Tag Archives: Society

The “Gilets Jaunes”: The individuals caught between multilateralism and every day life

by Evelyn Shi, participant in the FAC at the BEF 2016

Though decreasing in number, the “Gilets Jaunes”-protests have led to increased violence in the last weeks, forcing Macron into an interim suspension of his reform agenda. In a 13-minute broadcast, he tried to address the anger in the population[i] – but his concessions might have been “too little, and too late” [ii]. Especially because how France is handling the situation is essential not only regarding national security but also Macron’s standing on the international arena. But the miscommunication between the government and its people is not only a problem in France, but the fight against extremism must also, therefore, be handled with extreme caution in order to not internationalize this technique of protest – if it is not already too late, looking at the French-inspired protests in Belgium and the Netherlands[iii].

A yellow vest – the symbol of the current protests in France

After weeks of partly violent demonstrations in France, their government has agreed to an interim suspension of the planned fuel tax rises, the announcement of which led to the recent mobilization throughout the whole country. This protest movement is named after the yellow vests, obligatory to carry in all vehicles according to French law: Arguably a symbolic choice representing the average citizen, who seems to be targeted most by the currently suspended rise in fuel prices. This was the straw, which broke the camel’s back, causing the people to demonstrate their general discontent with the high living costs in France. President Macron has, for the first time, publicly addressed the population and announced measures to calm the anger. Among these measures is a rise in the minimum wage. But the problem goes further, as the French people have felt misrepresented and unheard for some time now:

Their antagonism arises from a miscommunication that has been taking place in France, alienating the government from its people. As popular and respected as President Emmanuel Macron may be in Europe and the world, an icon for restoring the values- and the rules-based multilateral world, the incomprehension and discontent of his national policies is steadily growing. Driven by his foreign policies, Macron is trying to reform the country itself to make it more attractive and competitive more competitive, in Europe and the world. The most controversial reforms passed in his current presidential term were done with this intention: The reformed labor laws, for example, were passed by decrees – therefore undermining a parliamentary and thus democratic debate. This, however, is not an uncommon occurrence in France. The idea is that a good economy would benefit everyone in the long-term. But in the meantime, this can negatively affect those individuals, who have little securities regarding their working conditions and employment. According to a poll from Elabe[iv], 87 % of French citizens find that the passed reforms under Macron have not improved their purchase power and therefore did not contribute to a better economy. This dissatisfaction with Macron’s reforms has gone so far, that 69 % of the citizens demanded a “pause” of reform activities[v].

A fuel tax – the cause for the protests

The situation did not improve when Macron’s ministers started to resign earlier in autumn, one of them the minister for ecological transition, Nicolas Hulot. Beloved by the people, he explained his resignation with an insolvable dissent with the President, who does not seem to prioritize the ecological transition as much as Hulot had expected. The rising fuel prices, though planned already under the former President Sarkozy, therefore come at a bad time. As good as the intent to tackle environmental issues and to further implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is on an international level, the measures were not sufficiently explained to the French citizens. As a result, they only see that the government’s policies do not strengthen the individual’s purchasing power and therefore the national economy, a topic that seems to be so essential on Macron’s presidential agenda. The people think that the government is failing them and their country, and this is what populist leaders around the world have been waiting to see happen to their opponents: Following the fourth protest, for example, US President Trump stated on Twitter: “The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting “We Want Trump!” Love France.”

After the third protest, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had to cancel his trip to the climate conference in Poland in order to tackle the national insurgency, while Macron was at the G20 Summit in Argentina when the until now most violent protest took place. This absence most likely did not improve the French peoples’ view of their President. One must remark at this point, however, that organized protests are not unusual in France. The big difference this time is, that the protests were initiated without elected representatives, but rather out of a movement on social media. This has led to various actors trying to claim a leadership position in the movement, extremist opposition leaders being among them. The French government accused far-left leader Jean-Luc Melénchon and his far-right counterpart Marine Le Pen of having called for their voters to violently infiltrate the protests. The opposition leaders have denied these accusations[vi].

The government sought dialogue with the yellow vests, but proved to be difficult due to reported death threats to spokespeople who were willing to talk in the name of the protestors: The BBC, for an example, reported of such threats to Jacline Mouraud, a 51-year-old accordion player from Brittany, who had reached six million views with her online video on the carbon tax[vii].

Protests – partially turning violent

The government anticipated the fourth round of protests with the closure of tourist attractions and the deployment of 89.000 polices officers throughout the country[viii]. Despite decreasing in number and their now more frequently violent protests, the remaining yellow vests see their demands acknowledged by the broader public and the government. Yet this behavior is too perilous to be conditioned in the long run, as the general public disapproves to the methods deployed by the protesters. Additionally, it is risky for Macron to give them all they want. If they get their way through violence and without discussions and compromises, what is going to stop them from further demands against the government’s policies? Macron’s address to the nation might have calmed those, who have already backed down with the suspended fuel taxes. However, Macron did not sufficiently address the middle class with the announced measures, even though they are the ones who have the most to lose. Furthermore, it is doubtful, whether the extremist part of the movement will be satisfied with his concessions. In fact, even far-left politician Melénchon has called for further protests the following weekend.

It is essential for Macron and his government to find their way back to the people, to re-establish the French peoples’ trust in their Head of State. As important as he currently is as a key player to restore the multilateral world order, his credibility lowers with his rising unpopularity in France. Surveys have found that Macron’s popularity has decreased to a new low of 23 %[ix]. Constructive dialogue must be sought, but it is not violence that should lead to concessions – especially not in times, where Europe is torn between the people and their governments. France’s national mobilization is being watched throughout Europe and the world – and could set precarious precedents if dealt with wrongly.

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

References

[i] Rose, M, Irish J. (2018). ’To quell unrest, France’s Macron speeds up tax cuts but vows no U-turn’ Reuters. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-protests-economy-lemaire/to-quell-unrest-frances-macron-speeds-up-tax-cuts-but-vows-no-u-turn-idUSKBN1O90LP [11 December 2018]

[ii] Willsher, K. (2018). ‘Police flood into Paris to contain gilets jaunes’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/paris-police-flood-streets-gilets-jaunes [8 December 2018]

[iii] Rossignol, C, Emmott, R. (2018). ‘Brussels police arrest hundreds in ‘yellow vest’ riot’ Reuters. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belgium-protests/brussels-police-arrest-hundreds-in-yellow-vest-riot-idUSKBN1O70OP

[iv] Elabe. (2018). ‘Les réformes jugées inefficaces et injustes par une majorité de Français’ [online] Available at: https://elabe.fr/reformes-executif/ [7 December 2018]

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Willsher [2], K. (2018). ‘French ‘gilets jaunes’ protests turn violent on the streets of Paris’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/24/french-gilets-jaunes-protests-turn-violent-on-the-streets-of-paris [6 December 2018]

[vii] BBC. (2018). ‘France fuel protests: Who are the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests)?’ [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46424267 [6 December 2018]

[viii] Willsher, K. (2018). ‘Police flood into Paris to contain gilets jaunes’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/paris-police-flood-streets-gilets-jaunes [8 December 2018]

[ix] Willsher, K[1]. (2018). ‘Macron scraps fuel tax rise in face of gilets jaunes protests’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/05/france-wealth-tax-changes-gilets-jaunes-protests-president-macron [6 December 2018]

Brazilian Elections 2018: The Death of Nuance

By Joao Lucas Hilgert, Adviser to the board of the Munich European Forum

Part 2 of 3

In the last article focused on the road that led to Brazil’s current political, economical and social situation. Now the country is faced with two options for its top leadership that aren’t remotely similar. The country, as mentioned previously, is deeply divided. The fissures of this clash of ideas threatens the very fabric of Brazilian society. The two sides not only are seemingly irreconcilable, they have also devolved into a quasi tribalistic team-mentality, that resorts more often to name-calling than actual substantive discussion of the challenges at hand. If you support leftist policies, you are immediately labeled a communist. If you support a more conservative agenda, you are promptly branded as a fascist. There is no middle ground, there is only far-left or far-right.

And these cleavages run through nearly every segment of Brazilian society. According to a poll by Ibope[1] (Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics), one of Latin America’s largest market research providers, the right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro underperforms when it comes to the female vote, older voters (over 55 years of age), income between one and two minimum wages (between €225 and €550 a month[2]), those who didn’t graduate from middle school, non-evangelicals and African-Brazilians. However, by underperforming it is meant that Bolsonaro was not the candidate of choice for more than 50% of the interviewees, although he remains in first place. The only groups, in which he actually loses to his opponent Hadad from the Worker’s Party (PT), are among the poorest, meaning those who make less than one minimum wage (€225[2]), the much less educated, meaning those who didn’t finish elementary school, and voters in the northeastern region of the country (perhaps not surprisingly where 55% of Brazil’s abject poverty is concentrated). There is a large disparity in voting behaviour between the extremes. The research evidentiates that the richer, the better educated, the whiter and the more evangelical one is, the more likely he/she (but mostly he) is to vote for Bolsonaro.

Planalto Palace, the official office of the President of Brazil, in the capital Brasilia

Though Bolsonaro has served as a federal lower house member since 1991, many still perceive him as an outsider. For one, he has largely remained untouched by the political turmoil caused by Operation Car Wash, that rocked the Brazilian political establishment to its core. Second, much like Donald Trump, he often says things that are considered unusual, politically incorrect and sometimes blatantly offensive. He once stated that he would rather have a dead son than a gay son, that he was strong the 4 first times he had sons but the 5th time around he got weak so he had a daughter, that he is in favor of torture and that the military dictatorship in Brazil did not kill enough. It must be noted that many of his offensive statements were made years, if not decades, ago. In the last few months he has made statements that contradict the narrative that he is homophobic, misogynistic or racist, however that in and of it itself could be classified as electoral pandering.
Perhaps more consequentially for the election, he has stood for the possession of firearms by the general populace, he has supported the increase of penalties for criminals and corrupt politicians, extinction of benefits for convicted felons (e.g. financial help for their families, conjugal visits, temporary leave of prison during holidays) as well as more leniency towards police violence. He has defended a more liberal economic stance while also promoting more conservative social policies. He has criticized the inclusion of homosexuality in sexual education and has defended the inclusion of religion and military procedures in public schools. He also supports the voluntary chemical castration of rapists in exchange for sentence reductions.
These are only a few of the aspects that explain why his rhetoric and policies resonate in a crime-ridden, corrupt and ailing Brazil. The people see in Bolsonaro a sort of PT antiserum. A political figure that will rid Brazil of the corruption and failed policies of the PT era that put the country on the path to ruin, analogous to its neighbor Venezuela.

After former President Lula was incarcerated and therefore not legally allowed to participate in the elections, Bolsonaro quickly took the number one spot in the polls. PT’s answer was to nominate Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of Brazil’s largest city São Paulo, as their presidential candidate. He was also the education minister for much of the PT’s governments. As Mayor he neglected healthcare leading to a 63% increase in the number of patients waiting for treatment[3] and he himself was denounced by the State of São Paulo’s attorney’s office for corruption, money laundering and conspiracy to commit crime. His policies regarding corruption and violence are, among others, to call for a new constitution, restructure the judiciary and set free convicted felons, who didn’t commit a violent crime.

When considering that the areas that most concern Brazilians are healthcare, violence and corruption, it is not hard to understand why in the first round of the presidential elections Bolsonaro ended only 4 percentage points shy of securing the required 50% of votes to win the Presidency. Since he didn’t, a second round between him and Haddad, who ended in second place with 29%, will take place on October 28th 2018.

Brazilian politics and political discourse have become very tribal and polarized. Nuance has been killed and buried a long time ago.

People stopped defending policies or ideologies, they now defend teams. But what has completely escaped the understanding of PT, its supporters and anti-Bolsonaro voters is that pointing fingers and calling the other side fascist every time they express their grievances will not take them very far. PT is trying to frame this as a fight between democracy and autocracy, between good and evil. But they can’t do that while they are seen as the root of Brazil’s problems. They can’t be both cause and solution. In this limited rhetorical arena that is Brazilian political discourse the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has never rung truer in the ears of many voters. As long as PT and its supporters keep pushing Bolsonaro (and particularly his potential voters) towards the extremes and keep painting him as a radical autocrat, they are only confirming the suspicions about their own party in the eyes of most of the Brazilian population. That this is not a fight between democracy and fascism. This is a fight between order and crime, between progress and corruption.

Check out Part 3 here!

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

References:

[1] Globo.com. 2018. “Pesquisa Ibope de 15 de outubro para presidente por sexo, idade, escolaridade, renda, região, religião e cor”. URL: https://g1.globo.com/politica/eleicoes/2018/eleicao-em-numeros/noticia/2018/10/16/pesquisa-ibope-de-15-de-outubro-para-presidente-por-sexo-idade-escolaridade-renda-regiao-religiao-e-cor.ghtml
[2] According to the currently available currency exchange data at the date of publication
[3] R7 Brasil, URL: https://noticias.r7.com/eleicoes-2018/fila-para-exames-de-saude-cresceu-63-na-gestao-haddad-em-sp-16102018