ER Editor: The middle-aged working class people Ramin Mazaheri refers to below as being the core of the Yellow Vest movement are also of an age to remember the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the beginnings of neoliberalism in the early ’80s. For Thatcher, it was economic class warfare, and under her, the UK started to deindustrialise, leaving significant unemployment and poverty among the working class in its wake. That and joining the EU, which decimated sectors of the economy, such as the fishing industry. They also remember when the Left actually represented the economically disadvantaged (i.e. the majority) instead of identity politics (i.e. various minorities). Talking to young French people today, it’s clear they simply have no idea about what went down in the ’70s and ’80s. Yellow Vest protestors have shown they are aware of this history, and placards indicate that they view Macron as France’s Thatcher (see image). Advisors to the Yellow Vests, such at Etienne Chouard, understand well the consequences of neoliberal economics and, crucially, get the ramifications of the currency being owned by private central banks instead of the government / ‘people’. I can say from personal experience that the French 20- and 30-somethings are simply clueless, despite their so-called ‘education’.
As Christophe Guilluy – a French sociologist who predicted the movement – observes, those French represented by the Yellow Vests make up at least 60% of French society. On the basis of one person-one vote, they constitute a vast political force if they can mobilise themselves.
Why France’s 20- and 30-somethings hate the Yellow Vests
It’s a question which needs be asked, but we can’t wait for the French media to answer it because they have almost totally stopped reporting on the anti-government movement for several months.
The first poll on the Yellow Vests since late March (“!”, and then “?”) finally came out two weeks ago. It was so eagerly gobbled up by a French media hungry for objective knowledge on the Yellow Vests that as many as two media outlets talked about it. I missed it because I have already wasted a minimum of 3 hours of my life doing fruitless Google news searches for “Yellow Vest poll”.
The headline of Ouest-France newspaper, by far the most read Francophone paper in the world, was typically “negative-no-matter-what”: “A majority of France have had enough of the Yellow Vests”.
That’s a pretty bold statement considering that this majority is just 52%, which must be within the poll’s margin of error.
The headline could have fairly been: “A majority of France still supports the Yellow Vests despite all the state repression and media negativity”. Considering what a historic anti-government movement this is – the French have just avoided a 9th consecutive austerity budget expressly because of the Yellow Vests – objective journalism would have prioritised the “support” angle and not the “oppose” angle.
More poll tidbits to munch on for those who care about public opinion (which means you are obviously not a Western politician):
Vesters are now openly opposed by retirees (63%), executives/management (61%) and technicians/professionals (58%). However, they are openly supported by workers (52%), rural citizens (47%), the National Front party (64%) and the (true, not far-) leftist Unsubmissive France party (80%). Per the pollers: “The Yellow Vests remain popular with those segments of the population which were at the origin of the movement.”
One final poll petit-four: 93% of those who support Macron’s party are against the Yellow Vests, while another recent poll showed that 98% of Macronistas think he is doing a good job. What this reminds us is that there is a hard-core Macronista base for whom he can absolutely do no wrong. I assumed such adoration was limited to 60+ year old single women dreaming of a winter-spring romance (an incredibly winter-spring romance), but it is a solid quarter of the population. This rate of genuine support is actually unchanged since the election in 2017: a quarter of France just adores this guy, no matter what, and apparently no amount of violence can change that.
Let’s get to the point of this column
One segment of society which does not support the Yellow Vests is the 20- and 30-something crowd.
This is based on my regular attendance at Yellow Vest demonstrations, and also many months of informally talking with this age group (of which I am quite nearly a part of). I’d like to pass on what I think are the reasons for their opposition:
- We must remember that the Yellow Vests are primarily a middle-aged phenomenon – the average of those marching is probably 50 years old. This age group is the one which is most motivated because they are nearing retirement and they see just how bad austerity will make things for them. This generation will not do anywhere as well as their parents, and they are rightfully upset – they really had no chance to “succeed”: they found jobs (or can’t find any job) which will provide the personal nest egg which is required in the Anglo-Saxon system, which is the system that neoliberal austerity seeks to disruptively impose on France. The main problem is that French wages have always been far lower, and taxes quite higher, than their Western counterparts because the deal was that they’d have low wages but a much better social safety net. This deal has been terminated during the Age of Austerity, and Macron’s absurd, inhuman “one-size-fits-all” pension reform is the coup de grâce. Therefore, this segment of society – not professional, working class, low savings, not university educated, not thrilled with their job but still as vital to the functioning of society as you or me – is leading the revolt because they know that if they don’t… they will be working their low-paying job until they are 64 or their knees give out (whichever comes first), and then have a pittance of a pension to boot.
- What about the young adult Parisians? Firstly, this is an old persons’ town – you have to have money to live within its highway walls. But are you talking about those who were raised in Paris? I guess you’re mainly referring to those who grew up in the rich Western areas – that place I go and look at like a tourist (seems nice over there), with all their fancy little kids and quiet and trees. People who grow up in these areas are rich – these are the very Macronista urbanites who are young, terrifying and want to eat their elders. They view Macron as their leader, God and role model. So young adult Parisians manning the barricades? Fuggetaboutit. This holds true for all of France’s cities.
- What about the working class adult urbanites? Like in my area? Do you mean the Chinese, the Hasidic or the Arabs? All of these worker bees crammed into small, noisy apartments were likely turned off by the immediate and totally false smear that the Yellow Vests were racist. Also, the working class is often quite busy working.
- What about the poor city suburbs, surely they are sympathetic? Indeed, the poor Muslim, Arab and Black areas are all totally sympathetic to the Vesters. However, they are not stupid – they know that if they go to the Vester demonstrations in any city, the cops will absolutely, undoubtedly wage police brutality on them first. This truth is so very, very, very self-evident to Muslims and people of Color that we cannot even imagine that many of you cannot accept this, and we just turn and walk away when we start getting blamed for not leading the Yellow Vest charge. People from these areas have been totally marginalised… but when you need cannon fodder, then we get an engraved invitation? LOL, thanks, but no thanks. Nobody cares about the opinion of these areas/groups anyway, but I can report that the Vesters do indeed have their sincere moral support. Finally, Muslims and Blacks probably compose around 5-8% of France – if they did join en masse, only 1 out of every 20 Vesters or so would be a non-White, anyway.
And here is the main reason why French Whites – who are the majority among the 20- and 30-somethings in France – do not support the Vesters.
- I was surprised at the immediate antipathy for the Yellow Vests among the young White French adults I talked with in Paris, but who are the young White French adults in Paris? These are the primarily the people from small towns who are creative types and who move to the urban areas in order to flee the small-town culture, people, mores and activities they found so very stifling. The Yellow Vests are a primarily rural movement, and – as I have described their primary social-class makeup – France’s young urbanites seem to view the Vesters as the older classmates/bullies who made fun of them for being arty and weird and urbanite-aping back in their small town – many 30-somethings in Paris moved expressly to get away from these types! Therefore, it is unthinkable for them to side with the Yellow Vests, and after only the very first couple of demonstrations, Parisian young adults seemingly all turned against the Yellow Vests in my experience. These Parisian young adults see a faded, generic, poorly drawn forearm tattoo on many a Vester, and then they look at their own fancy tattoo (a Chinese character, a magic symbol, or some emblem of personal motivation or social defiance) and they think: “To hell with those White Trash – I never got invited to their parties and I want to lead a different lifestyle.”
So there you have it in a nutshell. Many French people actually made the move to the big city from the small town because they fundamentally resent the people who primarily compose the Yellow Vests.
(ER: Christophe Guilly, writing on this demographic phenomenon, notes how the Yellow Vest types moved OUT of the cities and surrounding suburbs historically because of the burgeoning immigration which, to put an interpretation on it, left them strangers in their own land. It is the working classes who have had to cope with mass migration into their own neighbourhoods.)
There are other reasons:
- Paris attracts young adults from all over the world – where are they? The Western expatriates living in France feel similarly or even more hostile than their French counterparts, in my experience. (ER: we don’t, on the contrary.) Many absurdly view Yellow Vests as outright reactionaries, mainly because they have absolutely no idea what the hell they are talking about when it comes to “French culture + class struggle”. These Western White expats simplistically view Vesters as extensions of their own “Brexiteers”, “basket of deplorable American rednecks”, etc., and do not feel the need to dig any deeper than such a superficial comparison – many of these immigrants would have a hard time understanding even if they tried, such is their unfamiliarity with a class lens. Bottom line: they are not about to stop the “Western expat party” and get tear gassed for any Yellow Vest, that is certain.
- France, contrary to Anglophone media claims, is not a socialist country: aristocratic snobbery permeates and runs amok in the culture here as only it can on the Old Continent. It’s worse in Paris, but “I reject you first” is the initial war a French person declares upon meeting someone. The young adult urbanites in France have not at all been inculcated with class warfare and class solidarity, but identity politics: they identify with their fellow “bobos” (bourgeois bohemians), hipsters, artists and pretty young people. Have a shoulder tattoo I can’t see and not a wrist tattoo? Not cool enough. Next please. Swipe left. Je m’en fous. (ER: I don’t care)
- France was an individualist country even before the rise of neoliberalism, I imagine, but rapacious neoliberalism surely leads to a fundamental lack of sympathy: Young urbanites here simply cannot imagine – nor do they try to – the grim future which 50-year old Yellow Vesters know to be a rapidly encroaching fact.
- Furthermore, young people are dumb, (If you were paying me for this, I’d look it up and provide the link but you’ll have to just take my word for it): I read a recent poll which said that something like 10% of young French people think Macron’s radical reforms will not actually reduce their own pensions, LOL! Sure… you’ll be the one who is special. Vesters are old enough to know better to get involved with this movement.
Given all these facts, we must realise that these urbanites want revenge on the class which primarily composes the Vesters – they don’t want to see them win, and they have repeatedly told me they don’t want them marching anymore in their hipster paradise areas of Paris. (ER: the desire for ‘revenge’ is particularly French!)
I use the strong word “revenge” because I have found this to be a hugely important motivator in Western capitalist society. These young (smug, stupid, classist, fake-leftist/rabid neoliberal) anti-Yellow Vesters want not only a huge chunk of the pie, but they also to show all the people they left behind what a big shot they lost.
This is not hyperbole – this is what “competition” truly is. Western society (being anti-socialist and rabidly individualist) is fundamentally predicted on competition, and thus these types of feelings can be found plastered on billboards as a form of encouragement.
Finally, it is not “cool” to be a Vester in the French mainstream, and 20- and 30-somethings in the West prize “cool” above all. If you think famous actors, musicians, artists, thinkers, ballplayers, etc. are showing up/have ever showed up to Yellow Vest demonstrations… you must think these people don’t fear losing their social status more than anything – then they would have to get a real job.
“But Ramin,” you object, “how can cool people not be at the Yellow Vest demonstrations when YOU are there?”
Thank you. It seems paradoxical, indeed, but there’s an easy explanation: I turn 42 next week.
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of “I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China”.
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