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This book provides a lively account of the gilets jaunes, the yellow vest movement that has shaken France since 2018. Charles Devellennes assesses what lessons can be drawn from their activities and the impact for the contemporary relationship between state and citizen.

Informed by a dialogue with past political theorists – from Hobbes, Spinoza and Rousseau to Rawls, Nozick and Diderot – and reflecting on the challenges posed by the yellow vest movement, the author rethinks the concept of the social contract for contemporary societies around the world. It proposes a new relationship between the state and the individual, and establishes the necessity of rethinking the modern democratic nature of our representative polities in order to provide a genuine process for the healing of social ills.

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The Ideology of the New Right in France

When Emmanuel Macron was elected President of the French Republic, it ended the long-standing political alternation between the mainstream right and left-wing parties. This book examines Macron’s political career from his rise as a public figure to his time as a president.

The book explores Macron’s political ideology and examines the enactment of the key notions of security, merit and hope during his time in office. By offering a close study of his actions and ideological commitment, this book argues that, despite claims of being ideologically neutral, Macron actually represents a new form of right-wing politics in France.

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On 17 November 2018, a mass protest of people wearing yellow jackets, known in French as the gilets jaunes, started in France. What has become the largest social movement in post-war France, overtaking the events of 1968 in size and intensity, started as a protest against fuel tax increases, a ‘green’ carbon tax and the lowering of the speed limit on French national roads to 80 kilometres per hour (50 miles per hour) from 90 kilometres per hour (56 miles per hour). A grassroots movement, outside of traditional political parties and unrelated to trades unions, has caught the political and industrial establishment by surprise. Immediately labelled as populist, reactionary and violent by its adversaries, the movement has been linked to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, and the rise to power of the Five Star Movement party in Italy. While some of this is accurate – it is populist as opposed to elitist, reactionary as opposed to proposing a concrete political programme, and violent in its response to the repression of the French state – the movement will be shown to have much more potential for intellectual challenge than these immediate reactions suggest. The theory I propose here is that the movement itself is best understood as a fundamental challenge to the existing social contract in France – and by extension to other social contracts throughout the world – and its history is not limited to the months of political turmoil it engendered in France or even to the past couple of years of political upheaval in the wider world, but poses a challenge to the very future of our political order.

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When the gilets jaunes first occupied roundabouts on 17 November 2018, in what was to become known as ‘Act I’ of the weekly Saturday protests they embarked on for 70 weeks, they were exercising an act of violence on their fellow citizens. In Savoy on that day, a motorist panicked as protesters tried to stop her car, and she ran over those in her way, fatally wounding one of the protesters. This 63-year-old lady, who was a novice to street protests, was the first accidental victim of the movement, with more to come over the next weekends. The very acts of standing on a road, marching through a city, occupying buildings so that their daily functioning cannot continue, are themselves acts of violence. Although at this particular roundabout in Savoy the use of physical force, to break one of these roadblocks, was limited to the motorist forcing her way through a crowd, I argue that violence was also exercised by the protesters, and moreover that it was legitimate.

Violence refers to a variety of different types of action. For the purpose of this analysis, I draw an important distinction between two main types of violence: physical violence (often referred to as simply ‘violence’), and moral violence (often qualified by other terms, such as ‘spiritual’, ‘structural’ or ‘psychological’ violence). I will come back to the differences between physical and moral violence in a moment, but let me say first what they share in common. Both physical and moral violence are coercive and engender resistance.

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If the state has the power of life and death over its citizens, and if we accept that, at least under specific circumstances, this power is even legitimately exercised, we are left to determine the limits of this use of state violence. In Chapter 2, I have already argued that there is an internal restriction to the legitimacy of violence. Any use of violence needs to be proportionate to the perceived threat and the ends to be achieved. Violence may be used, I argued, to oppose other types of violence, and in particular when the safety and security of those involved is threatened. But the use of physical and moral force is also limited externally – that is, by reference to another important concept of political thought: liberty.

In 1819, Benjamin Constant (1819/2010) proposed to introduce a recent distinction between two types of liberty. The ancients, in a few words, considered liberty to be the ability to rule over a common polity collectively, to legislate and judge, to condemn and absolve. But, as Constant points out, this collective liberty was not only compatible with, but dependent on the subjugation of the individual to the collective body. The collective body was free, but the citizen had to be subjected to its judgement. The most iconic example of such subjugation is the acceptance by Socrates of the death sentence assigned by his peers. Socrates felt compelled to accept his fate, and refused the opportunity to turn against his city and flee to save his life (Plato, 2003).

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It is a truism of any discussion of democracy that our notion is heavily indebted to the ancient Greeks, and in particular to the Athenians. The word itself derives from demos and kratos, people and power, and is often translated as the rule of the people – or the rule of the poor, who formed the bulk of the people in ancient times. But this inheritance is more problematic than it seems. The term kratos itself can refer to might or strength, to acts of valour or violence, or to power or dominion. Who counts as the demos is equally fraught with disagreements and inconsistencies. For the ancient Greeks, only free (non-slave) adult males of local birth counted as citizens, whereas we have a much more inclusive notion of citizenship today, with women and some foreign-born citizens eligible for the same privileges and duties. We will deal with both of these concepts – power and the people – in turn, with a keen eye on what this means for the social contract.

Social contract theory, as a venerable concept in philosophy, claims its roots in ancient Greece. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Crito, argues with his friend about the merits of accepting his death sentence, versus the merits of fleeing Athens, as is possible with the use of a few well-placed bribes. Socrates argues for the moral duty to obey the laws of the land, irrespective of the consequences for his own person. Socrates’ argument binds the citizen to his community, and is perceived more as a moral duty than a political obligation.

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Economics has been at the forefront of social contract theory since at least the seventeenth century. When John Locke published his Two Treatises of Government (1689/1988), the English throne had just forcibly changed hands in favour of William III, the former president (stadtholder) of the Netherlands, in an episode of history worthy of the best of television dramas to date. Locke himself claimed that his book sought to justify the accession of William to the throne, although he had probably written most of it much before the Glorious Revolution. The dubious game of thrones that followed the invasion of England by a group of Dutch soldiers, the use of the Dutch fleet and the eventual accession of an Anglo-Dutch foreign leader to the throne, was not only like a medieval power play, but reflected the new realities of the land-owning classes of a growing empire. The invasion was justified as the preservation of the Protestant religion, liberty, property and a free Parliament (where these land owners were represented). Very concerned with establishing the rights of major property owners in his time, Locke in his Two Treatises defended a vision of private property which suited their needs perfectly. Those who work the land, or who invest in it to make improvements, he claimed, have a rightful claim to the ownership of the land, irrespective of customary rights to the land that had existed beforehand. Through a mystical and theological grounding, Locke created the modern theory of private property, which claims that God had given land to men in common, but that depriving others of the land was justified if you mixed your own labour with it.

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Perhaps the most important lesson of the gilets jaunes and their challenge to the existing social contract in France is in their being and becoming. Who could have predicted in November 2018 that the movement would still be active, if somewhat diminished, more than a year later and that it would take a global pandemic to stop their weekly gatherings? Who could have predicted that some of these demonstrators would be present each and every Saturday during that time, in blazing heat and freezing cold, in peaceful protest and in violent interactions, in large numbers as well as small? The very being of the movement is in itself an achievement, regardless of its failure or success. Anyone who has participated in a social movement will know that it shapes your expectations, your interactions with others, and the social context around it. I participated in the Great University Strike of 2018, the largest strike ever seen in higher education in the United Kingdom, which culminated in four weeks of protests on campuses throughout the country. Of a much smaller scale than the movement of the gilets jaunes, it nonetheless changed relations on campuses in a meaningful way. It is fair to say that there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ the strike, and as such it constitutes an event. The event of the gilets jaunes is on a different scale of importance altogether. There is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ the gilets jaunes crisis, and although the after is yet to be seen, time will tell how social relations changed and whether it was for the better or for the worse.

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The office of the president has been at the forefront of the state’s response to the gilets jaunes. Unlike presidents of the Fifth Republic before Sarkozy, Macron has opted for an engaged and ever-present role for himself as the leader of the administration. The old style of presidency – a quasi-monarchical office created by De Gaulle in 1958 which combined popular control through seven-year election cycles and a certain distance from the day-to-day politics of running the state, which was typically managed by the prime minister – suited the time and the man that created the office. But the majesty that surrounded the office was exemplified by De Gaulle’s infamous saying of 1958, “je vous ai compris” [I have understood you], a vague formulation that maintained distance from the nitty-gritty of the political compromise France was going to find for Algeria, combined with a reassuring message that a solution would be found. Placing the presidency above and beyond the dirty business of politics, De Gaulle created a sublime function in the Fifth Republic. This sublime function has now largely disappeared, with three successive presidents (Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron) each playing their part to get rid of the distant character, necessitated by an engaged and participating president. By turning the president into the architect of everything that happens in French politics, these three presidents have managed to take all the credit for France’s successes, as well as suffer all the blame for its failures. This shift away from a sublime office had already been theorized by Edmund Burke, considered the founder of modern conservatism, in both his Reflections on the Revolution in France written in 1790 (Burke, 1790/2001), and his aesthetic work on the sublime and the beautiful (Burke, 1757/1990).

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The gilets jaunes, a group of French protesters named after their iconic yellow vests donned during demonstrations, have formed a new type of social movement. Although historical parallels have been drawn by commentators – ranging from the peasant revolts of pre-revolutionary France (the jacqueries), the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, the workers’ movements of 1936 or 1947–48, to the évènements [events] of 1968 – no comparison entirely corresponds to the movement and its consequences. It is a sui generis movement rather than a repetition of a previous upheaval. The gilets jaunes are not quite a revolution as they do not seek to take over the functioning of the state, not quite akin to the student revolt of 1968 relived half a century later, not a workers’ movement organized through trades unions and workers’ representation, and not an attempt to establish a communist utopia. If anything, the movement has claimed to be apolitical and breaks away from the better-organized and more engaged movements of the past. It has no links with existing political parties and has resisted attempts by politicians to join or co-opt the movement. The ‘apolitical’ claim of many in the movement is more a reaction to politicians’ attempts to jump on the bandwagon than a statement about the movement’s aspirations, which are inherently engaged and demanding. I will show that the movement is non-partisan rather than apolitical –it makes many political claims, although it is true that it has not been attached to any political party and that it does not fit neatly on the left/right political spectrum.

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