Paris burns in flames, the image of a ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vest) waving the Tricolour as the street behind him erupts into fire, emulating that most famous images of Marianne on the barricades of the French Revolution. One might almost find it comical were it not for the fear that has engulfed the streets of this, my most beloved, adopted, capital city.
It’s hard to understand the anger of so many, living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. Privileged not only in terms of its comparative freedom at being able to express one’s opinions in the street, but privileged in a country relatively free from conflict, poverty, disease, homelessness and natural disasters.
Before coming to live in France, I had lived my adult life in China and worked all over the developing world. There I worked daily with the millions of migrant workers flooding into the city from impoverished rural areas, seeking work in the factories, service industries and constructions sites of the rapidly developing cities. These are the very individuals often accused of taking away jobs from low-skilled workers in the West and their lives are at the very centre of the tensions of globalisation. These are people who continue to earn average salaries of 442 euros per month, without any form of social security protection, free education for their children, free healthcare, protection from the law, gross abuse of their human rights. These are the people who would be shot dead if they dared to protest in the way that the gilets jaunes have done these past few weekends.
Yet they are also people who work harder than I have ever seen anyone work, whose desire to lift themselves and their families out of poverty stimulates a work ethic that would shame everyone living in France. They do not (they cannot) stand by and blame their government for its failings but make the daily decision to take their life into their own hands and do whatever it takes to build a better life.
Now, of course, there are many issues that need to be addressed here. The right of peaceful protest is a right enshrined in our Western democracies and one that should be upheld no matter what. And it is, of course, so important that every individual has access to free education and healthcare for themselves and their children. There is no doubt in my mind that Chinese migrant workers should have as much right to these benefits as their Western counterparts do.
But it is interesting to see the stark difference in attitude to the two populations, seemingly united in the inequities of a world system that makes the wealth gap wider and wider.
Whilst China has indeed done a lot to lift millions out of abject poverty and the Chinese middle class has indeed grown, the reality of these workers lives is still rooted in ‘just getting by’ and a lack of social mobility that keeps them mired in genuine poverty. France seems, by contrast, a haven of safety and security, a world where people still think it a right to take 2 hour lunch breaks, have a 4 week holiday in the sun every August and where working on a weekend was looked upon disdainfully. Despite having lived here now for many years, I continue to be repelled by the self-justification and sheer misery of so many I encounter on my daily ride on the metro, citizens seemingly oblivious to the good fortune that keeps them fed and sheltered, free from genuine political oppression, hunger, disease or natural disasters. That strong sense of entitlement is observed at nearly all levels of society, including, sadly with children and young people also. The self-serving idea that others exist to meet our needs at odds with the social contract that the Enlightenment espoused.
I wonder if globalisation really can take all the blame. We all make choices in our lives. Choices as to whether we take part in the shared journey of progress. Choices as to whether we pick ourselves up and stop complaining about what the government isn’t doing and focus more on what we ourselves can do.
My understanding is that, whilst protestors continue to protest the inequities of a system that leaves rural areas impoverished, President Macron has also opened up the doors even wider to providing retraining opportunities to those at risk of being out a job. Free education and the support to do it. I know countless migrant workers in China who would thrill at such an opportunity.
As a social entrepreneur living in Paris, I come across daily frustrations of a system that privileges salaried employees. Just last month, I was made to pay 500 euros towards a pension system that, as an entrepreneur, I will not be allowed access to. I am constantly being asked to pay a new form of tax I had no idea about and find the system cumbersome and lacking transparency. So I’m not immune to struggling at the folly of the French system.
But here’s the thing: We all make choices.
The growth of populism and the far right, violence, hatred, xenophobia, racism, blaming others will never uplift mankind, still less improve our own situation. It is a hatred that eats at the core of humanity and has brought untold damage in our history.
My greatest concern is that humanity is facing a grave crisis about what we value, how we treat others, how much we value the freedom and privileges that we have fought for so many decades. We cannot afford to lose that, no matter how grave we see our own personal situation, for, if we should forget history, we will have far greater problems to be concerned about.
History has always shown a divide between the haves and the have nots, the inequities of a world ruled by elites who scarce show a genuine concern and compassion for those at the lower end of society’s pyramid. Twas ever thus. But what I always struggle with is the intransigence of those who refuse to progress, who wish to keep things as they are, and refuse to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and take responsibility for their own lives.
Like the slow, steady drum beat of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, there is another current that can grow faster too. That of love, not fear. That of a belief in something bigger than oneself. That of a fight for justice for all, one that will never back down in the face of xenophobia, racism and an overwhelming sense of ‘me first’.
There is, quite simply, no room for hatred in whatever form.
How much more extraordinary would it be if workers of the world truly did unite, not in their shared hatred of the elites, but with a force for a true revolution in leading the change that needs to happen? That instead of descending into hatred and xenophobia, blaming the ‘migrants’ or whatever else is the scapegoat of the day, there was a generous spirit of inclusion that sought to uplift everyone from the inequities that continue to persist in our society?
The battle, like most things, is ultimately mental. A refusal to accept the role of victim within oneself and a desire to improve not just our own lives but the lives of those around us too.
That battle lies entirely within ourselves.