The wave of protests reverberating throughout Paris as I write raise serious questions about the ethics of political activism. Usually I side with the common man, with the working class and the poor, with the downtrodden and systematically disenfranchised. The concerns these groups share are humane, reasonable and difficult to argue against without being selfish or closed off to the concrete realities that dominate many citizens’ daily lives. Of course I find It repugnant that a large portion of the population in France pleaded for the cost of fuel to remain the same on several occasions and the government only ignored their concerns in the interests of meeting a climate change target. Good governance is about balancing issues of universal significance with the everyday issues of the domestic population; it is at the very least necessary to open up such policy decisions to debate and take into account the scrutiny and anxiety that citizens express - refusing to do so is akin to stopping a bereaved child from grieving at their mother's funeral. Blindly following an agenda that causes many people to fall further into economic suffering is a perfect sign of detached leadership, of politicians who chase ideals regardless of the cost.
The other issues that drive protesters to the streets in France, at least in the economic arena, also seem more than just. A friend of mine is feeling the chains tighten around his neck following the government's decision to tax unemployed, elderly people who are living off welfare. Anyone who's in this situation will testify to the fact that welfare is barely enough to survive on as it is. The decision to deduct 50 euros in taxes each month threatens the mental and physical health of individuals like Philippe, who are often already on the brink of despair and exhaustion.
Again, this decision revolves around an ideal that fails to connect with the harm that it causes. France is steeped in debt and the government is rightfully trying to reduce its deficit through a range of different initiatives and austerity measures. The idea is right but the methods are out of sync with reality. Or, even worse, they are indifferent to reality.
So, unsurprisingly, people have grown increasingly angry. They know that their lives are being toyed with by politicians who care more about the abstract than the actual, and more about pursuing their own priorities than the priorities of the electorate. Defence spending and foreign aid won't be cut instead of welfare or petrol costs, because they fit into a strategy of governance considered too valuable to compromise: maintaining the image of a strong, unyielding nation and preserving the white saviour narrative popular across Europe, which feeds into a twisted superiority complex. It's the same scenario in the UK. And it needs to stop.
But weighing causes against means is not a one way street. It is at the heart of morality for all autonomous beings. Even if successful in achieving the aim of getting the government to take a U-turn on a series of policies, most notably the fuel tax, can protesters who used or incited violence and vandalism to articulate their rage really call themselves heroes; can they even honestly differentiate themselves from the politicians who they've come to despise? The politicians deem causes more important than means, but to protest against this issue by making the same error of judgement in a different form is grotesquely hypocritical.
If protesters sacrifice their innate understanding of right versus wrong, nobody emerges victorious. We, the electorate, ought to demonstrate the standards of morality and good ethics that we desire in our current leaders. Changing the establishment is the only way to fertilize the soil necessary to produce long term results, and this will never happen if citizens, both individually and collectively, fail to present themselves as viable candidates and viable alternatives to the status quo. Peaceful protests present the opportunity for new faces to emerge and new ideas to gain traction, and for politically conscious individuals to form new groups, but once people begin to fight dirty, ripe desperation drives out the prospect of a different political future. Thuggish desperation plays into the hands of the authorities, who can justify heavy handed suppression tactics when they are preventing acts of crime, transforming themselves and the establishment that they represent into protectorates against blind and senseless anarchy.
A rebel without a cause is pointless, but a rebel without a conscience is loathsome.