Unless you have been inside government, it’s hard to appreciate how marginal most of the theatrical element of modern politics is to the actual political process itself. Demonstrations, petitions, Twitter storms, op-ed articles, even speeches in Parliament are generally just so much background noise. If you were involved in the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s, or the protests against the invasion of Iraq a generation later, you could be forgiven for thinking that the massive demonstrations and all the publicity must have registered with governments in some form. But they didn’t, except insofar as they were a rather tiresome commitment for junior civil servants to deal with.
Which is why the gilets jaunes (GJ)) are interesting. France has a long tradition of political street theatre, with its own rules. The government says it’s going to do something, or refuses to change something, tens of thousands of people demonstrate, there’s a little bit of violence at the margins, and the government goes ahead with its plans regardless. But France has an equally long tradition of much more effective and serious political action beginning with the 1789 Revolution, and, although we have to avoid excitable comparisons, it’s true that what the GJs are up to is much more serious than the usual street theatre. For a start, they are genuinely angry and genuinely committed. In addition, they aren’t stupid, and have quickly realised that the best tactics are those of the guerrilla: be everywhere and nowhere, keep changing your methods, and run the authorities ragged.
Which in turn is why the authorities are genuinely worried, and why they have come out swinging with both hands, amid accusations of fascism, and threats to democracy and republican values. They have begun to appreciate (some of them anyway) that the ordinary people of France, the 80% if you like, are angry and discontented, and have the will and the ability, if they choose, to bring the country to an effective halt. There’s no obvious counter to that, and demonisation, and even repression, will only make the situation worse. You can’t marginalise the majority of the population. Or rather, you can try, but the effort will be self-defeating and probably disastrous.
So that’s where we are now. Keep an eye on this one, it promises to be interesting.