Demonstrations have a long history in the West – but are self-defeating when posing a threat to ordered society

If a disgruntled population no longer settle for the right to vote out governments or presidents who displease them, western notions of democracy are in danger of unravelling
TOPSHOT - Demonstrators gather near the Arc de Triomphe as a French flag floats during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018 in Paris.  Anti-government protesters torched dozens of cars and set fire to storefronts during daylong clashes with riot police across central Paris on December 1, as thousands took part in fresh "yellow vest" protests against high fuel taxes. / AFP / -

The alarming spectacle of burning and mayhem on the grand avenues of Paris exposes glaring flaws in the West’s vaunted democratic model. If unedifying scenes from the Champs-Elysees, the "defiled" Arc de Triomphe and other famed locations cause fainthearted tourists to reconsider travel plans, images of blockaded motorways, shopping centres and fuel distribution depots offer another disincentive.

After two weekends of violence on the streets of the capital, the worst seen in more than a decade, with trouble also reported around the country and now lycee students blocking scores of schools, France once more looks ungovernable.

TOPSHOT - Protestors wearing a yellow vest (Gilets jaunes) pull down the grating of the Tuileries Gardens next to the rue de Rivoli, in central Paris, during a demonstration against the rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018. Police and anti-government protesters clashed near the Champs-Elysees and in other parts of central Paris on December 1 with demonstrators hurling rocks and paint at riot police who responded with tear gas. The clashes came as thousands took part in a third weekend of "yellow vest" protests which have morphed from anger over fuel taxes into a broader anti-government movement. / AFP / -

Civil disobedience has been embraced by the so-called gilets jaunes, with extremist agitators gleefully latching onto the term as if to uphold the legacy of the storming of the Bastille that launched the French Revolution in 1789.

Named after their chosen streetwear – fluorescent yellow vests that French law requires drivers to carry in their vehicles – the gilets jaunes entered public life in mid-November to challenge high fuel prices. That single cause has developed untidily into a broader campaign on low pay, stretched household budgets and tax cuts for the rich.

Despite the violence, deplored by the majority of demonstrators, and the disruption to daily life, which they welcome, the movement has massive support. In one recent poll, 75 per cent of the public expressed approval, although the recent riots might well turn the tide.

Eighteen months into his presidency, it is clear Emmanuel Macron is hugely unpopular at home, making a mockery of last year's acclaim for a young, vibrant new leader set to break the mould of serial failure at the Elysee Palace.

epa07205324 French President Emmanuel Macron (C) waves to citizens as he assesses the damages of the 'Yellow Vests' protest a day earlier, next to the Champs Elysee in Paris, France, 02 December 2018 (03 December 2018). The so-called 'gilets jaunes' (yellow vests) are a protest movement, which reportedly has no political affiliation, is protesting across the nation over high fuel prices.  EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT

Now, the far-right National Rally (formerly the Front National), led by Marine Le Pen, whom Mr Macron trounced in the presidential elections, has overtaken his centrist La Republique En Marche on European parliament voting intentions. Mr Macron says he “listens to the people’s anger”; detractors see little sign of him acting on what he hears.

Theoretically, western democracy – strongly influenced by that 18th century French uprising – offers a simple remedy to those dissatisfied with the 40-year-old president. People can vote him out in 2022 just as they voted him in last year. But the rebels of today refuse to allow the political process to run its course.

No one elected the gilets jaunes. Despite belated efforts to devise some semblance of organisational structure, they have taken it upon themselves to decide whether fellow citizens should be allowed to go to work, keep medical appointments or merely fill their tanks and travel as they wish. Extremists from the left and right and the usual casseurs – thugs and anarchists drawn to any big public rally – join them but are more interested in attacking the police or causing whatever trouble and damage they can.

TOPSHOT - Protesters build a barricade during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018 in Paris.   / AFP / Abdulmonam EASSA

Around the world, there is a long history of demonstrations degenerating into disorder. In the West, they serve increasingly as a parallel form of expression, second-guessing the results of the ballot box.

The clamour of the street is especially raucous in France, instilling doubt in the most reform-minded of presidents. So many single-interest groups – farmers, hauliers, fishermen, even pensioners – feel entitled to impede everyone else that it is not beyond the realms of imagination for an endless succession of blockades to reduce the country to permanent paralysis. The rationale is uncomplicated: street protest, activists say, is not anti-democratic but complements democracy – and is pointless if no misery is inflicted on others.

This outlook is found elsewhere, sometimes with refinement or contradiction. In London, a more genteel blockade – short-lived and, judging by the tone of organisers interviewed on television, apologetic – halts traffic to raise pollution awareness and “save the planet”. A mischief-maker might say the gilets jaunes are trying to do the opposite and destroy it, since Mr Macron’s extra fuel tax is intended to assist “ecological transition” from diesel and petrol.

Arguably more serious is the threat to ordered society. If growing sections of a disgruntled population will no longer settle for the right to vote out governments or presidents who displease them, western notions of democracy are in danger of unravelling.

Inevitably, social media plays its part. Impatient or simply up for a fight, users demand, or spread word about, each planned outbreak of radical action.

In France, the police act firmly if targeted at demonstrations and pursue protesters who vandalise motorway toll booths or speed cameras. But they often stand benignly aside when strikers or protesters mount illegal roadblocks.

Mr Macron is impressively vocal on the menace from ugly, authoritarian and often Islamophobic movements gaining ground across Europe at the expense of mainstream parties. Yet whether such movements are driven by fake news, prejudice or fear, free electoral systems ultimately enable them to prosper.

And while there is a western tendency to lecture other parts of the world on how power should be exercised, perhaps the beleaguered French president should concentrate on matters at home and choose between the political risk of standing firm in the face of popular resistance and finding a way to address legitimate public concerns without acquiescing to mob rule.

Colin Randall

Colin Randall

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National and writes from France and Britain