The yellow vest and pension reform protests in France portend issues that most industrialized nations will have to face sooner or later
France has spent much of the last seventeen months embroiled in chaos. French President Immanuel Macron has asked the French people to be more French – and pay even higher taxes than they already do – and to be more American – and work longer hours before retirement. These mutually contradictory requests have predictably ticked off the French people, many hundreds of thousands of whom have spent over a year protesting in the streets of over 100 cities all over France. A compliant international media has graciously refused to press too hard in its coverage of the protests and the attendant violence and Macron can continue to pretend that his government is competently addressing the situation.
The scenes in the streets of Paris and other French cities bear many resemblances to another long-running protest movement on the other side of the world. In Hong Kong, a protest about a singular issue – an extradition bill – quickly transformed into a mass movement replete with demands about democracy. Many of the demonstrations have been met with violence by, and dealt out to, the Hong Kong police. Yet the world seems strangely unconcerned with the French protesters and the unnecessarily heavy-handed response by French authorities as compared to the Hong Kong protests.
Since October of 2018, millions of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen have taken to the streets in protest. Violence has repeatedly erupted as the line between protest and riot is continuously redefined by demonstrators, police, and the media. Last week firefighters at the demonstrations fought with police and literally set themselves on fire in protest. Eleven people have died so far, 4000 have been injured, and at least 8400 have been arrested in what many describe as France’s worst domestic disturbances since 1968. Initially a populist protest against rising gas taxes the gilet jaunes movement (French for yellow vest) has morphed into a much larger, much broader campaign about French democracy, European identity, and rising income inequality.
Contrast this with the Hong Kong protests. Since the re-ignition of mass demonstrations in May of last year literally millions of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets in protest. Two people have died, one on accident; over 2600 have been injured and just over 7000 have been arrested. But the world press has poured millions of gallons of ink over the Hong Kong protests while barely dipping their pens in an inkwell to cover the French protests.
Why is this? Why do reporters and editors around the world have no shortage of reporters on the ground in Hong Kong and innumerable editorials decrying the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party but can’t spare a few column-inches a month for events in a country far closer, that are cheaper to cover, and more relevant to western readers and leaders?
China has enchanted the west for centuries, a mysterious place that defies easy explanation; dragons, gunpowder, Kung Fu and Confucius captivated western observers. Today, the Chinese economic miracle of the last forty years is entrancing to economists, political scientists, pundits, and policy-makers; legions of western commentators have gushed over China’s accomplishments as prominent western politicians wax apologetic over the country’s less-than-savory record on civil liberties, human rights, and international law.
It’s easy to criticize the Chinese government. It’s easy to mock anyone so indignant about being mocked; banning Winnie the Pooh for memes comparing the cartoon bear to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, for example. Taking the high road against a one-party state that lies about building concentration camps, imprisons political prisoners, and comically over-deploys already comical propaganda. The People’s Republic of China executes more people than anyone on Earth, lies to its citizens and the world about the most paltry things (as well as deathly serious things), bullies its neighbors, and is easy to dislike. At the same time, the Chinese government has also done more to alleviate mass human suffering than arguably any other government in history and enjoys extremely high approval ratings from its citizens.
Perhaps the West likes staring at Chinese spectacles because we can safely cast judgment on authoritarians. Judging domestic disturbances in China is easy in the post-Tiananmen world: “The Hong Kong protests are what happens when people want to be free.” The West can moralize on Hong Kong because the “Five Demands” of the Hong Kong protesters are for things that most westerners already have and take for granted: an independent judiciary, the rule of law, free elections.
The French protests may feel too familiar for western journalists to report on. For one thing, the French have a well-known, and proud, tradition of protesting at the drop of a beret. As anyone who has traveled through France can tell you, strikes are a regular occurrence there: dairy-farmers, rail workers, firefighters, and beret-makers take to, and shut down, the streets often. “Is it supposed to be news that there are protests in France?” one could reasonably, if cynically, ask. How much digital ink should be dedicated to something as predictably French as scoffing at American cheese?
Maybe the Hong Kong protests are just naturally more sympathetic to western eyes. Fighting against extradition to a totalitarian state does probably make a more noble narrative than fighting a hike in the price of fuel. Can western hearts be forgiven for fluttering more when Hong Kongers demand free elections than when Frenchmen demand their pensions be left alone?
Is it possible that dealing with the implications of the French protests would be uncomfortable for western journalists? Pension reform is a massive issue all over the industrialized world, from California to Netherlands to Japan. Hundreds of millions of Americans, Brazilians, Russians, and Frenchmen are the beneficiaries of pension systems that are, or will very soon be, broken and/or bankrupt. Similarly, raising the cost of gas may be en vogue with certain policymakers and journalists and activists but it is still massively unpopular with most people, including the French it seems as over 60% of the French public support the truck drivers striking in protest.
Highlighting someone else’s character flaws is often a deflection from one’s own problems. Hong Kong is conveniently on fire at the same time as France and it is easy to see how much more attention is being given to China’s actions than to France’s. More people have died, been injured, and been arrested during the French protests than have in Hong Kong. The French protests have been going on for twice as long and are on issues of much greater relevance to western citizens. China has predictably, and quite reasonably, decried the double standard and obvious hypocrisy of western leaders – audaciously including Macron himself – criticizing China’s responses to the Hong Kong protesters. China is far too quick to place the racism card but the media needs to do a better job of covering the French protests – no matter how uncomfortable it may be for them.
Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance journalist. He writes for The Swamp and has also been featured in Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, Times of Israel, Alaska Native News, among others. Read more of his work at his Medium blog and argue with him on Twitter.
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