No, the yellow vests movement isn't Europe's Arab Spring

No, the yellow vests movement isn't Europe's Arab Spring
Comment: The violence and extreme politics associated with the yellow vests is far removed from the Arab Spring's push for egalitarianism, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
16 Jan, 2019
Protests that began in November swept France, and continue in to the new year [Getty]
Though there are superficial similarities between the Arab Spring and the 'yellow vests' movement in France, such as both movements being largely 'leaderless' and apparently 'spontaneous' (decades of tyranny tend to produce unrest), it's here that any continuity between the two ends.   

But that doesn't mean any comparison between the Arab spring and the yellow vests should be abandoned. For it's precisely in the obvious contrast between them, that we can differentiate between uprisings of objective progress, such as the Arab Spring, and movements such as the yellow vests, that are inherently regressive.

To paraphrase Aesop, you may discern the measure of a person by the company they keep.   

Here in the UK, it's no surprise that those donning the now infamous fluorescent high visibility vests as a form of protest are also those who comprise the most extreme wing of the Brexit movement, drawn largely from the British far-right.  

Most recently, the yellow vest UK protesters have been targeting anti-Brexit MPs with threats and abuse. In reaction to several complaints from anti-Brexit MPs about harassment by the yellow vest mob, House speaker John Bercow called their behaviour 'a type of fascism'.

A type of fascism indeed.   

Though the movement in France is without a doubt more complex and diverse than its British variant, we must not have any illusions about the core ideology at play.  

Though there is no one group that represents the yellow vests in France, they mostly assemble under nebulous-sounding social media groups, such as 'Demonstration Map'. But look a bit closer and you'll find groups with ominous names such as 'Angry Patriots'.

According to polls, 6/10 yellow vests either voted for the far-right Marine Le Pen or the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon in the presidential election

Moreover, one of the chief motivators behind the movement was Maxime Nicolle, a far-right conspiracist who is responsible for perpetuating the lie that Macron was about to sign a deal with the UN allowing 480 million non-white immigrants into Europe.

Within the movement you'll find the same fears, conspiracies and hatreds as those of far-right and alt-left across the globe: The 'mainstream media' are targeted with extreme hostility, while democratic institutions are treated like a rigged system crafted by a nefarious 'elite' or 'establishment' that has to be destroyed.   

It's the same politics that provided such bilious fuel to the Trump movement and that was poured over the already slow burning post-truth xenophobia that ignited Brexit.

It's perfectly true that the yellow vests' main stated concerns are rooted in real social concerns, but this doesn't mean that the movement is not directly and indirectly related to both fascism and authoritarianism.  

But as with fascism of old, these genuine social issues are being used as rallying calls for decisive attempts to break the liberal democratic system in France; hence the extreme violence co-existing with these 'reasonable' demands.

Those who look at historic fascism and note its emphasis on a strong leader and the yellow vests lack of leadership might want to consider that Hitler sold himself at first not as the 'Fuhrer', but as the mere 'drummer' who would pave the way for the yet-to-emerge national saviour of Germany from the nefarious Jewish elites.  

What lies behind the yellow vests is not the urges of a repressed population like those who rose up against the Arab tyrannies, but the spoiled outrage of the majority. Much like the Poujadists before them, their entire focus is on a toxic mixture of populist provincialism, mixed with mythic notions of their own disenfranchisement at the hands of a vampiric global elite.

The yellow vests might disappear tomorrow, but they have now exemplified that their populist terror works in undermining democratic institutions.

Though the state has tried to crush the protests, Macron has also 
acquiesced to key demands. It's no wonder then that the authoritarian Le Pen has sought very quickly to provide concrete support for the yellow vests; support that has been welcomed.  

According to polls, 6/10 yellow vests either voted for the far-right Marine Le Pen or the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon in the presidential election, while many did not vote at all.

According to Politico, much of the furious violence that has engulfed the streets of French cities comes from a 'red-brown' alliance of ultra-left and ultra-right urban guerrillas that has emerged as part of the movement.    

What do Le Pen and Melenchon or, more generally, alt-left and alt-right have in common? Like the old authoritarian poles of fascism and communism, they find commonality in a rejection of the status quo - a virulent distrust and hostility towards centrism, 'neoliberalism' and 'bourgeois democracy'.

The Arab Spring was about establishing egalitarianism in a region of the world where cartels of tyranny have ruled for over a century

We saw how many of Melenchon's supporters said they'd rather have a Le Pen presidency than a Macron one. We saw many left-wingers in the US say the same about Trump over Clinton.

In the UK, we see the Lexit phenomenon, which wraps up the racist and xenophobic core of Brexit in the language of the left, claiming freedom of movement is a capitalist mechanism to drive down the wages of 'indigenous' Brits.   

More acutely, we've seen a global left that has overwhelmingly the past eight years supported or justified the fascistic genocide perpetrated in Syria by Assad, Iran and Russia. Is it really a surprise that we have a left today that finds allies and heroes in the yellow vests, but sees terrorist demons in the White Helmets?

For the left, liberal democracy is simply a mirage projected to serve the capitalist elite, while for the right, liberal democracy is a means through which elites and immigrants prosper at the expense of the disenfranchised ethnocultural majority.  

What both envision is the undermining and destruction of the institutions of liberal democracy, whether it's the free press (the hated 'mainstream media) or parliamentary democracy (the hated 'rigged system').

What both have in common is the mythos of the disenfranchised majority. This is what the hi-vis vest represents: the everyman.   

In Trumpspeak it's the disenfranchised blue collar worker in the 'rust belt', while for the Brexiteer, it's the marginalised working class.  

The reality is that poorest and most socially oppressed Americans voted for Clinton, while the same demographics in the UK voted to Remain. The yellow vests is not a revolt of the poor, as some would suggest, but a diverse movement that has little engagement with France's most marginalised populations.   

But none of this is about reality. It's about self-justification and the skewing of reality to fit dogma.  

It's about the excesses of populations who have spent years exposed to discourse saturated with fake news, disinformation and anti-democratic narratives that transform their privileged sense of entitlement into a hatred of the society that provides such entitlements.   

The huge numbers who rose up to fight for justice and liberty against ingrained and actual tyranny in the Arab Spring did so because they had no political representation or democratic institutions - no advanced welfare states.  

The Arab Spring was about establishing egalitarianism in a region of the world where cartels of tyranny have ruled for over a century. The yellow vests are a complex reaction to a world that is ever more rejecting egalitarianism.

The yellow vests, on the other hand, are merely the street wing of a movement whose goals have more in common with counter-revolution, than they do with the Arab revolutionaries.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Join the conversation @The_NewArab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.