A very French, very yellow bandwagon...

With serious reservations about the method of engagement – I myself feel far more represented by the ‘gilets jaunes’ 25 points, than by anything on offer in the local political or activism circuit at the moment

The French – unlike ourselves – have acquired the ability to recognise corruption for what it is, even when it doesn’t necessarily involve politicians or political parties.
The French – unlike ourselves – have acquired the ability to recognise corruption for what it is, even when it doesn’t necessarily involve politicians or political parties.

So far, local reactions to the goings-on in France have left me slightly flummoxed, to say the least. It’s one of those situations which everyone wants to claim as somehow ‘representative’ of their own private cause or grievance… even if these ‘private causes’ are as vastly different from each other, as they are from the discontent that fuelled all those French riots in the first place.

Members of the Occupy Justice/Repubblika activism front, for instance, seem to have identified the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement as some kind of ‘anti-corruption’ crusade: a French version, if you like, of the same concerns that motivate themselves. (Note: exactly where they got this notion from is somewhat unclear, however. If the protesters were really demonstrating against French government corruption… surely they would have set fire to French government buildings – no shortage of these in Paris, you know – instead of just defacing a bunch of national monuments, and pillaging random street corner shops.)

But no matter: more interestingly, the issue also prompted a local online discussion about whether Maltese anti-government activists have the necessary levels of organisation, commitment, ‘savoir-faire’, to pull off something similar here. (Something a little less drastic, perhaps: it is only fair to point out that the commentary also featured broad criticism of all the violence.)

There was general agreement that, a) no they don’t, and; b) how fantastic it would be if they did. But at no point in the discussion – at least, insofar as I followed it online – did anyone question their own assumptions about who the ‘gilets jaunes’ actually are, and what it is they are really protesting about.

Meanwhile, over in the other corner: Malta’s Far Right, anti-immigration movement – spearheaded by Patrijotti Maltin – responded in almost exactly the same way. They took one look, and simply decided that it was a national protest against Macron’s (ergo, the EU’s) immigration policies. Then they promptly praised the French rioters as ‘valiant crusaders’… and chided themselves for not having the cojones to start a similar revolution of their own.

Then again, however, there were also one or two who took the clean opposite approach: i.e., they simply assumed that the troublemakers were all ungrateful immigrants of African descent, and pointed towards the riots as an example of what’s in store for us, too... should we follow France down the same, doomed ‘integrationist’ path.

Perhaps the most remarkable reaction, however, came from Malta’s main political parties. Nothing at all. Leaving aside the possibility of fleeting allusions in the international section of their televised news bulletins (the only one I saw was very brief and strictly factual, with no commentary at all), neither One or NET TV seems to have taken any interest in the French riots whatsoever.

Labour’s reticence is admittedly a little understandable: Emmanuel Macron is after all a 'socialist' Prime Minister, not to mention Joseph Muscat’s ‘meilleur ami’ in Europe right now. Any national protest against a trusted friend and ally is therefore to be shunned by Labour media, in the same way as a national protest against their own beloved leader himself. (Especially a few months before a European parliamentary election, in which ‘European current affairs’ suddenly become ‘relevant’ for the duration of the campaign).

But for the same reason, you’d think that at least NET would be all over this one, as it is usually all over any story that can be possibly used to embarrass or weaken Joseph Muscat. If you’re regular Net News viewer, you probably already know the syllogism by heart: ‘Macron is a Socialist Prime Minister; the French are protesting against Socialist policies; Muscat is a Socialist Prime Minister, and agrees with Macron’s policies. Et voila! The French are also protesting against Joseph Muscat. (And in any case: violence and mayhem is what you always get whenever you have a Socialist government, anywhere in the world. End of story…)’

Yet they didn’t resort to that time-honoured approach in this particular case. And I’m beginning to suspect part of the reason is that both One and NET journalists may have done what others have so far not gotten around to doing. They actually ran a little background check on the ‘gilets jaunes’, and decided that – all things considered – this is a mess that they’d much rather not tangle with at all.

For let’s face it: it is a little messy. Just about anyone can put on a yellow jacket and set fire to a car, you know. Neither the colour of the attire, nor the nature of the action itself, tells us anything whatsoever about what these people actually believe in or want. And riots being the generally unruly things they always are, there is no way of even telling whether everyone causing all this mayhem is doing so for the same reason. It might have been started by one particular set of malcontents – motivated by one particular set of grievances – only to be taken up by others who have entirely different reasons (possibly even no reason at all) to violently protest.  

About the closest thing I’ve found to a manifesto is called ‘An Official Charter of the Yellow Vests’ (by the way, that’s another thing. Is it vest or jacket? I mean, there has to be a universally accepted English translation of the French word ‘gilets’: and I think we can all safely exclude ‘waistcoats’, at least for now.) It contains a 25-point action plan to ‘end the current crisis’.

Let’s take a look at a few of these points, shall we? The one that most immediately leaps to the eye is Point 9: ‘FREXIT: Leave the EU to regain our economic, monetary and political sovereignty. Respect the 2005 referendum result, when France voted against the Constitution Treaty, which was then renamed the Lisbon treaty (at the cost of €500 million a year).’

Immediately, it assumes a certain spectacular relevance to another European issue, about which all the above local interest groups – political parties, NGOs, lobby groups, etc. – have very strong opinions indeed. Being ‘anti-Brexit’ is in fact now the default position of practically all Malta’s mainstream public opinion. Paradoxically, it is one of the few things that unites Malta’s ‘anti-corruption activists’ – who in any case have to rely on European institutions, as local ones are allegedly too ‘corrupt’ to function – and the staunchly pro-Muscat brigade (who are ‘anti-Brexit’ for no other reason than ‘because Joseph Muscat is anti-Brexit’, end of story).

And therein lies the rub: you cannot realistically be ‘anti-Brexit’, yet ‘pro-Frexit’ at the same time. You either believe in further European integration, or you don’t. And the ‘gilets jaunes’ very emphatically do not.  

This places Malta’s ‘patrijotti’ (or at least, the ones who identify with the rioters) as by far the movement’s most coherent, consistent supporters. They will certainly agree with Point 24: ‘Prevent migratory flows that cannot be accommodated or integrated, given the profound civilizational [sic] crisis we are experiencing.’ Some of them – though probably not all: Imperium Europe is (or was) pro-EU, in its day – might also agree that ‘border control’ is a valid reason to leave the European Union… or indeed, that leaving the EU is the only way to achieve that particular aim.

And yet, that is only one of the concerns cited by the gilets jaunes. Some of the others indicate resistance to other aspects of France’s EU membership besides merely ‘immigration’…. including the underlying economic pillars of the EU itself, no less.

In particular, the following points: “End the banking monopolies. Break up the ‘too-big-to-fail banks’. Separate regular banking from investment banking. Prohibit taxpayer-funded bank bail-outs”; “Massive hiring increase in the public sector to re-establish public services […]: trains, hospitals, schools, postal services…”; and “Stop the privatisation of public goods such as roads, airports, parking, trains […] Re-nationalise all these vital public services…”

Most of this would either violate EU law – if nothing else, because it entails massive public spending – and I would say all of it runs directly counter to the general direction in which the EU, as a whole, is currently moving. That direction generally involves more bank bail-outs; more privatisation; more austerity, and – above all – much less investment in social services (on a separate note, these are concerns shared also by Italy’s Euroscpetic government, and very vocally too).

From this perspective, the cause of all the unrest in France – which, by the way seems, to have meanwhile spread to Belgium and other parts in the Europe – may well betray a much broader underlying discontent with the so-called ‘European project’ in its entirety… all the more widespread for having been traditionally ignored or sidelined by the mainstream European press.

This may account for Point 15 of the yellow manifesto: “Break up media monopolies and end and their interference in politics. Make media accessible to citizens and guarantee a plurality of opinions. End editorial propaganda”. (And there, in a nutshell, is the explanation for the local political media’s near-total blackout on the French riots story.)

The only reference to anything resembling ‘corruption’, incidentally, takes the form of point 10: “Clampdown on tax evasion by the ultra-rich”. You will surely note that it doesn’t even specifically imply ‘political corruption’ (still less amount to an entire anti-corruption movement).

I find this detail significant, as it implies that the French – unlike ourselves – have acquired the ability to recognise corruption for what it is, even when it doesn’t necessarily involve politicians or political parties. This stands in sharp contrast with Maltese activists who claim to be motivated by ‘The Panama Papers’… and yet, strangely, are only ever concerned with one small handful of political cases, among the thousands of indications of possible ‘tax evasion’ on that list.

So to come back to that earlier discussion, about a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that the French have, that we don’t… I would say part of that ‘something’ is down to a clarity of vision: an ability to focus on and articulate basic social concerns, that actually unites different grievances into a single, workable cause.

In fact – and with serious reservations about the method of engagement – I myself feel far more represented by the ‘gilets jaunes’ 25 points, than by anything on offer in the local political or activism circuit at the moment. And I would gladly vote for a similar movement locally, if only it actually existed.

Would everyone else who was so quick to jump on the yellow bandwagon do the same, however? I somehow doubt it...

More in Blogs