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Why are the ‘yellow vests’ protesting in France?

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By Rokhaya Diallo

For the past three weeks, France has been experiencing one of the most significant social mobilisations in its recent history, which laid bare the country’s social ills, anti-elite sentiment, growing inequalities and thirst for social justice.

It all started on November 17 when tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against rising fuel prices.

 

The protesters, dubbed “Les gilets jaunes” (the yellow vests) after the high-visibility jackets they adopted as a symbol of their complaint, blocked roundabouts, burned effigies and clashed with the police. They were angry about the almost 20 percent increase in the price of diesel since the start of the year, as well as the planned fuel tax hike President Emmanuel Macron had recently announced.

While Macron said the tax was necessary to “protect the environment” and “combat climate change”, protesters claimed the decision was yet another sign that the “arrogant” and “privileged” president is out of touch with regular folk struggling to make ends meet.

The intensity of the protests quickly forced the government to make a U-turn and first suspend and later permanently shelve its plans for fuel tax increases. However, the protest movement was not only about fuel prices. It encompassed wider anger and frustration against the political establishment in general and President Macron in particular. As a result, the government’s decision to abandon fuel tax hikes failed to calm tensions.

The “yellow vests” want further concessions from the government. Their demands include a redistribution of wealth as well as the increase of salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage. Some say they will not settle for anything less than the president’s resignation.

So how did day-to-day frustrations about fuel prices and “green taxes” transform into a nation-wide protest movement attracting hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks?

It all comes down to Macron’s apparent failure to connect with the people, understand their concerns and steer France away from destructive neoliberal policies.

40-year-old Macron was elected last year on pledges to change the face of French politics, create more jobs and improve lives.

On the eve of the 2017 presidential election, French voters were tired of career politicians. They wanted a different kind of leader, someone who can understand their long-rooted social and economic concerns and deliver real, practical solutions.

For the past four decades, French people have been worried about the erosion of social protections in their country. Since Francois Mitterrand’s socialist government controversially decided to impose austerity policies in 1983, successive governments have taken slow but consistent steps to dismantle the French welfare state.

All this gradually accentuated the economic concerns of the French middle and working classes and led them to be more and more suspicious of all mainstream politicians on the right and the left. They came to believe that the political elite protects the interests of the wealthy and does not care about the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

Successfully diagnosing the public’s frustration with the political class, Macron worked hard to differentiate himself from the establishment in Paris and act as the representative of a “new world order” throughout his election campaign.

He had the youth, the energy, the positive message. He was the leader of a brand-new political party, aligned neither with the right nor the left. He appeared to be carrying no political baggage. Many viewed him as a possible saviour and did not hesitate to give him their vote.

Moreover, he was running against National Front leader Marine Le Pen. This also made him look like a “progressive saviour”. A significant portion of the French electorate was ready to vote for any moderate candidate who could stop the far right from taking power. So, they voted for Macron, even though many of them did not support his agenda completely or have faith in his ability to respond to their concerns.

As a result, Macron was elected by a landslide. However, it didn’t take long for his supporters to realise that his “reformist”, “new world” image was nothing more than an illusion.

Macron’s failure to bring about change should not have surprised anyone. Even though he seemed “young and new”, he was part of the establishment.

He had served as the minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs from 2014 to 2016 under Francois Hollande – he was in charge of implementing the former president’s infamous Labour Law reform, which caused widespread protests across the country. Before that he was a Rothschild investment banker.

Once elected, Macron showed his true colours almost immediately. He decided to amend the wealth tax – known in France as “ISF” – by narrowing it to a tax on real estate assets, rather than covering all worldwide assets over the value of 1.3m euros. This led to him being swiftly labelled the “president of the rich”.

On top of making controversial policy decisions that favoured powerful corporations and rich individuals, Macron also repeatedly demonstrated his unfamiliarity with – and at times disdain for – ordinary people struggling to survive in the country’s increasingly harsh economic environment.

In 2016 while he was the minister of economy, for example, Macron was confronted by angry trade unionists and was recorded telling one young man: “You don’t scare me with your T-shirt. The best way of paying for a suit is to work.”

In a July 2017 speech Macron said train stations were wonderful places, for there you can cross paths with both “people who succeed” (people like him) and “people who are nothing” (presumably ordinary French citizens like the rest of us).

In October of the same year he was filmed accusing disgruntled workers of preferring to stir up “chaos” rather than find jobs. “Instead of kicking up bloody chaos, some of them would be better off going to see if they can get a job over there,” he said, alluding to an aluminium factory in Ussel, a region in which employers were struggling to hire new workers.

More recently, in September this year, Macron told an unemployed man he could easily find work if only “he crossed the street”. “Everywhere I go people say to me that they are looking for staff,” the president said.

This lack of empathy coupled with business-friendly policies helped shape the French public’s perception of Macron as an arrogant, privileged politician who is a friend of the rich and the powerful.

The fuel tax that he tried to impose on people that are already feeling their economic concerns are being ignored was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This is why the yellow vest movement is not only about fuel prices but about social justice. There is a profound discontent among ordinary people in France who see themselves as the losers in a world dominated by international elites who don’t seem to care or understand what they are going through. Macron is pursuing the exact same neoliberal agenda his predecessors pursued in the 1980’s. And just like the policies of his predecessors, his policies are hurting the poorest and helping the rich get even richer.

The protests are not rejecting climate change action

The yellow vest movement should not be seen as the public’s rejection of the green transition. The French state indeed has a responsibility to take action to combat climate change and protect the environment. But powerful companies that are primarily responsible for the pollution, and not regular citizens, should bear the brunt of this necessary revolution.

The yellow vest movement is, of course, not perfect. Some protesters were responsible for outrageous racial and homophobic attacks. Some also damaged national monuments and were violent towards police officers.

While we should not turn a blind eye to any of this, we should remember that the yellow vests movement is a reflection of the ongoing tensions in France. Almost 11 million people voted for the far right only a year ago in this country. There are some extremist elements in the French society and they were inevitably some among the protesters.

But we should not dismiss the entire movement as “extremist” because of this. The yellow vests are the French people who we never see on TV. Their despair can at times appear offensive because anger is neither polite nor sophisticated. It is disorganised, shocking and comes with emotion, which can translate into violence. The point is not to defend any of the violence that has tragically occurred, but to remember that the unrest France is currently facing came in response to other forms of violence, much more insidious and harmful: social exclusion and injustice.

Unemployment, discrimination and poverty are at the root of the daily humiliation French people feel which has now transformed into a general despondency. The French political elites will find it hard to pacify this public anger unless they commit to introducing radical changes to the way this country is governed.


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Opinion

Time to rebuild India’s secularism

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By Harsh Mander

There is much that lies badly broken in India today. The economy desperately needs to be repaired, as do rural distress, the job crisis and the free-falling rupee. The country’s institutions demand urgently to be rebuilt — the media, police, judiciary, universities, the planning process, the Election Commission of India. But above all, if there is one thing that stands most dangerously damaged, it is our constitutional pledge of a secular democracy. What are the prospects of rebuilding this?

Listen carefully to the speeches in the shrill summer election campaign which has just come to a halt. From their podiums, Opposition leaders spoke of everything else — the agony of farmers, unemployed youth, suspect defence deals, crony capitalism and indeed crony institutions. But rarely did they speak of lynching, of violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits, of the fear which has become normalised in their daily lives, of our wrecked social contract of equality and harmony. And never did they speak of secularism.

 

The imagination of secularism in the Indian Republic was rooted in its singularly pluralist civilisational ethos, in the lives and work of Ashoka and Akbar, in the teachings of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak. It was illuminated by our struggle for freedom, in the humanist and egalitarian convictions of Gandhi and Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Nehru. It was the central iridescent idea: that this newly-freed country would belong equally to all its people. People of no religion, no language, no caste, no ethnicity, no gender, no class would be entitled to lay claim to the country more than any other.

Secularism is the soul of India’s Constitution. Today the letter of this Constitution still remains unaltered, but its soul is mangled and choked. Not just the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); even Opposition parties seem to have accepted that India is no longer the secular country born of the legacy of India’s freedom struggle, but a majoritarian Hindu country. In this new India, people of minority religions, castes and gender are second-class. Their safety and well-being are dependent now on the consent and will of the majority upper-caste, patriarchal Hindu, and the dictates of this Hindu are interpreted and violently mediated by the ideology of Hindutva.

It is a grave mistake to frame the 2019 general election as a battle of Narendra Modi against the rest. This is how Prime Minister Modi, referring to himself repeatedly in the third person, has framed this bitter electoral contest. This is how the Opposition has fought the electoral battle, of Mr. Modi versus the rest. This is how the majority of Indian voters view this combat.

However, the electoral battle waged around the country is truly a different one. On one side stands the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and on the other is the secular idea of the Indian Constitution. Mr. Modi is a formidable, pugnacious, tireless and immensely popular mascot of the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS; and his image is powerfully buttressed by a pliant corporate media and dizzying levels of spending on a public relations blitz to manufacture consent. But the central danger to secular India is not the personality of Mr. Modi. It is the penetration of the RSS into every institution of the country, into every political party, the media, the university, the judiciary, the civil services, and most dangerously into mainstream everyday social life of every ordinary Indian.

In the RSS worldview, Muslims and Christians are not authentically Indian, their loyalty to the Indian nation is and will always remain suspect; therefore, they need to be tamed, to be continuously shown their subordinate status in the Indian polity and society. It is for this reason that virulent hate speech was so central to this election campaign, with Mr. Modi mocking his rival, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, for seeking election in a constituency in which he would have to depend in part on Muslim and Christian voters; and other BJP leaders and candidates raging against the threats of the ‘green virus’ and ‘termites’. It is for this reason that BJP president Amit Shah pledges to extend the National Register of Citizens to all parts of India, while ensuring citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists from other parts of the subcontinent; in this way brazenly turning on its head the core constitutional idea that a person’s religion is irrelevant to her rights to equal citizenship. And it is for this reason that lynching of Muslims and attacks on Christian places of worship, openly valorised by ruling party leaders, became the overarching symbols of the newly forged relationship of the majoritarian Hindu state with its now inferior religious minorities.

If Mr. Modi is returned with an emphatic majority when ballots are counted on May 23, as many exit polls predict, this will herald that India has fallen deep into a cold hard place of hate and fear. It will signal that a significant majority of Hindus endorse the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS. It will indicate the popular abandonment of the secular and humane vision of India’s Constitution, and its replacement by a violent and chauvinist majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is suspicious and hateful in its relations with people who follow minority religious faiths. This outcome would also further imperil all left, liberal and democratic dissenting voices, in civil society, in the media, in universities, and in letters and the arts.

A second scenario, anticipated by a much smaller number of political commentators, is of reduced support for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), its tally falling short of the half-way mark. In such a situation, they anticipate the possibility that many regional parties could be persuaded to support an NDA government only if it is led by a less belligerent leader than Mr. Modi, possibly Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh. Many are relieved by the possibility of such an outcome: anyone other than Mr. Modi would be welcome, they reason. But it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that such a choice would pull India out of the dark abyss into which it has slipped. Even with a more acceptable face, as with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the RSS would use political power to further penetrate all institutions, and enfeeble what survives of secular practice.

The least expected scenario, of the victory of the United Progressive Alliance or a federal front of regional parties, cannot be ruled out yet. After all, the BJP has lost no exit polls since 2004, but it lost many elections. However, even with such an outcome, the crusade against secular democracy waged with such vigour by the RSS will not be won. The appetite and moral courage to fight majoritarian politics head-on stands perilously weakened among Opposition political parties. Whatever the final outcome, this fight to salvage, defend and fortify secularism will have to be fought by the Indian people. India is today a wasteland of compassion. It will take generations to clean out the toxins of hate from Indian society. It is a battle that must be waged with courage, with perseverance and with love. History in the end is on our side.

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Opinion

The politician and the machine

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By  SY Quraishi

The general elections 2019 is moving towards closure, with six out of seven phases already over. All eyes are now on the counting.

It is not surprising that the issue of counting of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) has become hot once again.

 

The decision to introduce VVPATs as a measure to make electronic voting machines (EVMs) transparent was taken in 2010 when a meeting of all political parties arrived at a consensus that this was the ultimate answer.

Finding the suggestion reasonable, the Election Commission (EC) immediately accepted it and asked the two EVM manufacturers, BEL and ECIL, to design the VVPAT machines. An independent committee of experts consisting of five professors from different IITs was tasked to oversee the design and the manufacturing process.

A series of trials were held, followed by a full-day election simulation in July 2011 in five climatically diverse cities– namely Cherrapunji, Delhi, Jaisalmer, Leh, and Thiruvananthapuram.

Since many bugs were noticed, the trial was repeated after addressing them in July 2012 at exactly the same places. Only after making sure that they were technologically sound and climatically dependable, were the VVPATs initially deployed in 20,000 polling booths successfully. Subsequently, all constituencies were equipped with VVPATs.

In 2013, the Supreme Court also lauded the EC’s decision to use VVPATs and directed the government to release adequate funds for their procurement for the 2019 elections. The machines that kept coming in were randomly deployed. From 2017 onwards, all state elections have been conducted with EVMs attached with VVPATs.

What was the counting procedure? Slips generated by one VVPAT in each assembly constituency were counted. Of the 1,500 machines counted so far, according to the EC, not a single mismatch was found.

In various elections, however, many VVPAT machines malfunctioned. The chief election commissioner (CEC) righty clarified that malfunctioning is different from rigging.

During the by-elections in Bihar and UP, and the Karnataka assembly elections last year, VVPAT glitches resulted in machine replacement rates of 4 to 20 per cent.

These were largely due to issues in the print unit, which is sensitive to weather. With hardware changes introduced in the machines, the glitches came down to 2 per cent for the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections.

While the debate is going on, I had offered an out-of-the-box solution: Let the top two runners up in every constituency choose any two VVPATs to be counted. As they have the highest stake in the results, they will choose the ones they are most suspicious about.

This is analogous to the Decision Review System in the game of cricket, in which two referrals are allowed for each team. Ever since its introduction, violent disputes about the controversial decisions taken by the umpire have all but disappeared.

This would do away with a large random sample being demanded at present, as only four machines will have to be counted per constituency. In case any mismatch is detected, all machines in the constituency must be counted.

In March, as many as 21 opposition parties moved the Supreme Court demanding that 50 per cent of the total slips be tallied. The SC asked the Commission to increase the sample size of the tally from one booth per assembly constituency to five assembly segments of each Lok Sabha constituency “for better voter confidence and credibility of electoral process”.

The court said that the move will ensure the “greatest degree of accuracy and satisfaction” in the electoral process.

On April 24, the same 21 parties approached the SC again with a review petition, citing concerns related to the first two phases of polling and the “unreliability” of the EVMs.

On May 7, it was turned down with the court saying that “we are not inclined to modify our order”.

I wonder how these parties expected the apex to review its decision, which was taken after great deliberation, when no new facts had emerged justifying the return to the court.

Surprisingly, the issue which should have been discussed and debated is still unattended: What happens if the VVPAT count doesn’t match the EVM count? Even one mismatch is enough to create doubts about the other machines as well.

The current provision is that if there is a mismatch, the VVPAT will prevail. This is fine if the mismatch corresponds to the figures of the mock poll, which have not been deleted.

In all other mismatch cases, perhaps all machines in the constituency should then be counted. The apex court has called for “better voter confidence and credibility of the electoral process.”

If it takes time, so be it. After all, that was the purpose behind the introduction of VVPATs. This can be tried out on a pilot basis. There may not be many such cases, if at all, as evident from the experience of 1,500 machines, which didn’t throw up any mismatches, but public confidence will be ensured.

The Commission may convene an all-party meeting, yet again, as concerns are serious and the stakes extremely high. My experience in dealing with political parties is that with open-minded dialogue, consensus does emerge. Clarity of procedures is required before the counting day approaches. Time is running out.

(Writer is former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder- the Making of the Great Indian Election.)

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Opinion

Main Hoon Na!

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By  Chitra Padmanabhan

Clacking away at the computer keyboard, I heard a tapping sound on the window. It was good old Birdie looking as if she was bursting to tell me something. “I have flown all the way from the abode of Shiva in the Himalayas,” she said, “to tell you about the drama that unfolded there yesterday.”

Curbing my curiosity – it was a long way off from the Garhwal Himalayas to Delhi – I placed a bowl of water and a plate of millets before her. Atithi devo bhava (the visitor is like god), after all.

 

After a few minutes during which she gave the refreshments her undivided attention, Birdie began chirping: “A few nights ago there was frenetic activity in the forest. It was not the harbinger of an earthquake to come, just the anticipation of an exciting event to liven things up. News had filtered in that there was going to be a full-fledged film shooting around the temple of Shiva. None other than the great actor of Bharatvarsha was scheduled to come and deliver the performance of a lifetime.”

“So, what happened?” I asked breathlessly.

Birdie warbled: “It was fascinating. Total pro that he is, actor saheb kept experimenting with different face angles to see which one the camera liked the most. People call Aamir Khan a method actor, but yeh to uska bhi baap nikla (he was miles ahead of Aamir). It was not just face angles that he focused on; he went down to the last detail, such as what should be the exact set of his shoulders as he walked towards the shrine. In fact, he told the unit to do some seriously complex calculations to arrive at the exact angle.”

But why, I wanted to know.

In an awed tone Birdie recited word for word what actor saheb said: “I should be seen to be somewhat humble as I approach the god but not so humble as to appear like the indistinguishable mass of pleading supplicants. I am the best, after all, and I have my image to consider. I need to look like a realised soul who has been on a spiritual journey for decades to be the saintly actor that I am, capable of making the masses and classes forget their troubles with just a sideway glance.”

According to what Birdie told me, the entire unit, from the director to the humble gofer, speechlessly nodded. They had been witness to his temper – he had entered his vanity van for a makeover and had come out holding the make-up artiste by the scruff of his neck, saying, “Do I pay you to show the shadows under my eyes?” On top of that it seems he had given explicit instructions that he should be shown as taller than the mountains in every frame.

I was impatient to know about the scene that the actor was going to shoot but I bided my time as Birdie nibbled on some biscuit crumbs.

Fortified, she continued: “Do you remember the film Main Hoon Na in which Shah Rukh Khan starts hearing violins every time his eyes alight on Sushmita Sen? Well, they were preparing for a similar scene here. The actor was wearing the ochre/saffron costume of an ascetic for the shot. The director went through the details with his team one last time: ‘As saheb starts walking towards the shrine, the entire area will come alive with a song sung to the lord, Rang de tu mohe gerua (drench me in ochre/saffron), the colour symbolising asceticism and devotion of the highest kind.’” Apparently, the actor told the unit to do what it had to do to ensure that his head and the shikhar of the temple were at the same level.

There was a long pause, as if Birdie was playing the scene in her mind, and not liking it too much. I, on the other hand, was agog to know more.

Finally Birdie spoke in a small voice: There was a terrible mix-up and the wrong song was played. It was not the sonorous ‘Rang de tu mohe gerua’ that reverberated through the Himalayas but the following lines:

Raja ho ya rank

Yahan to sab hain chowkidar

Kuch to aa kar chale gaye

Kuch jaane ko tayyar

Khabardar, Khabardar!

(King or pauper,

Everyone’s just a caretaker in this world, keeping time

Some have come and gone

And some are on the verge of going

Be mindful!)

As the philosophical song played in those pristine environs, all hell broke loose. The spiritual expression that the actor had mustered with great effort came apart at the seams. In its place emerged the ugly face of hubris that he, a king among men, should be told, albeit mistakenly, that his reign was coming to an end. The line between the actor and the role had completely blurred. Maybe his reaction had something to do with the fact that there were new actors on the block.

Meanwhile the unit members took shelter behind any rock they could find and waited for saheb to cool down. After making doubly sure that they had the right soundtrack the director prepared to shoot the scene again. This time it was indeed the mellifluous Rang de tu mohe gerua that brought the place alive.

I asked Birdie about the expression on the actor’s face.

She was thoughtful: “People say a good actor is aware of the camera but knows that it is his conviction about the role and his craft that sees him through. He is oblivious of the camera at that time. That day I realised that the camera is ruthless; it is quick to smoke out any false note.”

I broke the flow of her reverie: “Are you saying the great actor lacked the skill?”

Birdie hummed and hawed: “Listen, I don’t want this story coming back to bite me. Let me just say that for all his ‘I am the lion of the jungle’ demeanour, actor saheb was so conscious of who he was and of the camera that he ended up playing an actor trying to be humble in the most arrogant manner. Moreover, the state-of-the-art cameras are so cruel that let alone trace the slightest ripple of tension in the muscles, they can even capture the anxiety flowing in the actor’s blood.

I asked: “Is that what the camera showed that day?”

Birdie nodded: “The camera showed an actor so loath to free himself of his grandiose image, so stressed out at the thought that he would be judged by the audience that he lost his nerve. So he abandoned the fiction genre and decided to shoot a documentary. He had the camera follow him, the great actor, or abhineta, on a personal journey the likes of which were undertaken by the ancient rishis of Bharatvarsha. “

I consoled Birdie, saying that there would be other film shootings, other actors.

She said: “All that is fine, but it seemed to me that the ‘documentary’ made by actor saheb was far more fictitious than any fiction film could have been. Give me Shah Rukh Khan any day!”

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