The Notre Dame fire is a global tragedy, and it's also raising complicated questions about our present moment, including trenchant inquiries into which church fires merit global outpourings and whose sacred sites get mourned when they are destroyed.
In France, the political conversation has been dominated by the Gilets Jaunes, whose yellow vests have become a global symbol of unrest, with both the right and the left vying to define the movement. The French Yellow Vests have never stopped demonstrating, despite brutal suppression tactics by French police, who have terrorized and maimed protesters with impunity while the neoliberal Macron continues his billionaire-friendly policies.
Those billionaires are at the center of the French controversy over Notre Dame. Though members of the Gilets Jaunes were among those mourning the damage to a national symbol when Notre Dame burned, the fact that a handful of French super-rich oligarchs were able to pledge all the money necessary to rebuild by fishing in the sofa cushions for their lost pocket-change has reinvigorated the debate over France's priorities.
This weekend's Gilet Jaunes demonstrations are full of signs making wry references to the billionaires' outpourings: "Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Miserables."
As wealth inequality has increased and faith in social mobility and fairness has waned, we've seen the growth of both left- and right-wing anti-establishment movements. Famously, both the Occupy and Tea Party movements kicked off around the same time, tapping into the same concerns, with very different political valences (and of course the Tea Party was lavishly funded by oligarchs who saw them as useful idiots who would vote for the politicians who would accelerate inequality).
I think of the Gilet Jaunes as a kind of Occupy/Tea Party fusion: both left- and right-wing elements marching together on a limited set of goals, but diverging on wider social analysis and priorities. It's not without precedent: I remember pro-labor demonstrations in Toronto where people carried "solidarnosc" banners is solidarity with independent trade unions in Poland, where the right-wing counterdemonstrators also carried solidarnosc banners in sympathy with Polish independence from the USSR.
Mass movements always have a tension between breadth — how many people can be brought into the tent — and depth — how crisply defined the movement's goals are. The more you define what you're there for, the more people will decide it's not for them; but if you don't define a cause well, then no one will be mobilized by it.
Occupy showed that you could rally much larger groups of people with much less defined goals than ever before, thanks to networks, which let people find each other and mobilize independently. Occupy was a grab-bag of left-wing politics with anarchists and socialists and liberals of all description; now, it seems to me, the Gilets Jaunes are doing the same thing, but even more broadly, creating a group of anti-establishment activists from across the political spectrum.
This is powerful…and dangerous. As we saw with the Arab Spring, unity among opposition elements can topple a seemingly unassailable autocracy, but the ensuing power vacuum won't necessarily be filled by anything the left wing would be happy about.
The demonstrators' concerns about prioritizing Notre Dame's reconstruction over the needs of low-income French households have been echoed in the U.S., where many criticized the Trump administration for offering aid to France to help rebuild the damaged church.
After some called attention in the days after the Notre Dame fire to a number of historically black churches that have been burned recently in the American South—some allegedly in attacks by white nationalists—$1.9 million in donations poured in to help those churches.
(via Naked Capitalism)
(Image: Antoninnnnn, CC-BY-SA)