Can France still fulfil its duties as a sovereign and social republic?

ISBN 979-10-210-3936-0

Book Review

by Rita Müller-Hill, Cologne

The title of Pierre Vermeren’s book, published in French in May 2019, gives already an insight into the main results of this informative analysis: “Social downgrading in France – The Yellow Vests, a kind of popular revolt in the 21st century. A historian’s view at 40 years mess”.1
If this book presentation gives a detailed analysis of the preface, then this is because the latter provides an extremely informative overview of recent French history and current affairs, and presents a good summary for the readership who cannot read the book in French.
Pierre Vermeren precedes his book with a quotation from Honoré de Balzac: “There are two types of history, the official, hypocritical one, intended for school education; the other one is the secret history, containing the events’ causes”. (“Illusions perdues”, p. 709, Classiques Garnier, Paris 1956)
In his preface, the author indirectly refers to the quote: The media coverage, i.e. the “official version” of the rebellion of the Yellow Vests, falsifies reality. The Yellow Vest movement is, “by no means, the event concentrated on Paris or Bordeaux, as the French mass media portrayed it. The crisis practically affects the whole country, the cities and the regions”.
In a wider sense, the book is an account of the “real” causes of the crisis. Pierre Vermeren does not see a comparable event in recent history, so that the historian has to think back to times long gone. Nothing comparable happened in the 20th century, and the four political revolutions of the 18th and 19th century (1789/99, 1830, 1848, 1870/71) all had their epicentre in Paris.

Yellow Vests: a new and unique phenomenon

The current people’s movement arose in the small and medium-sized towns of the provinces. This modern uprising was spread via electronic media (smartphones, social networks). It was initially a fundamentally peaceful movement. When violent actions – staged by whomever – took place, especially in Paris, these were presented in detail by the television channels and other media, so that the impression was given of an overall violent movement.
The argument whether it is an insurrection, a revolt, even a stifled revolutionary process is considered as futile by the author. In his opinion, this is not the point. What is the new and unique thing about the Yellow Vest movement is decisive – that is how it should be measured up to. After all, the questions and problems raised by the movement are important: the issue is, ultimately, whether France, in the age of globalisation, is still fulfilling its state affairs as a sovereign and social republic.
The election of a young technocrat from the world of the “enarchs” (from ENA “Ecole nationale d’administration”, the central cadre factory of France), the financial inspectorate and the banks as president of the republic has caused the old party structure to break apart. However, this “victory of the new wine in old wineskins” could no longer stop the protest against the elite.
In his introduction, Pierre Vermeren gives an overview of the problem areas, which he analyses in detail. As the first scandal to exist for years, he describes the mass unemployment closely linked to the deindustrialisation of the country. As a further scandal, he considers the world record high of the tax system, combined with a high public debt. He locates the third major scandal in the social situation: a high delinquency rate, violence in the cities, and an unchecked militant Islamism (jihadism) against the background of open, uncontrolled borders. Added to this, in his opinion, are the election promises not kept, the constantly changing reforms in schools, and the lack of purchasing power for the common population.

Crisis of confidence

Thus, over the decades, a crisis of confidence has developed, leading to the fact that no party has received a parliamentary majority since 1978. The social pact created with the Fifth Republic (founded in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle by a new constitution) was gradually dismantled by various constitutional reforms. The President’s role vis-à-vis Parliament is stronger today than ever before – except the fact that the majority of the most important decisions are made by the EU in Brussels and by the European Central Bank (ECB). The President actually has only one real instrument of power left in his hands: the appointment of the highest political posts. Since this has always been a matter for the elite, it has had little effect on the people as long as they get protection by the state in accordance with the Social Pact. However, this is no longer the case.
The uprising of the Yellow Vests has to be seen against this background. It is an interplay of individual decisions and historical facts that have never been openly discussed in the political arena and which have never taken into account the population’s desire for change. All problems date back to the 20th century. For example, the first government deficit of 1975, ever increasing, followed by others: the deficits of the social budget and trade.

Deindustrialisation

In the seventies, with the end of labour migration, an ambivalent decision was made, resulting in family reunification. This resulted in an increase in unemployment from 0.5 million in 1975 to 6.5 million in 2018. The situation of schools has also steadily deteriorated since the reform of Haby (Minister of Education 1974–1978). The recession beginning after the first oil shock in 1973, was not fought by additional investments in the manufacturing industry, but by the expansion of the tertiary sector (services) in France. As a result, more and more deindustrialisation took place in the form of sales to foreign investors, who then dismantled the once productive companies and relocated the rest abroad. Alstom is an eloquent example of this.
The election of the socialist François Mitterrand in 1981 was a great hope, as the alternative would have been the liberal Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. However, in 1983, the advisers Jacques Attali and Jacques Delors convinced Mitterrand to abandon his “socialist” policy of nationalisation in favour of a “European” policy.
Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 with the promise of overcoming the rupture in society and getting out of the European monetary straitjacket imposed by the Maastricht Treaty. However, Alain Minc and Alain Juppé led him to leave his “utopian sovereignist” path, because that would have disturbed the march towards the euro, which had already been set.
After these decisions, the left and right were, from a political point of view, almost indistinguishable.

Social question versus societal questions

From now on, the political debate no longer revolved around the “social question”, but around “societal” issues: Immigration and Islam, delinquency in the suburbs, reform of citizenship and the right to vote for immigrants, the PACS (civil partnership, since 1999) and homosexual marriage, issues of artificial insemination and pregnancy, anti-racism and neo-feminism. This process has masked the recognition of the impoverishment of the French middle class and the profound change this brought about. Even if the “societal questions” have supplanted the “social question” in the public, it was still latent and showed itself time and again: so in 1995 in the massive strike against the Juppé plan on pension reform and social security, culminating in the dissolution of the National Assembly.

2005: no to the planned EU Constitution

In 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen enters the second round of the presidential election, and in 2005 the French reject the planned EU constitution in a national vote with 55 % “no” votes. After Nicolas Sarkozy has broken the promise, he made in 2007 (and, with the help of Parliament, nevertheless approves the Constitutional Treaty), his opponent, the socialist François Hollande, is elected in 2012.
In November 2018, some 18 months after Emmanuel Macron was elected president, the crisis of the Yellow Vests begins: the increase in the diesel tax breaks the camel’s back. Contrary to the reports in the major media, the Yellow Vests have 75 % of the population behind them. So much for Pierre Vermeren’s inventory. It gives the reader an overview of the development of the decisions and problems on which the French people were not consulted, or their decisions were ignored.

In-depth analysis in nine chapters

The detailed analysis of the problem complexes is divided-up into nine chapters. The first chapter raises the question of whether the Yellow Vest uprising is an unprecedented phenomenon in French history. As a historian, Vermeren focuses not only on the current phenomenon, but also on the time before it, on the development that led to this event.
In the following chapters, he examines deindustrialisation and the associated mass unemployment, which he describes as a spiral developing over 50 years. Deindustrialisation is linked to the decision of the French elites to focus on a new kind of economy – the tertiary sector – and at the same time to stop investing in the manufacturing industry. In a further chapter, he examines the effects of school reforms with their negative consequences for social advancement. He devoted another chapter to the “remaining among one’s own kind” of the French elites in the metropolises using the example of the city of Bordeaux (one of the focal points of the uprising) as an example. Consequently, he considers the France of the periphery and the importance of the great crisis of 2008. The French economy has not recovered from this, purchasing power has stagnated and the entire cultural life in the metropolitan areas has been massively impaired.
France’s promise and long-standing self-conception of being a socially just, egalitarian society has been turned into the opposite. The newly introduced third class of the TGV [high-speed train] (which had previously only existed in trains of the 19th century) is a symbol for this.
The TGV connects the metropolises. The rail network, formerly serving to connect all regions, has been shut down largely. Each group of society remains among itself. This applies to all cultural and social life.
Finally, the author makes concrete suggestions on how the situation of the “losers of globalisation” may be improved. These are well worth discussing in greater depth.
This book can most warmly recommended to anyone wishing to gain a profound and objective insight into the situation in France.    •

1    Original title: “La France qui déclasse – les Gilets jaunes, une jacquerie au XXIe siècle. Un regard d’historien sur 40 ans de gâchis.”

Pierre Vermeren is a historian and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He specialises in the contemporary history of the Maghreb and the Arab states. He has lectured in Morocco and has written books about Moroccan history. Pierre Vermeren has been interviewed on several occasions in “Le Figaro” and in “France Culture” about the history of the Yellow Vests.