ANALYSIS: Brexit vs Gilets Jaunes – is Britain or France in the greater crisis?

Britain has Brexit and France has the Gilets Jaunes, so which country is in a deeper crisis? John Lichfield thinks Britain is worse off but that neither country will recover easily from their current woes.

ANALYSIS: Brexit vs Gilets Jaunes - is Britain or France in the greater crisis?
Britain has Brexit chaos, France has violence on the streets. Photos: AFP

France and Britain are two sisters who live next door to each other. For years they have been on a political and economic see-saw. If one is up, the other is down.

We live, however, in strange times. France and Britain are suffering deep crises simultaneously.

A debate rages on the Facebook page of The Local France: “Which country is in the greater mess, Britain or France?”

Almost three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the country is paralysed by indecision. Crash out? Stay in? Vote again? Stay for a while and devise a better way of Brexiting?

Four months after the Gilets Jaunes rose up against Paris and the governing classes, a bizarre, Saturdays Only revolution continues. There will be a 20th “Act”, or Saturday putsch, this weekend.


Police and protesters will both be out in force again this weekend in Paris. Photo: AFP

The yellow vests are losing support in their provincial heartlands. They are becoming more allied with the urban hard Left. They are going nowhere but nor are they going away. Further violence is certain.

When President Emmanuel Macron mocks Brexit, he is vilified by commentators in the pro-Brexit British press. “Just look at your own country,” they shout. “Your problems are worse than ours. No one is smashing up London.”

Although Macron talks Brexit, his implied target is often the Gilets Jaunes. “People told lies (during the Brexit referendum),” he said in January. “And so the British voted for things that aren’t possible. Good look to the politicians who have to implement stuff that doesn’t exist.”

Macron was talking about Britain but he was thinking about the dottier theories and policies of the Yellow Vests, such as  permanent grass-roots government by internet referendum or lower taxes and more public spending.

That points to a sisterly similarity between the two crises.

Both are fuelled by anger at the insolent success of cities at the apparent expense of struggling rural and post-industrial areas.

Both raise the deep conundrum of how to preserve  democracy at national, or even European, level when economic power and pressing dangers, such as climate change, are now irretrievably global.

Both are manifestations of a wider crisis in liberal democracy which pits “the people” against “the elites”.

In an excellent essay this week, the editor of the French centre-left newspaper Libération, Laurent Joffrin, showed how self-serving that argument has become.

“One million people demonstrate (against Brexit) in London. They’re the elite. Four thousand (Gilets Jaunes) turn out in Paris, they’re the people.”


A million people were on the streets of London to call on the British government to halt Brexit. Photo: AFP

As Joffrin points out, both “the people” and “the elites” are split several ways on how to solve the problems of the 21st century. A more useful distinction is between those who present intractable problems honestly and those who exploit them for ideological or personal gain.

“Populism is a form of simplism and like all forms of simplism is misleading,” Joffrin wrote.

In France the Yellow Vests would have you believe that the solution to the nations’ problems is easy-peasy.  Just abolish the political classes.

The billions freed in salaries and expenses would, they say, fund higher pensions and welfare payments and better rural services – AND allow a cut in taxes.

In fact, the total cost of “the political class” is less than 0.1 per cent of the French public budget. This, in turn, already uses up 57 per cent of the nation’s GDP – the highest in the EU, jointly with Finland.

In Britain, the Brexiteers say that there is a bright future for an “independent Britain” capable of becoming a “global power” freed from the shackles of Brussels. They lie or mislead constantly on the importance of the European single market to real UK jobs in the real world, rather than these imagined sunlit uplands of the future.

The great majority of the original Gilets Jaunes (284,000 in November) are no longer active. Those who remain are besotted by their own absolutist propaganda.

Some Brexiteer Tories are now ready to compromise to Save Brexit. A handful of them prefer the purity of their own simplistic vision to contact with coarse reality.


Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron are both unpopular leaders, but whose country has the bigger problems? Photo: AFP

So which country is worse off?

In France, the remaining Gilets Jaunes are a small minority from outside the “elite” or the ruling classes. In Britain, the wreckers are part of the elite and part of the ruling classes, egged on by part of the media.

I would say that makes Britain worse off. But neither country will recover easily.

Britain may now stumble into a general election and/or  a second referendum. Even if the 2016 result is reversed, the poisonous divisions of the last three years will persist. The tolerant, nonchalant Britain that I was brought up in seems no longer to exist.

In France, the Gilets Jaunes will eventually fade but the real inequities and deep delusions that they represent will not disappear.

Macron may “triumph” in the European elections in May and again in the presidential elections in 2022. In the longer term, as in Italy, or the United States, populism and “simplism” may return in a more persuasive, powerful and destructive form.

Follow @john_lichfield on Twitter

Member comments

  1. It seems to me that France’s fight is about creating more equality and opportunity amongst different classes. Brexit is about the loss of Empire and prestige. Both have economic foundations. The EU is the root cause of all this I believe. A classic bunch of unelected by the people bureaucrats who seem to want to preserve their life style. Countries have gone to war over other countries telling them what to do. GB is a shadow of what it used to be. The French are still french. GB will never be the same. Anti-Brexiters want to hold onto some sort of Britishness. The others fully want to become Belgians and are willing to loose all sense of what being British was about.

  2. The vast majority of serious Brexiteer politicians never lied about the importance of the European market. They always predicted that the EU would sign some sort of trade deal as they were net exporters to the UK. I don’t remember any Brexiteer trying to play down the importance of the EU market, apart from maybe saying that it wasn’t growing as fast as the rest of the world.

    “Some Brexiteer Tories are now ready to compromise to Save Brexit. A handful of them prefer the purity of their own simplistic vision to contact with coarse reality.” I don’t see what the second sentence has to do with the first. They are ready to compromise because they think that May’s deal is better that no Brexit because it’s a kind of a half Brexit. They still don’t like the backstop but they’re prepared to swallow it to at least get half out. The “coarse reality” is perhaps referring to leaving without a deal. Those same Brexiteers would gladly leave without a deal. They are now compromising because parliament, now, won’t leave without a deal, it will postpone. It is realpolitik.

    I am not pro Brexit. It’s a mess but I don’t understand someone who says (or quotes) “Populism is a form of simplism and like all forms of simplism is misleading” after saying “One million people demonstrate (against Brexit) in London. They’re the elite. Four thousand (Gilets Jaunes) turn out in Paris, they’re the people.” It is misleading to say that the million in London were the elite and, dare I say it, simplistic. I’m sure a large portion of that one million would balk at the notion that were part of an “elite”. And how does four thousand people equate to “the people”. These are huge generalisation and very, very simplistic.

    Joffrin says the “people” and the “elite” are split several ways but he still simplistically bundles them into two (conveniently-named) groups.

    Yes, certain demagogues both here and in the UK have tried to exploit these (non-intractable) problems for personal gain but again, not everyone. To say that everyone on the Brexit side is out for personal is a failure to understand that other side’s point of view.

    Brexit is complicated. If you see and understand both side’s point of view then it’s easy to see why we’re in the mess we’re in. It’s easy to understand why parliament is putting itself through the ringer. 650-odd people are trying to get it right; to respect the result of the referendum but without forgetting the 48% and without splitting the union in the process. It’s painful to watch but it is democracy at work. That, of course, means that it’s the worst system we’ve got…..apart from all the others!

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.