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.”
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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.
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