I have spent a large part of my life observing, praising, and, whenever I could, supporting movements of popular revolt that aspired to greater quantities of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The case of France’s Yellow Vests, however, marks the first time that such a movement has caused me, from the start, to have such strong and persistent doubts, despite my agreement in principle with many of its claims.
Why is that?
One factor is the grip on the movement of the populists of Marine Le Pen on the far right and those of Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, from whom the Yellow Vests have not been able, or willing, to disengage.
There is the obscene delight that the movement has provoked in those well-known friends of democracy, human rights, and France: Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Steve Bannon.
There is the often-repeated call to storm the sites of republican power—the Elysée Palace, the National Assembly—a call that, in France’s history since the end of the 19th century, has always been divisive, anti-democratic, and a harbinger not of greater freedom and more rights but of less of both.
There is the violence that leads some movement members to speculate about Emmanuel Macron meeting a “Kennedy-like end”; others to issue blatant death threats to those legislators—that is, to the people’s representatives—who have been willing to take the Yellow Vests seriously enough to engage it in dialogue; not to mention the prefecture in Puy-en-Velay that demonstrators torched after confining in it a handful of civil servants and then attempting to prevent the fire department from rescuing them. Deep reserves of casuistry were required to argue, in this case as in others, that the perpetrators of this attempted murder may not all have been real Yellow Vests.
But there’s another thing.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book, La pureté dangereuse (Dangerous Purity), in which I tried to draw out all the consequences of what Francis Fukuyama had begun to call “the end of history.” In the book, I probed “the nature of a social bond and how it is broken,” suggesting that we had entered into a new kind of history, one with no scheme, no dialectic, and, thus, no hope, in which it would become increasingly difficult to imagine a future brighter than the brutish, brackish present.
Twenty-five years before that, on the eve of May 1968, I recall a vibrant philosophical dispute in which one of the masters of the day, psychoanalyst and metaphysician Jacques Lacan, took up the classic question of how we humans would behave if we were suddenly informed of the imminent end of the world. Lacan concluded that, far from indulging in the sweet pleasures that we may have been denying ourselves, as Kant and the thinkers of the Enlightenment believed, we would probably give free rein to impulses and passions in which our taste for destruction would prevail decisively over the love of our neighbor.
What I’m suggesting today is that Lacan’s conclusion may be echoed in the despairing, futureless tone of a part of the Yellow Vest movement.
There is, undeniably, a whiff of the apocalypse in these demonstrations without direction, these naked hatreds blind to their own willfulness, these overflowings of resentment in which, unlike anything seen in France for quite some time, large numbers of men and women are content simply to wreck things, to wound and kill, and to deface monuments like the Arc de Triomphe, which stand for France’s history and greatness.
And ask yourself if there is not, in such explosions of pure fury and in the “no tomorrow” that sometimes accompanies them, the conjunction—paradoxical, chilling, and terrible—between two concerns thought to be incompatible: concern for “the end of the world” and worry about “the end of the month”; between the desperate quest to save the planet and the equally desperate defense of our buying power.
In philosophical terms, the result of this opposition is called nihilism.
In which the call for a new society gives way to a call for no society at all.
In which the aspiration for a better world becomes a call to hate the coming world, before it even takes shape.
It is the process of “hardening” that French novelist Georges Bernanos, at the end of the Spanish Civil War of 1936, said made minds “ripe for every form of cruelty.”
And the scenes of solidarity that could be glimpsed in the city squares and traffic circles over the past few weekends, the moments of sharing that allowed people habitually denied a voice or even much of a life to emerge from the ranks of the forgotten, cannot mask the broadly sad, disenchanted, and bitter tone of the destructive actions and expressions that we have seen and heard from the movement.
That air of general desolation, of course, is what made the renewal of political dialogue initiated by President Macron on Monday night all the more urgent.
And it would be unforgivable for the powers that be, for the technocracy and the elites, to respond to so much distress by withdrawing into egoistic autism.
But distress does not provide a blanket excuse.
Nor, in the end, does the anger of which the riots of the Yellow Vests, the rise of populism in Italy, or the self-destructive futility of Brexit are political expressions.
I have never believed—I’ll be frank—that the supposed “invisible violence” inflicted on citizens by a democratic regime in any way justifies acts of vandalism, much less of barbarity, should it come to that.
That is why I favor the fullest possible accommodation of the legitimate demand for dignity that the Yellow Vests’ movement also expresses, but without any compromise whatsoever with the deadly ideology that has guided it to date.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, will premiere nationwide on May 5, 2023.