Why the US won’t see a ‘gilets jaunes’ protest

As Americans watch Paris burn and reflect on our own hyper-partisan political climate, many are left wondering why our routine outrage has not unfurled itself in more broad-based public demonstrations and expressions of unmitigated barbarity.

Some do suspect it will. After all, is our distaste for our political opposites, distrust of our elected representatives, and displeasure with our government any less fervent than that of our French cousins?  Of course not; so then why are we unlikely to see gilets jaunes burning cars on Pennsylvania Avenue any time soon?

There are a couple of reasons, and they have far more to do with our two party system and electoral process than with any absence of middle-class economic outrage and or a widespread aversion to the governing elite: call it populism, proletarianism, or whatever you like.

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In recent times, the closest comparison Americans can make is to the Tea Party movement, climaxing in the 2010 midterms. Yet outside of the feverish flag waving and that new taxes and regulations sparked both protests, there is not much commonality.  The gilets jaunes are violent; the Tea Party was not.  The Tea Party was clearly a partisan, Republican movement; whereas, French citizens from across the spectrum are now in yellow vests.

Others have compared them to the Occupy movement of 2011. However, unlike the broad support the gilets jaunes enjoy, Occupy attracted only the fringe left, was scorned by the majority of Americans, and limited to comparatively small groups. While hundreds regularly protested in New York’s Zuccotti Park, thousands derisively looked down from their Wall Street office windows.

The widespread popularity of the gilets jaunes directly correlates with the unpopularity of Macron’s government. His approval rating is low, but in no way unprecedented. French Presidents routinely face the scorn of two-thirds to three-quarters of the public, and the last one, Francois Hollande, set the record of being the first to drop below the twenty percent mark.  Nicholas Sarkozy was far more popular, but most polls still had him hovering near 35 percent for much of his term.

U.S. Presidents simply do not have to contend with this, as deep tribalism between our two major parties almost guarantees a more even split. Absent abnormal circumstances, approval ratings customarily hover around the 50 percent mark. Even the current occupant of the White House, who can easily be described as polarizing, is now averaging around 44 percent. Trump is simply far more popular at home than Emmanuel Macron.

The way we chose our Commanders in Chief is fundamentally the difference. Elections have become contests where it is equally important to rally one’s fringe base as it is to appeal to middle-spectrum moderates. Perfecting this dance is what makes a President. Consider that both Trump and Obama appealed to the same demographic of middle-class, rust belt, moderate whites.

French candidates, on the other hand, do not necessarily need voters from far outside their party’s point on the political spectrum. In the first round, they must focus the bulk of their efforts on consolidating votes from their closest competitors.

Then, in the short two-week span between the first and second rounds, there simply isn’t enough time for contenders to lurch in a new direction and restyle themselves for broader appeal in the same way American candidates do between June and November.

Voter enthusiasm in the second round is often low, more so if one’s preferred candidate did not qualify. Approximately 5 million French citizens, nearly 15 percent of all 2017 first round voters, decided against casting valid ballots in the second round. Further, a record number submitted blank ballots rather than vote for Macron or Marine Le Pen; and one month later, the new President’s party won a majority in the National Assembly amidst the lowest turnout in modern history.

Macron’s untraditional electoral win, in which luck, scandal and a distaste for far-right extremism all played a critical role, may have resulted in a significant margin of victory, but it is nowhere close to a popular mandate. His “radical centrism” won the important first round with just 25 percent of the vote. It should come as no surprise that opposition is growing from both the right and left.

The American two-party system simply doesn’t allow for this. It requires the continued support of roughly half the electorate, and even the most partisan candidate cannot afford to alienate the moderate middle. The “silent majority” isn’t just a factor in some U.S. elections, it’s a factor in all. Conversely, in France’s first round of voting, it can be an afterthought. An American President would face political suicide if they enacted new taxes after convincing this group they would not; just look at our 41st.

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When George H. W. Bush violated his “read my lips” campaign pledge, he not only infuriated his conservative base, he sowed a distrust of the elites among the broader electorate. They punished his party in the 1990 midterms and voted him out of office within two years. For the French, the infrequency of elections grants no such outlet for voters to express their displeasure. The Tea Party staged a red wave in 2010, crippling the Obama agenda. Eight years later, progressives made their disapproval of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE known in 40 swing Congressional districts.

France’s next national elections for the presidency and National Assembly are not slated until 2022. There are no midterms, per se. The French did not head to the polls in 2018; and in 2019, they will vote only on the country’s 79 seats in the European Parliament. Even if Macron is walloped, which polling suggests is likely, it will not have the same impact on his ability to implement policy as losing a house of Congress will have for Trump. France will also vote for its municipal leaders in 2020, but despite their historical significance, the mayors and councilors of its 36,681 communes are increasingly powerless in its modern unitary system.

In truth, France’s government represents the interest of just a fraction of its citizens; and in this case, Macron’s interests seem to side more in increasing the power of the E.U. and advancing globalism at the expense (quite literally at the fuel pump) of his own no-longer silent majority. They also feel powerless to stop it; short of demanding his resignation.

While we may think the U.S. is at a similar precipice, we are never far off from a meaningful election, and chances are that not much more than half of the country would agree, regardless.

Joseph Borelli is the minority whip of the New York City Council, Republican commentator, professor and Lindsay Fellow at the City University of New York's Institute for State and Local Governance. He has also been published in the NY Daily News, Washington Examiner, and appears on Fox News, Fox Business, BBC, CNN and HLN. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC