Do you know what the first victims of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) movement were? When, prompted by a tax on diesel, thousands of men and women emerged from nowhere last November to take over the roundabouts of France, it was a total surprise. Political leaders, journalists, sociologists – no one saw this spontaneous outbreak coming, let alone that the movement would last over two months.
Strangely, the first targets of these postmodern sans-culottes were not corporations, or public agencies, or police. They were – radar speed traps! By the end of November, the Toulouse newspaper La Dépêche du Midi reported that in just ten days more than 600 radar units had been vandalized on the roads. Some were destroyed or burned. Others were covered with paint or a simple tarpaulin. According to specialized agencies, fully two thirds of the radar units in France are currently out of service.
These insurrections on the roundabouts were described as Jacqueries, after the spontaneous and violent medieval peasant revolts which were directed against the nobility, and from which the nascent middle class quickly dissociated itself. Under the Ancien Régime, peasants and yokels were called jacques, in much the same manner as today’s new bourgeoisie 2.0 from gentrified neighbourhoods casts judgement on inhabitants of the outlying suburbs by ridiculing them as beaufs (mononcle is an equivalent term in Quebec).
At the same time, attacks on radar units evoke the distant rebellion of the first workers of the industrial age, who destroyed weaving and carding machines. Marx described these early worker mutinies, such as the Luddite movement in England in the early 19th century, at length. It was an era that, like ours, was undergoing profound changes. Laws protecting craft producers were repealed in favour of what is still called laissez-faire. In 1812, destruction of machines was a capital crime and several Luddites were hanged.
Coincidentally, the hero of French writer Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Sérotonine , makes it his duty to destroy smoke detectors wherever he goes. Two centuries separate the Luddites from the Gilets Jaunes, but is it any wonder that a movement as spontaneous and disorganized as its distant ancestor attacks radar units? These “money machines” bring in $6.5 billion to the government each year. And the primary victims are the inhabitants of these regions that have become wastelands, who because of the decline of small towns are slaves to the car.
In England, it took the Chartist movement and then the trade unions to calm the revolt against the machines, humanize work and restore dignity to the workers. Abandoned and even denigrated by the left, ignored by the unions, the Gilets Jaunes are instead reminiscent of the spontaneous, unorganized movements of the past. They are justified in feeling that their protest is a cry in the wilderness.
Some of the very first public interventions in the “great debate” that President Emmanuel Macron just launched were from mayors explaining how their small towns were being abandoned since the post offices, the savings banks and the bakeries had closed. In a country with such a rich tradition of bread, the country of the baguette, the flûte and the bâtard, even the bakery has been replaced in some villages by bread vending machines!
But what we felt above all in these presentations was the infinite sadness of these inhabitants whose living environment is falling apart. Villagers who are offered automated counters as their only consolation prize, symbols of a cold and anonymous administrative machine. It is no coincidence that many have recaptured the friendliness of the corner coffee shop in the fellowship of the roundabouts. In many places, that coffee shop is boarded up – 7,000 coffee shops close each year in France.
It is not chauvinistic to note that France has few rivals in its sophistication in the art of conviviality – of the table, of seduction or of simple conversation. Well beyond the problems of taxation and standard of living, real though they may be, what is illustrated by the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes is that the French will not resign themselves to seeing their human relations, with the letter carrier, the baker or even the police, suppressed or reduced to simple, cold exchanges with machines.
Damaging radar units expresses a feeling of dispossession much more clearly than the media show of the scuffles in the big cities. How can we not see in this gesture a legitimate concern about a society that is becoming dehumanized? The bohemian bourgeois of Paris, the bobos, jostle peaceful passers-by while riding electric scooters on the sidewalks, enclosed in their digital world and listening to robotic music. Meanwhile, the forgotten people of France are launching a warning cry. But how can you hear the outside world with headphones over your ears?