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Gilets jaunes in Paris, France on 12/15/2018 © Mo Wu / Shutterstock

Gilets Jaunes Have Not Succumbed to Mindless Nationalism

The gilets jaunes movement has become a part, even a fixture, of contemporary French culture.

In an article for Fair Observer about how the far right in the UK has appropriated the symbols of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement in France, doctoral researcher Natalie James highlights the virulence of British nationalist populism while missing an important nuance about the yellow vests themselves. “As appears to have happened in France, protests around single issues have been hijacked by nationalist rhetoric through an entanglement of complex issues related to equality, autonomy and patriotic nationalism,” she writes. French observers have noticed the failure of the nationalist right to dominate the gilets jaunes agenda.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Entanglement:

The quantum state of two particles that makes them existentially interdependent irrespective of distance, which Albert Einstein called a “spooky action at a distance” because such a phenomenon is impossible outside of the quantic properties of particles such as electrons or photons, i.e., in the world we live and breathe in, and therefore should not be assumed to exist across national borders

Contextual note

Natalie James points to an important phenomenon of the real world, namely, the systematic distortion of popular movements. When different issues in the realm of political choice — such as justice, equality and identity — combine or interact, they produce unexpected correlations that may even seem contradictory.

James correctly analyzes the pro-Brexit British nationalists’ shameless appropriation of the yellow vest brand for their own purposes. But she mistakenly supposes that — like two entangled quantum particles — the identical logic is playing out in France. Quantum mechanics provides a better model. The centuries-old historical entanglement of Britain and France has produce what we observe today: The effects on political spin, just like quantum spin, will be systematically opposite in France and Britain.

The simpler truth is that there is no “entanglement,” quantic or otherwise, between the gilets jaunes and the British yellow vest nationalists who have hijacked their symbol. The gilets jaunes themselves, while invoking the “les français tous unis,” haven’t defined a monolithic political stance and, in fact, are actively resisting it. They prefer to talk about public referenda as a source of future policy or even evoke the états généraux de la démocratie, reminding us of the prelude to the French Revolution. Rather than a pre-established agenda, it’s about the methods of expressing and articulating the policy choices The French are particularly skilled at this, far more so than the British, who find nothing absurd about reducing existential questions to a choice of yes or no, remain or leave.

The standard response to protest movements these days consists of benign neglect as they run out of steam. That’s what happened with Occupy Wall Street in the US seven years ago. The gilets jaunes movement defies that logic, though politicians and the media refuse to recognize that.

The BBC observes reassuringly that: “Over the past three months, as the movement has appeared more radical, its wider support has dipped.” But this movement doesn’t have to maintain big numbers to succeed over time. And while the spectacular, fitfully violent radicalism that accompanies the Saturday demonstrations does effectively give a negative image to the movement — to the delight of the media and the government — the extremists haven’t found the recipe for phagocytizing the movement. They come out for the protests but have no traction in the internal dynamics of the gilets jaunes.

James follows the reporting of British media, citing “an emergence of anti-immigration rhetoric, with groups mobilizing in the form of riots as night fell on the peaceful protests.” But this is literally hundreds of kilometers from the reality of the movement. This image taken on February 22 in St Jean d’Angély, a small town in the west of France, on one of the hundreds of outposts that dot the French provinces, paints a radically different picture of the gilets jaunes movement. Thousands of ordinary people come together throughout the week — not just for the Saturdays fireworks — to form a convivial community of concerned citizens hoping their collective voices will be heard, even though there is no simple pre-packaged solution they have agreed to impose.

This gilets jaunes camp was cobbled together by dozens of locals on land donated by the town hall of St Jean d’Angély in Charente Maritime, along with water and electricity. Inside the wooden shelter is a veritable café and outside they are building their own version of the Eiffel Tower, presumably to express their solidarity with Paris.

After a few minutes discussing with this group of people, it becomes clear that they have are committed to achieving a goal that has no prefabricated agenda. They feel no pressure to create one. They have no illusions about what the future will bring. They are, however, aware that they have been lied to, that there is a widening gap, not just in income, but between those who make the decisions affecting everyone else and the people who must submit to those decisions. Their adage of the day for last Friday translates as, “The difference between birds and politicians is that sometimes birds stop flying/stealing” (the verb voler means both “to fly” and “to steal”).

Historical note

In many ways, Brexit sums up the particularity of England’s (rather than Britain’s) history over the past five centuries, since Henry VIII’s break with Rome: the vision of an island capable of not just managing its own affairs, but of controlling the globe. France never had the privilege of an empire on which the sun never set, though it felt the temptation. English culture contains the belief that, like the Americans, they have had and can again have a “manifest destiny” that allows them to block out the needs and ambitions of the rest of humanity.

In 2016, a majority in Britain felt they could go it alone because their culture tells them that’s what a self-respecting nation should do. The French may be tempted to think similarly, and the Le Pen family have shown that at any given moment as much as 30% of the population may push in that direction. But, in French culture, reasoning still has more prestige than mere personal conviction, creating the level of doubt in one’s capacity that prevents going beyond the tipping point.

The French Revolution had two sources of energy and policy: the mob’s emotion and Robespierre’s ice-cold reasoning. Emotion plus reasoning wreaked havoc and left them prey to a Corsican general, whom no French person today admires. The gilets jaunes have taken a far more modest position and appear to have a more valuable asset: patience coupled with belief that the system they are rebelling against is, in its own terms, incoherent. This could be a recipe for a success whose terms are still unknown.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.