"Yellow vest" protesters gather at Place de l'Opera on December 15, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Paris has now seen its fifth weekend of street demonstrations by the so-called gilets jaunes, or "yellow vests," although reports suggest that things may be finally winding down. Meanwhile, the protests -- which in many instances rise to the level of riots, with innumerable examples of looting, vandalism, and arson – have spread. The last couple of weekends have seen disturbances in other major French cities, such as Toulouse, Bordeaux and Lyon, as well as in cities in the Low Countries, including Brussels, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Nijmegen and Maastricht. This weekend, in London, as the tension, confusion, and frustration surrounding Brexit have intensified and the possibility of a second referendum seemed to increase, yellow-vested protesters, most of them apparently supporters of Brexit, blocked major bridges and shut down streets in the city center.
As these displays of lawlessness have spread, ideas about the participants' motives have evolved. At first, it was reported that the protesters in France, far from being political extremists of the left or right, were ordinary citizens angered by new hikes in gas taxes. But even when President Emmanuel Macron yanked the tax increase, the turmoil continued. Why? Writing at Gatestone, David Brown noted that "[l]ower-middle class families are not poor enough to receive welfare benefits but have seen their income flat-line whilst cost-of-living and taxes have risen..... The French people feel screwed." Amir Taheri suggested that "the French, like most other people in rich countries, are simply bored, with a lot of time on their hands and little exciting to do." At PJ Media, Rick Moran opined that "the ordinary people who are paying for the grandiose schemes of the social planners in Brussels have had enough. And they are finally rising up to demand an end to it." For my part, I wondered whether this dramatic sign of popular discontent marked "the start of the Western European public's pushback against the elites' disastrous multicultural and globalist project."
The proliferation of the protests indicates, of course, that the demonstrators are motivated by anger over social, economic, and or cultural phenomena that are not confined to France. Earlier this month, the Dutch daily Het Parool said that Dutch protesters are opposed to the European Union, to immigration and to current efforts to put an end to "Zwarte Piet," an age-old Dutch Christmastime tradition that, as it involves putting on blackface, is now viewed by many observers as racist, even though the character in question is beloved. As one Dutch news site pointed out, "The Netherlands does not have a tradition of mass protests or mass strikes, like France or Belgium," which makes the spread of these activities to that country rather surprising, even though they have not reached anything like the scale of the uprisings in France.
The first thing one notices about the variety of motives cited in the media is that they are not unrelated. Anti-EU sentiment? Opposition to the huge immigrant tide? A major reason for anti-EU sentiment in Western Europe is resentment at the power of Brussels to force member states to take certain numbers of so-called refugees. Similarly, protesters who are angry over high taxes know very well that a great deal of their money is being used to support immigrants who become welfare clients the moment they enter the country.
One curious wrinkle: this weekend, thousands of people in yellow vests marched in Rome. These protesters, however, were looking-glass images of their counterparts to the north and west: while the French, Belgian, and Dutch agitators were mostly native Europeans, apparently fed up by governments that take too much from them and give them too little in return, the protesters in Rome were migrants and their supporters, who disapprove of Italy's new immigration law. In this instance, what we appear to be observing is a movement that, for whatever reasons, has decided to mimic the appearance of another movement that is, philosophically, pretty much its exact opposite.
These people in Rome, though, would appear to be the exception that proves the rule. Setting them aside, the more one reads about the supposedly varied concerns that animate the yellow vest protesters in France, Britain, and the Low Countries, the less varied they look. Across Western Europe, ordinary citizens feel ignored and condescended to by their political, business, academic, and media elites. Against the will of most of these citizens, their leaders are gradually surrendering their nations' sovereignty to the EU, which Macron has frankly admitted wanting to transform into a United States of Europe. Also against these citizens' will, their nations have been flooded with Muslim immigrants who embody a major cultural challenge, have caused massive social unrest, and represent a devastating economic burden.
Although it is increasingly obvious that taxpayer-funded Islamization is leading Western Europe down the wrong path, the EU, which stands foursquare behind this disastrous development, refuses to reverse course. Naturally, the powerless man and woman in the street are scared, resentful, and, yes, outraged. Perhaps the question should not be why Western Europeans are rioting but why they did not start rioting a long time ago.
Bruce Bawer is the author of the new novel The Alhambra (Swamp Fox Editions). His book While Europe Slept (2006) was a New York Times bestseller and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. His other books include A Place at the Table (1993), Stealing Jesus (1997), Surrender (2009), and The Victims' Revolution (2012). A native New Yorker, he has lived in Europe since 1998.