Those of us who mostly observe and comment on the current crisis, or suite of crises, owe a debt to France’s gilets jaunes, the yellow vests. They’re drawn largely from the outskirts of metropolitan France but gravitated, as French protest always does, to Paris. They’re clarifiers. A truck driver, quoted in the New York Times, “was deciding which of that day’s meals to skip.”

That’s what it’s come to for large (and apparently growing) numbers of people, not only there, during an era of unprecedented wealth globally. Do you think some anger might ensue? I was told by a young lawyer this week that he lives with his girlfriend in her parents’ basement and they won’t get married because they can’t afford the wedding. Not kids or a house — the wedding.

The gilets jaunes — named for yellow safety vests drivers must carry in case they have to get out, which seems perfectly apt, though I can’t quite say why, maybe because it shows how at risk, yet on their own, they are — have been carefully misrepresented from the start. They were assigned to Marine Le Pen’s neo-fascist party; they were petit bourgeois versus staunch proletarians.

In fact they’re an incoherent bunching of desperate, angry, normal people, lacking any serious organization or leadership. There are leftish gilets jaunes, for instance, who want wealth redistribution and salary ceilings for CEOs.

The other misrepresentation was of le président Macron, portrayed as a humane alternative to racist populism; who overlooked his life’s work as a filthy rich banker, his slavish loyalty to neo-liberalism and his actions to enhance the wealth of the already rich through tax cuts while undermining everyone else.

He said this week that, “Nothing justifies attacking the security forces, vandalizing businesses … or the Arc de Triomphe defaced.”

Well, nothing except the history of France since 1789. The truck driver pondering which meal to skip said he was motivated to “recover the country’s priorities. The values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” One wonders what Macron thinks, beyond “nothing,” would justify French citizens having to cut a meal a day.

The killer blow, AKA last straw, was imposition of a gas tax, which might sound familiar. “The citizens have asked for lower taxes, and they’re saying, ‘Ecology,'” said a rural optician, responding to Macron’s sanctimonious speech hailing the tax as a bold transition to renewables.

Not that survival of the planet and species shouldn’t take precedence, en principe, but can you really expect people to put out for the environment when they’re deciding which mealtime their four kids will miss? First things first and eating tends to take priority, especially when those far better off aren’t being asked to sacrifice.

Here’s where Alberta’s tarsands slot right in. If, said Financial Times writer Martin Sandbu, “unfair burden-sharing is justified by what science says we must do, it is hard to resist the temptation to tell science where it can go.”

This applies to tarsands workers and all those “downstream” whose jobs also depend on that grim sludge. Most people, especially Easterners, who lecture them on the need to “leave it in the ground,” aren’t so shallow that they stop there. They expand (like Macron) on transitioning to jobs in a green economy.

But that won’t cut it either. If you’re raising a family you have to know how soon and how generous the transition will be. It needn’t come tomorrow but there must be a schedule providing foreseeable hope.

Justin Trudeau felt he’d worked that out with a combo of carbon tax and pipelines, but someone screwed up prodigiously on implementation, especially regarding First Nations, and now nothing’s left in Ottawa but teeth-gnashing and improvisation.

It might be inspiring to take a long-term “species” perspective and simply embrace the “ecology,” regardless of hunger, jobs etc., since short-term we’ll all return to dust and ashes anyway. On the other hand that sounds pretty inhuman itself, and loses the tragic, loving essence of being (briefly) alive.

Meanwhile, as Lenin said in his own desperate times, power lies in the street (or banlieue) waiting to be picked up by whoever has the guts and answers to take leadership over these raging forces — left, right or who knows.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

Image: NightFightToVenus/Flickr

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.