The ‘gilets jaunes’ and the populism myth

By Simon Kuper in The Financial Times, 15/16 December 2018

Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Save Save to myFT Simon Kuper DECEMBER 13, 2018 Print this page133 I live along the main boulevard for protest marches in Paris. My children learnt the French popular word for demonstration (manif) aged about four. Sometimes, our street is so packed with protesters that you can hardly open the front door. But last Saturday, I gingerly stepped outside to encounter only a few hundred marchers in gilets jaunes (yellow vests). Later, on TV, I watched the tear gas and shoving on the Champs-Elysées. But the odd aerial camera shot revealed that the Champs was mostly empty. Friends abroad asked if we were safe. We were: I spent half the weekend freezing on suburban touchlines watching my kids play football.

About 10,000 gilets jaunes marched in Paris and 125,000 across France, says the government. That same day, the green “march for the climate” drew about twice as many protesters in Paris, plus unknown numbers in 120 French towns. (Some gilets jaunes marched with them.) Yet guess which protest dominated international news?

That’s largely because the mostly white working-class gilets jaunes, people who have to count every euro, are being interpreted as the next Trump or Brexit. Many media keep expecting to relive 2016, and this time they don’t want to be taken by surprise. So they now over-emphasise the political significance of any movement that looks white working class. But as they strain to spot the next Trump, they are overlooking other, possibly bigger political movements.

After 2016, we journalists felt stupid for ignoring the provinces and missing what had been brewing. The new hot take was that Trump and Brexit were the revenge of the economically “left behind”. This idea was always dubious. Trump voters in 2016 had higher average incomes than Hillary Clinton’s voters. More than 90 per cent had also voted Republican in 2012. Formerly Democratic Midwestern “Rust Belt” workers were only one pebble in the Trumpian mosaic.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the left-behind thesis might explain why poor Sunderland voted Brexit, but it doesn’t explain why rich Bournemouth did too. Danny Dorling, the Oxford geographer, describes Brexit as a mostly “middle-class” southern English movement. Brexit and Trump voters tend to be older, rural, male, lesser educated and white, but not necessarily “left behind”.

Yet since 2016, their leaders have presented them as “the people” defying the “elite” (as if the 65.9 million Americans who voted for Clinton were the elite, or not people). Too often, the media accepted this frame. For months, the BBC barely reported the supposedly elitist movement for a second referendum on Brexit. Last weekend BBC Politics tweeted, in populist language: “Are you worried Parliament will overrule the will of the people? Or are you hoping they will reverse the result of the referendum?”

Populist movements get more coverage partly because they threaten or use violence. The gilets jaunes — most of whom genuinely are left behind — forced Emmanuel Macron into concessions and got on to worldwide TV only by setting the Champs-Elysées alight. (Even Iraqi state TV ran live coverage of Saturday’s Parisian unrest.) Trump’s threats against hecklers and journalists at rallies make better TV than, say, peaceful green marches. And many Britons fear a second vote partly because of Brexiter threats of violence. To cite one example, Nigel Farage warned at a dinner last year that he would “pick up a rifle” if his dream Brexit wasn’t delivered. In politics, violence — threatened or real — often works.

But populist movements may be the past, not the future. In November’s midterms, Trump’s Republicans lost the popular vote for the House of Representatives by 8.6 per cent — the biggest defeat for a majority party since records began in 1942. Meanwhile, as Brexit becomes increasingly hilarious, polls consistently show that most Britons now oppose it. Approval of the EU across the rest of Europe is the highest since 1983, says the European Commission’s polling wing.

And while the gilets jaunes are indeed a threat to Macron, they may be a bigger threat to his populist rival Marine Le Pen. Polling suggests that more than 40 per cent of gilets jaunes support her Rassemblement National. So if the gilets were to field candidates in next May’s European elections, they would cannibalise her vote. Meanwhile, populists face a demographic challenge: as educational levels rise, any movement relying on older, lesser-educated voters will struggle.

The new obsession with white-working-class politics misses much else. If you’re worried about poverty, look at very poor non-whites. And if you want to identify movements of the future, try the greens. For a so-called elitist movement, they seem pretty broad-based. About two-thirds of French people say they support the gilets jaunes, but 85 per cent worry about climate change, according to pollsters Ifop. In Germany, the much fussed-over far-right Alternative für Deutschland party now polls at 14 per cent; the Greens are six points higher. German anti-immigrant rallies (like Tommy Robinson’s British versions) are typically dwarfed by protests against them.

Last, the focus on “white working-class” discontent probably overstates total discontent. With most developed countries richer than ever, life expectancy higher than ever (except in the US), crime down since the 1990s, and the climate still quite benign, many people — not just the “elite” — might now like quite a lot of the status quo.

%d bloggers like this: