By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Since two months France is shaken by a protest wave that is organized by the so called “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests). The movement is an agglomeration of citizens bringing together people from the working – and middle class as well as from the left and right. Lacking so far any specific program, it expresses a profound agitation about the government’s social and economic policies. The trigger was a nation- wide protest that broke out November 11th against a government imposed special “Diesel tax”, which then expanded into violent clashes between protesters and French security forces all over the country. Some smaller groups caused material damages against official State buildings such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The conflict has been described by many observers, including French, as a conflict between the French Elite and the State that is perceived by many citizens as being totally detached from the social and economic reality of the country. This is illustrated by the fact that the countryside since years suffers from a major labor migration where citizens leave their villages in order to find a decent jobs in the cities; the migration is often accompanied by the shut- down of business and vital infrastructure including , schools, hospitals, shops, transport lines as well as emptying churches.
The actions of the yellow vests were often triggered by social networks like “Twitter” and “Facebook” organizing for flash mobs, or sending around “Video messages”, announcing blockades of crossroads. The “Gilets jaunes” phenomenon should not be seen just as a problem of France; it expresses a European problem, since it centers on the question of social guarantees, decent education, transport as well as on the question ,what the representative democracy and parliamentary system is going to look like in the future.
Macron’s speech on New Year’s Eve
On December 31 President Macron – after having made substantial concessions to the protesters (this includes the increase of minimum wages and pensions as well as the withdrawal of the diesel tax) – announced that he is going to launch a “nation- wide debate” with the citizens and their elected officials” whose aim is to outline a new agenda for actions and reforms. At one point Macon stated that we are living through a period of “ultraliberal financial capitalism often guided by the short term greed of a few, which is coming to an end.” He furthermore spoke about the disease of western civilization and a crisis of the European dream. “A number of citizens don’t feel respected,” the President said. “I think about family mothers who have to educate their children alone, about the farmers who want to live in a dignified way and about the pensioners. Everybody must have a place to live and a chance for better education.” In reference to the protest he stated, that “the upheaval revealed the explosion of tremendous rage. “Rage against injustice, against globalization and against an administrative system which has become too complex.”
A sober voice was echoed by the French Catholic Magazine “La Croix” which the author received from a French contact. It carried an editorial by Bruno Frappat entitled “L’homme que ne dégage pas.” (The man who doesn’t give up”, 6th January 2019). Frappat referred to Macron’s New Year’s Eve speech stating that the president had spoken clearly, supported by the full authority of his role as President who after all “he had been elected President of the French Republic.”(….) “There were weeks where everybody in the country stabbed him in the back, attacking him and accusing him for everything, that he is not guilty for.” There were slanders circulating in the cities and countryside and the vocabulary often used, the writer stated, which included words like “scumbag”, “thief”, “president of the wealthy and rich”, ”dictator”, “tyrant” or “swindler”. There was hardly any expression that was not used by the “Gilets jaunes”. “Puppets were carried around with their heads cut off, that were looking similar to the president.” Despite the denouncements and humiliations, Frappat underlined, the President presented himself straight and not vacillating. In front of the people who elected him as President, he was affirming clearly that he wouldn’t mind reforming France by saying simple things and demanding the “truth” and “order”. What was reassuring on New Year’s Eve was “that the Champs Elysée that night was not exclusively for the yellow vests.”
Open Letter to the French in order to begin the Grand National Debate
On January 12 in a letter to the French people, Macron asked his people to accept a major debate on a national scale. He suggested that “all should together address the big questions of our future: “That’s why I have proposed and launch today a big national debate which will continue until the 15th of March.” Since some weeks the municipalities have opened their door so that the citizens can express their desires. The “mayors will play an essential role since they are your elected representatives and hence a legitimate intermediary for the expression of the citizens.”
He underlined that the fight against unemployment must be a big priority. “I think we must rebuild an industrial sovereignty and invest more knowledge and research….We must build a renewed social system to better protect the French citizens and reduce the inequalities. We must invent a productive project, social, educational, environmental and a new Europe that is more just and efficient.” The debate, Macron underlined, must respond to the essential questions that emerged during the protests: That’s why the government is outlining four themes which are relevant for the nation and should be discussed: taxation and public expenses, organization of the state and public services, ecological transition, democracy of the citizens. The debate will last till mid -March and a key figure will be aside Macron Francois Baroin, chairman of the AMF Assembly of French Mayors, who in an additional appeal called on the mayors of France to show responsibility, advising them to facilitate the citizens’ debate. He signed this appeal together with the representatives from the French regions and départements.
The upcoming European election and the role of Steven Bannon
Something extraordinary happened however when Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ( January 6th 2019) voiced his support for the Yellow Vests, stating that he “fully supports the French who in a clear and respectful way tell their president that he is not thinking about the interest of the people.” What prompts the Interior Minister of a neighboring European country to interfere in such a way into France’s internal affairs? It’s worthwhile to look a bit more closely at one of the chief ideologues who behind the scenes are actively organizing a European populist movement. One such ideologue is Stephen Bannon, who after having served as ideologue for the Trump campaign, became Trumps special advisor to the White House (fired in August 2017). Since then he has become active behind the scene in Europe especially since summer 2018. His efforts is influence and build up populist movements all over Europe (in Italy, UK, Belgium, France, Germany) with the aim to influence the upcoming European Parliament elections in May 2019.
On January 13th an article was published in the Sunday edition of the German Daily FAZ by special correspondent Matthias Rüb, who singled out the role of Stephen Bannon as key ideologue for many populist movements in Europe. A key center for the populists (according to Rüb) is the former Benedictine Abbaye in Trisulti (near Rome), which in 2018 was going into the hands of a new tenant, the “Dignitatis Humanae Institute” Foundation. Founded in 2008 in Rome the Foundation’s main program is the “Defense of the Judeo Christian Fundament of western civilization by recognizing man as being in the image of God.” Founder and chairman of the foundation is 43 year old British citizen Benjamin Harnwell, a former Tory and European parliament deputy who transformed from a left liberal to a Eurosceptic. According to the article, in 2008 Harnwell went to Rome to become active networker of “Dignitatis Humanae Foundation.” Among the honorary members there are people like the US Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (known for his vicious attacks against Pope Francis) and Stephen Bannon (!). Harnwell met the latter one for the first time 2014 in New York. According to Rüb Harnwell invited Steven Bannon to participate at a conference June 2014 (via Skype) where Bannon spoke at the time about three existing existential dangers for the identity of the Occident: “militant secularism” which wants to exclude faith from the sphere of politics; “militant jihadism” which with help of terrorist violence and Muslim refugees threatens the continent and the US and “wild capitalism” which steals everybody’s human values.”
Bannon has repeatedly spoken about the “Revolt of the right” which in reality is a “global revolt.” After having been fired as special advisor to the White House, Bannon, the article underlined, turned his “attention to Europe.” Together with the right-wing Belgian lawyer former parliamentary deputy Mishael Modrikamen, according to the article report, Bannon at the end of May 2018 founded “The Movement”. This think tank has the aim to encourage the birth of right wing nationalists and “sovereigntist parties” in all EU countries and movements, Rüb stated. Bannon wants to chair seminars in the former Benedictine Abbaye Trisulti, some kind of “academy for future generations”. The first seminars are to take place this summer in Rom. Bannon is quoted for having stated that Trisulti is one of the “Gladiator (!) schools for cultural warriors”.
The same Steve Bannon on 16th November 2018 gave a speech at Oxford University, which was uploaded in YouTube. Watching Bannon speak – one sees a demagogue in action; a man whose style of speech was refined when he was director of the ultra- conservative Breitbart News. A man who is driven by constant rage: a narcissist, ego maniac who keeps pounding his words. In Oxford he spoke of himself as being part of a “movement” that is against the “established order.” “Trump,” he said, “is not the cause but the result of this populist movement.” He directed his main criticism against the “elites”, in particular the “Financial elite of Davos“: The “Elites in the world are the cause of the problem, not populism.” (…) “We are a revolutionary power,” Bannon stated in Oxford, reiterating that the biggest threat is Jihadism (that is why Trump went to Riad and Jerusalem), Iranian expansionism as well as China, and that “Trump is in a hegemonic war against China which is a mercantilist totalitarian regime with geopolitical attitudes of Harold Mackinder and Mac Mahon. It’s a predatory capitalism. “
A lesson to be drawn
There is indeed no room for “gloating” about the events in France. Germany which intends to sign a renewed Elysée- treaty during the month of January, instead of being passive, or having deaf ears, should show a lot more empathy and open itself to a similar debate that Macron wants to have with his people in France, in order to discuss the burning questions that sooner or later will have to be answered in all European countries. What is needed is boldness and vision- instead of leaving the territory to demagogues like Stephen Bannon.