Drawing lessons from France’s yellow vests

Many in the Arab world found it an educational experience to see rowdy crowds not being treated as the enemy.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Ripples across the sea. A man wearing a yellow vest holds a French flag on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, December 8. (AFP)
Ripples across the sea. A man wearing a yellow vest holds a French flag on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, December 8. (AFP)

Since the start of the “yellow vest” rebellion in France in November, many of the Maghreb’s politicians and experts have spent their Saturdays glued to their TV sets watching the demonstrations in Paris and other French cities and listening to officials and pundits discuss the dramatic events.

Obviously, there were the Facebook jokes about French President Emmanuel Macron seeking refuge in one Arab capital or the other and humorous spoofs of the French taking to rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean.

The recurring question in the Maghreb, the rest of the Arab world and even in France was whether these protests were the harbinger of a French or a European “winter” in the image of the 2011 “spring” upheaval in the Arab world. Also, did the Arab region have any lessons to draw from the French unrest? People saw similarities but also many differences in form and substance.

Some of the atmospherics were reminiscent of the 2011 drama in the Arab world.

Former socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon told Le Monde newspaper: “Regardless of which spark set off the current movement, there is a double engine that speaks to all the French: Inequalities and the feeling to be considered insignificant. In some ways, this movement, which mixes social and democratic demands, resembles the ‘Arab spring’.”

Many analysts in the Maghreb and the rest of the Arab world were curious to see how the French would deal with upheaval in their midst compared to how the Arab world dealt — or still deals — with its own waves of unrest.

What struck many of the observers was the clear determination of the French police to contain the riots without fatal clashes by relying on its time-honoured security doctrine and often-tested professionalism.

Many in the Arab world found it an educational experience to see rowdy crowds not being treated as the enemy. There were occasional chants calling for Macron to resign but demonstrators were not trying to violently topple the regime and much less to start a civil war. The lack of democratic traditions in restless parts of the Arab world and authorities’ propensity to unrestrained violent reaction have too often taken protests to a lethal curve.

There were those in the region with an axe to grind against the West, notably Turkish and Iranian leaders. They accused French authorities of egregious violations of human rights but their arguments were too self-serving to be credible.

They seemed to miss the fact that the electoral legitimacy of the French president as well as the French public’s trust in the ability of institutions to accommodate change, do set France apart from most MENA countries.

The “yellow vest” protests did, however, make clear that France is suffering from a deep malaise. What started as a fuel-tax revolt morphed into a popular uprising against socioeconomic inequalities, the flagrant urban-rural divide and deteriorating quality of life for many segments of the population.

There were more than 120,000 “yellow vests” on the streets of Paris and other French cities on December 8 and nationwide support, across social classes, was for many weeks more than 70%, as determined by opinion polls. It is interesting that migration was not a focal point of the unrest. The Arab diaspora in France was wary about being associated with the ambient turmoil and violence, especially that migration issues were not part of the debate.

In fact, despite the high number of far-right sympathisers among the yellow vests (about 42% of the protesters asked said they voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last year’s presidential election), the “M word” — “migration” — was not often mentioned in the list of demonstrators’ demands. Macron barely paid lip service to the issue in his December 10 speech.

Maghrebi and African residents of the poor suburbs of Paris were conspicuously reluctant to take part in the demonstrations. “What’s at stake for the inhabitants of the suburbs is jobs before anything else,” Anasse Kazib, a rail workers’ trade union activist, told Le Monde. “There is a lot of pent-up anger in the suburbs but mobilisation is very difficult.”

Whatever the reason for it, the lack of mobilisation revealed the lack of integration of Arab and African ethnic minorities in France’s social and political landscapes. They did not see the demonstrations that drew a preponderance of right-wing sympathisers as their type of crowd.

Macron, personally, and much of the ruling class, in general, being considered as uncaring about the poor and the marginalised was a major catalyst for the protests. Macron’s governing style has received much attention — negative attention. The technocratic president, who thought he knew best how to singlehandedly transform his country, exuded condescension. The yellow vests were “an obstacle to the transformation of the country” from above, wrote columnist Ivan Rioufol in Le Figaro.

Suspicion of disrespect from the rulers can only spark and compound social tensions anywhere, including North Africa and the Middle East. “Hogra,” meaning “disrespect,” was an Algerian colloquial term subsequently borrowed by other Maghrebi crowds, especially in Tunisia, during the last decade, to justify their unhappiness over their rulers’ attitude towards the poor, the unemployed and disenfranchised youth.

An unexpected lesson from the French upheaval is that Macron’s top-down transformational politics is not necessarily what the Arab region needs. Tunisian newspaper editor Hechmi Nouira cautioned that, if transferred to the Tunisian political landscape, the French president’s policy of excluding trade unions and mainstream political parties “could push a country like Tunisia straight into destruction and despotism, under one guise or the other.”

The French, like many in the West, seem to realise the limits of their socioeconomic contract. Nobel Prize-winning economist Laureate Jean Tirole wrote in Le Journal du Dimanche that a “new social contract” was needed in France for “a population that votes for an interventionist state but for little taxes.” But the North African and Arab young men and women of the street in 2011 wanted both a new social and political contract for societies that had outgrown their systems of government.

Until today, they are still likely to be driven to the street by the lack of any new viable contract that defines the responsibility of the state in guaranteeing jobs and opportunities for their citizens. In MENA’s economically challenged countries, the state will be at a loss finding an answer to bottom-up unrest.

Activists in places such as Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries might take inspiration from the French demonstrations for the next wave of protests at home. In most parts of the Arab world, however, most of the public could see the huge difference separating their much more critical plight from that of the dissatisfied French demonstrators.

The Arab world will probably have to reckon with the “yellow vests” if, as predictions have it, they constitute an electoral slate and run for European Parliament next year. It remains to be seen whether the unstructured movement will manage to do that but recent surveys indicate it could garner about 12% of the vote. Enough to make it, under any colour, a new political actor that could influence the populism-washed shores of the Mediterranean.