Brendan O’Neill

Why aren’t Corbynistas celebrating the gilets jaunes?

Why aren't Corbynistas celebrating the gilets jaunes?
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Why aren’t we Brits talking about the revolt just across the English Channel? Our silence on the gilets jaunes and their spectacular, sustained rebellion against the increasingly tyrannical rule of Emmanuel Macron has become pathological. There’s been barely any BBC coverage, no words of solidarity from Corbynistas, not a peep from the trade union movement. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary French people have marched, raged and clashed with the Macron government and Britain looks the other way. It’s bizarre. Our disregard deserves an explanation.

This weekend was Act 24 of the gilets jaunes revolt. Named after the yellow vests that all motorists in France must have in their vehicles, the gilets jaunes revolt kicked off last November. It started as a mass demonstration against the raising of fuel taxes but it has since morphed into a broad and frequently furious opposition to Macronism. Many of the marchers are Frexiteers, too. Every weekend since November, these mostly working-class people who feel they have been trampled upon by the neoliberal order and the borderline aristocratic elite of the Macron administration have taken to the streets to demand change. And yet British media coverage of these extraordinary events has been negligible.

It’s not as if there aren’t some amazing and disturbing stories to tell from France. In recent weeks, Place de la Republique in Paris has been the site of some of the liveliest, most colourful political protests to have taken place in Western Europe in decades. In Bordeaux and Toulouse working people have marched in their thousands and many of them have been beaten by revved-up riot cops. Some gilets jaunes have lost eyes after being hit with ‘flash balls’ — a rubber bullet that is banned in other European countries — that are meant to be fired at protesters’ legs. Restaurants have been burnt down. The Champs-Elysées has resembled a war zone. And awful authoritarian measures have been introduced, including the banning of protest in parts of Paris, the introduction of jail sentences for anyone who covers his face on a protest, and the deployment of the actual army. The army was given permission to ‘open fire’ on protesters if it was necessary to save other people’s lives.

This is an event of major historical, political and human interest. And yet it is barely discussed in the UK. Imagine if during May 1968, when students and workers brought Paris to a standstill, the British left kept schtum and the British media said only perfunctory things about it. Well, that is what is happening right now. British leftists who love sharing Marx memes and banging on about ‘revolution’ are virtually silent on the mass revolt in France. Trade union leaders have said nothing, even following the involvement of many French trade unionists in Act 24 at the weekend. The liberal commentariat who would have gone into complete meltdown if someone like Viktor Orban was doing what Macron is doing are silent.

Indeed, think about the kind of coverage there would be if it was Hungary that was being consumed by weekly mass marches and riots. If it was the Hungarian police which every weekend since November had been beating protesters. If it was Orban’s government that was banning protest, sending in the army against the people, and shooting men, women and teenagers with rubber bullets. The BBC would have send Orla Guerin by now. The Guardian’s op-ed people would have taken a break from moaning about Brexit to write long, tear-stained pieces about the grip of tyranny in the east of Europe. Amnesty and the luvvies who love it would be holding candles outside the Hungarian Embassy every day. But when it happens in France, they’re silent. Or worse, they defame the gilets jaunes as racists and anti-Semites when, in truth, as a French sociologist has pointed out, the influence of far-right hatefulness on this mass revolt is tiny. The vast majority of protests are ordinary people demanding a better, freer, more meaningful life.

This is where we get to the heart of the British disregard for this French rebellion. The British liberal elite turns away from the revolt in France because it threatens to shatter its worldview as much as it does Macron’s rule. When Macron was elected in 2017, establishment figures across the Western world breathed a sigh of relief. At last, they thought, a pro-EU technocrat is holding back the tide of populism. He will put Europe straight, they said. The precise opposite has happened. Macron is spectacularly unpopular. He cannot even govern his own country, far less save the EU. He has been exposed as a paper tiger. The Macron worshippers have been exposed as utterly out of touch, as entirely at odds with ordinary people. The chattering classes in Britain know deep down that the revolt against Macron is a revolt against people like them.

It’s time we offered solidarity to our French cousins. They are standing up to the old, broken, bureaucratic Euro-politics that has let down so many millions of people across the continent. Europe’s elites are right to be horrified by what is happening in France — the rest of us should feel inspired by it.