Christian Rioux, correspondent in France for Le Devoir, and Kamel Daoud, journalist (and occasional novelist) writing from Oran, Algeria’s second city, are – deservedly – two of the most read journalists currently writing in French. Here, we reproduce in translation a column from each.
Rioux writes about the Gilets Jaunes, a spontaneous revolt of David Goodhart’s “Somewheres” against President Macron, symbol of Parisian “Anywheres.” The imposition in fall 2018 of a new tax on fuel, justified as a response to climate change, was the catalyst. In searching for historical parallels, Rioux goes back to the Jacquerie, a brief peasant revolt in the mid-14th century. The catalyst for that uprising was a new law obliging peasants to defend the châteaux of their deeply hated noble overlords. From the 14th century he jumps to the the early 19th century and the Luddites in England, who smashed textile machinery – new technology that was destroying the traditional lifestyles of weavers. Apparently, the Gilets Jaunes have destroyed 600 radar units deployed to catch and fine vehicles exceeding the speed limit.
The revolts of the jacques, the Luddites, and the Gilets Jaunes share a great deal: incoherence, spontaneity and opposition to new technology that is destroying a way of life. Few countries, Rioux concludes, achieved the sophistication in the art of conviviality displayed by the French in small towns and villages. Is Macron’s goal of “ever closer union” in a European Union committed to free trade and freedom of movement among 28 (perhaps soon 27) countries worth the cost? Rioux does not answer.
The first Gilets Jaunes street demonstration took place in October 2018, and it became a weekly event over the last six months. Finally, in late April, Macron gave his policy response. What the Gilets Jaunes dislike most about their government is the power of the technocratic elite, most of them “énarques” – graduates of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration. Macron has promised to close it down and introduce a law on decentralization of authority to the regions. (Incidentally, Macron himself is an énarque.) If there is one consistent economic demand by the Gilets Jaunes it is lower taxes for the typical taxpayer. Macron has offered a €5 billion income tax reduction targeted to the middle class. The number is impressive, but bear in mind that it is about 0.2 per cent of national GDP. Overall, the initial media response has been harsh: Macron’s response is more symbolism than substance; it will not resolve la morosité nationale.
Click to read Gilets Jaunes: Under the radar by Christian Rioux.
Daoud is writing about the fin de regime of the nominally secular postcolonial government in Algeria. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President from 1999 until his recent abdication in the spring of 2019, is an octogenarian who rose to prominence in the 1960s liberation war against the French. Since his stroke in 2013, he has been a figurehead. Power is exercised by an elite coalition of the military and business elites. Coinciding with the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes, young Algerians have for the last six months organized repeated demonstrations in major cities against the status quo. As with the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade, the prospect in Algiers is not optimistic. For many, the present interlude is the ideal moment to flee Algeria’s repressive society dominated by gerontocrats and Salafist imams. Hence the old taxis rolling to the coast and the waiting boats of the traffickers who will take Algeria’s Somewheres to France. The traffickers sell orange life vests for €25.
Click to read The Future is Orange by Kamel Daoud.
The irony is that, simultaneously, Français de souche are morose about threats to their country’s way of life, and illegal migrants from Algeria view France as the Nirvana of the North.