THE LEADERLESS REVOLT. Gilles Kepel is a political scientist and Arabist, a professor at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and at Università della Svizzera Italiana.  His focus is on the current geopolitical configurations and conflicts in the Middle East Mediterranean region, and on the impact of jihadi terror attacks on French and European soil.  

Professor, could you have predicted the rise of the ‘gilets jaunes’ (‘yellow vests’) movement in France?

Not really, because everybody of my specialty in France was focussing on the banlieue phenomenon of troubled suburban communities.  We knew that there was resentment among the lower middle classes from European stock who did not vote, did not participate in significant street protests and were not unionised.  It looked like they were voiceless.  They had developed a feeling of being caught between the anvil of the sons of immigrants taking a job at any price and the hammer of the globalised rich and the ruling class.  They resented the fact that wages were not rising but taxes were, and were being redistributed to the banlieue people to keep them quiet.

What is the major reason that allowed this discontent to create a protest movement?

As I said, these elements were felt but not voiced, but the new orientation of Facebook, and the reforms that Zuckerberg made after all the criticism against it, allowed them to create groups of local people with the same protest views.  One cluster of people decided to block their crossroads, and this spread the grass roots movement among Facebook users from area to area.  They found a symbol in the yellow vest, which in France it is compulsory to have in your car for insurance reasons and is also worn by whoever works outside and has to be visible.  The ‘yellow vests’ crystallised the symbolic identity of a driver who is outside, and they also look great on TV because they are fluorescent and have a visible impact that magnifies the presence of fifteen people wearing them.  Initially the number of demonstrators was not large, but they were very visible.

“The vocabulary of the revolt owes a lot to the banlieue riots and the jihad movement in France.”

The destructive violence of the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement is evident in the heart of Paris. Author: LNicollet

In the precedent revolutionary events, from the French Revolution to the May ’68 events, there was always a clearly distinguished group of leaders.  How come the ‘gilets jaunes’ do not have a leader?

Because of the Facebook phenomenon.  This is a digital grass roots movement that was able to organise a middle class group that is not organised, unionised or belonging to gangs.  They crystallised around the symbol of the ‘yellow vest’ which shows that you have a car because the first protest was against the rise of the taxes on diesel.  It was taxed far less, but because it pollutes more than gasoline the originally lower taxes on diesel were made equal.  People who bought cheap houses with a piece of land twenty years ago and wanted to raise their children outside of the banlieues need cars and don’t have a big income.  When the taxes on diesel rose they felt stuck.  Some were spending a quarter of their wages on gas, which was unbearable.  

Do you think that, like in May ’68, revolution will gain ground in this increasing populistic wind that is blowing all over the world since the Brexit vote and with the election of Trump and Salvini and so forth?

It is clearly something that looks like Salvini or Trump even though there is not the strong anti-immigrant component that you have in La Lega or with Trump, but when they came to Paris two social groups started to coalesce in the demonstrations: the impoverished white middle class and the people from the banlieues, the sons of immigrants from the popular classes who joined them and attacked buildings and burnt cars and used the street violence vocabulary like in 2005.  But in 2005 it was only the banlieues that were burning, they did not dare come into Paris.  Now they are coming into Paris on the heels of the yellow vests.  Because my face is known from TV I myself was almost lynched by a mob of very violent gangs breaking windows and not even wearing yellow vests.

Where do you think they are going and what will eventually make them stop?

Macron is trying to divide the coalition between the lower middle class Europeans and the banlieue people.  He is against the violence, and the people are fed up with the violence.  It only takes place on Saturdays, not every day, because those guys keep on working during the week and Saturday is the day off.  It is the shopping day when shop keepers make much of their income, particularly in December.  The retail sector is down 30 -50% as a result of the violence.  This is leading to a significant reaction among those who sympathise in principle but feel that the consequences of the violence are unbearable.  It is bringing them to the brink of bankruptcy, because they have bought a lot of stock that they cannot sell.

“No one is going shopping any more on Saturdays because of the violence.”

Do you think that the general discontent of a certain kind of low income/middle class people has somehow been manipulated by the extreme Right and Left wing party leaders in order to damage the image of President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected with a new party facing against the old and established political parties?

In a way they are doing what Macron did.  This impoverished lower middle class that was never visible and has no representatives have invented a new type of protest.  Their parliament is 24 hour TV.  It is a digital agora with no leader.  Most are very sincere in the claims that they cannot feed their children, it is too expensive, but most are totally unable to articulate a political discourse.  Those who can are former extreme Left or extreme Right militants, but for the time being they have not managed to capture the dynamics.  Some of the extreme leaders tried to demonstrate with them, but with not much success.  In France there is no leader with the charisma of a Salvini or a Trump.

In the eyes of the world President Macron represented a hope that democracy and European values would prevail over extreme Right and fascist resurgence in France and several other European countries.  Do you think that his image has been undermined and that he has been baffled?

There is no doubt that he has been badly damaged.  This is a big problem because we need his stimulus to take the lead and keep the European Union afloat, to have a strong foreign policy, and to have a European military because the Atlantic is widening and America is not interested any more.  NATO is fragmented and Turkey is buying missiles from Russia.  We need a strong European, unified response to the chaos of the Middle East.  This is detrimental compared to the image of France when Macron was elected, but I am not sure the ‘gilets jaunes’ will continue to have much success.  The impoverished lower middle class people are losing so much money, because of the violence no one is going shopping on Saturdays any more.

Do you think that in these gatherings that bring French people from very different ends of the political spectrum together there is the narcissistic desire somehow to become the person at the centre of the world’s attention?

Yes, and more of a problem is that they have no leaders.  This movement is engaged in a process of demonstrations that is not part of a negotiation.  The movement has no specified claim, so when one claim is satisfied they will jump to another.  And now that the petrol and diesel taxes have been suppressed France will probably not keep to the 3% budget deficit limit in the EU, so Macron’s credibility will quickly erode vis-a vis Germany.

In your experience do you think that this is a temporary explosion of hate and despair by the ‘gilets jaunes’ against the symbol of power, Mr Macron, or are these symptoms of a new kind of French Revolution, one without Robespierre in a modern world dominated by the internet?

It is a minority group that is not organised.  They have cardboard guillotines with Macron’s head on it and there are these symbols.  The rich were excepted in the tax system, because for the rich the name of the game was to move out of France, so it was decided that those who came back and invested in the industrial network would not pay taxes.  It was hoped that the way for the people to accept that was that the rich investing in France would create more jobs and more money, but this has not yet happened.  Therefore there is a big resentment against the tax system, saying that the lower middle classes are taxed extremely but do not benefit from the returns.  People have to pay more and more for the education and health systems which were free, but although there is sympathy for them now they are unable to coalesce a significant majority.

Do you think that the ‘gilets jaunes’ can be described as a French version of the 5 Star and the Lega Nord parties taking power in Italy, of the Nazism coming back in Hungary, the fascism in Poland, extreme right parties gaining ground in several other countries including Austria, Holland, Spain, and Sweden?

The far Right and the far Left are trying to build on the movement, but they do not have a mobilising capacity among the ‘gilets jaunes’.

Do you think that on the eve of the European Parliament elections all this is going to completely change the Western world?

This is the main problem.  France was seen as the bulwark against Brexit and so forth, but now we risk an anti-European majority at the European level, which would be the end of Europe as we know it.

Rioters in Paris running from tear gas.  Author: Olivier Ortelpa

The ‘gilets jaunes’ can make their presence very visible. Author:Obier

Making the ‘gilets jaunes’ revolt felt on the roads. Author: Jean-Paul Corlin

There have been arson attacks on cars in Paris over the years. This one dates to 2005. Author: A.J.

‘Gilets jaunes’ graffiti on a bank in Paris. Author:Thomon

The front cover of Professor Gilles Kepel’s most recent book. Image: Francesca Mantovani © Éditions Gallimard

“Without reform of the EU I am very pessimistic about its capacity to hold.”

Is there a possible comparison with historical precedent periods, or are you among those who say that history never repeats itself?

It’s in between.  There are elements you use to understand the present, but every time it is new.  In the French case the symbols of protest like the guillotine are not realistic, but in the banlieues in 2005 car burning was used, and two years ago the jihadists did not hesitate to kill for their claims.  That legitimised the use of violence in some minds, it was acclimated into the European public fear.  The vocabulary of this revolt owes a lot to the banlieue riots and the jihad movement in France.  We still live with their trauma.

Do you think that terrorists will take advantage of this?

My students and I monitor their websites and they are pleased when they see that there is no European consensus.  This is the fragmentation they are looking for.  In the French election they hoped that the racist Marine Le Pen would win so they could tell the people in the banlieues that they had nothing to do with the majority.  Anything that breaks society apart is appreciated by terrorists, in order to push their own agenda.

How do you see the future of France and Europe?

I have just published a book titled Sortir du Chaos: Les crises en Méditerranée et au Moyen-Orient where I tried to analyse what is happening in the Middle East after the Arab upheavals which plunged themselves and also us into chaos.  One of the products of the Libyan and Syrian immigration flux is the consequent victory of Salvini and the AfD.  There is a big earthquake in the world system that was not anticipated. 

Now we blame Macron, we didn’t think there would be Brexit, we didn’t think Trump would be elected.  Why was none of this predicted?

There is an ancien régime feeling in Europe.  We are on the eve of a major change.  Will the EU be able to resist and to be resilient?  The Brussels system has to be very deeply reformed.  It is resented because money is wasted by a central system of bureaucracy which is not accountable to the people.  Without reform of the EU I am very pessimistic about its capacity to hold.

Will democracy shift into the temptation of authoritarianism?

Look at Russia and Turkey, and their capacity to influence democratic systems.  Look at the investigation into how Russia influenced Trump’s election, and in Germany how the Turkish government puts pressure on the elected body.  The capacity of democracies to deal with states in their neighbourhoods means that democracy is now shrinking.  This is a major issue for Europeans.

The ‘gilets jaunes’ has no leader like Salvini or Trump.  Will they find one, or would having a leader end the movement?

Facebook and 24 hour news on TV amplifies their real strength in the digital world.  Their strength is not great.  Yes, they are strong on the cross roads, and some people on their heels use violence, and this is how they obtained what they wanted to an extent.  Macron had to give 10 billion Euros to them which is not nothing.

What is your synthesis?

The ‘gilets jaunes’ are a leaderless movement boosted by Facebook and satellite TV.  The question for them is how to have a wider social base, which for the moment they do not have.  Without leaders they are not able to expand socially, therefore they will not be able to last, and the violence is to their detriment.

Is there a connection between the events in Strasbourg and the Gilets Jaunes, and is France now in constant danger of violence?

The Strasbourg attack was performed by a petty criminal from Algerian descent who became close to Islamist ideology in prison.  Jihadi websites in French have praised the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement (in spite of its anti-immigrant overtones) because they believe it breaks down French society, demonstrates the fallacy of democracy and opens deep cracks leading to the civil war they want to wage in Europe to build Islamic enclaves and finally spread their worldwide caliphate .  Also attacks against Christmas markets (already targeted in the same city of Strasbourg in 2000 and in Berlin two years ago) are resilient because it aims at an “infidel” feast and you find alcohol and pork in them. Though the first victim was a Muslim from Afghan descent who had fled the Taliban and opened a garage in Strasbourg.

Do you think the events in Strasbourg are a symbolic attack on the European Union?

I don’t think the EU was a target – rather Strasbourg banlieues are a hotbed of salafism and radicalism and many people travelled to and from Syria and Iraq from there.