Even amid a crisis, Paris is not Khartoum

by Claude Salhani

Yes, there is social unrest in France. There have been demonstrators in the streets of Paris and other cities across France every weekend for two months. Yes, there has been violence as police clashed with the more violent protesters.

Demonstrations in France seem to attract a violent fringe — people set on derailing those voicing demands by resorting to attacks — but the republic is quite safe. There is no risk of regime change in France, at least not until the next elections when any changes would come through the ballot box and not pressure of the street.

That is not to say that the events are not a huge test to liberal democracy because French President Emmanuel Macron must deal with the reality of some protests turning violent. However, Paris is no Khartoum and no Baghdad. Paris is neither Istanbul nor is it Tehran.

Even if some demonstrators staged an “execution” of the French president’s effigy, Macron is not about to fall. An “Arab spring” is not going to occur anytime soon in France or elsewhere in Europe. The reason is that a liberal democracy offers multiple safety valves, the main ones being the guarantee of freedom of expression and the ability to adapt to crises.

Still, Macron is walking a tightrope. For the first time in years, demonstrations are being tightly regulated. New laws akin to emergency regulations are being considered by the French government, which says it has little choice in the matter.

Ultra-right-wing populists have been trying to fuel fears of an influx of refugees arriving from Africa and the Middle East. Groups are hyping the situation, forcing the government to adopt unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of the public and property.

For Macron, this is a lose-lose situation. The people have the right to express themselves but they do not have the right to destroy property, including torching vehicles. Those radical elements that descend on Paris and other major cities in France do so with the sole purpose of creating havoc and they risk derailing the just cause of most of demonstrators.

Despite the grievances inherent in the protests, France is among the biggest spenders on social services. It will have to figure out what budgetary adjustments or more fundamental reforms it can afford to appease the large segments of society complaining of neglect.

The pressure from the protesters on the French government is winning support from Italian populists, who could not resist expressing solidarity with the French yellow vests, maybe because of the perceived French demonstrators’ affinity with the far right.

The Italian right-wingers are wrong in rearing their neck there. France’s revolt is not about migrants. France will not establish nativist reflexes as the country’s dogma.

Two of Italy’s ruling populist coalitions threw support behind the yellow vest protests roiling France.

“Yellow vests, do not weaken!” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, wrote on his party’s blog, denouncing the French government for protecting the elite and the privileged, saying “a new Europe is being born. Of the ‘yellow vests,’ of movements, of direct democracy.”

Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, from the far-right, the anti-immigrant League, also backed the French protesters.

“I give all possible support to the French, who are, in an educated and respectful way, letting a president who isn’t acting in the interests of the French people know that the sooner he goes home, the better,” Salvini said, while condemning the violence.

Amid its crisis, France is still a model of freedom and stability for the MENA region, where change is often equated with turmoil, havoc and bloodshed.

Lessons can be learned from the French protests from both the government’s side as well as that of the people protesting. To those who think that protesting is unlikely to achieve desired demands for a better tomorrow, they should remember the tectonic changes brought about to French society by protests in May 1968. While many may disagree with their format and achievements as clashes between the protesters — mainly students — and the anti-riot police, they were overall limited in violence.

Is that possible today?

Spring is but a few months away. France will have to assess whether it needs to engage in a new process of socioeconomic transformation.

North Africa and the Middle East will be watching

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