Brendan O’Neill

In praise of the Gilets jaunes

In praise of the Gilets jaunes
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At last, a people’s revolt against the tyranny of environmentalism. Paris is burning. Not since 1968 has there been such heat and fury in the streetsThousands of ‘gilets jaunes’ stormed the capital at the weekend to rage against Emmanuel Macron and his treatment of them with aloof, technocratic disdain. And yet leftists in Britain and the US have been largely silent, or at least antsy, about this people’s revolt. The same people who got so excited about the staid, static Occupy movement a few years ago — which couldn’t even been arsed to march, never mind riot — seem struck dumb by the sight of tens of thousands of French people taking to the barricades against Macronism.

It isn’t hard to see why. It’s because this revolt is as much against their political orthodoxies as it is against Macron’s out-of-touch and monarchical style. Most strikingly this is a people’s rebellion against the onerous consequences of climate-change policy, against the politics of environmentalism and its tendency to punish the little people for daring to live relatively modern, fossil-fuelled lives. This is new. This is unprecedented. We are witnessing perhaps the first mass uprising against eco-elitism and we should welcome it with open arms to the broader populist revolt that has been sweeping Europe for a few years now.

The ‘gilet jaunes’ — or yellow-vests, after the hi-vis vests they wear — are in rebellion against Macron’s hikes in fuel tax. As part of his and the EU’s commitment to cutting carbon emissions, Macron is punishing the drivers of diesel vehicles in particular, raising the tax by 7.6 cents for every litre of diesel fuel. This will badly hit the pockets of those in rural France, who need to drive, and who can’t just hop on buses as deluded Macronists living in one of the fancy arrondissements of Paris have suggested they should. These people on the periphery of French society — truck drivers, provincial plumbers, builders, deliverymen, teachers, parents — have rocked up to the centre of French society in their tens of thousands three times in recent weeks, their message the same every time: ‘Enough is enough. Stop making our lives harder.’

It is a perfect snapshot of the most important divide in 21st-century Europe: that between a blinkered elite and ordinary people who’ve had as much bossing about, tax rises, paternalism and disdain as they can take. So from his presidential palace in Paris, Macron decrees that the little people of the nation must pay a kind of penance for the eco-crime of driving diesel-fuelled cars, like a modern-day Marie Antoinette deciding with a wave of the hand what is good for the plebs. It’s little wonder that the graffiti left behind following the latest uprising in Paris at the weekend compared Macron to Louis XVI and demanded that he resign.

This leaderless, diverse revolt, packed with all sorts of people, including both leftists and right-wingers, is important for many reasons. First because it beautifully, fatally shatters the delusional faith that certain Europhiles and piners for the maintenance of the status quo have placed in Macron since his election in May 2017.

Remember how they said he would hold back the populist tsunami and save the EU from the pesky public’s anger? The Economist even published an image of him walking on water, the nutters. Now we know that, far from defeating the populist thirst for change, Macron has inflamed it. His aristocratic attitude, his preference for rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barnier and Merkel over your average French citizen, his pursuit of eco-signalling government policies with not a single thought for the impact they might have on ordinary people, have intensified the populist moment. Macron will go down in history not as the president who switched off public fury but who intensified it.

And the second reason this revolt is important is because it suggests that no modern orthodoxy is safe from the populist fightback. Not even the environmentalist one.

For years we have lived in a climate of ‘You can’t say that’. You can’t criticise mass immigration — that’s xenophobia. You can’t oppose the EU — that’s Europhobia. You can’t raise concerns about radical Islam — that’s Islamophobia. You can’t agitate against climate-change policy — that’s climate-change denialism, on a par with Holocaust denialism, and anyone who dares to bristle against eco-orthodoxy deserves to be cast out of polite society. And yet now, in this populist moment, people are daring to say precisely these unsayable things. They’re standing up to the EU. They’re demanding that immigration become a democratic concern rather than something worked out for us by unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. And now they’re even grating against the hitherto unquestionable religious-style diktat that we must all drive less, shop less and do less in order to ‘save the planet’.

Of course the gilet-jaunes revolt isn’t just about fuel tax. It expresses a broader sense of public anger with the new political class and their cult of bureaucracy, their preference for technocracy over democracy, their gaping, astonishing distance from the concerns and beliefs of ordinary people. In essence, the people’s revolt against Macronism speaks to a profound crisis of legitimacy among the 21st-century political class and a willingness within the public to kick up a fuss about things they might previously have been silent about. But it is not an accident that climate-change policies were, in the French case, the spark that lit the populist flame. Because environmentalism has always been a central feature of the new elitism, a means through which a self-styled virtuous political class could demonstrate its eco-awareness by shaming and punishing those who drive cars to work, or work in polluting industries, or fail to recycle their rubbish.

This is why the kind of people who might normally have got excited about a mass uprising in France are so quiet about the gilets-jaunes revolt — because it is a two-finger salute to them as well as to Macron. Many American leftists love the idea of carbon taxes. Corbynistas are always droning on about the need for greater eco-responsibility amongst the citizenry. Sadiq Khan has introduced a ‘toxicity charge’ for London’s most polluting cars. He must be quaking in his boots as he watches the events in France. Next to the vote for Brexit, the gilet-jaunes revolt is fantastically important — it shows that ordinary people have developed a powerful sense of confidence and a willingness to question absolutely everything that has been foisted upon them by the political class in recent decades. I support these revolting Frenchmen and women.