(The Gilets Jaunes in Paris)
It was an evening sometime in the summer or early fall of 1973, and my brother John and I were sitting in a café in the Left Bank of Paris near Sorbonne University. Drinking our beers, perhaps an aperitif or two, we were enjoying ourselves by our window table when all of a sudden total chaos broke out in the streets outside.
Hundreds of students carrying placards and crudely written signs, shouting, their faces alive with emotion, rushed past us. Many of them looked back as they ran, and we soon saw why. Hot on their trail were equally hundreds of uniformed police waving their black sticks with intent to use them.
My brother and I weren’t sure how to react so we watched as the crowds disappeared into the narrow streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter. It was just a few years after the major protests of 1968, and I remember seeing huge signs in the streets announcing news of the latest arrests of members of the revolutionary Baader-Meinhof gang, the popular name of Germany’s Red Army Faction led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Both were in jail by that time, but key faction members were still on the loose planting bombs, kidnapping politicians and generally wreaking havoc.
I’ve been thinking about that visit to Paris during the recent protests by the gilets jaunes—Yellow Vests—in the streets of Paris and elsewhere across France, a movement of the French working class in defiance of the country’s neo-liberal president Emmanuel Macron and his policies of giant tax breaks to the rich and corporations while hiking taxes on workers and cutting public services.
With even major labor leaders looking askance at their protests, the Yellow Vests don’t have a clearly identifiable leader. Theirs is a spontaneous protest prompted in part by Macron’s hike on fuel, which has caused a divide with environmentalists. To the protesters, that hike was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back because it made their already struggling lives even more of a struggle. French workers usually live outside the cities and have to commute. After cutting their public transportation, Macron wanted to raise their already expensive fuel prices.
The protests were so vehement that Macron had to back off his fuel tax plan, but people remained in the streets because their issues went far beyond the cost of keeping the tanks in their vehicles full. Called the “yellow vests” because of the piece of safety clothing French drivers are required to keep in their cars, these French workers are actually part of a much larger and hopefully growing protest against the neo-liberal corporate takeover of this world that major political parties of all stripes in most countries have come to accept.
The U.S. media haven’t paid much attention what’s going on in the streets of Paris. Leftist media have done some admirable work, but what you’re more likely to encounter are articles such as Alexander Hurst’s “The Ugly, Illiberal, Anti-Semitic Heart of the Yellow Vest Movement” that appeared last month in New Republic magazine, a publication that has veered left and right over its long history and as this article indicates seems content to side with the self-satisfied liberal elite who call themselves socially liberal but are anything but on anything else.
Hurst’s article wages war on casseurs (“smashers”) who have joined the Yellow Vests at times and contributed violence to confrontations with the police—sort of like identifying all leftist critics of capitalism with the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s!
Macron won election in France due largely to the failure of major parties to field candidates who could truly address the concerns of the French people. The same phenomenon happened in the United States, and that’s why we have Donald Trump as president. Demagogues and self-proclaimed saviors thrive in a political vacuum. The same phenomenon occurred more than a century ago in the United States and led to the creation of the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, the largest and most significant third party movement in the history of our nation.
(To the right, Emiliano Zapata in 1912)
The other night on Turner Classic Movies I watched the 1952 film “Viva Zapata!”, the story of the great turn-of-the-last-century Mexican peasant-turned-revolutionary whose legacy as a leader and champion of the people lives on today. Directed by Elia Kazan with a script by John Steinbeck and starring Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, the film showed how revolutionaries like Zapata in the south of Mexico and Pancho Villa to the north filled a vacuum in that country. After their revolution produced results, the weak-kneed Francisco Madero took over the country, thinking he could accommodate the crying needs of the people while still dealing with bullying militarists like Victoriano Huerta. He paid for that mistake with his life, and so did Zapata and Villa.
Do the Gilets Jaunes need a strong leader, a Zapata, to keep their movement alive and well? France has a long and inspiring history of social movements that sprang up from the people—beginning in modern history with the French Revolution and including other inspiring moments in history such as the Paris Communards of 1871. True leaders who never lose sight of the cause, such as Zapata, are rare.
In the film “Viva Zapata!” one of the generals makes a remark about the revolution breaking out in his country. “Ideas are harder to kill than snakes. How do you kill an idea?” Brando’s Zapata points to another truth about people’s movements. “A strong people is the only lasting strength.”
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