“We are angry!” This is the sentence that I have repeatedly heard from Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) demonstrators during the past three weeks while taking the political temperature in France. The assertion seems to refute my first diagnostic in a column last month that the movement reflected boredom rather than anger.
Having talked to dozens of rioters and observed some of their shenanigans including burning car tires, overturning parked cars and smashing shop-windows in posh streets, I am prepared to admit that both anger and boredom might be involved.
The first thing to note, though, is that this is not an uprising of the starving poor and homeless masses, supposing such strata exists in one of the world’s most prosperous countries. The rioters we met were mostly apparently well-fed and eloquent middle and lower middle class in their mid-life. Mostly live in the provinces, especially Brittany, in mid-size towns and villages. Many are early retirees, in their 60s, with nothing exciting to do.
The rioters seem to be bored on their own behalf but angry on behalf of “the left-behind masses” they believe exist somewhere in France.
Last Saturday, the total number rioting in Paris and 12 other cities was put by the police at 50,000, a sharp fall compared to nine weeks ago when the fireworks started. But what do they actually want? It is hard to tell. Since there is no leadership structure and no spokespersons are allowed, one must do with anecdotal evidence.