PARIS — From the moment the French government canceled its planned fuel tax hike in the face of massive protests, it was obvious that the move would be perceived as inadequate, insignificant, and above all incapable of having any calming effect. Honor to whom honor is due: the Yellow Vests claim to be an expression of the sovereign people. But they now bear a heavy responsibility.
For starters, they must announce a moratorium on demonstrations and blockades for a period long enough to accommodate the dialogue proposed by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, if not longer. In particular, they should renounce the much-touted December 8 “Act IV” of the movement, brewing on Facebook since Saturday evening, which everyone expects to be more violent, destructive, and tragic than the preceding installments. There have been enough deaths, injuries, and damage (including to some of the most famous monuments in Paris).
If the Yellow Vests decide the machine they have unleashed has overtaken them, and they can no longer stop Act IV, they must be prepared during the protests to help the police flush out the violent “brown vests” who will be circulating among them. Because the wreckers of the far right and far left will surely reappear to vandalize, terrorize, and desecrate; it is up to the Yellow Vests to say once again, this time as if they really mean it: Not in our name. Whether the Yellow Vests declare a moratorium or continue to protest, nothing would serve their cause better than to dissociate themselves – decisively and unambiguously – from all the political profiteers who would capitalize on their misery.
The cast of opportunists is well known. Here is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who, having finished fourth in the 2017 presidential election won by Emmanuel Macron, is desperately seeking a new following. There is François Ruffin, the leader of the anti-austerity movement Nuit debout, with his irresponsible anti-republican calls of “Resign, Macron!” And over there is Marine Le Pen, oscillating comically between taking pride in and repenting her call to occupy the Champs Élysées last Saturday, thereby becoming accountable for the worst of what was said and done there.
And there the intellectuals who, in the manner of Luc Ferry and Emmanuel Todd, suggest that it was perhaps not “by chance” that the wreckers had such an easy time approaching, storming, and sacking the Arc de Triomphe. Such rhetoric lays the worst of all traps for a popular movement: the trap of conspiratorial thinking.
In other words, the Yellow Vests are at a crossroads. Either they will be bold enough to stop and take the time they need to get organized, following a path not unlike that of Macron’s own La République en Marche !, which, in hindsight, might appear to be the Yellow Vests’ first-to-arrive twin. Macron’s movement, too, had right and left wings. And it knew that it was a new political body, engaging in a dialogue or even a showdown that would lead to an honest reckoning with poverty and the high cost of living. If the Yellow Vests build a movement that rises to the height of Macron’s, it may end up writing a page in the history of France.
Or the Yellow Vests may turn out to lack that boldness and settle for the paltry pleasure of being seen on television. They will allow themselves to become intoxicated by the sight of luminaries and experts of la France d’en haut (elite France) seeming to eat from their hands and hanging on their every word.
But if the Yellow Vests allow passionate hate to win out over genuine fraternity and choose wrecking over reforming, they will bring only chaos, not improvement, to the lives of humble and vulnerable people. They will careen off into the darkest side of the political night, and end up in the dustbin of history, where they can rub elbows with those other yellows, the early-twentieth-century “Yellow Socialists” of the proto-fascist syndicalist Pierre Biétry.
The Yellow Vests must choose: democratic re-invention, or an updated version of the national socialist leagues; a will to repair, or the urge to destroy. The decision will hinge on the historic essence of the movement – whether its reflexes are good or bad, and whether, in the final analysis, it possesses political and moral courage.
So the ball is in the Yellow Vests’ court. They have the initiative as much as Macron does. Will they say, “Yes, we believe in republican democracy?” And will they say it loud and clear, without equivocation? Or will they place themselves in the tradition of paranoid nihilism and pollute their ranks with the political vandals that France still produces in abundance?
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, and most recently, The Genius of Judaism.