protesters voice their discontent which sets the country apart. But unless the protests assume a more structured format, the mobilisation is unlikely to amount to a proper ‘countermovement’ (Polanyi) against further liberalisation and the marketisation of social and political relations.
Senior Researcher, DOC Research Institute
Burgi, N., 2014. Societies without citizens. The anomic impacts of labor market restructuring and the erosion of social rights in Europe. European Journal of Social Theory, 17(3), pp.290306.
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Grote, J.R. and C. Wagemann 2018. Passions, Interests, and the Need to Survive. In: Grote, J.R. and C. Wagemann (eds.) Social Movements and Organized Labour. Passions and Interests. London and New York: Routledge.
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 Even more recently, the El Khomri law (or Loi Travail), which came into force in August 2016 and aimed at facilitating corporate flexibility at the expense of workers’ rights, was followed by several months of mobilisation and hundreds of thousands of workers marching in the streets.
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