Last week I spent a few days in Paris, between two weekends. Several US-based friends emailed me to suggest I avoid the city because of the news reports of protests and violence by the Gilets Jaunes “movement.” It never entered my mind to avoid the city, which is as enchanting as ever, well-worn but not worn-out, with too many fine exhibits to see, the best window shopping anywhere and the most beautiful cafés in France.
To be serious: certainly, the violence that has occurred has been heartbreaking, and shocking. The protests have taken place in cities all over France, including here in Nice, and in Avignon where we recently spent a weekend.
But Paris has seen the worst behavior. It’s been suggested that the violence is instigated by political groups who benefit from chaos under Macron, the opposition leaders such as Melanchon on the left and Marine LePen on the right, and Putin’s human bots.
And of course, there’s speculation that the protests would not have occurred if not for the mobilization power of Facebook and the fake news circulating on the platform.
I don’t know. The French like to protest and have a long history of angry demonstrations, and I’m talking about post-French Revolution. I’m not sure they need help to pull them off. Rumor has always been part, unfortunately, of political mobilization. Remember the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to free the King’s prisoners? How surprised the mob was to find just one old guy there. That didn’t stop them from killing the guardian to get inside, though.
Which brings me to my unease about the Gilets Jaunes, and the fact that the “movement” could be co-opted by elements who care less about economic justice and more about burning it all down. The Tea Party and the US GOP certainly is a model. The impetus exists among far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. Facebook is just one of their very effective tools. Even as French opinion overwhelmingly supports the primary message of the Gilets Jaunes, that many people need financial help, what is the national mood on the protests themselves?
In one of the isolated, kind of somnolent rural villages where the issue of fuel prices is of deep concern, a cafe owner told us “The guillotine is next.” He proceeded to refer to Macron as “royalty” and “autistic.”
No doubt, the anger runs deep.