As the Yellow Vest movement in France continues its novel and inspiring revolt, president Emmanuel Macron could not help expressing his class disdain for ordinary people: at a gala speech on 11 January, he declared: “Too many French people don’t know the meaning of the word ‘effort’. That’s part of the explanation for the present troubles”. This article takes a look at the general significance of Macron and the movement within France.
Certainly, on our side, effort has not been lacking! It is unheard of to hold demonstrations in dozens of towns across the country on the weekend between Christmas and the New Year. But the Yellow Vest movement managed on 12 January to hold one of the biggest waves of protests yet. Imaginative and symbolic direct action has inspired all those who want smug-faced Macron thrown out of his palace.
Motorways and ferry ports – and a horse racecourse – have been blockaded again, as well as some regional police headquarters and town halls. And one of Macron’s MPs woke up one morning to find their house entrance bricked up. In early January, another minister was made to scurry out the back door of his office, as demonstrators smashed in his front door with a handy forklift. He later squealed something about “extreme violence threatening the Republic”.
Meanwhile, the 24-hour lies and distortions of much of the media have been challenged by demonstrations in front of TV headquarters, and blockades stopped delivery of at least three regional newspapers this week, including Ouest France. A right wing news channel, BFM, refused to cover some demonstrations due to barracking by unhappy Yellow Vests. At the same time, Google and Amazon have been targeted by “Pay your taxes!” pickets.
Last week and this, women’s Yellow Vest marches were held around France, while a new Yellow Vest version of a famous World War Two resistance song is doing the rounds of social media. Many towns have seen nothing like this since 1968, and it all shows a rapid politicisation of the people involved, in particular on the subject of the police and the media. Many involved had been “apolitical” before!
In a number of cities, regular meetings now allow debate on demands and actions. The protests are now more frequently declared in advance, allowing people who might be concerned about going to a non-authorised rally to join in. The numbers involved are not those which the mass union mobilisations of 18 months back could bring out, but the creatively insurrectional atmosphere and the fact that the actions have continued for more than two months make the situation unique. Even the Times in London is editorialising about Macron’s “desperation”.
Polls show that, although sympathy for the Yellow Vests among better-off sections of the population has fallen somewhat, across society a majority of people support the revolt. Among blue collar workers and low-grade office workers it remains extremely popular.
The successes of the movement (in addition to the concessions) are that poverty among workers and pensioners is now at the centre of public debate, and Macron has been humiliated in the eyes of the entire world. At a moment when we have just learned that shareholders in France received 57 billion euros in dividends last year, the disgusting injustice of the system is very much in focus.
The rhythm is quite different from that of a social explosion like May 1968, when a general strike followed only days after the political crisis appeared. The defeats of enormous strikes in 2018 and 2017 against neoliberal attacks have led to a certain demoralisation, which makes the move from mass revolt to mass strike action more difficult, and means many workers are tempted by an attitude of passive support for the Yellow Vests, hoping that the movement will win for everyone.
The revolt is facing other challenges, too. The active core, present daily at roundabouts and toll booths, is an alliance of different fractions of dominated classes. The biggest groups are manual workers and low-grade white collar workers, but there are large numbers of retired people, self-employed and small business owners. This mix will tend to encourage a view of the government and the multinationals as the sole enemies rather than the capitalist class as a whole. This is no doubt why the demand for a big rise in the minimum wage (not easily supported by small business owners, and a matter of indifference for many self-employed) has not become the central focus. Instead, demands that the government listen, that ministers be paid less and, in particular, that citizen-called referendums be made possible by a change in the constitution, are being raised. The restoration of the wealth tax Macron recently abolished is also among the most often heard of the demands.
To bring Macron down, widespread strike action will be necessary. Alliances between the Yellow Vests and left trade unions exist in several towns, but the class mix makes this harder. And the high school student strikes which blockaded dozens of schools at the end of December do not seem to have started up again in January.
There are signs that this could change. A Yellow Vest meeting in Toulouse called for a general strike last week, and organised a public meeting with trade unionists. Yellow Vests in Montpellier, Toulouse, Lille and Narbonne are following the same strategy, and there is talk of a national meeting of delegates from Yellow Vest groups. Joint leaflets have been produced with left unions in some towns, and teachers’ unions are calling for their members to join the Yellow Vest actions.
Macron’s response to humiliation, after his minor but real concessions in December, has been to hold firm and hope the movement dies off. Meanwhile, he is ensuring that police violence is at its highest point for decades. A spokesperson for one of the police trade unions confirmed that government orders were the reason that rubber bullets were being aimed at the heads of demonstrators (even though this is, in principle, illegal).
Medics and journalists have been targeted by police thugs, and one 83-year-old vicar lost two teeth to a police baton. At least 82 people have been seriously injured. Twelve demonstrators have lost eyes, four have lost hands and an elderly Muslim woman died after police fired a tear gas canister at her while she was at her window in her flat (they aimed deliberately according to the victim).
More than 4,500 people have been arrested and kept in police cells since the beginning of the movement, and 216 are in prison. Harsh custodial sentences have been handed out to demonstrators fighting back against police (two years’ jail for allegedly throwing stones and a four-month suspended sentence for shouting “we need a guillotine” at a minister are two examples), whereas police filmed attacking demonstrators or bystanders without provocation have been backed by their superiors. “Nothing will happen to me, I’m a commander”, one violent policeman was filmed saying.
Prime minister Edouard Philippe has announced new laws to deal with “violence at demonstrations”, with more rights for police to keep files on people and ban them from demonstrating. Meanwhile, in a sign of panic among the elite, a former Conservative minister of education, Luc Ferry, called on the police to shoot demonstrators who fight back. “They should use their guns once and for all … we have the fourth largest army in the world and we can’t stop these bastards?”, he squealed.
Otherwise, Macron is hoping that the three-month “Great National Debate” he has announced will help calm the revolt. Polls show 41 percent of the population intend to take part (and since Macron is personally thought to be doing a good job by only 20 percent of the population, one can understand the reasons for his debate). It is a risky tactic. Left wing MPs from the left wing party France Insoumise are mocking the initiative in the media, and the grand debate got off to a limping start, as the person appointed to organise it resigned a few days after her appointment, once she saw that public opinion was shocked at her salary – 15,000 euros a month.
The debate idea is to send ministers out to a series of public forums around the country, and ask town mayors to collect written opinions. But as one minister commented: “Do we really want to go out to community halls and get tarred and feathered? It’s a risk”. Ministerial teams are making lists of “safe towns” to go to. There may not be many – Macron himself can hardly go anywhere without a protest demonstration these days. In addition, a number of local mayors have said they don’t want to be involved in organising the debate: “We don’t want to be associated with failed policies”, they explained.
In any case, the president has announced that the debate will not deal with the major reforms (read attacks) he is planning. Most of his own ministers think the “reforms” should be delayed, but he is not listening. Already from 1 January, a new policy forcing unemployed people to take practically any job available is being implemented, and the big project of the year is to reorganise retirement pensions so that public sector workers in particular receive far less at the end of their working lives. Not far behind are attacks on students: it has already been announced that students from abroad will pay 10 times higher enrolment fees next year, and Macron hopes to extend this attack to all students later (at present enrolment fees are around 300 euros a year).
The danger of the far right is ever present. Two months ago, a number of left commentators mistakenly denounced the Yellow Vest movement as being close to the National Front. This is not the case, and attempts by fascist activists to push immigration to the front of the debates have failed miserably. Recent mass meetings in Lyon and Toulouse voted for very left wing demands: a free health service, nationalisation of the motorways and reduced taxes for retired people. Fascists have been physically chased off several demonstrations. Nevertheless, the far right and particularly far right leader Marine Le Pen are hoping to profit from the crisis.
This is not straight forward for them: the fascists will not support a rise in the minimum wage and cannot wholeheartedly condemn police violence, since their support among police officers and small business owners is high. But Marine Le Pen, concentrating on the anti-politician atmosphere in the movement, has called for a reduction in the number of MPs in parliament and is supporting the demand for citizens’ referendums. Polls show that voting intentions for Le Pen for the upcoming European elections are rising, no doubt largely from “law and order” types.
The fragility of the government means that this is an excellent moment to launch a strike movement against neoliberal attacks. The national union leaderships are determined that this should not happen. The joint statement of all the larger confederations in December refused to express support for the Yellow Vests, or to condemn police violence, and concentrated on telling the government that they were ready to negotiate. Laurent Berger, general secretary of one major union federation, the Democratic Confederation of Labour, went much further last week, declaring that the Yellow Vests were threatening to bring totalitarianism to the country!
Even the leadership of the General Confederation of Labour, the most radical of the large confederations, is refusing to come out decisively in support of the Yellow Vest movement, although they have also decided to have nothing to do with the “Great National Debate”.
Regional and local unions often support the movement actively and are more and more calling on people to join the uprising. But there is, sadly, no widely recognised alternative leadership to the official one. In several sectors the situation is worsened by a tradition of more radical workers forming separate, very left wing unions, often cut off from wider influence because of this.
The radical left
Left organisations have been working on how to intervene in this novel kind of movement. There are practically no open interventions on the demonstrations – no leafleting or bookstalls, no placards or banners from parties or campaigning organisations. At times, this has been because some demonstrations resembled riots, but even now that the demonstrations are often calmer, this has not changed. In the meetings held in many towns, left political activists are very much involved, but mostly the political intervention is separated out – the declarations appear on TV, on websites, in leaflets separate from the moments of Yellow Vest agitation etc. This is because the left organisations respect the “non-partisan” atmosphere of the movement, which issues partly from its class nature mentioned above.
On 12 January, “Act Nine” was far bigger than “Act Eight” a week earlier. A dozen metro stations were closed in Paris and dynamic demonstrations were held in Lille, Marseille Toulouse, Saint Brieux, Rouen and elsewhere. Macron has many a headache coming. The further the movement can pressure him, the better it will be for all workers, and throwing Macron out is possible. The “Great National Debate” will be launched by a “letter to the French people”, which Macron’s stooges are composing as I write. Meanwhile, Macron supporters are organising an anti-Yellow Vest demonstration on 27 January.