Is Past Prologue? History and the Gilets Jaunes

They flutter behind you, your possible pasts
Some brighteyed and crazy, some frightened and lost
A warning to anyone still in command
Of their possible future, to take care
Roger Waters

While comparisons between the Gilets Jaunes and the French May 1968 protests may seem obvious they are also misleading. The Parisian students were fighting against conservative social and sexual mores while the Yellow Vests are more concerned with high taxes and stagnant wages. The 1968 protests began with student demonstrations that later spread to trade unions and workers’ parties. The Yellow Vests are drawn largely from France’s rural, working and middle classes. And while the 1968 protests split France between Gaullists and Marxists, the Gilet Jaunes have received support from both the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and Eco-Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, If we wish to understand the Yellow Vests in a proper historical context we might examine other mid-20th century European uprisings.

With Stalin’s 1953 death, the Soviet’s iron grip on its satellite countries loosened a bit. In Hungary the unpopular hardliner Makyas Rakosi was replaced by reformer Imre Nagy. Political prisoners were freed and restrictions on the press loosened. But after Nagy declared Hungary was leaving the Warsaw Pact, Soviet troops invaded in November 1956. When the smoke cleared some 3,000 Hungarians were dead, 200,000 driven into exile, and 350 (including Nagy) executed by Soviet officials.

The Yellow Vests have pressed from the beginning for Macron’s resignation. Should they sweep into power a more populist ruler – one who might withdraw France from the unpopular EU – it is likely we will see a barrage of propaganda about “Fascist France” and the need to liberate them from “tyranny.” Already Adam Gopnik tells New Yorker readers that “the gilets jaunes seem more likely to become the French face of Trumpism—or of Orbanism, or even of Putinism—than of a more tolerant future” and warns of “indigenous French anti-Semitism.” The fact that France has nuclear weapons might serve as a deterrent from foreign intervention. It might also provide a convenient excuse to overthrow “Nazis” before they plunge the world into an atomic conflagration.

While French students were rioting in 1968 Paris, their colleagues to the East were enjoying a “Prague Spring.” Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek’s “Socialism with a Human Face” encouraged greater participation in political affairs and toleration dissenting journalists and academics. But Dubcek’s reforms only whetted the population’s appetite for more freedom in Czechoslovakia – and in neighboring Soviet satellites. On August 21 Soviet tanks rolled in, meeting only passive resistance. Dubcek was removed, his reforms were repealed, and a peaceful revolution came to an abrupt end.

Yellow Vest protests have spread to Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. Their popularity could well trigger a harsh response. But those who take their cues from Brezhnev may want to consider the costs of an intervention. The Czechoslovakia invasion was enormously unpopular in the West and led many European intellectuals to turn away from Marxist-Leninist thought altogether. It also created an enormous network of dissidents communicating amongst themselves and organizing what would 21 years later become a successful “Velvet Revolution.” Shutting down the Yellow Vests by force might work in the short term, only to lead to far greater difficulties in the future.

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev found himself ruling over a Soviet Union plagued by a stagnant economy and overextended military. Looking to Dubcek’s “Socialism with a Human Face,” he implemented a series of social reforms that became known as Glasnost (political openness) and Perestroika (economic restructuring). Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and reduced their military presence in the Warsaw Pact nations. But rather than saving the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s actions led to its collapse. In late November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. No longer held together by brute force, in 1991 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved.

If Macron concedes to the Yellow Vests and resigns, his successor will likely take a more conciliatory approach. This may well provoke rather than quell further unrest, which may spread to other countries unhappy with EU Neoliberalism. Should France join Britain in leaving the Union, it is likely other countries will seek to follow suit as the European Union joins the League of Nations in the dustbin of history. This would definitely lead to short-term economic and social distress, and to a power vacuum which could be filled by leaders from anywhere on the political spectrum.

The Warsaw Pact lasted thirty-six years (1955-1991). The European Union begins with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Like Eastern Europe in 1981, EU nations are saddled by an unpopular bureaucracy which represses its citizens and which enriches the leadership at their expense. But while the Soviet Union had a large military, the EU lacks a standing army. Should its hold over member nations crumble, it would have to instigate conflict by indirect means or engage in economic warfare rather than the old-fashioned and more immediately effective kind. It is uncertain if the Gilet Jaunes will be the spark which ignites a fire or a mere historical footnote. But whatever happens, they have revealed deep social discontent which will not be ignored in the months and years to come.