As I write this, France is rocked by another extremist attack in the city of Strasbourg. With details still sketchy, news agencies are reporting that the police have launched an intense hunt to find the person who opened fire with an automatic weapon in a crowded shopping area.
France usually conjures up romantic images of opulent palaces, gourmet food, long idle chats at Parisian cafes and haute couture. Of course, the wine and the bewildering array of cheese cannot be sidelined either.
However, with social uprisings taking over Paris and other towns, France is in the headlines not for being exotic and appealing but for being the centre stage of a countrywide social movement, which will find resonance with simmering discontent among the working class people all over the globe.
The spellbinding charm of the country is overtaken by concerns that are simply not French alone.
Similar to the revolution which toppled the monarchy in 1789, this movement of the general people wearing yellow jackets and named ‘Gilet jeunes’ may not have had the weapons and the guillotine, however, the underlying anger stems from similar grievances – gaping disparity between the rich and the poor plus the perception that the Macron government is tilted towards the wealthy.
France and her curious paradox
For those who are looking at the social uprising from South Asia, the rage of the masses may appear a little odd. After all, France is a rich nation and therefore, almost everyone lives in comfort. So why bother triggering a mass movement.
Shouldn’t street battles between the police and the irate people be the exclusive right of masses in developing nations?
Well, this is where the French paradox comes in, at least that’s what I feel.
France may trigger images of overwhelming affluence, historic opulence along with the crème de a crème of fashion, in reality, the image portrayed to the world is carefully manufactured to pull tourists and often belies the staunchly socialist sentiment that the common people hold.
In fact, France is a country which has managed to make an almost perfect symbiosis between socialist views and liberal values, something that many declared socialist nations failed to achieve.
But then, it’s not a socialist country because all the glitter and glamour of Capitalism draw millions to visit France.
Interestingly, outwardly the country projects all the tell-tale signs of a thriving Capitalist nation while the heart of France seems to remain profoundly socialist.
She draws tourists in droves with a tantalizing blend of fine food, ornate architecture and eye-catching designer brands yet erupts in outrage when the government is perceived to cultivate the ‘damned aristocratic flair’.
The sentiment of 1789 lingers still
Let’s go back in history to 1789 when famine, the high price of food, a profligate monarchy, an apathetic ruling class and rising frustration over taxes to pay for futile overseas wars triggered the people to storm the Bastille and then, oust and execute the king.
Marie Antoinette, the queen, possibly never said addressing the scarcity of food: “if they can’t have bread, let them eat cake”, but the propagation of such an apocryphal line shows the perceived indifference of the ruling class towards the general people.
Revolutions happened several times more, in 1830 and 1848 with the reasons being unemployment, a high price of food, crop failure and most importantly, the feeling that the system in power is more aligned to the moneyed class and disdainful of the peasants.
Also, in 1848, only 1 per cent of people could vote, leaving out most middle-class citizens. The people regarded this as iniquitous and despotic.
By the way, in the history of revolutions in France, the word ‘peasant’ does not carry a pejorative tone, in fact, it has an empowering impact on her history, showing the honest working class person (s) rising against debauchery, dissipation and the aloofness of the rich.
France also rose in the insurrection in 1968, known as the May uprising and again this was a public outrage against consumerism, Capitalism and the growing influence of US imperialism.
At that time, France’s WW2 hero, Charles De Gaulle, who had for long been regarded as infallible, reportedly left the country secretly for a few hours.
Anyway, many believe that the May 1968 campaign had a lasting impression on French social credo for decades to come, directly influencing films, poetry, art and the overall social credo.
It won’t be wrong to say that the revolutionary zest of 1789 had never left the French. And the hatred towards anything that reeks of hauteur.
Macron is facing the ultimate disgrace in French politics – accusation of being haughty and alienated from the masses.
He may be charming, young and charismatic but at the moment, the most damning of complaints are levelled against him. No amount of smooth talking will get him out of it unless there are some massive conciliations made. And oh, he also needs to bring down that supercilious, sanctimonious gaze of his down to earth.
The price hike of fuel was never the main cause, if I am not mistaken, it was the government’s drifting away from the masses which ignited the widespread discontentment.
The lesson from this turmoil is something which many French governments learnt the hard way: never try to adopt that ‘aristocratic’ air.
The revulsion sown against the selfish landlords in the 18th century has not dissipated; it’s dormant in the blood.
Goes to show that the ‘Storm the Bastille’ spirit is ingrained in the French psyche. Funny, why despite so many instances before, governments in France still make the same mistakes.
As a journalist, I would say this is due to historical amnesia and the failure to really understand that while France as a country enjoys flaunting her historical magnificence topped with a la mode Capitalist razzmatazz, she also wants the government to have the capacity to break a bottle of wine with the common people and cut out the cheese with a pocket knife and sharejoie de vivre with the hoi polloi.
Towheed Feroze is a news editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.