Act Five for the popular Yellow Vest revolt against poverty in France came on 15 December – but it was not the finale. The movement remains vibrant and determined, especially in big southern towns such as Toulouse and Bordeaux.
Its effects are considerable, with pre-Christmas commerce heavily hit, privatised motorway companies losing tens of millions of euros, and images of burning cars and smashed bank windows on the Champs Elysees tarnishing president Emmanuel Macron’s image as 21st century European capitalism’s blue-eyed boy.
Christmas trees have been put up on several Yellow Vest-held roundabouts and motorway toll booths, symbolising that protesters are not giving up. At some roadblocks, the movement collects for food banks; at others they set up mock guillotines. One of Macron’s MPs turned up for work the other day to find her offices had been repainted bright yellow.
New initiatives are to be noted every day. A picket of Monsanto offices, another at the home of the chair of the main bosses’ organisation, the the Movement of the Enterprises of France, and a blockade of a wholesale food market at Rungis, outside Paris, are just three examples. When Yellow Vests blockaded the tax office at Figeac, some workers came out on strike to support them.
In several places (such as Toulouse or Clermont-Ferrand), large general meetings are for the first time being set up to debate demands. People speaking on behalf of parties or unions are often not welcome, but commentators who had believed exaggerations about the influence of the far right were surprised to see, in Toulouse, there were no racist demands being debated. In Clermont, the one anti-migrant demand was shouted down. Of the 30 or so different slogans I saw on vests and placards in Paris on 15 December, none mentioned immigration.
Police interventions against roadblocks are rising to dozens every day, but the Yellow Vests cleared out sometimes come back the following day, some town mayors support them and anger remains high (several motorway toll booths have been burned down this week). There are still a couple of hundred roadblocks active.
After Act Four and the high school students’ mobilisation, Macron went on national television on 10 December. He pretended to apologise for his attitude and made further concessions (after having cancelled fuel tax rises the previous week). The concessions are small but tremendously important, having broken his image as the Thatcherite Iron Kid. He is desperately hoping that these minor retreats, and the Christmas break, will be enough to halt the movement.
The first concession was more money for workers on the minimum wage. Obviously, this money is useful, but the mechanics of the proposal are rotten through and through. Instead of raising the minimum wage, which acts as a benchmark for many other wages, Macron announced an increase in a government top-up paid to low income workers. This means it costs nothing to the employers (and the suggestion was that public service cuts would pay for it).
The increase, around 100 euros, was understood to include already-planned increases. However, the following day (when it had become clear that the Yellow Vests were unimpressed) a new statement said that it would be on top of what was already planned, a small gain of about 20 euros. The government also scrambled to make sure the increase would apply in just a few weeks’ time, after leaked information suggested it would take six months.
The second concession was the cancellation of a new tax on pensioners whose household income is under 2,000 euros.
Third was the reintroduction of a scheme that originated under conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy: overtime hours will no longer be subject to income tax. This would put money in the pockets of up to a third of French workers, but most people do not get overtime and the high unemployment rate means that there is less, not more, overtime being worked.
Fourth, Macron announced that the government would encourage employers “able to” to pay an end of year bonus to employees. This bonus will be tax free if it is under 1,000 euros. Invited to cocktails at the Elysee Palace, several large employers including Total, Orange and Publicis said they would pay such a bonus. According to a left news magazine, their mission was “saving private Macron”.
In Macron’s televised speech, there was ominous dog whistling. He urged a “national debate” on issues including “the deep identity” of the French, immigration and threats to secularism. Macron has been known to use considerably less Islamophobia and racism than other right wing leaders. He had said last July, for example: “The Republic has no reason to have any difficulties with Islam” and he criticised militant secularism. But it seems the possibility of diverting attention to scapegoats was too tempting this time. The “national debate”, announced a few days later, omitted the question of immigration, but these mentions may be dark signs for the future.
Macron is scared – there is no doubt about it. He and his friends are frantically leafing through copies of Neoliberal Government for Dummies, looking for ideas. Suddenly, the railway and Paris Metro nationalised companies and the Post office declared a Christmas bonus of a couple of hundred euros to all of their 300,000 employees. One of Macron’s ministers announced that the government will levy a new tax on the internet giants – Google, Facebook Amazon etc. – that have been denounced by Yellow Vests for avoiding tax. And 400 million euros for hospitals, which had been bureaucratically blocked for five years, suddenly became available.
When, on 11 December, there was a tragic shooting incident in Strasbourg, the right jumped on the opportunity to close down the movement. News channels and “concerned” ministers insisted that “reasonable yellow vests” were calling to stop the demonstrations; that the heroic police were exhausted and needed to concentrate on terrorism. There was also a continuing attempt to discredit the radical left by bundling them in with the fascists.
“Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left wing La France Insoumise (FI – Unbowed France), and far right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen are calling for more violent demonstrations” was last week’s theme song. Current affairs shows on all channels invited the best dressed and wittiest Nazis in the country to speak about the movement. Viewers are supposed to conclude that Macron is the only alternative to fascism.
Meanwhile, police violence increased. Several protesters have lost an eye from rubber bullets. Amnesty International has denounced police violence as excessive, counting more than 1,500 injured, 47 gravely so.
The union leaders
One advantage of a movement without a recognised leadership is that it cannot be closed down from above in return for minor but complicated concessions. The role of the union heads in recent weeks has generally been dreadful, whereas overwhelming public support for the movement had made a call for a general strike plausible.
First, on 6 December, a joint declaration by all the union confederations except one declared they wanted to negotiate with the government. The statement did not even denounce police violence, much less call for building the Yellow Vest movement. Then, under pressure from below, the biggest left federation, the General Confederation of Labour, called for strike action on 14 December. But the call was half-hearted and routine, and hardly mentioned the Yellow Vest movement. This helped to ensure that the strikes were relatively weak.
In addition, many workers, demoralised after massive strikes last Spring failed in their objectives, are hoping that the Yellow Vests will sort out the problem without mass strikes being necessary, and so are only showing passive support. But strikes have been sparked off this week, (in commerce, for example), some demanding a Christmas bonus like the one agreed by the big companies.
The student mobilisations were strong but have not yet managed to grow and affect a majority of institutions. After the holidays we will see how much energy is available in this movement. Meanwhile, an additional cause of destabilisation for the government is an incipient movement in the police force demanding more resources and the settling of unpaid overtime. On 19 December, police on passport control held a go-slow and some police stations closed. This led to a wage rise of 150 euros for the police within 12 hours!
In parliament, Mélenchon demanded a minute of silence for those Yellow Vests who have died (the latest was run down by a lorry forcing a road block). The government refused to participate in this mark of respect. The France Insoumise MPs have been very impressive, defending the movement on TV and on the ground. But the reformist FI conception of the division of labour between trade unions and political parties means that Mélenchon will not call for a general strike. The far less influential New Anticapitalist Party calls for one but remains marginal – though its activists work along FI activists in many Yellow Vest groups.
This week, one particular demand of the Yellow Vests hit the headlines. This is for a constitutional change allowing referendums to be called by a sufficient number of citizens petitioning for one. Such referendums might abrogate a law or sack a member of parliament, for example.
Constitutional reform has often been important to the French left and this proposal already figured in the program of the FI in last year’s elections. It is an extremely popular demand that reflects distrust in present democratic structures, but it is one question among several others. A big rise in the minimum wage, the reestablishment of the recently abolished wealth tax or Macron’s resignation are all at least as popular.
There appears to be an attempt in the mainstream media to put the referendum proposal at the centre of the debate. This is not good for the left because it is the kind of question which can be buried in a promise to set up a commission to investigate the many referendums that might improve democracy. “Bring the wealth tax back now” and “More money on wages and pensions” are better demands to prioritise, since they are harder to wriggle out of.
One reason the referendum demand is popular among Yellow Vests is because it appears to be “neither left wing nor right wing” and so can allow people to avoid the more difficult political questions. It is far from clear that this demand will remain central, though Macron’s ministers are making noises that they would be open to discussion about it. Other proposals abound. Some have suggested setting up a Yellow Vest slate to stand in the European elections next May.
The future for Macron
News magazines are headlining: “Is Macron finished”? His popularity ratings are around 23 percent, down from 50 percent at the beginning of the year despite his comfortable majority in parliament. Worried right wing commentators are saying that his position is so weak that he may not be able to push through the vicious attack on retirement pensions he was planning. Meanwhile, his jerry-built party is multiplying blunders. Its leader explained this week that the problem was that the party had been too subtle and too intelligent!
The ruling class has been making extreme efforts to support Macron because previous neoliberals Sarkozy (from the right) and Hollande (from the left) didn’t weaken workers’ positions half as much as the capitalists wanted, and Macron, they often felt, was their last card. But, though several huge gifts for the rich are going through parliament Macron’s popularity has fallen below 30 percent even among business owners.
No one can say how far the Yellow Vest movement will go in the coming weeks, but we could be in for many more surprises. Poverty among workers is now at the centre of public debate. And tens of thousands of previously unmobilised working class people have discovered radical collective action; this is a step forward.
John Mullen is a member of the anti-capitalist network Ensemble, in the Paris area, and a supporter of the France Insoumise.