Lessons from the Yellow Vest upsurge

by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

When President Macron raised the duty on fuel, few were taken in by his pretence that the measure was primarily environmental. It was, most obviously, a regressive means of cutting the deficit in a country already suffering from double digit unemployment. Yet the policy also had a distinct spatial significance.

As many French protestors would argue, in provincial France you cannot take the Paris Metro. The policy hit low earners across the board. But it was a particularly harsh kick in the teeth to struggling residents of the villages and small towns. And it was here that the Yellow Vest upsurge really began. The spatial unevenness in France mirrors the policies of the centre against the periphery in the EU broadly. Socialists must take this seriously to confront the Europe’s liberal economic order.

The old order holds

When Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister of Greece in 2015, leftists across the continent were moved to dust off their theories of the centre and the periphery, and to apply to Europe the sort of rhetoric that, in recent times, has mostly been applied to global North-South relations. Many radical social democrats hoped that Tsipras would lead a revolt against a European economic order that was built around German exports and Southern European debt.

As it turned out, the solidarity of state-power across geographical boundaries pulled the European order together more powerfully than divergent national interests pulled it apart. Tsipras became a faithful subordinate servant of the European economic system – and proceeded to pay back debt, starve pensioners, and sell public utilities to German banks.

Across the Adriatic, Italy’s industrial capacity continued to be airlifted across the Pyrenees, largely on account of continental free trade and the single currency, whilst its nominally social-democratic government acquiesced, and continued to cut the social and individual wage in a vain attempt to restore competitiveness. Even the hard-right showboaters currently in power in Rome have shown themselves to have far more bark than bite when it comes to confronting Brussels.

The European order, then, has proven somewhat resilient to the possibility that politicians may act in what they might regard as the national interest. Yet, in France and elsewhere, we see a new spatial crack emerging in the system: namely the divergence between the vast conurbations in which a minority of the European population live, and the smaller settlements everywhere else.

Economic divergence

First, let us be clear: notwithstanding the peculiarly unappealing character of Emmanuel Macron, the tensions which have boiled over in France are distinctly European in origin. His is the third successive French government – each clad in a different colour – to try to implement a comprehensive programme aimed at breaking industrial organisation, reducing regulation, and cutting the cost of labour. And their policies are consistent with the programmes that have been implemented by nominally conservative and nominally social-democratic governments right across the Eurozone.

This is not a coincidence. When it comes to the political economy of the Eurozone, there are three basic parameters which oblige both conservative and social-democratic governments to bow down before the god of international competitiveness, and to do so at the expense of jobs and living standards. Firstly, there is Germany, Europe’s hegemon accounting for nearly a third of the entire output of the Eurozone, whose influence on the European economy has been shaped by two decades of wage restraint, rising productivity (until 2007) and therefore falling unit labour costs. In the context of a free trade area this sets the standard with which their neighbours compete, typically at the expense of the domestic working class.

The golden calf of competitiveness

Secondly there is the single currency. Governments cannot make their goods competitive (that is to say, cheaper on international markets) by reducing the value of their currency, since they do not have their own currency. Rather competitiveness must be restored at the expense of working people.

Finally, there is synchronised, Europe-wide austerity – a policy locked in, and generalised across the continent by the Stability and Growth Pact, which obliges governments across the continent to pursue policies of retrenchment. The consequent decimation of demand across the continent has inevitably led to long term mass unemployment across the Eurozone. Equally it means that countries can only hope to control unemployment by seeking to out-compete one another in a shrinking European market, rather than by boosting domestic demand.

Spatial unevenness

The impact of all of this is spatially uneven. Over the past twenty years, right across the Northern Hemisphere, jobs and capital have drained to the major urban centres. This is partly a consequence of freer and freer trade and hence over-specialisation. The sectors which remain competitive within mature capitalist democracies – such as tech and finance – are overwhelmingly located in the very biggest cities. The tendency for only a small slither of internationally competitive sectors to flourish is, meanwhile, locked in by the insulation of trade policy from popular politics. Unelected European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom is at liberty to pursue a policy of freer and freer trade, unencumbered by the interests of those who stand to lose. Meanwhile the prohibition against state aid makes impossible the sort of major industrial strategy that is necessary to achieve serious regional rebalancing.

Political effects

This spatial unevenness is visible at a political level too. Macron received 29% of the Parisian vote during the first round of the presidential election, compared with 24% nationally. The three establishment candidates (Macron plus the mainstream Conservative and Social Democratic parties) won 60% of the vote in Paris but just 45% of the vote in settlements of under 100k. We are seeing similar patterns right across Europe, as smaller towns bear the brunt of austerity and of changes to the global division of labour. Electorally, the ability of the established parties to cling to power has produced a situation akin to 17th century Europe, wherein the urban centres govern hinterlands whose populations don’t tend to vote for the people governing them.

Yet there is also a sense in which France is unusual. Across the Northern Hemisphere – from Michigan to Dresden – the radical right has often been able to outpace the left at leveraging tensions between city and town, and drawing upon the spatial contours of contemporary capitalist inequality. In France we encounter a somewhat different situation. No doubt, Marine Le Pen piled up votes in the rust belt and much of rural France. Yet it is also the case that Mélenchon won around 20% of the vote in the countryside and the small towns.

When the Yellow Vest movement began, various socialists sounded a note of caution: there was, after all, a far-right presence at numerous road-blocks. If the left had opted, on that basis, to draw a cordon sanitaire around the movement, the results would have been catastrophic. Instead, people got stuck in, and within weeks, radical, egalitarian demands had become dominant, if not absolutely hegemonic, and Yellow Vests marched arm-in-arm with the red vests of the CGT.


What does this all mean for socialists? There is, I think, an important balancing act to be undertaken. We need to avoid romantic appeals to “forgotten communities”, which too often treat neighbourhoods as though they represent shared pools of wealth, and which at worst can slip into nativism.

Yet a focus upon the “primacy of class” should not mean ignoring the particular character contemporary capitalist inequality. We need to take the geographical community seriously – if not as a natural unit of solidarity, then certainly as important determinant of somebody’s subject position in relation to the present economic order. We need to challenge both the conservative determination to let the market do its worst, and the patronising liberal warbling about the “left behind”.

Instead, let us assert that Europe’s liberal economic order has been organised in such a way as to screw over a great many people outside of the gilded spatial and sectoral citadels. Breaking a system that is built around free trade, a single currency, and prohibitions against state aid is the only basis on which we can fight for something better for people everywhere.

Originally published on 6 March 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.