France, unusually among developed nations, maintains a mechanised infantry regiment among its internal security forces. Technically, they are not police as the gendarmerie jealously maintains its military status. In any case, they are there, based in a weird Paris suburb whose only inhabitants are various uniformed organisations and, once a year, the arms fair. The vehicles themselves are in the protected-mobility class familiar from Iraq, not that it will stop anyone calling them tanks. The mission is, well, to defend the republic against its citizens in the supreme moment. Really. And, well, here’s Johnny!
While we’re all waiting, here’s one of several things claiming to be a list of demands or a policy agenda from the gilets jaunes.
Supposedly official demands from #GiletsJaunes, including rising minimum wage by 40%, defaulting on sovereign debt ("already repaid several times"), exiting the EU, suppressing speed cameras on roads, banning plastic, weakening pharmaceutical companies, and exiting NATO pic.twitter.com/zHv0ok8pK6
— Agathe Demarais (@AgatheDemarais) December 7, 2018
This may have been fed into the movement by failed Frexit presidential candidate François Asselineau but it bears comparison with previous statements from supposed spokespeople, and even the point that it’s something an ultra-fringe party came up with is interesting.
What it reminds me of, most of all, is one of UKIP’s manifestos from, say, 2010. These tended to contain pretty much everything, tout et rien, a bucket of individual resentments, pet projects, and want-wants. Obviously, leaving the EU would be in there, as were some recognisably reactionary proposals about immigration. But there would also be proposals for the construction of 20 new nuclear power stations and a third aircraft carrier, massive social spending, and a mandatory uniform for taxi drivers. This is just like that, including a whole string of enormous social spending commitments, an immediate default on the national debt, withdrawal from NATO, the EU, and French treaty commitments in Africa, the strict observation of all treaties, and the abolition of speed cameras.
Populism is the repoliticisation of the sovereign plus the rejection of method. And the wider culture is defined by the vulgar postmodernist doctrine that it’s all tropes and you can remix them as you wish and it’s all good. As Adam Elkus says:
Social media is very good at building communities around common aesthetics, especially because Database Era culture is inherently geared toward the endless acontextual re-assembling of aesthetics people like.
— 4164616d20456c6b7573 (@Aelkus) December 6, 2018
Or as I say, it’s all about those cat blindfolds. But there is a unifying theme here, and as with the UKIP manifestos, it’s a kind of non-specific, generalized extremism. A politics of interchangeable tropes must end up here. If the tropes truly are interchangeable, the only way they can get selected is salience, and that’s going to be what you get. It probably wouldn’t matter if the available pool of the discontented hadn’t been filling up for years, but then there’s this.
The lesson from the UKIP experience is that the swirling pool of the resentful could cohere, around some selection pulled out of the bucket and some leader who addressed them. However, they would not necessarily do it in any way predictable in advance.
UKIP and Nigel Farage played a much lesser role in the referendum campaign than the newly established and purely Brexit-focused Vote Leave, centred around politicians with measurable name recognition. The money went to Vote Leave, too. On the other side, although the UKIP manifesto went up to massive Keynesian reflation and technocratic construction projects and down to cabbies’ dress standards, it all faded away.
The coherence doesn’t have to be on the Right. The very incoherence of the trope bucket means almost anything can be carved out of its contents. A little later, Britain’s pool of discontent spilled across into Labour. Which makes me wonder about Manu Saadia’s theory here:
Mélenchon will be the next French President. Underneath the bravado and the verbosity he's a competent guy who knows how the government and the State works. He's far from a clown and his mentor was none other than Mitterrand himself. Méluche worships the old gangster.
— manu saadia ? (@trekonomics) December 4, 2018
There’s a while to go – plenty of time to drop embarrassing fantasies about ruling the Spanish Main in alliance with Cuba and Venezuela and make that stuff about Frexit not-happen. If you hold that 50% of the French won’t ever vote FN, your mission is to beat the best remaining political party candidate into the second round. And the evidence that this can be done today is, of course, none other than Emmanuel Macron.
In a weird way the best thing that could happen for a potential candidature coup de poing like Macron’s own would be for tomorrow to pass off only as badly as last week. Nothing would be resolved but the peak would clearly have passed. An even bigger eruption might bring about parliamentary elections, which would bring back the traditional parties in force and set up a Mitterrandian turn to the centre for the president.
Be careful with that VAB, though.