I WANTED to call this column “Victory to the gilets jaunes”.

I say this because most of the global metropolitan “left” has failed to rise to the occasion of the French riots, offering little but hand-wringing and whispers in the ear of Prince Macron. At best, we get liberal commentators warning the riots are the inevitable outcome of austerity measures, a self-consciously worthy but ultimately gutless sentiment that falls flat. If we truly want an end to austerity, we should state unequivocally that we want the yellow vests to win.

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France has a truly vibrant socialist movement, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, who champions the protests and intervenes to pull them to the left, but there is little parallel in Britain. Our most left-wing newspapers agonise about the gilets jaunes, expressing regrets and fears and dire warnings for European liberal democracy. Indeed, depressingly, the only pundits truly supporting the yellow vests here are rent-a-quote red-baiters. This mixture of right enthusiasm and left anaemia means we get a warped idea of what the protests mean. They become, in the British mind, inherently nationalist, authoritarian, anti-environmental, anti-politics, something with a whiff of Brexit, to be smothered by the police or mitigated by a social compromise. The main theme on the protests, that Macron is the “president of the rich”, is now barely mentioned. Both sides deliberately miss out class analysis in favour of a dishonest culture war narrative.

The National:

Let’s admit that some protesters express conservative sentiments. Let’s also admit that right-wing populism is a tangible threat, in a nation where Marine Le Pen is a presidential challenger. However, let’s admit something else. Le Pen isn’t gaining from these protests, because her many wealthy backers are terrified by the real prospect of disorderly mobs led by the common folk. The most respected leader in France today, who truly speaks for the yellow-vested anger, is the post-communist Melenchon.

Let’s also acknowledge that there are anarchist, socialist and environmentalist gilets jaunes. And let’s admit another thing. Britain’s liberal commentators might pretend to be worried by the whiteness, latent racism, potential authoritarianism of the gilets jaunes but this doesn’t ring true. The same liberal outlets responded with stony-faced horror to the London riots of 2011, which began as protests against police racism. Ultimately, when class anger, black or white, becomes a threat to social order, liberals crowd round the “prince” and offer advice on how to quell the mob. People complain the gilets jaunes have nationalist ideas and don’t keep consistently to an international socialist agenda. Truly popular movements rarely are consistent. Throughout history, the movements that truly shake things up have often mobilised people with right-wing ideas, because people pick up all the crap from the society around them. People are consumerist and hold latent nationalist ideas, but why should we expect anything else? Most of our institutions are capitalist and conservative.

When the same people are moved by anger to spontaneous protest, that crap doesn’t just disappear. Yes, we should be worried by right-wing sentiments. But it’s just as worrying when our movements are free of some conservative ideas, as this means we’re talking to the usual suspects. When protest truly threatens the powerful, it rarely conforms to any pre-approved programme.

This leaves the left with two options. We can look on aghast, worried that the rioters might incite emotions that we can’t control. Or we can intervene, hoping to turn fluid sentiments to our advantage.

Another truth, which barely anyone admits, is that direct action on the street has a more than respectable success rate.

It thwarted the poll tax, made Nick Clegg a pariah for a generation, and has just beaten Macron.

The National:

Spontaneous eruptions of popular fury have a good record of forcing compromises out of neo-liberal leaders otherwise known for their unbending will. Such as Margaret Thatcher, the lady who was not for turning, or Macron.

In an era where victories seem impossible, the leaderless gilets jaunes have proved you can wrench concessions from the most determined free market “reformers”. The left should be celebrating.

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A stagnant political culture without protest movements only benefits the populist right. When class anger becomes an active force on the streets, by contrast, we have a major opportunity to expose the elitist connections and millionaire backers behind the Le Pens and Farages of the world. Instead, the dominance of liberalism on the left means protests, even when they end in victories, are looked on with nervousness and distrust, because they don’t fit with the preferred model of “educated” social change, the professional lobbying of government and philanthropic big business.

The effect of France’s fuel tax rise would have been to pass the costs of climate transition on to the poorest. Wrapping that up in hypocritical talk of good intentions doesn’t change the ultimate social outcome. Environmentalism doesn’t have to become a new form of austerity, but it easily could, and the left must lead the battle against that.

The National:

One excellent result of the gilets jaunes phenomenon is that we can no longer discuss climate change independently of class. My hope is that this marks the beginning of a new political era for eco-socialism, where we leave behind any lingering elitist pretensions and take the battle for climate transition on to the streets.

The gilets jaunes aren’t pure or perfect. They represent the true state of popular opinion: angry, confused, contradictory. But a left that will only support movements with a pre-approved ethical agenda, that monitors people’s opinions for any sign of “wrongness”, would never support anything at all. Nothing meaningful, at any rate.

The social victories of the last 200 years, from the end of child labour to the building of the welfare state, reflected the collective struggles of flawed people and the interventions of heroic, puritan, ideological agitators. Both groups are indispensable. The left must have the courage to lead the justified anger at austerity, or somebody else will, and it won’t be pretty.