Over the last month, France’s “yellow vest” protests have commanded global attention, and with good reason: They herald a people’s revolt that threatens the French government. However, it seems more clear by the week now that throughout the West, the far right and the far left seem destined to clash. Given a disturbing confluence of recent events, those protesters in their fluorescent yellow vests might be canaries, and their movement the first, acute fissure of a bigger, more chaotic political and social crisis. This conflict has been rising across the globe for years and is now coming to a head in several coinciding events, but we haven’t been able to recognize it for what it is: a populist identity crisis that could remake, or unmake, Western democracy.
A revolution in France would be the first signature on a permission slip for the same to happen elsewhere. Here’s what might come next, and why it might come here.
The yellow vest protesters largely identify with the country’s working and middle classes. Sound familiar? Of course it does, and that hasn’t been lost on right-wing pundits. But unlike the MAGAs and Brexiteers , the yellow vest protesters aren’t right-wingers, and their movement isn’t thin cover for racist bile. They’re angry with French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist, pro-business policies, which have continually come at the expense of the working class. That anger, which has simmered since Macron’s candidacy, broke through last month in response to announced fuel tax hikes that would have hurt citizens in smaller towns and the countryside who must drive to work, and which wouldn’t be felt in cities such as Paris, home to the government and other elites.
This has nothing to do with Marxism or perceived failures of a liberal or socialist experiment.
Much like with the Tea Party in the U.S., the yellow vest protests first took the form of leaderless, quasi-coordinated regional demonstrations in villages and small cities around the country. Unlike the Tea Party, however, they soon fed into full-on riots that led to fires and violent confrontations with police in the streets of wealthy Paris neighborhoods. Several hundred people were injured, and police arrested thousands. Last Friday the movement scored a victory when Macron announced he was canceling the tax increase, but if the depth of the movement’s grievances wasn’t clear before, it now should be. After all, no fire is about gasoline.
To be clear, the Macron government doesn’t behave anything like the Marxist/socialist French cliche that lazy American conservatives so often fall back on, and which President Trump himself still seems to erroneously believe.
Not to belabor the point, but this isn’t a revolt against the left. It’s a revolt from the left. Macron isn’t a radical liberal. He’s a neoliberal: a former investment banker pragmatic, a pro-business, free-market centrist a step or two to the right of Obama. Far from a Marxist, Macron has openly mocked union demonstrators, calling them “cynical” and “lazy.”
So this has nothing to do with “cultural Marxism” or socialism or a welfare state, or a rejection of their specific platforms, such as resistance to the Paris Agreement or broad efforts to fight climate change generally.
In fact, the yellow vests want to fight climate change. They just don’t want the little guys to bear the financial burden for fixing the damage that industrial and corporate practices have caused. They hold Macron in contempt not because he’s a liberal elitist, but because of his elitism: His perceived disdain for the lower and working classes that has manifest itself in free-market policies that, if unchecked, would treat them fairly cruelly. And here we begin to see the problem.
The maddening part for liberals is that over the last decade or so the right wing has used racial resentment to usurp the working class. We can see this clearly in the United States, though it’s plain elsewhere, with Brexit being maybe the most salient example. But historically the left has always been the champion of labor, of the worker, of the poor. This isn’t purely out of altruism: When everyone does better, everyone does better. The right, though, has been the champion of the corporation, of the conservative, of the fearful, of the white racists. And it just so turns out that many white, working-class people are also fearful racists who can be conned into supporting a conservative, pro-corporate platform, and here’s where you see the far left wing hooking around to meet the far right.
We can, of course, see this plainly in the yellow vests, who for instance want their government to spend more to fight climate change and promote tax cuts that favor the working class. The simple solution: Put the burden on the companies. But it’s easy to see how such message can be co-opted and perverted by right-wingers, mangled to the point of meaninglessness. Small wonder, then, that the Russian disinformation machine has seized on the chaos in France.
But we also see it here in the U.S. This conflict—which expresses itself in part as the Obama-Trump voters who have so captivated New York Times reporters—is actually an identity crisis. Where does left meet right? Where do they break?
It’s clear that, in economic terms, left does meet right. We all recognize a massive rift in inequality. We all recognize things aren’t right. But if we don’t recognize that as a common and primary issue, however, we become vulnerable to exploitation. Hence the corporate usurpation of the “working class” in the MAGA and Brexit movements, where what political leaders and pundits pitched as an economic revolution was really a social wedge driven for their own selfish political and economic motives. It’s a masterful move, but when the reality of economic consequences rocks voting blocs that have been quietly but effectively divided along cultural lines, we have the makings of political upheaval on a global scale.
This is why it’s no coincidence Trump and those on the right have twisted the yellow vest economic narrative into a cultural one, invoking climate change and France’s reputation as a socialist (somehow this becomes “Marxist”) country when right now that couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that as societies further polarize, right-wing populism of the MAGA/Brexit variety inevitably manifests as authoritarian fascism—which has already happened here in the U.S. It’s also why a wave of fascist authoritarianism broke almost all at once in the 20th century with the advent of World War II. Revolutions are contagious.
But do we have the makings for this today? Well, if the violence of this new French revolution continues, demagogues such as Trump and Putin will seize on it and twist the narrative so it resonates with their blocs. They’ve already done that. It coincides with the U.K. now formally leaving the E.U., the recent flagrant Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the end of Merkel’s tenure in Germany, where we’ve recently seen the troubling re-emergence of right-wing fascists and neo-Nazi groups. If the cracking continues and individual countries experience their own revolutions and internal fractures, these nations will turn inward to either resolve or assert central control over those problems. There will then be little interest or resources to keep our commitments to the Western democratic order.
This problem is, of course, exacerbated by the way we exchange information, in bite-sized social posts and headlines that spread at fiber-optic speed and cannot allot for nuance or context, let alone explain it. This is also a contagion. A contagion of confusion. So if there comes a reckoning to the Western order—including here in the U.S., given the all-but-inevitable intractable constitutional crisis the Trump presidency is about to precipitate—it won’t be about what we think it’s about. It will be because we’re confused.