|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 225 February 2019
France: gilets jaunes revolt changes everything
The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement in France has involved hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations, blockades of roundabouts, main roads and toll booths in big cities and rural areas. Begun in mid-November, it did not even stop during the festive season, and it’s not finished yet. According to the government, 85,000 people were on the streets on 12 January 2019 – double the numbers for the previous Saturday.
Plans were drawn up by gilets jaunes all around the country for the following Saturdays to have mobilisations, demos or actions, with specific women’s demonstrations on Sundays. A social and political crisis has opened up. The reasons why people took action initially have not been solved. President Emmanuel Macron is under very severe pressure from below.
The movement is a social revolt against Macron and what he represents. At its heart are insecure/casual workers, part-time women workers, small farmers, unemployed people. Angry at price increases on diesel, energy and food, they are also revolted by handouts to the rich and nothing for the rest of the population and disgusted by government corruption and the lack of democracy. They are not ready to give up the fight.
This is especially because, day by day, Macron and his government show their incredible arrogance towards ‘those from below’. Just before the 12 January demonstration, Macron complained against "those French people who don’t like making an effort". In spite of the capitalist media presenting the gilets jaunes as a violent, uneducated, wild people’s movement, every week surveys show at least 55% support for the ‘yellow wave’.
The people involved in the movement have coalesced into a sort of uprising against Macron and society. On the roundabouts, in the demos and actions, they are giving all their personal resources. Some have resigned from their jobs, some are demonstrating on Saturdays, Sundays and participating in all the activities and protests. Their energy has been the fuel of the movement. However, after two months, this is insufficient, and the movement is not growing any more.
The difficulties of coordinating and deciding collectively have not allowed for political clarification inside the movement about its programme, except in some regions where general assemblies were created during the first month. In some areas, joint action has been held with trade unions or workers in front of their workplaces. But nationally, the absence of the organised workers’ movement is a key failure in the gilets jaunes’ capacity to extend and develop clear working-class aims and programme.
The gilets jaunes have a consciousness of being against Macron and the rich, but they are not clearly conscious that they are part of a class – the working class – which is the only one capable of overthrowing Macron and his policies. Strikes and mass movements have not yet been put on the agenda in the struggle against Macron. The fact that there are no really new layers and trade unions joining on a national scale is limiting the movement itself. State repression and violent clashes on demonstrations also discourage many people from joining in.
The gilets jaunes face ferocious repression. Thousands have been injured, some of them losing an eye or a hand after the paramilitary riot police fire ‘flash-balls’ (rubber bullets) or ‘defensive’ grenades. So-called ‘preventive arrests’ take place to stop gilets jaunes getting to events. Official figures show that, since 17 November, 6,475 people have been arrested and 5,339 taken into police custody. Ten people have died on the blockades because of car accidents or as a consequence of police action – a sad record which underlines the fear of the ruling class and government. By the middle of January more than 150 activists had been condemned to jail for several months or even a year for defending themselves against the police.
Macron has tried to use the political confusion. In the early stages, he was forced to step back on some very unpopular measures like fuel prices and pensions. Now, however, he is trying to recover. He has launched ‘the big national debate’ which is supposed to be organised locally by mayors. On 14 January, each French citizen received a letter from Macron to explain what he wants to discuss. Certainly, the vast majority of the gilets jaunes do not trust one word of Macron’s. But he hopes he can win his electorate back, or at least address a broader layer not involved in the movement, who might want a more peaceful situation and can be influenced. It is not certain he will succeed.
At the moment, Macron wants to avoid any electoral damage, especially before this May’s European elections which could become a sort of referendum against him. The political situation is particularly unstable because Macron has a capitalist agenda to continue attacks on pensions and social care. The struggle has opened, and it’s only the beginning!
There will be a before and an after the gilets jaunes movement. This is because, on a broader scale, everything has been shaken up for two months without the government or any party being able to end it. The level of hate against Macron is very high among large sections of society. He has had to hide in the Elysée Palace in Paris, and cancel travel plans because it seems too risky for him to appear in public.
It makes others in the country want to take action to change their lives, too. At the beginning of the year, several movements have been launched on the same model as the gilets jaunes, on the internet or on the streets: discontented lawyers, the ‘red pens’ movement in education, and ‘pink vest’ childminders. A large part of the population is looking at the situation very seriously. A ‘second round’ in 2019 is possible. Among the youth, especially school students, the sympathy for the gilets jaunes is real and the willingness to revolt is potentially high.
The gilets jaunes will probably not develop into a unified movement of strikes and protests, but it is clear that a breach has been opened for a much larger involvement of the working class and youth in the struggle against Macron. For the moment, the industrial working class is not involved with the gilets jaunes, mainly because the trade union leaderships have not been open towards the movement. However, Macron and the bosses’ agenda is a wake-up call for them to organise together with young people and pensioners, and to address the wider population.
Large parts of the trade union movement and left activists are not sure what to do in the situation and are also dismayed. They did not even know whether they should intervene in this kind of movement in which there is political confusion and some reactionary ideas. In reality, many very good activists are also confused and have no idea how to address the broader layers.
There is a need to propose a programme that links up the concrete demands, can give confidence to workers and youth, and provide a political perspective to overthrow Macron and the capitalists. This vacuum is an expression of the absence of a new workers’ party for socialism. Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the France Insoumise (FI – France Unbowed) are in the middle of the road. A lot of FI activists are involved in the movement, much more than other left-wing organisations. But being a member of the FI is not enough. FI does not help its members to intervene and build the movement. This is a historic responsibility for the left.
Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France) argues that it is particularly important to discuss our transitional demands widely – in the unions, social and political organisations, and in the left. This means putting forward the need to struggle for wage increases, the indexation of prices and in defence of public services, with the renationalisation under the control and management of the workers and the population. The political crisis will continue to develop. It is time to seize the opportunity and build the forces for revolutionary socialist change.
Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI in France)