Friday, December 6, 2013

Aux barricades, comrades!
France toys with its next revolution

Mon dieu! Where to begin? the French government, in a bout of historical amnesia, has decided to erect a nationwide network of electronic "éco-tax" barriers straddling its major highways (which have been privatized into corporate-owned toll-roads, but that is another matter) to collect an environmental tax upon the country's long-distance truckers.

Well, apparently this was the tax too far, the impot that broke the camel's back, and Brittany—that poor, agrarian and fiercely self-aware region that French nationalism never fully managed to tame—has gone into open revolt. Red Phrygian caps, or "red bonnets," symbol of the French revolution of 1789, have become all the rage, sported by enraged citoyens who gather to wave the Breton flag and to set fire to these newly erected electronic tax barriers, while the nation's truckers have organized to block the country's major vehicular arteries for the last several weekends.

Open revolt. That, in a nutshell, is what is currently brewing en ce pays-ci, which coincides with record levels of popular discontent with the government and a record-low approval rate for the Président de la République, François Hollande. Hollande has plumbed the lowest depths of approval (and conversely the apex of popular disapproval), reaching 16% overall approval in the latest national polling—just nine percentage points ahead of the US Congress.

In an unprecedented display of public discontent, Hollande was publicly booed and heckled while observing solemn Armistice celebrations at the base of the Arc de triomphe this past November 11. For the moment, civil disobediance and organized arson are reserved for weekends and national holidays, in the French tradition of protest as wholesome family entertainment. However, all this could change with further incitement, leading to an escalation to public strikes—another French tradition that even the leader of the nation's most leftist union has publicly disavowed, fearing to become the spark that sets off a mood that is "explosive all over."

Meanwhile, the country's préfets, akin to county executives, sent a confidential, leaked memo to the Elysée that stated in the starkest of terms that conditions in France are a "tinderbox," that the populace has never been more resentful of the unrelenting onslaught of increasing taxes and stagnating incomes, and that the government had better take heed of, and gingerly diffuse, this volatile situation or face a "fronde sociale," or popular revolt.

So, what did the government do? Why, it also decided to increase the national sales tax, or TVA, come the new year. Bonne année!  Only problem, fully 81% of French citizens find the current tax system unjust and want the country's finances completely revamped.

A few tidbits of history, to put all this in perspective. The last time France had a revolution, in 1789, it was incited by increasingly onerous taxation by a deeply indebted government, culminating with the construction of a physical Berlin wall of tax barriers about Paris, imprisoning the city's populace (we even blogged about it, here).

Also note the uncanny resemblance of President Hollande to Louis XVI, and the uncanny resemblance of his policies to those of the late, beheaded monarch: blind allegiance to the status quo in the face of increasing popular discontent during a prolonged period of deepening economic adversity. One should also remark that Hollande shows none of the creativity or intestinal fortitude necessary to reddress the mounting crisis of confidence in the competence and direction of the French government itself, to say nothing of a fundamantal realignment, overwhelmingly demanded by the citizenry, of its implacably oppressive tax structure. 

Today, the New York Times reports that the populist, far-right Front National is the most popular political party in France, with the Socialist Party of Hollande trailing badly. You do not need to be an oracle or a political pundit to divine that the present moment is about the absolute worst time for the government to re-erect a modern version of the tax barriers that incited the French Revolution. 

Willful amnesia, and déjà vu all over again.

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