My Morning as a Yellow Vest: Paris

February 23, 2019

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Ernest Hemingway

“Paris is the greatest temple ever built to material joys and the lust of the eyes.”

Henry James

Everyone knows that Paris is a historical, romantic and world class city. Don’t they? But every time I visit I say to myself ‘wow, I forgot how amazing Paris is, I should come here more often.’ Along with New York and London, it has the most museums in the world. But more than that, the entire city is a museum. And the people are always fashionably dressed and culture is always in the air. I revelled in the fact that even in Starbucks on a Sunday, there was a group of people painting under guidance of a teacher.

My Morning as a Yellow Vest

On my Morning Run

When I am only in a city a short period of time, I find that going for an extensive morning run, before the city is into the hustle and bustle, is a remarkable way to capture the feel. Paris on a sunny Sunday morning was exquisite, truly.

As I got close to part of the centre near to the Obelisk I encountered lots of machine gun-wielding police officers, barricades and even tanks. As I ran past I greeted a number of the officers. They were all quite polite and friendly. Then, as the real yellow vest demonstrators started showing up, I abruptly realised I was wearing a yellow shirt as I ran all across Paris!

A Yellow Shirt

Now just in case you haven’t been watching the global news, France has been suffering from some bouts of quite serious civil unrest. This was a report from the Guardian towards the beginning of the campaign:

“France is a republic that was founded in popular violence. Politics runs to the street here more rapidly than in any other western democracy. I’ve lived in France for 22 years and have witnessed street protests by workers, farmers, wine producers, truck drivers, railway employees, university students, sixth-formers, teachers, youths in the multiracial suburbs, chefs, lawyers, doctors and police officers. Yes, even police officers.

I have never seen the kind of wanton destruction that surrounded me on some of the smartest streets of Paris on Saturday – such random, hysterical hatred, directed not just towards the riot police but at shrines to the French republic itself such as the Arc de Triomphe. The 12-hour battle went beyond violent protest, beyond rioting, to the point of insurrection, even civil war.

Then the author goes on to explain the causes:

“The great bulk of the movement represents genuine economic and social distress in a peripheral and middle France which, with some reason, says that it is despised and fiscally exploited by the country’s thriving cities. Part of the French media suggests that Saturday’s protests were hijacked by ultra-violent sects of the hard right and hard left. This is also misleading.

There were groups of masked, young men among the 5,000 or so people on the Etoile and its radiating avenues but they were a minority. The great majority of the rioters were, by my reckoning, men and some women in their 30s and 40s from suffering rural towns in northern or western France and the hardscrabble outer suburbs of greater Paris. They came dressed and armed for combat….”

The weekend I was in Paris there was quite a scary incident in another French city caught by RT:

Speaking to some French journalists and insiders, it does seem that President Macron is now in trouble.

But whilst these explosive outbursts are transpiring, much of the city continues as normal. But Paris is just a manifestation of the entire Western world. People continue to try and get on with their lives. If they have the privilege of being in the 1%, or much better still, the 0.1% then life can be pretty good. But much of the middle class is fighting to just keep in the game, and frustrated that they might be the first generation to see decline vs. their parents’ generation.

My current reading of the tea leaves is that few resolutions are in place at this moment across most Western nations so frustration and political division will continue to intensify. First there is fundamental disagreement as to the causes. The Libertarian conservatives might say that the causes come from some of the following: a) an unfair financial system with central banks printing too much money -> pushes up asset prices, which are disproportionally owned by the rich b) concentration of monopoly power in a small group of corporates/families and a decline in the prosperity of SMEs; that is we actually don’t live in a truly capitalist and competitive system and c) the corrupt nexus of corporates, lobbyists and politicians. d) wasting money on pointless overseas wars. That all said – the Right isn’t so clear as the Libertarians and some will even blame foreigners on the problems in the economy.

The Left, to me, also appears less clear on the exact causes (I might be mistaken) but includes phenomena such as a) greed, especially in the financial system b) corruption; the nexus of politicians and big business and c) that capitalism fundamentally doesn’t work.

Whilst there might be some overlap on the causes, the solutions are considerably different. The Libertarians would like to a) reduce the size of government and reduce bureaucracy and red tape which doesn’t protect citizens but is written by the large corporations on behalf of the politicians for the sake of protecting their own monopolistic power b) contain the power of central banks to print money (or close them) c) measures to encourage a MORE competitive market i.e. more capitalism not less and d) less pointless foreign wars and interventions. The Right doesn’t focus on all of these and unfortunately can end up focused on immigration and taxes.

The Left currently has some major focuses: a) wants to move to more redistribution of wealth and many have been asking for higher taxes, as much as 70-100% for the rich and b) enact large projects like the Green New Deal c) focus more on diversity etc.

Anyway, the point of this blog isn’t to compare and contrast political ideologies. With barometers of anxiety and social stress in the West so high and the ideological divide still so vast, I can only foresee further violent clashes in the future. Simply speaking, little tension has been taken out of the system and it might well worsen as we face the rising prospects of a global recession within the next 12 months.

It is entirely possible we will see governments on either the extreme Left or Right (which might come through the ballot box but could even come through coup d’etas). Both have had equally bad outcomes historically. Most of my friends are left-leaning and think the risks are on the Right but forget that many of the totalitarian regimes of the last 150 years came from the Left. Furthermore, I think there is a meaningful risk that there will be a USSR-style collapse of Western civilisation, even if that sounds outrageous. When I was writing about civil discord (and even civil war) after the GFC of 2009 and well before the infamous events of 2016, people thought this was a little outrageous as well.

Many readers might be frightened by some of my forecasts and scenarios. But I want to say two positive things. First, after a tumultuous few years, I do think that Western civilisation should find its new grand narrative. I am hoping that this will be evident from 2025 but I could be wrong. This would fit with the analysis from the book “The Fourth Turning” authored by 2 rare American historians who see patterns in historical cycles. I do see green shoots everywhere I look, glimpses of a new system being built including new forms of decentralised systems which increase transparency and trust. This is where I chose to put my energy.

However, just as importantly, I think instead of being a victim of the future and exogenous events, we need to generate our own inner resilience – a key topic for this blog, perhaps THE key topic. This includes investing into your mind, so we are clear and calm regardless of the outer change. In a world of constant change, find that which is changeless, the sages have always taught us for millennia.

Paris has survived World Wars and many ups and downs in its history. I look forward returning to this beautiful place. Part of me has always wanted to camp out there for 6 or 12 months and write a book like Hemingway and the American Bohemians of the 1920s.