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Gilets Jaunes - a sign of France's turbulent times

Sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann explains why no one should be surprised at the rise of the grassroots' movement

The gilets jaunes (GJ) protesters have never put forward a leader and critics say it will be their downfall as there is no one for the government to negotiate with or to represent them politically.

However, sociologist Jean-Claude Kauf­mann says it is understandable and reflects a general change in society.

The movement came as no surprise to him. It arose from social and political trends which have been emerging for decades and are charted in his book La
Fin de la Démocratie, published just before the protests began last year.

He said many GJs were rural working people with difficulties making ends meet who had felt forgotten and undervalued and not part of the latest urban-led trends.

In the past, they would have remained turned in on themselves, perhaps making a protest vote for the Front National.

“But something clicked into place on the occasion of this little revolt that broke out on roundabouts. They met up and felt happy to exist and express a sense of pride. Then they wanted to go further and impose something. 

“But then we saw that they are typical of today’s generations who are focused on the self and want to refuse all ‘systems’, starting with the idea of organising the movement.

“If any potential leader popped up, they got violently demolished on social media. The anti-system position destroyed every­thing that started to coalesce, including in the European elections when they refused to vote for GJ lists, for those who had the audacity to present themselves as leaders.”

Dr Kaufmann said we have been moving from a very structured model of society, based around institutions and in which political groups organised themselves around defined political programmes, to one that is based on the individual.

“The individual now expresses his or her convictions and beliefs with passion and emotion but it doesn’t go further than that. They want their desires to be applied straight away – so they don’t get anywhere.

“There were attempts by some GJs to form common ideas but each time it was smashed by others affirming contrary views.”

The role of the individual in society is no longer what it was 50 years ago, he said. Online forums and social media have played a role and now even the most 

vulnerable and marginalised defend their convictions there, rather than seeking a common view.
However, while the internet has speeded up the trends, the roots of this individualism are in the 1960s, when rock music, youth movements and women’s liberation started to break down old norms, he said.

“At first it felt joyful, opening up freedoms, but in the 2000s we realise this destabilises things, and the individual must construct their own truth and morality.
“It’s not simple, especially for the most vulnerable, so there’s an increasing wish for more bearings, for security and protection and less mental pressure.
“Freedom can be hard to deal with, and populist politicians make use of this.”

Another linked issue is “direct democracy”, such as referendums, which are supportedby many of the gilets jaunes. Individuals want to be more involved than just voting once every five years which, Dr Kaufmann said, is positive in theory. 

“But individualism makes for a very fluid society, with changing opinions which can be volatile. There may be a sudden excitement for a certain idea but it can create monsters and become ungovernable.

“Look at Brexit. It’s starting to look like there’s no way out of the problems and it’s going to take months and years and is rotting the situation of the country.

“We need to enrich democracy and involve citizens more but it must remain anchored in representative democracy too and we need to make the latter more attractive. I don’t have the solutions.”

Another trend today is that “robots” have more power than we realise, he said.

“A robot isn’t a little metal person like in the films; they’re algorithms and we are transferring power to them. For example, if we use Google Glass [internet-connected glasses] we think it’s augmenting reality, but in reality it’s a reduction of reality, from complexity where you make your own choices to allowing your glasses to select information for you. Big companies are getting more power. We’re losing power as individuals and citizens.”

Dr Kaufmann added: “I think we’re going towards a period of tumult and crisis. Each person turns in on themselves in their bubble of certainties in opposition to
others and the situation becomes unmanageable. However when there’s a crisis, like terror attacks or the Notre-Dame fire, we get an uprising of humanity and love for others, which is reassuring.”

Such changes in society are reflected across the board – even in sunbathing trends, the subject of one of Dr Kaufmann’s earlier books. The practice of women going topless on beaches gained popularity from the 1960s but is less noticeable now. In theory the beach is associated with personal freedom and going topless was part of that, he said. “However, as we moved into the 2000s, with the change in atmosphere, we saw things going backwards, with more traditional and repressive values coming back and women incited to cover up.

“The more things advance, the more it provokes reactions in opposition: we get a step forward, then two steps back.”

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