What Could the French “Yellow Vests” Teach Us about Ourselves?
French protesters wear yellow vests as they march in Paris against rising oil prices and living costs near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees. (Image: Olivier Coret/News Pictures/REX/Shutterstock 11/24/18)
Originally published on Common Dreams, January 4, 2019
Most coverage of the Yellow Vest movement in France—lasting seven weeks and drawing hundreds of thousands onto the streets—misses a key question, and one at the heart of our own nation’s journey.
We’re told the diesel tax hike was the “last straw” for the rural, working poor unable to make ends meet, while the underlying cause of the uprising is resentment at the worsening inequality.
But wait. If the stress of making ends meet and economic inequality were the distinguishing causal forces, shouldn’t Americans have been the first to hit the streets? In France the top fifth of all earners receive almost five times more than the bottom fifth. Sounds extreme. But here that gap is eight-fold.
Such contrasts in economic inequality carry with them real differences in the depth of human suffering. Consider that American babies die at a rate 80 percent higher than French babies; and disparities in death rates between babies in poor and wealthy neighborhoods is more significant in Manhattan than in Paris. Moreover, our lives are on average three years shorter than those of the French. In education, American college grads are burdened with student-loan debt averaging almost $29,000, whereas in France the cost of higher education is negligible.
So, what’s to explain the relative quiescence of Americans confronting more extreme violations of basic fairness than their French counterparts?
Many factors, of course. But I’m convinced that in part it’s that we Americans have more thoroughly absorbed the notion that our fate is our fault.
Americans have bought into a particularly virulent version of social Darwinism—dismissed by science more than a century ago. We cling to the belief that in our dog-eat-dog world, ruled by an infallible “free market,” the best rise to the top. So, we’re set up to feel demeaned if we are struggling to get by. And, on top of that, we feel trapped because in our collective psyche there’s no fix to inequality that wouldn’t wreck the market’s magic.
Yes, France also has a capitalist economy, but deep within its culture are values at the heart of its 1789 revolution—“liberté, égalité, fraternité.” They are not viewed as tradeoffs but as essential to one another—and written into the 1958 French constitution. For the French, equality is a positive value; whereas here at home calls for greater equality are fought by evoking fear of creeping “communism” and—with racist undertones—the coddling of the “undeserving” poor.
In both nations inequality has gotten worse. For decades after World War II both France and the United States experienced lessening inequality. But in the early ‘80s things changed. In France the trend reversed, and by 2007 the share of income going to the richest 1 percent had grown by about half, reaching 12 percent. A similar shift went much further in the U.S., where by 2016 1 percenters reaped 39 percent of income.
My hunch is that, though mild relative to our extreme, inequality in France violates core values and thus provokes less shame and greater anger. There, struggling to get by is not itself seen as demeaning. The Yellow Vests express dignity in their demands. “We’re human, too, for God’s sake!” shouted one Yellow Vest.
Perhaps because of such cultural attitudes, more than 70 percent of French people approve of the movement’s demands.
And, if we listen closely, these French protesters could carry a liberating lesson for us as well: To achieve real democracy and basic fairness requires that we, too, claim our dignity. We can reject any notion that there is shame in announcing that we are struggling to get by in America’s brutal form of capitalism. Why should we feel shame when the scales of our economy are so tilted? Within a market driven by corporate America’s one-rule obsession (i.e. do what brings highest return to existing wealth), sadly we end up with more extreme inequality than in roughly 120 countries, including—believe it or not—India and Mali.
Listening to the Yellow Vests, we can reject the lie that a market works on its own for the good of all. As citizens step up in the rising Democracy Movement, they are striving not only to fix our broken political democracy but to work for a democratic economy as well. Citizen-led campaigns in the midterms increased the minimum wage in two states. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren are leading the push for legislation giving workers the right to elect representatives to corporate boards.
In this good work, Americans are rejecting the false “tradeoffs” frame as we come to understand that achieving greater economic equality furthers other values we hold dear, including economic and social vitality and, ultimately, life itself.