As fires, tear gas and stun grenades turn Paris, the world’s most beautiful capital city, into a combat zone, the urge is strong to understand why.
Why do people take to the streets in a country whose legal system leaves plenty of room for peaceful protest? Is it really just because they don’t want to part with a few more euros to fill their cars?
In general, why do people start or join revolutions? Or why do countries go to war?
Granted, at times violence may be necessary and, if you believe Messrs Augustine, Aquinas et al, even moral.
The Greeks fighting against Xerxes, the Romans against Hannibal, anybody against the Bolsheviks or Nazis could all cite unimpeachable reasons for resorting to violence – they knew they could die, but they were certain some things were worse than death.
However, many, perhaps most, conflicts between countries or especially people within the same country lack such noble reasons. They do have plenty of noble slogans, but that’s a different thing altogether.
For example, why did American colonists rise against George III, one of history’s least tyrannical monarchs? Was it really because of taxation without representation?
But taxes (including duties on tea, that party drink so popular in Boston) were even higher in the metropolis, and many Englishmen weren’t represented either.
Moreover, directly the revolution succeeded, taxation skyrocketed. Americans then realised they didn’t like it even with representation, but it was too late to do anything about it.
If the French thought Louis XVI had scaled the heights of despotism, they were quickly disabused of that notion once their revolution conquered. They didn’t get their liberté, égalité, fraternité. They got hundreds of thousands perishing to revolutionary violence inspired by considerably less attractive desiderata.
By the same token the Russians overthrew the unquestionably tyrannical Nicholas II to hasten the advent of an earthly paradise created for the benefit of workers and peasants. However, both groups, as well as the rest of the country, were then promptly enslaved and had to die in their millions to realise how false their original slogans were, how little they had to do with real life.
And so on, so forth. Each time we look at a violent clash we wonder why it occurred – only to find as often as not that the stated reason isn’t the reason. It’s at best a pretext.
The on-going mayhem in France was supposedly inspired by public revulsion against new fuel taxes. On the face of it, that was a perfectly legitimate grievance, especially considering why those new taxes were to be introduced.
Manny Macron is wholly preoccupied with pan-European, pan-planetary and presumably pan-Galactic issues. Such lofty concerns leave him no time for tackling lowly domestic issues, such as millions of Frenchmen living from hand to mouth in la France profonde.
Whenever there’s a conflict between high and low, Manny will go high any day. Hence he’s prepared to squeeze the poor out of their cars for the sake of preserving the planet, presumably ours. I don’t care if your supermarket is 10 miles away, Jean-Pierre, he seems to be saying. Walk, it’s good for you.
Alas, people who can neither travel to a supermarket nor afford decent groceries find little consolation in how pristine the air will be in the next century.
Keep your planet, Manny, they seem to be saying. Just don’t rob us for trying to get about – and in most of France the car is the only possible transportation.
The grievance was legitimate, but the mode of its expression wasn’t. When they are unhappy with the government, poor people don’t set buildings and cars on fire, smash shop windows, deface statues – not of their own accord.
They need to be organised and led to do those things, and that’s where professional malcontents move in, those of the right, left or centre, it doesn’t really matter.
They slide over the ostensible issue and tap deep reservoirs of resentment, envy, fear, jealousy, hatred – all those maelstroms bubbling in the depths of the subterranean sulphuric swamp of the human psyche.
When thanks to their efforts an eruption occurs, the original grievance is buried underneath. No concession on the part of the government will quell the unrest, not quickly at any rate and certainly not for ever.
Having played hard to get for a couple of weeks and insisting that, unlike his predecessors, he wouldn’t surrender to violence, Manny then did just that and announced that fine, no hike in fuel tax if that’s how you want to play it.
That was missing the point. The riots had acquired a life all their own, and it was no longer about the measly extra €50 a month to fill that antediluvian Renault. “We want lower taxes tout court!” screamed the rioters, now properly primed.
However, they then contradicted themselves by demanding that the wealth tax that Manny had abolished be reinstated. Let’s remark parenthetically that in purely economic terms that measure made a lot of sense – similar steps have led to a brisker economic activity everywhere they were taken.
That’s the essence of trickle-down economics: stimulating wealth producers to produce more wealth makes everybody better off – eventually. Alas, that last word undoes all the others.
Eventually? When is that? Ten years from now? Two? To hell with that! We want to make the rich pay – now!!! (Il faut faire payer les riches – in French politics this mantra is heard more often than any other.)
Trickle down? That means the rich pissing on the poor! We want Macron’s arse (Macron, on veut ton cul)! screamed the rioters, and they didn’t mean that in the nice, Alexandre Benalla sort of way.
Nothing but a complete redistribution of wealth would do, explained the ring leaders. Now we’re talking – the language of a communist revolution, or a fascist one if you’d rather. This is where the two converge, smudging along the way all the technical differences between them.
That’s why the rioters were equally encouraged by the Trotskyist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the fascist (okay, populist) Marine Le Pen, who profess mutual hatred. But then so did Stalin and Hitler, which didn’t prevent them from amicably dividing Europe between them in 1939-1940.
It’s no use pretending that all the fun was caused by the new taxes on diesel. Manny can scream “No new diesel tax!!!” till he sounds like Luke Armstrong on a bad day, it won’t make any difference.
Revolutions, big or small, aren’t about getting what the people want. They are about smashing what the people hate. The true animus of any uprising is always negative.
Love may be inscribed on the bumper sticker, but it’s hatred that’s in the driving seat. A car thus propelled will crash sooner or later, but those who revved it up don’t care.