Even if the "Yellow Vests" form a political party in France, there is no guarantee that their cocktail of bourgeois boredom and anger would do better than Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and half a dozen similar outfits in other European democracies. Pictured: Yellow Vest protesters march in front of police on December 15, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)
"We are angry!" This is the sentence that I have repeatedly heard from Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) demonstrators during the past three weeks while taking the political temperature in France. The assertion seems to refute my first diagnostic in a column last month that the movement reflected boredom rather than anger.
Having talked to dozens of rioters and observed some of their shenanigans including burning car tires, overturning parked cars and smashing shop-windows in posh streets, I am prepared to admit that both anger and boredom might be involved.
The first thing to note, though, is that this is not an uprising of the starving poor and homeless masses, supposing such strata exists in one of the world's most prosperous countries. The rioters we met were mostly apparently well-fed and eloquent middle and lower middle class in their mid-life. Mostly live in the provinces, especially Brittany, in mid-size towns and villages. Many are early retirees, in their 60s, with nothing exciting to do.
The rioters seem to be bored on their own behalf but angry on behalf of "the left-behind masses" they believe exist somewhere in France.
Last Saturday, the total number rioting in Paris and 12 other cities was put by the police at 50,000, a sharp fall compared to nine weeks ago when the fireworks started. But what do they actually want? It is hard to tell. Since there is no leadership structure and no spokespersons are allowed, one must do with anecdotal evidence.
My reporter's notebook includes some of their demands including a call on President Emmanuel Macron both to provide "true answers to our questions" and to resign. They also want "matters of public importance" to be decided through a referendum, or "direct democracy" as some call it, rendering the National Assembly (parliament) irrelevant. As for the upper chamber, the Senate, we heard calls for its outright abolition.
Another demand was for a mechanism that would allow citizens to dismiss cabinet ministers and members of parliament with petitions at any time rather than waiting for elections.
One demand was for the establishment of a "subsistence income" of no less than 1,700 euros a month, which would mean raising the current minimum wage by 300 euros. Many interviewees genuinely believed that "the rich", never defined, get an easy ride as far as taxation is concerned.
They want this corrected by a massive extension of the public sector, despite the fact that, compared to other major industrial democracies, the French state controls the highest portion of the gross domestic product (GDP) through a variety of direct and indirect taxes and levies.
Then, we had single-issue militants, including those opposed to gay marriage, those who wish the death penalty restored and those who want to ban all immigrants. A few, describing themselves as "Frexiteers", want France to exit the European Union.
The nationwide movement is a challenge to representative democracy in France. Aiming to replace institutions such as the presidency, the parliament, political parties, trade unions and the media with "direct street action," they promote the notion that complex political and economic problems have simple answers.
Sadly, President Macron, a novice in politics, who like most technocrats regards politics as a hindrance, may have fallen into their trap. He is trying to play his version of street politics by organizing what he grandiloquently calls "the Grand National Debate" outside the interface institutions of the republic.
Contempt for politics and politicians may be fashionable these days. But it doesn't make it right. Nor should one be misled by the label "populist" given to often small but loud groups of bored and/or angry bourgeois and looters and wreckers who operate in their shadow.
In modern France, the theme of "popular anger" is older than the republic itself. French politics have always vacillated between two rival temptations: Bonapartism and anarchy. Ironically it is only in the past two decades or so that French democracy has started to mature. The parliament has become more assertive, the judiciary more independent and the media less servile.
The claim that there is a hidden "suffering France" on whose behalf one is authorized to demean if not sabotage democracy is not new. François Mitterrand claimed he was speaking for "the left behind" ("laissés-pour-compte"). Jacques Chirac promised to heal "the social fracture". Nicolas Sarkozy cast himself as a champion of "silent majority". François Hollande was to be "an ordinary president" representing "the excluded ones". At another level, we have had Jean-Marie Le Pen beating the drum for "the forgotten" (les oubliés, in French), and Ségolène Royale promising proto-Maoist "citizen committees".
Even if the "Yellow Vests" form a party, there is no guarantee that their cocktail of bourgeois boredom and anger would do better than Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and half a dozen similar outfits in other European democracies.
The beauty of capitalism is in its ability to make money out of anything. On Saturday, as all cafés in the Champs-Élysées were shut for fear of attack by "Yellow Vests", mobile kiosks appeared selling espresso and croissants at double the price. We had to retreat to Palais Royal, a mile away, to have lunch, leaving behind the Champs-Élysées battleground.
One of the few shops open away from the battlefield offered a designer version of the "Yellow Vest" at 125 euros apiece, compared of just 20 euros for the shabby original. So far, no "Yellow Vest" T-shirts, posters and mugs. But we expect some next Saturday.
We saw a new book with the title The Depth of Sky is Yellow by a lady journalist who must be the fastest pen alive, producing a tome about riots that started only five weeks before she hit the keyboard.
The restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel was packed but we found a table in a bistro a bit further. There were many suffering "Yellow Vesters" having lunch in preparation for the big fight with the anti-riot police scheduled for 5:00pm at Arc de Triomphe.
We asked a lady at the next table what she would recommend from the day's menu and she suggested "Aligot sausage with mashed potatoes". We took her advice and were delighted by our meal.
Which shows that "Yellow Vesters" might have good ideas when they know what they are talking about. Trouble is they often don't.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published in a slightly different version by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.