A Promenade with the Gilets Jaunes in Paris

Albert Meige/Paris, France

The first obstructions to car traffic by the Gilets Jaunes, the yellow vests, took place on Saturday, November 17. They were met in Paris with skepticism and raised eyebrows.

I was also skeptical. Who even remembers the “Bonnets Rouges,” the “Red Caps” from 2013? The Gilets Jaunes seemed similar, just another “jacquerie” with a new uniform, confronted with a state super-selected by history to manage peasant revolts with minimal fuss. The yellow vests seemed doomed to be bought off cheaply and quickly forgotten.

On the following Saturday, the Gilets Jaunes also blocked Paris. Parisian skepticism crumbled ever so slightly, and signs of concern began to creep into the collective atmosphere. A week later, on December 1, the situation got out of hand. Among other things, rioters defaced the highly symbolic Arc de Triomphe. It became apparent to everyone that the last time riots in Paris reached this intensity of violence was in 1968. Nobody has forgotten about May 1968.

I remained skeptical, though. The French in general are prompt to hurl insults, but slow when it comes to actual physical violence. Elaborate rituals of symbolic social conflict resolution often tend to get misinterpreted as raw destructiveness when viewed from abroad. When it comes to France, outsiders should consider that the baseline for what counts as unacceptable violence is quite a bit higher than in other developed countries.

Torching cars is part of the social code in France.

In any case, the Gilets Jaunes made it clear that they would be returning soon. After his poorly received proposals to develop new shuttle lines in rural areas, subsidize electric vehicles, and create a High Council on Climate, French President Emmanuel Macron opted for a low profile. Police forces were under scrutiny for any hint of fraternization with the Gilets Jaunes. Hitherto unthinkable political scenarios became objects of semi-serious speculation.

I was still skeptical, but starting to get curious, so I proposed to a few friends, including a photographer, that we should observe the fourth Gilet Jaunes intervention for ourselves. Off we went.

Since cobblestones had flown on the previous Saturday, we decided to bring our bike helmets. As a safety measure, those helmets were already underwhelming. In hindsight, the smart move would have been not to bring any protection at all.

The meeting was set at Tuileries, 10:00 AM. As expected, subway stations on Saturday near sensitive targets were closed for the day, including those in the Tuileries area. This made Saint-Sulpice on line 4 the nearest exit to my destination, and that is where I got out. Walking through the streets of the 6th, then soon the 7th arrondissement, I noticed the surface of the city was barely alive. I saw very few cars, bikes, scooters, and pedestrians. No buses. Even taking into account the heavy clouds that would hang over us the entire day, Paris was uncharacteristically silent and vacant for a Saturday matinée little more than two weeks away from Christmas.

As I approached the Seine, I spotted some yellow vests. They were moving in small groups towards and presumably through the Tuileries. Riot police were also present, controlling the access to the nearby Musée d’Orsay.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

I stepped upon the Pont Royal and crossed the river. Just at the entrance of the Tuileries, I saw a jogger brush past a group of yellow vests. This scene would repeat itself in other places, such as the Place de la Madeleine.

The joggers and the yellow vests belong to two very different tribes whose paths would probably never cross under normal circumstances.

The former is a representative mix of the knowledge economy elite, living in a center of global economic flows, and part of the single network that connects all the big hubs of finance, industry, commerce, and politics in the world. This was their territory, and they weren’t about to cede total control of it to outsiders.

The wearers of yellow vests did not look Parisian. Nor did they give me the impression that they had their place in the network of the global economy. They came to disrupt some of the above-mentioned economic flows, so much was clear—at least as a first approximation. But who were they? I decided to keep this question in mind for later.

The Tuileries gardens were closed to the public, but our meeting point was still accessible, not far from the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. This arch is the last vestige of a palace for kings and emperors that disappeared in the flames of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Once everyone had arrived, we set out towards the North. Immediately at the exit of the Tuileries, we encountered police wearing casual clothing and equipped with automatic weapons, positioned to control the access to what lay to our West: the Place de la Concorde, where the American Embassy stands, and further along, the Palais de l’Élysée.

They checked our bags. Then they requested we hand over our helmets. However, our helmets were rather nice helmets, so we declined and moved further North, hoping we’d find a way to get in without being controlled. But we were out of luck, and so were most of the Gilets Jaunes that day. No helmets, and no other kinds of protective or offensive gear were allowed inside the controlled perimeter, including saline vials and gas masks.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

Eventually, we convinced a friendly café waiter to keep our helmets, and got past the safety checks. We started moving towards the West, along a route that left us with few options. Riot police kept most streets inaccessible, often blocking them off with sturdy-looking foldable walls. Only certified locals were allowed past those.

Most of the stores had boarded up their shop windows. Those store owners who neglected to take this safety measure would regret their decision by the end of the day.

Around the time we reached the Place de la Madeleine, the flow of Gilets Jaunes intensified. A deserted Place de la Concorde could be seen, and behind it, on the other side of the Seine, the National Assembly building. The CRS riot police ignored the pleas for fraternization of the Gilets Jaunes, and eventually everybody got moving again.

We finally reached the Champs Élysées, slightly above the round point. In order to let us and the Gilets Jaunes we accompanied join with the masses further up the Champs Élysées, the riot police decided to back up a little towards the round point. Some amateur tribunes took this as a gesture of sympathy from the police and decided to indulge in the sort of half-serious, half-histrionic posturing that could easily be misunderstood by outsiders as a completely pointless gesture. But to the Gilets Jaunes, it was important to state their peaceful intentions, and to set themselves apart from the acts of violence perpetrated by external groups. The riot police remained unfazed.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

The problem, of course, is that contrary to social movements structured by unions and comparable organizations, the Gilets Jaunes lack the ability to police themselves in a systematic way. Their spontaneous and decentralized movement provides an easy target for outside infiltrators, and welcome cover for delinquent activities, of which we would witness quite a few as the day unfolded. They also attract pre-existing groups of more or less fringe political militants, who carry with them the grudges they all hold between each other. Leftist and rightist militant groups have been actively settling scores these past few weeks.

Some spontaneous policing does seem to have taken place. Furious Gilets Jaunes intercepted at least one violent group in the Champs Élysées zone.

But of course, the riot police backing up was in fact merely a measure of convenience intended to improve their ability to control the crowd, and had nothing to do with sympathy with the cause of the Gilets Jaunes. It was quite apparent that the Gilets Jaunes, and we, had been very effectively corralled. The police had us exactly where they wanted. A limited amount of vented anger and defiance was to be tolerated today for a limited time duration on the Champs Élysées—an area the Gilets Jaunes were officially forbidden to enter, and which they would eventually be firmly encouraged to exit.

We walked up the Champs Élysées. Yellow vests were numerous, but not numerous enough to fill up the entire avenue. Riot police, as well as police summoned from all the other arrondissements, controlled the side streets and maintained filters to control the groups moving towards the Place de l’Étoile. Despite these controls, a few people managed to keep their helmets and gas masks.

For a while, nothing much seemed to be happening. The Gilets Jaunes would occasionally sing the Marseillaise. Many held French flags aloft. Strangers with more or less compatible views spontaneously struck up conversations with one another. Hostility to Macron was perhaps the main common denominator uniting all the groups present.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

We were at the level of rue de Bassano when the atmosphere started to sharply deteriorate. Shortly after we took to this side street, tear gas grenades shrouded the Champs-Élysées in smoke, sending the Gilets Jaunes running. It appeared that a violent group had been throwing cobblestones at the police. Upon unshielded impact, such a stone will knock out a person wearing a helmet and tear open the head of anyone else.

There didn’t seem to be as many tear gas grenades compared to the previous Saturday. According to a rumor, the grenade factory in the Sarthe départment that supplies the police forces is having trouble keeping up with demand these days.

Along with flashbang stun grenades, the tear-gas grenades were the MVP of crowd control. Securely positioned in lateral streets, riot police equipped with grenade launchers would lob instant pain into the crowd every now and then.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

A direct hit from a stun grenade recently cost a young woman an eye. In Bordeaux, a young man lost his hand when he picked up a grenade.

We moved up to the stagnant Arc de Triomphe zone, and decided it was time to leave. We left the Champs Élysées by the rue de la Boétie. We made the right call; shortly after, riot police cleared the entire area.

On the way, we saw a café being pillaged by what appeared to be a small gang of banlieue youths. A dozen of them managed to lift the protective shutter and swiftly enter and steal various items. Other groups broke into wine shops and stole bottles of champagne. Trash containers had been set on fire here and there.

Later reports and anecdotes from acquaintances suggest that this Saturday had actually been more violent and destructive than we had personally seen. Fights had taken place on various boulevards situated on the right bank of the Seine. Another detail that had eluded me is that filtering procedures were not limited to police checking bags for forbidden items. In fact, police had lists of wanted individuals and frequently checked identity cards. In this manner, over a thousand arrests took place on Saturday. The announced armored vehicles had been deployed in some streets.

And this was just Paris.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

It bears repeating that the chaos induced by the Gilets Jaunes was from the beginning an open invitation for small groups of predators to implement their own agendas. Nonetheless, it also seems intuitive to say that distinguishing these predators from real Gilets Jaunes isn’t that hard when on the ground. Or so it seemed to us, as we walked in the streets of the First Arrondissement. But this brings us back to the question of who the Gilets Jaunes really are.

The Gilets Jaunes are, first of all, people used to getting up early and going to work. Their main actions take place early and on Saturdays, making it easier for people with jobs to be active in the movement. Their movement can’t define itself as a continuous strike, although a few factories as well as several fuel depots are currently still under Gilets Jaunes occupation. Looking at age groups, it is apparent that a disproportionate number of Gilets Jaunes are pensioners. The younger participants we talked to said they were there to protest recent pension cutbacks. Not because these cutbacks would affect them in the future, but because they were affecting their parents now, and thus them, who stood under moral obligation to provide their relatives with extra support to make up for their income loss. The movement has become a movement of opposition against social transfer reductions, diminished buying power, and increased fiscal burden. Not just a fiscal or economic revolt: a social revolt against the destruction of the French welfare state.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

The original core complaint concerned the new taxes on car fuels, and it is certainly this seminal strain of Gilets Jaunes anger that reveals their true face. The Gilets Jaunes movement is driven by the pain and long accumulated anger of what political geographer Christophe Guilluy calls peripheral France: This is how he defines the concept in his 2014 book La France périphérique:

The Bonnets rouges movement, social hardship plans, the rejection of the 2005 European Treaty, abstention, the FN vote: the new radical movements emerge on the territories that lie apart from the globalized metropolises. Indeed we have forgotten that the economic reconfiguration of large cities brought about a social reconfiguration of all territories. Thus the social question is not circumscribed to the other side of the highway belt around Paris, but extends to the other side of the metropolises, in the rural spaces, the small cities, the medium-sized cities, in certain semi-urban spaces that together include close to 80% of the working classes. This “peripheral France”, invisible and forgotten, is the one where as of now the majority of the population lives. It is on these territories, from the bottom, that the counter-society structures itself by breaking, step by step, with the political and cultural representations of yesterday’s France.

In No Society, published in October 2018, and for which he is currently on media promotion tour, Guilluy generalizes the concept to include the “peripheral worlds” of other countries, such as the “fly-over” states in America: “the peripheral world today hosts the majority of the categories that yesterday composed the basis of the middle class.”

Guilluy believes that the middle class has already been destroyed by globalization, and that it is only kept alive as a concept by academics, journalists and politicians. Belief in the existence of a large middle class goes together with an optimistic outlook on the benefits of globalization. The “middle classes” narrative recognizes the existence of negative aspects of globalization only on the margins of society, in particular in the underprivileged banlieues. The concept of peripheral France is an attempt to subvert this optimistic understanding of society, by showing where huge swathes of the lower middle class have disappeared. Even more controversial is Guilluy’s assertion that the sensitive banlieues actually benefit more from globalization than peripheral France.

According to Guilluy, peripheral France first mainly included workers hit by de-industrialization, then employees and peasants. Today, this category also comprises intermediary professions and pensioners.

The mechanism by which the working class component of the middle class was driven to peripheral exile is that of real estate prices. Living in the metropolises has become completely unaffordable for the working classes.

This is why the tribe of joggers and the tribe of Gilets Jaunes would never cross paths under normal circumstances: the second migrated away from central urban nodes long ago, to areas where family formation, as well as cultural continuity remained affordable, while the second is at home everywhere.

In peripheral France, contrary to places like Paris, not having a car is simply not a viable option on an everyday basis. 2018 has been a terrible year for car drivers in France. First, the speed limit on national roads was lowered from 90 to 80 km/h, as a safety measure. This speed limit change was certain to infuriate regular drivers in rural and semi-rural areas, while at the same time guaranteeing an increase in state revenue derived from speeding fines. Then came the next ill-fated hammer blow: new taxes on car fuels. Many drivers suddenly realized the resulting price increase would severely unbalance their spending budget. Once these drivers started sharing their pain on social networks, especially on Facebook, the core of the Gilets Jaunes movement was born.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

What sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement appears to have been an online petition posted in the spring by self-employed, 33-year-old Priscilla Ludosky, which stands currently at over 1 million signatures. On the basis of the petition’s viral success, 33-year-old truck driver Éric Drouet used Facebook to call for the November 17 mobilization. Facebook was the game changer that made it possible for the suffering peripheral multitude to take heart and become an active collective. A mass of battered, atomized individuals was transformed into an angry mass of active protesters. The yellow vest uniform derives simply from the fact that car drivers are obligated to have a yellow vest on board for safety reasons.

Suddenly, the fighting spirit, the thumos of peripheral France had been awoken, in a way that is directly reminiscent of a Sloterdijk-inspired passage from L’âge de la multitude, a book on the digital platform economy by Henri Verdier and Nicolas Colin published in 2012:

The power of the multitude, revealed by the contributive economy, is a return to thumotic impulses, within an economic system that, until now, had successfully managed to reduce or to contain them. The multitude holds a power of creation. It also harbors a potential for destruction that can be exercised for the best or the worst.

We’ve so far explained the Gilets Jaunes as peripheral France coalescing in a spirit of anger on Facebook. But what explains the shape taken by the real-world expression of this anger? If we adopt an anthropological point of view, peripheral France appears as the cultural depositary of certain highly specific traditional French moral structures. Demographer and historical anthropologist Emmanuel Todd has convincingly shown that the egalitarian passion that animates much of modern French history has deep roots in the family structure that prevailed over the course of centuries in the area of the Paris basin—precisely the area that imposed itself politically on the rest of this highly diverse country. According to Todd’s explanation, it is the egalitarian nuclear family structure that largely accounts for the fact that there is ultimately nothing more French than citizens seeking recognition from the state of their equal right to dignity, that is to say, not just to a certain minimum of material resources, but also to an egalitarian shared fiscal burden.

Macron doesn’t like Emmanuel Todd. A little more than a year ago, a book on Macron’s presidential campaign revealed the low regard in which he holds the demographer, as well as other star intellectuals like Michel Onfray and Alain Finkielkraut—all three men of the Left with different views that have in common their opposition to the optimism of the dominant neoliberal narrative. Macron accuses them of observing the world with “yesterday’s eyes,” of “making noises with old instruments,” of having written “nothing much amazing recently,” of having nothing positive to offer. In response, Todd has publicly defended the thesis that it is only in a state of “collective hallucination” that the French elected “an intellectual virgin” to the presidency.

The deep anthropological structures identified by Todd explain why today the Gilets Jaunes are blocking infrastructure with a feeling of absolute righteousness. It is certainly in this sort of spirit of righteous anger, mixed with an exhilarating feeling of total impunity, that about half of the speed radars in the country have been knocked out of commission in the past couple of weeks.

Another target of Gilets Jaunes anger appears to be the journalistic profession, and specifically BFM TV, a television channel they accuse of biased coverage and of being blatantly subservient to the government. Reporters have been physically attacked, and the journalists present on the Champs Élysées this Saturday must have adopted a very low profile indeed, as we failed to spot any aside from one television team. Perhaps Macron’s ostentatious and oft-expressed disregard for journalists was prescient: for one must ask what they have done for him recently, and specifically in this present crisis.

The high level of popular support currently enjoyed by the Gilets Jaunes movement among the general population roughly matches the proportion of voters with a negative opinion on Macron’s performance as President of the French Republic. Those who still support Macron number about 20% of the population. A rough breakdown of the French population yields the following structure: 20% of direct beneficiaries of globalization, including capitalists and assorted higher or lower level technocrats and cognitive elites; 20% of recent immigrants living in social housing projects; 60% of members of peripheral France. The high level of support enjoyed by the Gilets Jaunes until now, between 70% and 80% of the population, suggests that even within the group of beneficiaries of globalization, there are many who empathize with the revolt of peripheral France. This could in part be explained by the simple fact that many Parisians have non-Parisian relatives. Mocking the Gilets Jaunes for their provinciality on Facebook didn’t go down that well with many Parisians.

Yet it would be wrong to overestimate the élan of this movement. By Tuesday night, my skepticism regarding the Gilets Jaunes had returned full force. In the present battle of wills, it is, if not Macron, then the French state that still holds the best cards in its hands.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

Thanks to Guilluy, the French find themselves well-equipped to understand the populist dynamics that carry the Gilets Jaunes. However, no political leader has emerged to fully capture the political potential contained in peripheral France. Nicolas Sarkozy based the final stretch of his unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid on a Guilluy-inspired strategy, but this strategic inflexion came too late to salvage his campaign. Overall, France is characterized by the absence of leaders comparable to men such as Christoph Blocher in Switzerland, or Donald Trump in the U.S.

The Gilets Jaunes are radical populists, populism in its purest possible form. As a movement, it has constantly sought to minimize the role of leadership. Death threats have been issued against would-be negotiators with the government. Demands were made to have any negotiations live-streamed.

Perhaps the most characteristically anti-technocratic demand of the Gilets Jaunes is the introduction of a popular initiative referendum, comparable to what already exists in countries such as Switzerland.

Since they lack strong leadership, the Gilets Jaunes are capable of only one thing: saying “no.” They have no ability to reach a measured decision to halt their own mobilization. And since the collective dynamic they are caught in is fueled by hatred, by the desire to hurt those that have hurt them, their movement will either push too far or peter out from exhaustion.

The Gilets Jaunes started out as a movement to protect the standard of life of peripheral France from the perceived threat of Macron’s reforms and new taxes on the working population. This independent core orientation soon shifted leftwards, as the object of mobilization was generalized to include the defense of the social benefits provided by the welfare state. What the movement now demands is a massive expansion of the welfare state. This upping of the ante is not simply the result of the Gilets Jaunes being courted by the Left, in particular by charismatic, irrepressible France insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Rather, it is the inevitable outcome of a movement that seeks to suppress the natural emergence of leaders: any nascent Gilets Jaunes leader will find himself confronted with constant suspicions of selling the movement out and will thus have no choice but to refuse any concessions coming from the government.

For now, the Gilets Jaunes have the upper hand. Their ability to cause economic damage is real, and the state is somewhat powerless against them. But the conditions that make this situation possible are highly unlikely to remain stable. Popular opinion will soon grow tired of the Gilets Jaunes. And once the atmosphere begins to shift, it is the French state in all its might that stands best positioned to reclaim control over the country; but a country whose political landscape will have been irreversibly transformed.

Albert Meige/Paris, France

Regardless of the short-term outcome of the Gilets Jaunes mobilization, the tectonic movement of socioeconomic plates analyzed by Guilluy has now reached a decisive new state. Peripheral France will now take time to organize itself. And the fundamental question around which it will organize itself is that of where the money goes. The fundamental intuition of the Gilets Jaunes is that they are both working class and net contributors to public finances. They know that public infrastructure is inferior and lacking where they live. And they know that other groups seem to either not be the target of new fiscal burdens, or net beneficiaries of the welfare state. In this sense, the redistributive magic of the Republic is gone. Post-Gilets Jaunes peripheral France will insist on finding out exactly what goes on behind the opaque budgetary procedures that govern the allocation of public resources between groups and regions. And the price of social peace with peripheral France will very certainly go up.

This new situation imperils neoliberalism in France. Faced with a combative peripheral France, confronted with the ever-volatile sensitive banlieues, and given EU constraints on the growth of public debt, the French technocracy will soon find itself having to solve a very difficult equation. Something will have to give, eventually.

What can Macron do in the face of this threat to his political program? In order to answer this question, we would first note that while his popularity has plummeted, Macron did win a presidential election a year and a half ago, and would have won then against any of the participating candidates—not just Marine Le Pen. One has to wonder on what basis he got elected. The answer is fairly simple: because he positioned himself as the protector of the existing neoliberal EU project. The French simply voted for continuity and against risk. Macron generated enthusiasm only among around 20% of the population. The 66% that voted for him in the second round of the election did so mostly out of fear and stability concerns.

Since the Second World War, France had one republic fall and the 1968 revolt. Both events point to the difficulty of crafting a robust narrative of French greatness after the extremely damaging first half of the twentieth century. This difficulty has not subsided in the meantime. To his credit, Macron has shown signs that he is well aware of the problem. He understands that fear-based political inertia isn’t a good mindset for the French.

Without such a narrative, French elites in particular feel exposed, vulnerable, and secretly justified in their desire to secede from the people. And peripheral France, as shown by Jean-Claude Michéa, following in the footsteps of Christopher Lasch, is nothing else than the consequence of a secession of the elites.

Macron, in his own, somewhat eclectic manner, has attempted to remedy this problem by asserting that France would achieve greatness in the continuation of the peaceful project of European unity. He has asked forgiveness for the colonial sins of France, while at the same time celebrating medieval national heroine Jeanne d’Arc, and cultivating proximity with Puy du Fou historical theme park founder Philippe de Villiers—both men have since had a falling out. On November 8, Macron controversially included Philippe Pétain in an official homage to heroes of the First World War. Philippe Pétain, who later on became the Chief of State of Vichy France, perfectly exemplifies the complicated nature of French history during the twentieth century.

Emmanuel Macron has stated in the past the need for Europe to have heroes, because he senses that today, no soldier will give his life to defend the EU. On this at least, he would appear to see eye-to-eye with Army General and former Chief of the Defense Staff Pierre de Villiers, brother of Philippe and darling of the more conservative current within the Gilets Jaunes.

In last year’s end of the year address to the nation, Macron stated that 2018 would be the year of national cohesion. This statement has indeed proven to be accurate, but not in the way he hoped.

Even before the Gilets Jaunes movement, Macron seemed to have alienated most of his political support, aside from his closest circle of collaborators. The recent departures of Nicolas Hulot and Gérard Collomb from the government certainly signaled that cohesion had become weak within the executive. It is only the institutions of the Fifth Republic that now protect Macron’s seat of power, though his presidency may already be dead in the water. One immediate consequence of the Gilets Jaunes movement is his fall from grace on the European and international political scene.

With Macron having lost his momentum and initiative, the question rather becomes: what will the French state do to solve the new political equation the Gilets Jaunes have introduced?

Albert Meige/Paris, France

A significant proportion of the state technocracy certainly remains committed to neoliberalism. Ultimately, the reason France adopted globalization may simply be that it brought a massive expansion of career options and opportunities to the French technocratic elite. As shown by Rawi Abdelal, these elites played a key role in the financial globalization of the 1980s, and generally tend to view themselves as a perfect fit within a system of global governance. Jacques Attali, who helped launch Macron’s political career, perhaps represents the archetype of this orientation. There is not much compatibility between neoliberalism and populism. Indeed, it is only in appearance that they could be reconciled, in the person of a figure of authority, perhaps of the kind Pierre de Villiers writes about in his recently published book. So far, Macron has not shown himself to be gifted for that role.

Another orientation coexists with the previous one within the state apparatus. One hesitates to name this the “sovereignist” orientation, because its representatives do not necessarily seek to remove France from the EU or NATO. On the contrary, they may view such alliances as indispensable to French autonomy. Yet it would also lead to a false perception of the French situation to assume that someone like Marine Le Pen represents the totality of sovereignist forces—a preposterous notion to anyone even slightly familiar with the general level of incompetence of Le Pen and of her party. A more accurate way of understanding the situation would be to admit the existence of implicit sovereignists within the state and its various branches, defending French interests within various more or less multilateral frameworks. One indicator of this orientation is an official’s stance on international relations: is it based on a realist appreciation of national interests, or does it claim primacy for the extraterritorial doctrine of human rights? By the same logic, proximity with the interests of the French military-industrial complex should be read as a sign of sovereignist orientation. Hubert Védrine, former Foreign Minister from 1997 to 2002, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, current Foreign Minister, both socialists or former socialists, are good examples of this orientation. As is Pierre de Villiers, who resigned his position as Chief of the Defense Staff in July 2017, following an abrupt reduction of the Army’s annual budget.

The ultimate job of the first group is to make sure the state can finance itself. The ultimate job of the second group is to make sure the state can defend itself. Both groups have no choice but to work together. Considering the current intensification of geopolitical competition in the world, the fact that France will not easily relinquish its international standing as a second-tier power, and the current, now probably definitive failure of Macron to convince Germany to accept French leadership in European defense matters, it would appear that the French state will have no other political choice than going it alone a lot more in matters of defense. As it happens, France plans to emit a record amount of debt in 2019. Could this suggest that the second group is in the ascendancy? One sign of such a trend is the recent creation of the French equivalent of DARPA: the Agence de l’Innovation de Défense. Nominally, this Agency positions itself as being “open to Europe.” But whereas the Agency’s European dimension is conditional, among other things, on relations with Germany improving, its French dimension is very much unconditional.

Judging by what I saw in the streets of Paris this past Saturday, should neoliberalism give way in the coming years to a more dirigiste national policy orientation, it is quite likely that even in the absence of direct democracy measures, many Gilets Jaunes will be found applauding the goal of restoring the state’s authority.

Jacques Knight is a writer based in Paris. He is an alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure.