The response to the “gilets jaunes” protests: adding fuel to the populist fire

Article by Alina Bârgăoanu


The “gilets jaunes” protests taking place all over France for quite some time now are “work in progress”, so it is challenging to analyse them, let alone make predictions about their consequences. Despite the challenge, I would dare point to some features that apparently are relevant for public opinion trends across the European Union.

One thing that stands out is that frames such as “outburst”, “suddenness”, “out-of-the-ordinary” dominate public conversations. Yet, when engaging deeper with the subject, one may discover that the “rebellion” has been “there” all along, only that it has hardly been covered by the mainstream media. The yellow vests protests give credit to the idea that repression of issues as “vague”, “inarticulate”, “propaganda” or “fake news” has this “unexpected” effect of bursting into the public sphere. One tends to forget that President Emmanuel Macron won the presidential elections over a highly polarised country in highly unusual circumstances. His comfortable margin of victory was mistaken for a sign that polarisation disappeared; efforts towards bridging the divide, understanding the root causes of polarisation, paying attention to the call “I am here and I count” (no matter how “illiterate” I may be) have been notably absent. It is a matter of astonishment why the “basket of deplorables” frame appeals to so many leaders crusading to save “current liberal order”, with mixed results for the very efforts of saving that order.

The demands of the “gilets jaunes” are heterogeneous. “Frexit” demand certainly grabs attention. It is not for me to judge whether “Frexit” was put forth in an unusual outburst of public rage and whether, once the rage subsides, it will disappear. Hopefully, it will. Still, I am concerned with the phenomenon of breaking taboos in the public sphere, an effect documented as the “Overton Window”: a given public opinion makes assumptions about possibilities along a continuum stretching from unthinkable to radical to acceptable to sensible to popular and to policy. Let’s remember the good ol’ days when “EU exits” were “unthinkable” only to become policy in the case of the Brexit referendum. The fact that, policy-wise, Brexit remains a stand-alone case should not be a source of complacency. The easiness with which “exits” are rolled in the national public spheres, and the fearmongering frames with which they are fought back (“do you want to end up like UK?”) may create the paradoxical effect of increasing the acceptability of those rising, if controversial, ideas.

Let me turn to President Macron’s televised speech. At the December 2012 European Council, Herman von Rompuy proposed a Eurozone budget. The German chancellor asked “Where will the money come from?”. French President François suggested to Angela Merkel to think of it as a “solidarity fund”. Again, the Chancellor asked “Where will the money come from?”. So, where will the money for the proposed measures come from?

As Politico’s article emphasizes, “Europe’s best friend, Emmanuel Macron, handed Italian populists a helping hand by announcing a spending spree of his own”. The competition over finance at Eurozone level will increase. The austerity framework put in place after the eurocrisis could become politically unbearable for the French president; rather than accept the fiscal orthodoxy, Macron could end up turning the tables – which would force Germany to react. It is not far-fetched to expect the resurrection of the polarising “thrift over profligacy” morality frame. As research on populism indicates, morality frames are an invitation to populism, inflate expectations about a miraculous leader who will cure all the ills plaguing the “corrupted” political life. This aspect is worth our attention. Another one is that the competition/ fight over financial resources will intensify at the level of EU overall, which may present an even bigger polarising potential between the West and the East. It is reasonable to expect the resurrection of the “lesser Europeans” frame applied to (some member states from) Central and Eastern Europe, in the context of the upcoming negotiations over the EU budget. During a lecture at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, Ashoka Modi, author of the book EuroTragedy: a drama in nine acts, said: the key questions to be asked about the troubles of the Eurozone and of the EU are: “why is the EU budget so small?” and “why has it not increased for 15 years?”. Instead of addressing these questions, the North will fight with the South, the East with the West, with France at the core of all these. Morality frames will be played at the expense of “economic gains” ones, which will add fuel to the populism fire. This may prove to be “legacy” of the yellow vests protests to the European public debate. Not so much their contribution, but rather of the response that they received.

About the Author

Alina Bârgăoanu

Alina Bârgăoanu, profesor universitar Jean Monnet la SNSPA, decan al Facultăţii de Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice; Președinte al Consiliului de Administrație al Institutului European din România; cele mai recente lucrări: „Why Europe? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of European Integration” (2017, Peter Lang), „United by or Against Euroscepticism. An Assessment of Public Attitudes Towards the EU in the Context of the Crisis (2015, Cambridge Scholars); bursier Fulbright (2001- 2002).