Observers in Britain and elsewhere have watched with grim fascination as France engages in a violent exercise of self-harm.
Over the past three weeks, “yellow vest” protesters have caused untold millions in damage to shops, businesses but also national monuments, tax offices and other symbols of state.
As prime minister Edouard Philippe remarked on Tuesday while announcing the government’s belated U-turn on a controversial fuel tax in a bid to quell their revolt, the ultimate victim is the French taxpayer. He will once again be asked to fork out for the clean-up.
Across the Channel, the contrast is stark: while the French are rioting nominally over a few pence of fuel tax, we Brits are calmly carrying out constitutional suicide.
President Emmanuel Macron insists that both arise from the same deep-seated sense of dispossession among the middle classes, a loss of purchasing power and identity that is “poisoning” all Western democracies.
Whichever way you look at it, Gallic yellow fever and Brexit have exposed the cultural chasm between France and the UK - one that appears early on.
My 14-year-old son couldn’t get to school today in Paris. Students were blocking the entrance to his lycee, one of almost 200 around France in the same situation.
The headmaster and other staff were at the front entrance - not, he assured me, to let pupils in but to ensure the situation didn’t degenerate. Several students had bangers in their pockets. “They told me if I tried to get in they’d beat me up,” he said.
The blockages were to do with “school and university reforms” but the details were sketchy. I told him to study the issues and make his own mind up but I could see the giddy pull of group action was strong.
Besides, the teachers said the day was “banalisé” - in other words no-one who failed to show up in class would be punished; it was all quite understandable “social action”.
When you grow up, tolerance to protest, even violent, is strong in France.
I recall witnessing one surreal situation in which furious winegrowers in southwestern France emptied 50,000 bottles of Rioja into the street while a terrified Spanish tanker driver cowered in a corner - his petrol tank had been shot through twice.
Police stood idly by. “We can do nothing. This is social action,” they said.
I have been in France for 22 years. Many are the protests and strikes I have covered that ended in retreat or full scale withdrawal of whatever reform had sparked the ire.
From the French authorities’ point of view, the right to protest has traditionally been seen as a carnivalesque means of letting off steam to avoid full scale revolt. Protests were often factored into an initial bargaining position.
Macron promised to do things differently. France, he warned, could no longer run on empty. It had to produce before redistributing. To general surprise, he stood down the unions and rushed through his first reforms. Faith in democracy, he insisted would only be restored if politicians kept their campaign promises.
Today’s U-turn on the spark that set off the revolt - fuel tax - plus a promise to freeze electricity prices until mid-2019 suggest that parenthesis may now be over.
However, rather like Brexit, the revolt may not be because the answer can never provide full satisfaction.
Some want to do away with the Senate and govern by an endless series of popular referendums. There has even been a proposal to sack Macron and replace him with France’s chief of the defence staff, Gen Pierre de Villiers.
Beyond the understandable pleas for help from the struggling poor, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, former leader of the May 1968 student uprisings, discerned the faint rumblings of authoritarian mob rule.
At the same time, the yellow vests want taxes to be cut and public services to be improved. In a rare moment of lucidity, the prime minister said you can’t have both. It is a concept many French refuse to grasp.