Comment: As red hits the green

The eruption of yellow-vest (gilets jaunes) protesters in France during the last few weeks perhaps came across to most people as something of a surprise. However, it was just a threat waiting to happen and now the genie is “out of the bottle”, it is sure to have lasting reverberations around the planet and have serious and lasting knock-on implications for employee relations.

What is seemingly new about this development is that it is a largely leaderless movement. It is therefore difficult for the authorities to know who to deal with, or for the police and intelligence services to know where to infiltrate. It is an organisation born from the womb of social media – just as in 2011, the Arab Spring was born from a popular uprising against Middle-East dictatorships communicated via Facebook, Twitter, and even mass emailing. However, this time things have changed. For one thing, Facebook has helped its emergence by changing its algorithms to emphasize local news and links to friends and family. Localized and close personal events now loom larger for a generation that spends much of its spare time scrolling with their smart phones. Yet, although the message is local, it does not prevent wider overlapping networks from spreading messages quickly at a global level. Indeed, as they appear more localized and personal, such messages – however fake or inflated – seem more powerful and credible.

Another characteristic of this movement is that although it started with a cause – rising fuel costs – it quickly diversified into being purely anti-establishment. Everyone with a grievance, personal agenda, or just a need for excitement and rebellion in their lives suddenly had an outlet for their ire or simply a relief from their malaise. There was no longer a shared focus for outrage, just a socialised conspiracy of anger or simply an excuse for wanton destruction.

What is special about France, and possibly the reason that this phenomenon emerged there, is that the country is run by a particularly distant, and yet easily identifiable, elite of people who all went to the same schools and universities and mix in their tight inner circles, where bureaucracy acts as a shield of indifference to the rest of the population. It is also a country where taxes and regulations stultify enterprise to such an extent that France’s many entrepreneurs choose to expand their operations abroad rather than at home. France, moreover, has a strong cultural orientation towards the individual, which makes the French very difficult to govern.

And the future scope for social negativity is infinite. This is especially as governments continue to pump an increasing amount of investment into education, yet preside over an economy giving less and less opportunities for all but those with the greatest talent to thrive.

Labour-displacing technologies are only going to make things worse, especially for men – and not just in France. Already in the USA, the employment participation of men aged 21–60 has fallen over the last two decades from 96% to 85% and is now declining faster than ever. It is not only the “red necks” that got Trump into office or xenophobic “Little Englanders” that voted for Brexit, but a broader community of displaced people who are rapidly emerging into a powerful underclass. This can already be seen too in the trades union movement where France has the lowest level of unionisation in Europe, but whose unions – especially the CGT and FO – make up for shortage in members by using extreme militancy. The fact that they can survive with such low affiliation is also because employers – especially in the public sector – give them time off and other quasi-financial assistance, and because they have a huge, passive support network in the rest of the population.

So, as the impetus of “gilets jaunes” spreads to other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, what is the message for employers? To begin with, this is not just a time of inconvenience because employees are delayed coming to work due to road blocks and picket lines. It is a development that could even overwhelm organised labour. Companies can certainly no longer afford to live with their ever-persistent levels of poor employee engagement. Employees need to be persuaded to become involved, not only in the firm, but also the firm more heavily involved in major issues of the day. Macron ironically lost control when he was espousing the cause of climate change, but all the people could see was higher fuel prices. Global warming is an issue that can engage employees, but only if it is dressed up in more colourful and less bourgeois clothing. The environment seems to be something for “sad types” or the rich alone to espouse, not an essential quest for planetary survival. Governments and employers must also address poverty, extreme wealth inequality and the ennui that goes with it. The “welfare state” is not alone the solution, but what we need now are new ideas about cultivating respect and the feeling of significance across and between all groups in modern societies.

President Macron has been trying to punish protestors with mass arrests whilst, at the same time, appeasing his more moderate opponents with tax breaks, fuel price freezes and a hike in the minimum wage. But this is all ultimately beside the point. What we all face is a seismic break with the past that just happens to have begun in France. Things may go quiet now for weeks or even months, but the global fault line has moved dramatically. So we must try to find a way ahead when all the maps we now have are wrong.

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