The EU`s yellow movement to an orange revolution?
By Ulrike Reisner
  • Self-employed political analyst, lecturer & journalist, based in Vienna / Austria, political analyst with PICREADI
  • Whilst yellow vests' protests in France continue, confusion about causes and effects is growing in the public discourse. Even if the matter is complex the EU's political elite need to get to the roots of the problem quickly. Otherwise, similar events may soon occur in other member states.

    Exclusively for Creative Diplomacy, our Austrian expert shares her views on the roots and further development of the French crisis and the riot of "yellow vests".
Basically, it is assumed that complex network systems, which usually exist in the fields of political institutions, processes and networks, should be analysed and described using methods of holistic thinking. This approach is then also expected to capture overall contexts and serve as a basis to draw conclusions with regard to the question. Practice shows, however, that inculcated thought patterns tend to simplify complex processes and procedures by breaking them down into partial questions. However, this approach usually involves a reduction of the question's complexity and the facts determining it to a linear (one-dimensional) view that is often associated with the formation of causal chains.

This is particularly true in the case of unforeseen and threatening events when it is in the nature of man to very quickly try to form such causal chains in order to derive solution approaches from them. It may happen that essential influencing parameters are either missed or simply ignored. In addition, incorrectly formed causal chains will ultimately lead to wrong conclusions. In the case of the yellow vests movement in France, this could have dramatic consequences.

Hope for, concern about, fear of a new revolution

An expedition through newspapers of record shows how tough the struggle for interpretational sovereignty is. It does not happen every day that a grassroots movement, initially established to protest against a new eco-tax on fuels, evolves into a melting pot of the dissatisfied, thus incapacitating one of the leading EU member states. It does not happen every day that citizens with or without migration background clench their fists for lower taxes, higher pensions and – in the most general sense – for an "improvement in ordinary people's spending power". [1]

Out of the countless number of articles and comments that have dared to explain the situation in recent weeks, a few have been selected as follows. They have been selected without any claim of being representative. Rather, this random selection aims to show the way EU citizens are confronted with the media's attempts to interpret the situation. Of course, it should also be noted that the opinions expressed in the media influence the opinions of leading politicians and vice versa.

"In all the explosion of demands and expression of dissatisfaction, it is clear that the protesters don't really know what they want, they don't have a vision of the society they want, just a mixture of demands that are impossible to meet within the system although they address them at the system", Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote in a commentary. [2] Zizek believes that 1968's keynote "Soyons realists, demandons l'impossible!" [3] is still relevant on the condition that the yellow vests' provocation is followed by a further key step: not demanding the impossible from the system but demanding "impossible" changes to the system itself. Zizek: "If commentators and actors break their noses to grasp and understand this moment, it is first of all because it escapes all our referentials. This is the hallmark of a revolution."
Arnaud Benedetti, professor at the prestigious French university Paris-Sorbonne, also identifies a revolutionary momentum: "What we are witnessing is nothing more than a power struggle" [4] . According to Benedetti, the related "Fall of Man" dates back to the 2005 French referendum on the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. As is well known, 55% of the voters rejected the treaty on a turnout of 69%. Benedetti calls the yellow vests movement "the first popular delegitimization attempt of the technocratic doxa [5] ", he mentions too many taxes and a government misunderstanding of what was happening to be contributory causes.

Not surprisingly, there are also commentaries claiming that digitalisation is the root of all evil: "The country is served by a remarkable cellular infrastructure that is relatively inexpensive and reliable. The result is countless selfies, videos and live blogging which fuel anger and fantasy. Above all, Facebook provides incredibly efficient logistical support for hundreds of demonstrations large and small across the country." [6] The author of this article, Frederic Felloux, thinks that Facebook is the most threatening weapon to democracies ever invented. "Over the last two years, the hijacking of the social network by populist groups or parties has tainted a dozen election processes across the world and brought to power a string of populists' leaders who will have a profound effect on their countries." [7]
For further reading about the European crisis:

"Why the double standards?" by Ulrike Reisner
"Tumbling into the abyss" by Ulrike Reisner
Or is it just the fear of losing everything?

On December 20th, 2018, Euronews presented "France's Days of Rage", a documentary on the yellow vests movement. [8] The striking and – at the same time – disturbing aspect of this documentary was the fact that it consisted predominantly of short interviews with members of the yellow vests movement, recorded on the streets before, during and after partly violent clashes with the police. The interview partners were people with or without a migration background, single mothers, pensioners, unemployed as well as working people. Most of them expressed their anger or concern that the state could take something away from them, or that it would withhold something from them that they believe to be rightfully theirs: "They are taking everything away from us and they are still trying to steal from us (…); I have two children, I am divorced, I have the alimony to pay, I had to sell our house (…); I am alone with my daughter, I make 1400 Euros a month, by the 20th of each month I ask myself how I am going to fill my fridge". [9]

In any case, it can be assumed that the events of the recent weeks will be the subject of detailed investigations and analyses. This primarily concerns the security aspects of the outrages, but certainly also their possible impacts on national and international financial markets. In addition, EU policy leaders will have to ask themselves whether this is an isolated phenomenon or possibly the prelude to further protests in other member states. In any case the EU elite, in its own interest, is advised not to proceed with the agenda.

The author of the following lines – consciously or unconsciously – hits the nail on the head when he writes: "When the calm returns, it will be time to establish each other's responsibilities. But this is not the first emergency. What must be stopped without delay is the bellicose mistrust that is gripping our fellow citizens. This anger prevents the children of the same nation not only from getting along with each other but also from understanding each other." [10]

The question of mutual responsibilities does indeed arise. To quote John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. When and where have EU societies lost their community spirit? Where does this entitlement mentality towards the state come from? Why do people crowd the streets, peacefully or violently, to enforce their supposed claims against the state? Why do representatives of the yellow vest movement shout out how they should be provided for, but not what their own contribution to the state community should be? The only thing that seems to unite this disunited society is the anger, fear or worry that something will be taken away or withheld from them.
Meeting Russia - Walking talk about EU elites with Ulrike Reisner
Our new Meeting Russia program with Austrian political observer Ulrike Reisner. Talk on the European affairs and EU elites.
Degeneration of the welfare states

The aspirations of citizens in the majority of the EU member states have been promoted and strengthened over decades by the development of the states' social services. The decoupling of achievement, as well as the decoupling of entitlement to assistance and its "earmarking", have raised the level of citizens' expectations. This goes hand in hand with a de-solidarization of societies, insofar as the individual first wants to assert their claims. Naturally, they see their fellow citizens as direct competitors in their struggle for social resources.

Driven by continuous economic growth and – by historical standards – a very long period of peace, the member states have developed their social systems and thus contributed directly and indirectly to the diminishing solidarity of their societies. Proven social structures and networks have been sacrificed on the altar of redistribution. The policy of European integration has acted as an accelerant by linking the entitlement to social benefits with EU fundamental freedoms. Internal migration from the weaker to the stronger social systems has been the consequence. This development puts pressure on the national economies to such an extent that no consideration is given to whether the states concerned can actually finance this additional expenditure on social benefits.

Last autumn, for example, Austria passed a law that would index family allowances for children of employees living in other EU countries according to the cost of living index in these countries. In a joint letter, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovenia called on EU Labour Commissioner Marianne Thyssen to examine whether the Austrian measure was in line with EU law. In an initial statement, the European Commission emphasised that indexation was not permitted under European law. The Brussels authority threatened Austria with infringement proceedings.

This is just one example among many, but it clearly demonstrates that the social systems of EU states are degenerating. The ageing of the population, economic and financial crises, increasing unemployment, but above all the massive influx of immigrants from third countries are intensifying the fight for increasingly scarce social resources. Through their integration policy, the EU states have restricted their own room for manoeuvre: due to the principle of non-discrimination a reduction in social benefits must always affect everyone, including the citizens of their own country. If the EU economies want to be able to continue financing their social systems, they will have to continue redistributing social resources. Where redistribution is no longer possible, the only option is to raise taxes en masse.

It was mentioned at the beginning that humans tend to simplify complex issues and break them down into causal chains. With reference to the yellow vests movement in France, there are numerous explanatory patterns in public discourse that illuminate one or the other aspect. It would probably be too much for human understanding to portray these incidents and the related effects in all their complexity. However, no one is stopping us from learning from history. "One of the most important lessons from Rome's fall is that complexity has a cost" [11] While for decades the historical view was cultivated that the Roman Empire was destroyed by invading peoples, experts today see things in a much more differentiated way. "As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to maintain any system in a complex, ordered state – and human society is no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new things – an army double the size, cavalry, subdivided provinces that each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences – just to maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards. Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up these heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war that did the Empire in." [12]
Post Scriptum

The Global Village of the digitalized world supposedly creates a civil society of individuals, but definitely not a community and a common economy. This is explosive for civil societies organised in constitutional states. Why will this hit the EU hard? The European Union has become stuck in its development into a "European community" and a "European national economy". At the same time, we can observe a partial dissolution of the original communities in some of the member states. This is an apparent parallel to states that are shaken by revolutionary processes of systemic change, like Ukraine. The dissolution of the communities (national economies) and the simultaneous emergence of a borderless individualized civil society generate an enormous danger for the EU and its member states.

The article reflects the personal opinion of the author.

[1] Slavoj Zizek "The yellow vest protesters revolting against centrism mean well – but their left wing populism won't change French politics, The Independent, Dec. 17th 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/yellow-vest-protests-france-paris-gilets-jaunes-macron-fuel-tax-minimum-wage-populism-a8686586.html

[2] ibid

[3] Be realistic, demand the impossible!, author's translation into English

[4] Arnaud Benedetti „Les Gilets jaunes ou la blessure non cicatrisée du referendum de 2005", Le Figaro, Jan. 7th, 2019, http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/politique/2019/01/07/31001-20190107ARTFIG00162-les-gilets-jaunes-ou-la-blessure-non-cicatrisee-du-referendum-de-2005.php

[5] ibid, Doxa (ancient Greek δόξα; from verb δοκεῖν dokein, "to appear", "to seem", "to think" and "to accept") is a Greek word meaning common belief or popular opinion

[6] Frederic Felloux „How Facebook is Fueling The French Populist Rage", Mondaynote, Dec. 2nd, 2018, https://mondaynote.com/how-facebook-is-fueling-the-french-populist-rage-27a86acb9d85

[7] ibid

[8] France's Days of Rage", Euronews, Dec. 20th, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/12/17/watch-at-20-30-cet-euronews-special-documentary-on-the-gilets-jaunes

[9] ibid, selection of interviewees' statements

[10] Vincent Trémolet de Villers „Conversation civique", l'editorial du Figaro Jan. 13th, 2019, http://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/politique/2019/01/13/31001-20190113ARTFIG00171-l-editorial-du-figaro-conversation-civique.php, author's translation into English

[11] Rachel Nuwer „How Western civilisation could collapse", BBC Future's "Best of 2017", April 18th 2017, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170418-how-western-civilisation-could-collapse

[12] ibid