French Discontentment

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It’s always a winter of discontent in France. This winter might seem more discontented than others, but that’s because the discontentment has been publicized. The movement of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, just had its 10th weekend of protests, with no end in sight, and night after night you hear or see arguments, polemics, and discussion after discussion on television, radio and social media, about what it all means, where it’s all headed, what the gilets jaunes really want, what the consequences will be for the government of President Emmanuel Macron and when and if it will ever end.

Each Saturday since mid-November, thousands of people have demonstrated in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and other cities, and have occupied roundabouts and toll stops throughout France, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently, to protest their unhappiness with how their lives are unfolding, and their powerlessness to do any better against “the system.” What began as a criticism against a gasoline tax has morphed into a semi-organized ad hoc movement of generalized grievance, a cry against helplessness in the face of government indifference and of a society that pays more attention to the privileged than to the people beyond the “périphérique, that is, anyone who doesn’t live within the confines of the road that encircles the nation’s capital or, by extension, anyone who isn’t well-connected.

While it’s been tempting for me as an American to wonder at the misery of people living in a society with free medical care and education – despite the relatively high taxes that support these social services – and to compare it with the situation in the United States under a mean-spirited government reeking of corruption, greed and incompetence, I realize that politics is local and the two situations are not the same, even though discontentment is widespread in both countries. The French aren’t living in the United States, and they have their own concerns about social mobility, the cost of living and their place in the world. In regions far from Paris, people also have a growing sense that they are being left to fend for themselves. As much as the French like to complain about their government, they are accustomed to a bureaucracy that provides them with much in their lives. And while many French depend on these services, many are also increasingly under the impression that the haves are paying far less in taxes than the have-nots. Inequality – along with the social unrest that erupts from it – is really at the heart of the gilets jaunes movement.

Something more is at stake here too, though. Many demonstrators among the gilets jaunes – putting aside attempts by far-right and far-left groups to coopt the movement for their own anarchical, xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic ends – are frustrated because they feel they are shouting into the wind. The movement has grown, and has had legs, because people are tired of being ignored.

As Alain Bauer, a guest on the topical talk show C Dans l’Air said recently, “We have a long history of regular clashes between a state that only begins to listen when it’s facing radicalized opposition, and an opposition that says, ‘If you’re not radicalized no one listens to you.’” In other words, the French realize that sometimes it takes a revolution to change the way things are done.

In response to this countrywide despondence, the government has launched a series of public discussions, called le grand débat, where people can meet at their city or town halls, and discuss the issues of the day – or what’s bugging them. One held last week in Brittany, where President Macron spoke with some 700 mayors of towns in the region, lasted for seven hours, during which he responded to all the questions that the mayors proposed – many of the mayors reading from lists of questions or problems that their electors had written. The grand débat will go on for another two months.

Before the start of the grand débat, people had the opportunity to write in cahiers de doléances, or notebooks of grievances, to express their anger or anything else on their mind, so that it might be aired as a topic of discussion. This is a practice that dates to the 14th century. It was a register in which assemblies noted wishes, requests and complaints that were later addressed to the state by the local representatives. It was most famously used in 1789 to reflect the demands of the French at a time of significant unrest, when Louis XVI, unaware of what people actually wanted – in the timeless, clueless way of so many sovereigns – sought their opinions in writing. Some historians have seen parallels between what was written in these registers during the French Revolution and what people are writing in today’s cahiers de doléances, particularly regarding taxation and “a wish to be heard at the highest level,” said Michel Starter, director of the departmental archives in Aisne, France, speaking during a television segment about the registers.

Some of those who wish to be heard, particularly among the gilets jaunes, say they want to be heard personally. I just saw a television clip of someone wearing a yellow vest, speaking at a town assembly, who said that while he was all for the mayors acting on behalf of their citizens, he really wanted someone to listen to him himself. He was less interested in representative government than in direct access to people in power. I don’t know if this will ever be possible, or what this will mean going forward for either the gilets jaunes movement or for the evolution of France’s democratic system, but it speaks to people’s sense of isolation both from power and from something perhaps even more powerful: actually being heard.

Even in France, where people love to talk and, above all, to complain – in what other country would you find a public register of grievances? – I’m not sure if anyone actually hears what another person really has to say. One of the things I have found in the work I’ve done as a writing coach is how rarely people feel that they are heard in life, that they are paid attention to, that their thoughts are validated by someone taking them, and what they have to say, seriously.

Multiply that by several hundred thousand souls, and you have a sense of why the gilets jaunes movement has such staying power.

9 thoughts on “French Discontentment

  1. Well done Bob! Spot on.Send this to the op ed page of the TimesVin

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  2. We have this phenomenon of Gilets Jaunes in Canada, however they are a bunch of anti-immigration, racist group, making death threats against the Prime Minister and are backed up by Alt-right groups and politicians. Little to do with what you see in France. Interesting that Frenchmen want to meet in person a politician to have their problem solved. I wonder if they ever got involved in the past in participating in politics at a grass root level and following issues. Most people don’t and then are quick to complain. France had its Civil War in 1789 and then called it a revolution, LOL! followed by another 80 years of monarchy and finally arrived at a so called republican state in 1871. Another disfunctional country.

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  3. Excellent write-up. It is a movement that perplexes me – and I suspect a lot of people looking on jump on the support bandwagon because it’s there, and not because they are part of the grievance.
    I am also desperately wary of the ‘listen to Me’ note that is running through the upsets of so many places (UK).
    Representatives – ok, a shake-up and wake up call, but the Me owe his/her understanding to the media’s online noise, press, and TV. And we all should know by now that the Me has little constructive to add, and the media is highly skilled at manipulating fact and truth.
    What happens next? Will it all blow over again, become a time of legend?

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  4. We are visiting Paris the 2 nd week of March and these protests concern me. I appreciate your update and perspective on the Gilets Jaunes. Do you think it is safe for us to travel around France by train?

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