What The Yellow Vests Want


In 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Ever since, historians have called it a surprise attack. The invading German force numbered millions of men with tens of thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, trucks and aircraft. They did not all sneak up to the border one night very quietly. They assembled over the course of many months.

The Soviets saw the buildup. And they ignored it.

In part they did so because of German trickery. The Germans told the Soviets they were assembling their troops out of range of British aircraft for an invasion of England. Mostly, though, the Soviets ignored the gathering force, because they were in denial. They had an alliance with Hitler. He would not break that deal. The alternative, that they would be face to face with the world’s deadliest war machine was too horrible to contemplate.

It seems unbelievable, but in truth people are guilty of this kind of self-deception all the time. They believe what they want to believe. They see what they want to see.

Witness populism, Trump and the “yellow vests.”

Two years ago, the unthinkable happened. Donald Trump, brash even coarse, political outsider, became President of the United States. Those opposed to Trump, even horrified by his election, were faced with a choice. They could contemplate the possibility that a lot of Americans saw the world very differently that they did, or they could retreat into delusion.

They chose delusion. Trump was not President because a great many Americans were furious with a political system that had failed them for decades. He was President, because America was filled with “deplorables,” angry, ignorant, homophobic, racist individuals who probably should not be allowed to vote.

Then came waves of populist and nationalist movements across Europe. They were all a little different, but they all showed a common concern with weak borders, out of control immigration, the cost of social welfare states and rising crime. 

Once again, the opponents of these movements were faced with a choice. They could pause and give some thought to the possibility that something needed to change, or they could reach into the grab bag of insults and labels and brand their political opponents as unworthy of consideration.

They chose the latter. Europe was now under siege apparently by racists, homophobes, Nazis, fascists and the great unwashed. Ignorance and backward thinking had reared their ugly heads.

And now we have the “yellow vests,” the protestors rocking Paris and other cities in France and spreading, as this is written, to the Netherlands and Belgium. This is not so much a protest movement as a revolution in the making. The number of people in the streets is massive. Paris has been effectively shut down every weekend for the last six weeks, and tens of thousands of police and military personnel have been required to maintain a degree of order.

A great many French are very angry – so angry they have resorted to what amounts to insurrection to demand change and the removal of a sitting President. It seems like an appropriate time for reflection on why.

Yet, once again, dismissal seems to be the order of the day. The “yellow vests” are, we are told, the equivalent of French “hillbillies.” They come from the rural areas and small towns of France. They are ignorant, myopic, and, of course, racist, homophobic and fascist. They are backward. They are uneducated. And, just for good measure, they are anti-Semitic.

They are, in fact, none of these things, any more than Trump voters were, or supporters of the Five Star Party in Italy are. They are men and women who have grown thoroughly sick of a political system run by self-anointed elitists, who jet from climate change conference to climate change conference, lecture the populace on multiculturalism and globalization and continue year after year to fail their core constituencies.

Tip O’Neil famously said all politics is local. I would take it a step further. All politics is personal. People vote, and occasionally take to the streets, over the kind of issues that hit you in the pocketbook, the kind of issues a couple stresses over at the kitchen table each night. Can we pay the bills? Can we put food on the table? Can we put gas in the car?

The median income in France is just $1930 a month. That’s a little over a third of what it is in the United States. Economic growth in France is anemic at 1.8%. Unemployment is over 9%. None of the trendlines for any of these things is positive. 

The average French family is struggling to put food on the table and pay its bills. The French already pay some of the highest taxes in Europe. Against this backdrop, French President Macron just cut taxes for the wealthiest French households and then imposed a heavy increase in the fuel tax. Prior to the imposition of the increase, which has now been suspended, gas in France already cost the equivalent of $5.50 a gallon.

The real question in this context is not why the “yellow jackets” are in the street it is why it took them so long to get there. They, like so many other people across Europe and in the United States, are fed up. They have the audacity to believe that their elected officials and their government should put their interests first and should be focused, all day every day, on making their lives better. They don’t want lectures from pompous elitists about abstract principles or social engineering. They want answers. They want results. They want them now.

It may well be too late for Macron to learn this lesson. His fate may be sealed. I n France and a host of other Western nations, however, there are a great many other elected officials who would do well to pay attention, dispense with denial and face reality, no matter how jarring