Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Yellow Vests in France - The Pitchforks are here

Paris protests

In February 2016 I posted on Economic Inequality as “The Defining Challenge of Our Time”. That’s how Barack Obama characterized the incredible inequality in the U. S. (and elsewhere).

The article in Scientific American was introduced this way.

In a candid conversation with Frank Rich last fall, Chris Rock said, “Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” …

So societal upheaval is a possible outcome of the obscenely extreme gaps between rich and poor.

Societal upheaval is a possibility. Or maybe a certainty? The “pitchforks” article was written by a billionaire [Nick Hannauer] and addressed to his fellow 0.1%ers.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

Hannauer’s remarks were directed at the U. S. but economic inequality is a global issue. Consider the unrest going on right now in France reported by the NY Times in France’s Yellow Vest Protests: A Briefing on the Movement That Has Put Paris on Edge.

The broken glass and empty tear gas canisters have been swept away and the graffiti scrubbed off the major monuments, among them the Arc de Triomphe, after a weekend of violent protests in the capital by a grass-roots movement that calls itself the Yellow Vests.

It was the third weekend of protests and confrontations with the police by the group, and by far the most damaging.

The cost of repairing just the Arc de Triomphe — apart from the graffiti, there was damage to artifacts kept inside — could reach one million euros (about $1.15 million), according to the Center for National Monuments. On Monday, merchants and government officials were still assessing the total property damage.

More than 260 people were wounded nationwide, and at least three died outside Paris on the margins of the protests over the last three weekends. More than 400 people were arrested in Paris.

Who are the yellow vests?

The movement originated in May when a woman named Priscillia Ludosky, who has an internet cosmetics business and lives in the suburbs southeast of Paris, launched an internet petition calling for a drop in gas prices. She broke down the price into its components, noting that taxes made up more than half the cost in France. Per liter, lead-free gas was 1.41 euros on Sunday, or about $6.00 per gallon.

Early on, people who agreed with the petition were encouraged to show their support by displaying the high-visibility yellow vest every driver in France must by law carry, in case of roadside trouble. Supporters were asked to place the vests on their dashboard or back shelf.

Those who participated were predominantly men and women who rely on their cars to get to work and take care of their families. In the mix were small-business owners, independent contractors, farmers, home aides, nurses and truck drivers. They live and work primarily in rural towns and in the suburbs or exurbs of France’s big cities, many earning just enough to get by.

How big is the movement?

No one knows for sure. By French standards, the demonstrations have been modest in size. But they are unusual in that they erupted spontaneously in multiple places around France, without any union or political party organizing them. Their numbers have diminished since the first gatherings on Nov. 17, when nearly 300,000 Yellow Vests protested nationwide; this past weekend, it was 166,000, according to the Interior Ministry.

Why are they so angry?

Many protesters say their purchasing power has dwindled so much over the years that today they have trouble making ends meet — let alone coming up with money for simple outings, vacations or even just to go out to dinner once in a while. Many are earning close to the median income, but costs have risen and pay has not.

Since public transportation is limited in rural France and the suburbs, most of the Yellow Vests have no choice but to use their cars — and are especially sensitive to fuel tax hikes. And that tax comes on top of already high payroll taxes that help the government pay for the health care system, social security and unemployment insurance, among other things.

What do the Yellow Vests want?

Their demands span a broad spectrum.

The movement has so many participants with different circumstances and politics that it is hard to imagine everyone agreeing on a single list of demands.

Self-described “moderate” Yellow Vests who wrote an opinion piece on Sunday in a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, said a freeze on the planned gas tax increase was a precondition for negotiating with the government. Others have called for President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation, and some say Parliament should dissolve itself and hold new elections.

Are more protests expected?

Unless the government does much more to reach out to the working poor, small business owners, independent contractors and to all those who live outside the wealthy areas of Paris and other big cities, the unrest seems likely to spread.

Don’t get this wrong. The focus in France is on the proposed increased gas tax. But the Yellow Vest movement has deeper roots.

Many people who have not participated in the protests say they support them or are sympathetic to those on the street. That suggests the protests may again grow in size, or continue for a long time. Despite the damage over the weekend in Paris and elsewhere, overall support for the movement remains high, according to several polls.

My hypothesis is that the yellow vests worn by the participants in the uprising in France, especially Paris, are the modern day pitchforks. If I am right, the pitchforks are not coming. They are here and now.

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