The yellow vests movement or the unhealed wound of the 2005 referendum

by Arnaud Benedetti, France*

Arnaud Benedetti sees the Yellow West movement as having entered into a virtually revolutionary phase. The underlying anger has intensified thus far as the desire for more popular sovereignty in favour of technocracy has been increasingly cut back.
The yellow safety vest is first and foremost a signal. It illustrates the crisis of Macronism, which has its origins in an earlier world Macron and his entourage of the “En marche” movement only inherited. The story resembles the Russian Matryoshka dolls which are placed one inside another. The outer shell touted something new, while bygone times are inside. In fact, the “En marche” movement defended an old perception of Europe, without being aware of it: that of Maastricht, opportunistically defending the institutions of a weary Fifth Republic and, above all, a technocratic conception of politics. At all levels, the various areas of popular sovereignty have been increasingly restricted. The dissatisfaction associated with this is demonstrated Saturday after Saturday in an uncontrolled and tumultuous manner. The yellow-vest movement [“giletisme”] reveals first of all this. A disruptive situation in which a turning point takes place – something that creates radical new circumstances. When commentators and participants have a tough time when they attempt to grasp this moment, to understand what is happening, it is because the situation goes against all norms and rules – as it is the characteristic of a revolution.
Many things collapse, confuse and amaze. The process that we have been witnessing for a some weeks is of this nature: it is quasi revolutionary for at least two reasons: On the one hand, because it expresses a spectacular and worrying questioning of the “rational legal framework” – to use a term by Max Weber – in which we interact. On the other hand, because it leads in return to a kind of “new” reaction that, in an irrepressible self-defending movement, unites the directly affected political, intellectual, administrative and economic forces that want to save and protect all their achievements. On both sides the way leads to extremes. According to the bourgeois rules of decency, the participants presume excesses in the confrontation, which are a sign of obvious detriment to the institutional basis of the regime. Some demonstrators – but by no means all – do not hesitate to provoke violent clashes with the police; the executive, for its part, uses a language and behaviour that are explicitly divisive and authoritarian, and are by no means conducive to calming the disturbing mood.
What we’re seeing here is nothing but a power struggle. But a fight that develops outside the given, mutually accepted playground. The street has once again become the scene of eruptive political contrasts. The irony of history is that the “new world” has unexpectedly turned into a “time machine leading into the past” in order to explore pre-modern forms of politics anew.
Some people today wrongly believe they are seeing signs of the 1930s. This is the expression of a short-sightedness that refers all events of our time back to the 20th century, to the interwar period and the Second World War! But there is no doubt that we must turn our attention to another century – not to the 20th century, marked by totalitarianism, but to the one that dealt with the question of democracy and the freedom of peoples, the 19th century. We are much closer to 1848 than we were in 1934 or even 1968.
The outbreak, which initially took place because of the tax and social situation, is de facto a political one. Politically, because in the course of the mobilisation the initiators discovered that the only way to conduct the debate on social and economic issues was to focus on the issue of democracy. This seems to be blocked, however, by the Maastricht Treaty, which, among other things, has excluded  the economic sector from any challenge or reversibility. Macron himself is only the ultimate executor of this Maastricht fixation on the economy, to which everything political must subordinate.
He is the prodigal son who has promised to master everything – a return to a form of power of politics. After eighteen months in office, however, he gives the impression that, like his predecessors, he is following a roadmap that is not in the hands of the sovereign people but in completely different hands.
Influenced by the unhealed wound of the 2005 referendum,1 the Yellow Vests are the first popular movement to succeed in questioning the technocratic doctrine of Maastricht.
An additional tax, the government’s lack of understanding of the rising displeasure, a pinch of disregard have sufficed for a situation to have arisen before our very eyes the beginning of which is discernible, but the end of which is not. The “national debate”, which completely ignores the EU and migration issues, shows that the executive has no intention of making any concessions to the nature of its worldview.    •

* Arnaud Benedetti is an associate professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He had positions firstly as communications director of the ”Centre national de la recherche scientifique”, then of the “Centre national d’études spatiales” (CNES) and finally of the “Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale” (Inserm). His latest book is titled “Le coup de com permanent” [The permanent PR action]. (Edition Cerf, 2018), in which he analyses Emmanuel Macron’s communication strategies.

Source: © Arnaud Benedetti, Le Figaro of 7.1.2019

(Translation Current Concerns)

1     On 29 May 2005, in a national referendum, French voters rejected the “Constitutional Treaty for Europe” presented by the EU with 55 % of the votes. Two days later, the same thing happened in the Netherlands. In 2007, the EU submitted a slightly amended new version to the member states under the name “Lisbon Treaty”. In 2008, the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the support of Parliament, amended the Constitution in order to be able to enforce this EU Treaty three days later – without a referendum. (translator’s note)