Recent riots in France give cause to stop and consider just what is happening in western democracies. Across Europe and indeed the United States, a fundamental crisis in democracy is evident.
It was evident two years ago in the Brexit Referendum vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in America. And in the last two weeks it is again manifest in growing grass roots protests in France.
The fundamental issue is the clash between grass roots voters with ordinary, real life concerns on one hand, and self serving corporate interests and liberal/Left ideologues on the other.
The European Union epitomizes this ideological and self serving corporate nexus.
The European Union is a top-down authoritarian and ideologically motivated organisation which does deals with big corporate interests.
Both the EU and big business control the political agenda to ensure their dominance. Government in Europe is now emerging as oligarchical, not democratic; it is an oligarchy of plutocrats and technocrats defying the ordinary concerns and instincts of the mass of the population.
This is plain in the current Brexit process in the UK. The proposed Withdrawal Agreement and its associated Declaration on the Future Relationship of the UK to the EU are patent evidence of Oligarchic rule defying a democratic vote.
The terms of the Withdrawal Agreement laid down by the EU and its acolytes in the British political establishment defy the 2016 Referendum decision. The proposed “Deal” not only defies the Vote, but actually takes the UK in the opposite direction, making it more dependent and integrated with the EU. For a pertinent expert legal view of this situation, see the link at the end of this post.
UK big business interests are applauding this “deal” while parliamentarians on all sides are seriously disturbed by it, stating that they will vote it down. In fact there is a major constitutional issue emerging over parliament’s right to see the UK government’s legal advice about the deal – advice the government wants to keep secret. On such an historically vital constitutional matter such secrecy begs the question. What is there to hide from the people ?
The government of a supposedly democratic country which has voted to Leave the European Union is unwilling to reveal the entirety of the legal advice given about a Deal on which so many have grave constitutional and political concerns.
We still await the outcome of the Brexit Vote taken over 2 years ago.
In France the events of the last two weeks reveal this same clash between elitist and popular interests. The French protest movement is referred to as the Gilets Jaunes in reference to the yellow waistcoat jackets all cars must carry for emergencies, and now worn by protestors to identify themselves.
The movement arose from a social media campaign begun by ordinary car drivers in protest at the cost of petrol and the prospect of a further price rise in January 2019, a price rise due to a new Eco Tax of some 3 cents or so on a litre of unleaded petrol and 6 cents on diesel fuel.
France is a big country with twice the land mass of the Great Britain and many people have to travel significant distances to work or to the nearest shopping centre. That is at the heart of the protest. But this specific objection represents the much broader issue of the cost of living, and the difficulty so many are having in making their incomes last the full month before pay day.
It has therefore become a general protest about tax levels and the cost of living [a recent report on France 2 evening news said that France has the highest taxation in Europe]. But President Macron is committed to the Paris Conference on the Environment, and so committed to the tax. That being so, he failed to appreciate the level of concern and did not respond to the first week’s protests which hit local commercial centres and caused serious disruption across France.
Protests take the form of blocking roundabouts and junctions at key commercial or industrial centres [including petrol supply depots] or taking over motorway toll stations, letting car drivers through without paying.
The lack of response from the government led to the initial one day protest on Saturday 24th November becoming daily as protestors took umbrage at the refusal of government to respond. There was violence at that first Saturday protest, but this paled into insignificance beside what followed on Saturday December 1st.
The December 1st protest came after the President’s statement the previous Tuesday that the eco tax on petrol would go ahead, regardless.
It also came after an abortive meeting between protestors and Prime Minister on Friday 30th November. The 8 self appointed leaders of the protest were objected to by ordinary protestors in a movement whose anarchist ‘organisation’ would hearten Noam Chomsky.
In the event 6 did not go; one attended secretly; and one attended openly but emerged after 30 minutes to say that the government rejected the protestors demand for all proceedings of their meetings to be transmitted live.
And that refusal to be open goes to the heart of the matter. People are fed up with decisions taken by powerful interests. People in this movement don’t trust anyone to represent them for fear that representatives will be compromised. Political parties and trade unions are seen as untrustworthy and the increasing demands of the protestors include a new national general assembly to represent the people, not partisan political parties and vested interests.
Inevitably, such an open, unstructured movement has quickly attracted violent extremists and criminals to its demonstrations. That manifested itself on Saturday December 1st 2018 with results broadcast around the world.
President Macron has now called a meeting of the leaders of political parties and of the gilets jaunes following the serious riots in Paris and other major centres in France last Saturday.
He needs to act fast – and radically – to defuse a situation which is gaining momentum as the accumulated grievances of the years start to converge like streams feeding into a major river.
[Update at 9th December: the Eco tax on vehicle fuel has been cancelled after initially proposing to suspend it. Even so, protests went ahead throughout France on Saturday 8th December, with serious levels of violence and 1400 people arrested by police. And secondary school children from dozens of Lycees have also been on the streets in violent protest this last week putting in their demands against Macron’s educational reforms. Macron is due on Television early this coming week; it will be a key moment, either calming the situation or exacerbating it].
This situation is symptomatic of the underlying problem. The refusal of the political and commercial elites to appreciate ordinary people’s concerns, while complacently pursuing ideological and self interested agendas.
As with Brexit, the underlying issue of ideological agenda versus ordinary people’s concerns needs resolution. In France, people are now so frustrated and desperate that violence will continue to erupt until politicians respond democratically, not ideologically.
What could erupt in the UK if Brexit is frustrated remains to be seen.
After carefully reading the draft agreement concerning the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it struck me, as a lawyer, that if the UK were my client, I would not advise her to accept this agreement. This conclusion comes from the perspective of a person with an ambivalent attitude towards Brexit. But this Withdrawal Agreement is entirely one-sided: it guarantees in great detail to give the EU everything it wants, but does nothing to protect the UK’s vital economic interests and democratic rights. Indeed, none of the UK’s issues are addressed at all. But an ‘open goal’ is created for separatist parties wanting to break up the Union. And once we accept this Agreement, it will be practically impossible to break away from it.
Written by a partner at a leading London law firm
to continue reading this expert legal opinion, go to