PARIS — Two months ago, as the 2019 increase in fuel taxes was soon to come into force, a spontaneous and widespread civilian protest movement erupted in a very cleaved France.
As the Yellow Vests “Act X” took place across the country on Jan. 19 — once again with substantial participation — the Register sought the views of three French religious figures who support the protest movement.
On Nov. 17, the first mass demonstration took place across the whole country, attracting more than 300,000 protesters who blocked roads and traffic circles. They chose the yellow vest as the symbol of their movement, as the French are legally required to have a yellow jacket in their vehicles and to wear it during breakdowns or to walk on the road by night.
The protests then continued every Saturday with broad public support, especially in rural areas and in “peri-urban” areas between suburbs and the countryside, where the demonstrations often degenerated into riots, causing considerable property damage and numerous arrests among the protesters.
Since the beginning of the movement, 10 civilians have lost their lives, and hundreds have been injured.
The government’s subsequent decision to cancel the fuel-tax increase didn’t stem the crisis, and the movement’s demands quickly expanded to a more general call for a global political and economic reform: The Yellow Vests’ “Act X” on Jan. 19 still attracted tens of thousands of people across France, despite a series of measures in favor of enhancing purchasing power and the launch of a “national debate” for drawing lessons from the crisis.
The social divide seems now too deep to be bridged, as the initial fiscal protest has turned into a wider movement against the French president that spans the political spectrum. Yet the current situation is the result of decades of increasing fiscal pressure and the progressive erosion of the relationship between elite groups and the citizens.
A Mismanaged Globalization
“The vast majority of these people are sincere and not violent; they are in desperate need of a job or they work already but are weighed down with taxes. They have the impression that all of what they earn is taken away from them by the state,” Bishop Bernard Ginoux of Montauban (Occitanie) told the Register.
He is the only member of the French episcopate to have officially expressed his support for the movement in a press release on Dec. 7 and then decided to join the protesters on Saturday, Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, to be in close contact with the people’s issues.
“Some of them told me they have come to belong to the category of the ‘useless men,’ and I was there to remind them Jesus loves them,” he said.
According to Bishop Ginoux , the portion of the population that is mostly represented in the movement is the category of those who have felt excluded from the rest of the society in the past few years but did not hold that view in the past.
Indeed, the vast majority of the protesters are part of the middle-class, the main victims of a mismanaged globalization, as Angus Deaton, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economic Science, points out in The Great Escape (2013) — a globalization that has often benefited the wealthiest and some of the poorest classes over the past decades, to the detriment of the middle classes. In the specific case of France, people who need their cars for work every day reject being accused of polluting and being required to pay more taxes for this reason: In fact, on a global scale, France’s pollution rate is very low, especially compared to some bigger countries, whose citizens don’t have to pay such taxes.
Father Julien Dumont, a priest of the Diocese of Orléans (Centre-Val de Loire), who celebrated a Mass for the Yellow Vests on a traffic circle for Christmas, confirms such analysis. “We are facing a massive social crisis with many different claims among the citizens. Those who express such claims in a more visible way are those who have been forgotten for too long by public policies, that is the rural or peri-urban citizens expelled from the city centers because of the rising living costs and from the suburbs because of rampant Islamization,” he said, specifying that women are extremely numerous in the demonstrations, which is quite new in such social movements.
These people who are more and more struggling to make ends meet are all the more exasperated as they suffer an increasing isolation from decision-making positions. Such feeling is also experienced within the Church in these areas — as subsidiarity is slowly vanishing in the whole territory, the parishes are growing larger geographically and pastors are less and less visible.
The Crisis of Intermediary Bodies
What makes the desperation so hard to overcome for many French people is the complete disappearance of the so-called intermediary bodies that stand between the state and the citizens, such as political institutions, companies, family, associations and churches.
“Our social intermediary bodies are damaged; they no longer have anything to say, they are all alike, and they are often slaves to political correctness. When people who suffer don’t have any valid leader, and when they don’t have any other interlocutor, they lose their minds or rebel,” said Father Stéphane Drillon, a priest of the Diocese of Nice (French Riviera) known in France for his YouTube channel called Le Curé Enragé (“The Enraged Priest”) in which he regularly offers comments on the news.
“The movement is a reaction to the loss of a valid interlocutor who would care for citizens’ well-being and destiny,” he added, pointing out that the national budget is totally unknown to most citizens, and even to most deputies, making them unaware of how the taxpayers’ money is being spent.
In Father Drillon’s opinion, the Catholic Church would have a key role to play as an intermediary between the state and the people, as it did very significantly in the 19th and 20th centuries, except it has lost too much ground and doesn’t play its former role any more in France.
A similar point of view was expressed by Bishop Ginoux, who called for a return of the social doctrine of the Church in his interview with the Register, as well as a greater commitment from the Catholic clergy and religious in the public life of the community. “We must enlighten the faithful, even at the expense of being accused of getting involved in politics,” he said.
The Need of a Sense of Belonging
In his 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?” historian Ernest Renan defined the nation as “a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which are really one, constitute this soul and spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other the present. One is the possession in common of a rich trove of memories; the other is actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to value the undivided, shared heritage ...”
Precisely, one of the causes of the current crisis seems to lie on the loss of a consensus over what is making French people a nation, the loss of a desire to live together on the basis of a shared tradition. This is why the very notion of democracy is at stake in the movement that is also calling for the implementation of citizens’ initiative referendums.
A notable element in the priests’ witnesses is a certain revival of popular religion in a very secular France. Father Dumont, while celebrating Christmas Mass with the protesters, heard them sing Il est né le Divin Enfant, a traditional French Christmas carol that many of them hadn’t heard since their childhood. “I felt I could bring them the great Christian hope,” he said.
Bishop Ginoux, for his part, was asked to bless a Nativity that the Yellow Vests placed next to the Christmas tree in a cabin they built on a traffic circle (the exhibition of a Nativity in public spaces is in many cases forbidden in France). “Some of them asked me to pray. I also met a tall and sturdy protester wearing a medal of Padre Pio around his neck,” he said, suggesting that it could be a sign that the French Catholic Church might have neglected popular religion too much, while it has traditionally played a strong unifying role in a society.
“People tell me: ‘We are family now, and we are not going to get separated.’ This surge of fraternity could also be an opportunity for the Church to revert to one of its traditional roles, a role it left to the trade unions a long time ago.”
Register correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.