'Hey, Johnny,' a girl calls out to Marlon Brando in the 1953 movie The Wild One
. 'What are you
rebelling against?. Brando treats her to the sullen, distracted look that was such a big part of his acting technique. 'What ya got?' he mumbles.
It sounds corny today, but there is a whiff of that famous exchange about the reappearance of Gilets Jaunes protestors on the streets of France. Quite what they are currently protesting against is not well-defined. But they're damn well going to shout and stamp about it all the same.
The protestors, in their trademark hi-viz tabards, first mustered two years ago in opposition to government plans to raise the price of diesel. It was a grievance that struck a chord with many people struggling to get by after a decade of economic torpor, high unemployment and falling real incomes. For a few heady months the Gilets really did look like the makings of a mass insurrection. Not everyone took to the streets, of course, but even at our drowsy, sun-baked end of France, as many drivers as not displayed tabards on their dashboards in solidarity, and honked their horns at the Gilets camped out at roundabouts and major junctions.
But that was then and this is now. A lot has happened in the interim. The duty hike on diesel was shelved. Popular support for the Gilets fell away as their outings were increasingly hijacked by people mainly interested in punching the polis. An even more contentious plan to reform pensions was announced, opposed vehemently by trade unionists, and also shelved pro tem. A nationwide consultation of unprecedented scale was launched to garner views on France's strategic economic options. There were local elections at which the headline story was a surge in support for green policies – the pretext for the diesel proposals in the first place. President Macron reshaped his government. And there was a nagging distraction called COVID-19.
So there they were the Saturday before last, back in their hundreds on the streets of Paris, many maskless in daring defiance of local anti-COVID rules, but sticking to authorised routes: aside from a few groups of 'black bloc' agitators, intent – as previously – on guerrilla confrontations to provoke an ever-willing constabulary into retaliation. Soon the rocks and tear gas were flying, blood was flowing, and nearly 250 arrests were being made, mostly of youths tooled up for a rumble with Le Flic. It was just like the old days.
Then, a few days later, trade unionists and unemployment campaigners mounted a national 'day of action' led by the infallibly truculent CGT union federation. Earlier in the year, this alliance mobilised a coalition of disgruntlement running from janitors to judges over the government's plans for pensions reform, and succeeded in disrupting transport for weeks on end. This time, the main target was once again transport, though you would hardly have noticed. With the pensions reforms on hold until the pandemic subsides (if it does), the casus belli was notably nebulous. The Fédération Syndicale Unitaire, a public sector union grouping, said it was taking part in opposition to job losses and pension cuts, and in favour of wage rises and public services. What ya got?
It's hard not to feel some sympathy for the malcontents. Their fears for the generous social fabric of France are real enough. Not too many months ago, they were the terror of the earth. But now, nobody gives them a second thought. Coverage of the protests was pretty cursory. 'Fin de partie pour les Gilets Jaunes,' announced the conservative newspaper, Le Figaro
. So long as COVID-19 continues to spread its lethal stain, no other issue is going to get much of a look in. Which also applies, incidentally, to Brexit: attention-seeking violations of international law notwithstanding.
London's inelegant convolutions have dropped from public and press discussion, not just in France, but across the European Union. The hirpling trade talks rated only a brief mention in Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's 'State of the Union' address last week. At Angela Merkel's traditional summer press conference in Berlin, reporters took advantage of an open agenda to ask her nearly 50 questions on a broad diversity of topics. The number that were about EU relations with Britain totalled slightly fewer than any.
The EU has moved on. The challenges of COVID-19 and of a volatile world order have lent it a new sense of purpose and direction, from which the UK's absence is little regretted, or maybe even noticed. Indeed, some might say that it was easier to achieve the remarkable deal brokered by Merkel and Macron on EU-wide sharing of pandemic debt without Britain gurning away in the corner of the room. Merkel's chummy visit to Macron's summer retreat of Fort Brégançon was plainly intended to signal a resumption of EU business as usual.
French protestors have to contend with the fact that they are not just inaudible, but also currently irrelevant. Public policy in France, as in most countries at this time, is all about trying to hold together the economic and social order while productive activity lies silent. The government has shovelled massive resource into keeping people safe and solvent, and businesses alive: tranche after tranche of spending. A cautious estimate puts the total cost thus far to the public finances at around €160bn, which excludes a pot of €300bn made available in state-guaranteed loans to keep businesses afloat. The Bank of France's prediction of GDP loss has risen from 8% to 10%.
This poses Gilets Jaunes and other upholders of traditional social policies with an array of connected problems. Everyone knows that eventually there must come an invoice for all this pandemic relief, and that paying it will involve a battery of economic and political hard choices that will make the hated pension reforms look like a premium bond win. All the changes the protestors have managed to deflect in the last couple of years (some of which date back to François Mitterand) are going to return with a vengeance, with even nastier stringencies alongside them, and all stamped with the potent justification of the need to pay for COVID-19.
In that sense, the pandemic ordeal has also been an opportunity. Macron and Prime Minister, Jean Castex, have already announced a £100bn strategy to rebuild the French economy around new, sustainable jobs. Its two watchwords are ecology
: neither calculated to strike joy into the hearts of anyone looking to defend fossil fuel industries or public sector over-manning. Macron talks of building 'a different country', and last week described opponents of 5G as 'Amish'.
The trouble for the disaffected is that this seems to be quite popular. Despite merited criticism for some aspects of the public health response to COVID-19, both the polls and local election results suggest that the recovery strategies are seen as broadly sound, and ministerial performance as competent. That may change when it comes to implementing specific tough measures, but for now it is hard for the gainsayers to make themselves heard. Like Brexit Britain, they are yesterday's news.