Context — December 11, 2018, 12:49 pm

Who Are Those Damned Yellow French?

“Who, save for the little barons of Wall Street, believes in the progressive virtues of capitalism?”

Every French citizen knows this story by heart. On July 14, 1789, King Louis XVI, exhausted after a day spent hunting, was awakened in the middle of the night by the Duke of La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, one of the great names of the French nobility, who was also acquainted with progressive ideas. The duke told the king about what had just happened in Paris, summarizing the storming of the Bastille. When the king reacted to the news as if it were another banal rebellion, the duke corrected him, saying, “No, your majesty, this is a revolution!”

The Gilets Jaunes movement is not the same as the French Revolution, and it has different stakes. France is no longer a kingdom beset by food shortages and sluggish industry (which nevertheless allocated its resources to help win the American Revolutionary War by sending its army and navy across the Atlantic). French agricultural products now feed half of Europe, and French companies produce the biggest and fastest commercial airplanes in the world; they launch the biggest cruise ships, and install the fastest trains. France has won the political struggles of Louis XVI’s era. For the past two centuries, our country has had a parliamentary system inspired by the British model, a framework that serves as the basis of all democracies except for the United States. The French Declaration of Rights, ratified the day after the storming of the Bastille, was taken up almost word for word in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So then why are these yellow-vested French protesters melodramatically bringing up 1789? Why are they talking about the Duke of La Rochefoucauld?

It is almost impossible for a French person to explain to an outsider the imprint history has left on the mentality of the oldest country in the world. Spanning fifteen hundred years, our history shapes our thinking much more than the memorial commemorations programmed by the government that try to substitute this past with their political vacuity. This is why the French compare Emmanuel Macron to Louis XVI. The resemblance is so obvious to them that it cannot be avoided. Caricatures abound, and with them insults and threats. For certain Gilets Jaunes, “Macron, step down” has turned into “Emmanuel to the guillotine!” This will never happen, of course, but no other president of the French Republic has ever been hated so much. As one deputy put it, a rage has taken hold of the French, and whatever their social class or political opinions, they’re mad.

How did we get here? It’s true that no one in France ever believed in the allegedly positive characteristics of the immature, uncultivated president. But the ballots talked. Macron was barely, just barely elected, but elected all the same by the representative majority—which is not the case with the minority who voted Trump into office. Yet there is more than universal suffrage, there are also natural rights. Among the four most important rights guaranteed by the Declaration of 1789, besides liberty, property, and security, resistance to tyranny is also mentioned. It’s a more sophisticated concept than that of the right to insurgency, one that was invented by British jurists. Even though Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence tried hard to show that the British Parliament was a den of dictators, he would refer back to the right to insurgency all the same. The French, on the other hand, do not have to prove anything in order to take to the streets if they feel they are governed unfairly; once they believe themselves to be subjugated, they revolt. It’s a constitutional right. Emmanuel Todd said, “Only France could do this. France is the only country in the world that could do something like this!” The Italians have a phrase: Furia francese. French fury.

But besides the forced comparison to 1789, who are these Gilets Jaunes? Who are these people supported by 85 percent of their compatriots, despite the concomitant violence of their movement—or maybe even because of it, given that it has brought back revolutionary fantasies? At the beginning, analysts were cautious; the Gilets Jaunes were almost exclusively salaried employees from the private and public sectors, independent artisans, and small business owners, both men and women—but without a constituency of French people from immigrant, Middle Eastern, Asian, or African families. At a time when both the Left and the Right are actively pursuing the vote of these minority groups, this lack of representation partially explains politicians’ delayed engagement with the situation. Except that in this case, the Gilets Jaunes accurately represented the demographic reality in France. These minority groups are important, and the borders have opened, but the white middle class remains in the overwhelming majority here, making up about 80 percent of electors. Politicians anticipated the transformation of this country into a multiethnic and multicultural society, and with it the demographic and electoral redistribution, maybe a little too fast. So what started as a fiscal (as opposed to identitarian) demand became innately political. It also became fundamentally conservative in the sense that, at the end of decades of forced assimilation into a globalized world that never suited the French, the Gilets Jaunes have clearly expressed their will to protect the values on which their nation was built.

If we are exceptional and unique as country—“an important and useful thing,” as Charles de Gaulle once said—it is because French identity has taken on multiple forms. If there have been five or six different iterations of the French nation since the invasion of Caesar’s Roman legions, none of them completely identical but also not altogether different, there are therefore unwavering French principles, principles that are now in danger.

It is not necessary to list them here. I will just remind—or perhaps teach—my American friends that the French define themselves, and have always defined themselves, even under the ancien régime [Old Regime], as citizens (or subjects of the king), and not by their social, cultural, religious or ethnic identities. In faithful keeping with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that the simultaneously political and social man loses his essence, the French are impervious to all post-colonial, gender or racial theories, most of which have arrived from America. Their Enlightenment philosophers raised the issue of natural differences in order to ensure that they would not translate into legal inequalities. This is the exact opposite of your Declaration of 1776, which postulates the existence of intrinsic rights, but is now used to uphold a completely laughable egalitarianism. Moreover, the French cannot give up the other basis of their culture—that of laïcité [or secularism], which outsiders do not understand. The French would not know how to accept the reasonable compromises the Canadian prime minister believes to be so important, this communitarianism in a regime of exceptions for so-called religious freedom that has been proposed as an alternative to the principles of 1789. Religion in France, on the other hand, is just an opinion like any other, nothing more, nothing less. It is freely disputed, rebutted, and caricatured, and does not have the right to special treatment. For over a century the French state has even actively opposed the Roman Catholic Church.

The France that believes in political voluntarism, in solidarity, in the sovereignty and free will of its citizens, has from the outset been recalcitrant to economic liberalism. Americans also do not understand us in this respect. The French are capitalists, and have for centuries traversed the globe with their banks and commercial enterprises. But they do not believe in capitalism’s ideological foundations. They were among the first to experience its problems. In 1775, at the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign, his minister, Turgot, did away with the price regulations of wheat, which served as the staple of most French subjects’ diets. In keeping with his status as a capitalist ideologue, Turgot liquidated the government’s reserve wheat stocks in order to guarantee the functioning of the market’s invisible hand. Of course the price of wheat rose immediately, then the price of bread; the riots that followed were violently suppressed by the liberal government. Since this event—which corresponds with the American Revolutionary War—the French have been cured of these grand discourses on the benefits of the market. If they accept the market, it is because it has worked remarkably efficiently for the past two centuries. But since 2008 it has been broken.

What remains striking is the similarity between Turgot’s Flour War of 1775 and the Gilets Jaunes crisis in 2018. Both consist of the same obtuse ideology of our governments, the same certitude with which our elites think themselves to be proponents of a revealed and unequivocal truth, archangels of a make-believe “natural law”; they maintain their clear conscience with a repressive compassion that undermines the so-called freeloaders and their daily concerns, such as putting food on the table for their children. In 2018, these disenfranchised individuals understand nothing of the “wonders” of globalization, in the same way that in 1775 they did not understand the “miracles” of a laissez-faire, free-market economy. And they still want the power to freely cast their ballots and have their say in their country’s governance, no matter if this goes against what the economists advised back in 1775. (In his lengthy chapter on riots in The Old Regime and the Revolution, Tocqueville called such financial theorists “the Cult.”)

At the end of the day, these two seemingly different uprisings are the same.

“Is this a revolution?” Emmanuel Macron asks the man with the briefcase of nuclear codes. “Not yet, Mister President, this is just a revolt.” But the whole world is looking on. André Malraux [the French Minister of Culture from 1958 to 1969] once said that “since Britain is great enough for itself, France will be great enough for everyone else.” These questions the Gilets Jaunes raise—aren’t they legitimate everywhere, even in the United States? Who, save for the little barons of Wall Street, believes in the progressive virtues of capitalism? Who wouldn’t want to participate with these damned French in pillaging banks today just as they burned their lords’ castles down in 1789, while elsewhere those who believe themselves to be in power start to worry about the possibility of contagion?

Charles de Gaulle frequently evoked the thousand-year-old pact France maintained with freedom in the world. In 1940, those who joined him in the Resistance in London called themselves the “Français Libres.” In English, the “Free French.”

A redundancy.

Share
Single Page

More from Jean-Philippe Immarigeon:

From the February 2014 issue

Dissolve Congress

A cure for constitutional crisis

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today