The French "Yellow Vest" Movement and the (Current) Failure of Representative Democracy

December 3, 2018 1:00 PM
Photo Credit: 
REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

Images of gilets jaunes in France—so named for the yellow vests they wear—have flooded news broadcasts in recent weeks. To trace the deep roots of their protests, one has to go back to the end of communism and the failure of central planning as an alternative to the market economy.

Up until then, central planning represented for some the hope that there was a more humane alternative to capitalism, one in which there was less inequality and less insecurity. Politics could be organized from left to right, along mostly economic lines, with central planning at one end and the market economy at the other.  The communist party stood at one extreme, then the socialist party, then (rather timidly in France) the more market-oriented center right parties at the other end.  Political life was fairly well organized, and parties and unions played their role as conduits for their constituency's preferences.

However, with the end of communism, it became clear that there was no alternative, only a muddle between market intervention and free markets. So long as growth was strong, and all boats were indeed lifted, the problem was manageable. Then growth slowed down, and inequality and insecurity became more salient, with no simple solution in sight.

The center-right and center-left parties tried their best to manage, but their efforts were not good enough. Sarkozy tried reforms but failed. Hollande, his successor, had a more realistic agenda but did not achieve much. Unemployment remained high and taxes increased. People increasingly felt that the traditional parties did not improve their lot, nor did they represent them.

Then came Macron, who correctly pointed out that the left/right distinction did not make much sense anymore, and he won by occupying the large middle. In doing so, he tore the traditional center left and right parties to pieces, leaving only the extreme right and the extreme left as alternatives.

In the process, he may have made the political system worse. As the economy has not improved much yet, people, unhappy with the lack of results, do not have the traditional parties to turn to. Some have joined the extreme left or the extreme right. More have become skeptical of any representation, be it parties or unions, and have taken to the streets. Thus the gilets jaunes was born, a spontaneous and unorganized response, a form of direct democracy.

But unorganized direct democracy does not work. In a country of 65 million people, ancient Athens' agora-style democracy cannot work. We have seen this in the last three weeks. There is no coherent voice or message emerging from the movement: The state cannot provide more public services and simultaneously lower taxes. In the streets, the movement cannot avoid being hijacked, to its dismay, by anarchists or vandals. It is going nowhere.

The challenge to the government and the political class is immense. If I am right, the sources of the problem are old and deep. The government must convince people that it is hearing them, while making clear that it cannot deliver the impossible. And the opposition must avoid playing with fire: Unorganized anger can lead to chaos.