I finally understand: the Yellow Vest phenomenon is not about Paris.
The legitimate protests of small-business owners and working people from all around the Hexagon are issuing a cry for help, to avoid annihilation. And their fears are quite justified. France’s beautiful rural landscapes and tiny hometowns are every bit as crucial to the country’s identity and economic well-being as its glittering capital. The Gilets jaunes are asking for the government to stop squeezing the life out of villages, small cities, and rural enclaves. They are asking President Macron to stop the Americanization of the countryside: stop now before France’s landscape resembles the hollowed-out wasteland of big-box stores, dreary strip malls, and empty Main Streets that are omnipresent from Ohio to Nevada. Don’t let capitalism squeeze the lifeblood out of small communities, by closing their libraries, hospitals, and schools to ensure “efficiency” and a better bottom line. A country is not a bank. It needs to nourish its people’s communities, not just feed them sleek technology.
Seeing Fernand Léger’s painting, The Village, yesterday in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I finally understood. It made me remember, and feel a sense of loss, for the busy, tight-knit villages I once loved, outside Angers, for example, where slow green rivers meander through a landscape dotted by grey stone castles and ancient paths. As the panel reads: “The church with buttresses and a bell tower at the center of the rural scene is surrounded by buildings encircled by spherical and cylindrical shapes that evoke trees and possibly a town hall. While the palette is typical of Léger’s Cubist work, the use of blue, white, and red–the colors of the French flag–is a patriotic touch. Soon after Léger finished the work, he was drafted to serve in World War I. The Village has not been exhibited publicly in almost a century.”
The Gilets jaunes are issuing a warning: for Macron and all the powerful Parisians in his government to remember the villages of their childhoods, the calm gorgeous vistas of rural France, the land that pulls on the heartstrings of tourists and keeps us coming back year after year. They need policies to save their communities from extinction now, before it is too late.