The yellow vests shake Macron

December 17, 2018

Léon Crémieux, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party and activist in the Solidaires union federation, looks at the latest developments in the uprising of the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) following French President Emmanuel Macron’s televised speech announcing some concessions and how the movement has begun to tie together the interests of working-class people, in a slightly edited version of an article first published in English at International Viewpoint.

SINCE THE beginning of December, France has been plunged into a political crisis. President Emmanuel Macron hoped to escape from it with the televised statement he made on the evening of Monday, December 10.

The yellow vest movement has been growing since mid-November. Saturday, December 1, was a turning point, beginning a new stage in the social crisis. The clashes on the Champs-Élysées in Paris were the symbol of the day, but in cities across the country, the mobilizations, equal in size to that of the previous week on average, saw a higher level of confrontation. In Toulouse, Marseille, Le Puy en Velay (where the prefecture was attacked by yellow vests)...everywhere, this radicalization was accompanied by the generalization of the slogan “Macron must resign.” The images of the police chased from the Arc de Triomphe, after it had been tagged and occupied by yellow vests, have spread across the world, crystallizing the political crisis and destabilization of Macron’s rule.

Protesters take to the streets against the Macron government in Charente-Maritime
Protesters take to the streets against the Macron government in Charente-Maritime

At the same time, before December 1, support for the yellow vest movement had led to an even greater class polarization, bringing the working classes together in opposition to the more urban and wealthier classes.

In the preceding days, a convergence with sectors of the trade union movement began to take shape in a series of cities. This took the form of, at least partly, joint rallies with the long-planned Confédération générale du travail (CGT, or General Confederation of Labor) trade union demonstrations for rights for the unemployed on December 1, and also direct calls from local trade union branches in the private sector, the SNCF (France’s rail system) and the Post Office to join the yellow vests’ demonstrations.

Thus, despite the initial caricature that spread through the ranks of the trade-union movement and the social and radical left stigmatizing the movement as “yellow-brown” [a reference to the far right], gradually, the character and social content of the movement’s demands became clear. Although it is socially mixed, there is a great preponderance of working-class forces involved. So barriers broke down, opening the way to convergence and, therefore, to a change in the balance of forces.

The question of “purchasing power” has gradually shifted from the simple question of the rise in fuel tax to the general question of taxes, including the indirect taxation affecting the working classes and focusing on the abolition of the wealth tax and tax gifts for the wealthy. The question of the distribution of wealth has explicitly appeared in many statements and slogans of the yellow vests. The issues of pensions, attacks on pensions, wages and the minimum wage have come to the fore, allowing an explicit link to workers’ demands.

So even before December 1, the dynamic was a class dynamic, marginalizing the far right, not in its audience among some of the yellow vests, but in the distance from its favorite themes: immigration as the cause of all evils, “tax bludgeoning,” lumping together all taxes paid by the working classes or employers, and a demagogic attack against state employees.[1]

AFTER DECEMBER 1, France entered a deep political crisis. With their backs to the wall, Macron and the deputies of his party, La République En Marche, saw what little popular support they had left melt away, reducing it to the hard core of the ruling class.

Macron began to crack, seeing that his image as a popular president had been destroyed internationally, and that even the violence of the December 1 clashes had not lessened popular support for the yellow vests’ movements.

In a panic the next day, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the suspension of the fuel tax for six months, and then its cancellation for 2019. But as the press says, it was “too little and too late”!

Not only were the yellow vests not satisfied with these first concessions over the tax increases, but they were encouraged to continue the struggle. All those who have been under attack for at least two years, and who have been defeated one after another, began to see an opportunity to make their voices heard: farmers, truck drivers, port and dock workers, etc.

The government, by starting to back down, wanted to dramatize the situation, stirring up the threat of chaos and the “putsch,” and evoking the specter of the far right, thus trying to break the popular support of the movement and avoid merging of the yellow vests with the workers’ movement on December 8.

Macron himself remained silent until December 8, fearing to crystallize discontent once again. But he called on all the intermediate bodies that he himself had pushed aside: deputies and senators, mayors, trade union leaders. They were supposed to do the job of calling for calm through statements highlighting “social dialogue.”

The trade union leaders, except those of the confederation Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, published a lamentable inter-union statement, a “call to order” — a statement disavowed in the CGT by a large number of federations and departmental unions. At the same time, the CGT, under pressure from its base, called for a day of mobilization on Friday, December 14.

This tactic was a complete failure up to December 8. Not only were the government’s retreats seen as an encouragement, but the convergences began to take place in different cities and regions with sections of the trade union movement. These convergences appeared in the street on December 8. There were as many demonstrators as on December 1, and in many cities and towns, there were mixed marches of yellow vests incorporating social movement activists and often linking up with climate activists.

All these elements have contributed to the radicalization of the yellow-vest movement on social questions, limiting the impact of the extreme right-wing elements still present in the movement.

At the same time, between 100 and 200 high schools went on strike or blocked on the eve of December 8. This movement has been the re-emphasis of demands against the reform of access to the state university system, through the Parcoursup higher education application process, and against a reform of the baccalaureate along the same lines.

On December 8, there were numerous clashes in different cities, particularly around the prefectures — symbols of the state.[2] Police violence and repression increased tenfold: more than 1,000 arrests, meaning a large number of “preventive” arrests, a tenfold increase in the use of attacks the marches and high school demonstrations, with systematic use of tear gas grenades and flash balls, injuring hundreds of demonstrators. Eighty-five thousand police officers were deployed against demonstrators with police and gendarme armored vehicles.

WE ARE witnessing a completely new style of struggle against austerity policies and the government, against all anti-social measures, for social justice measures and wage increases, and directly against Macron.

For the first time since Macron’s election, and even for the first time since 1995, the balance of forces has really begun to shift, and all the sections of the working classes that have been attacked in recent years — and often fought and been defeated separately — can see an opportunity to get back into action. But the paradox is still that the organized workers’ movement and even the workers, as collectives in workplaces, have not — up to now — taken responsibility for extending through strike action what is very largely a popular movement in which many workers participate individually.

On December 10, Macron broke his silence to try to give a more humble image for a president who has cultivated his class arrogance for 18 months, all in an effort to extinguish the fire of mobilization.

He wanted to highlight three significant measures related to purchasing power: a supposed increase of 100 euros ($113) in the minimum wage, canceling the CSG (social security contribution) increase for pensioners with an income below 2,000 euros ($2,260) year, and abolition of all taxation and social security contributions on overtime.

In fact, there is not even an increase in the minimum wage, but an advance on an additional bonus paid by the budget, subject to resources.

What is stunning is that there was no questioning of this government’s class policy, no questioning of the $45.2 billion paid by the state budget to companies through the CICE (tax credit for employers), nor of all the tax policies for the benefit of the richest. No questioning of the distribution of wealth against which yellow vests — the elements of the working classes most affected by austerity policies — are rebelling.

Many issues will be on the table in the coming days. The government hopes it has put out the fire and is counting on the yellow vests crumbling and being isolated. Everything will depend on maintaining the mobilization, with democratic structure at the grassroots level; on reaching out to and mobilization of other layers, in neighborhoods, workplaces, through the social movements: to make sure that the mobilization is maintained, to avoid division despite the media barrage calling for the movement to back down, despite the silence of the confederation leaders who have been overtaken by a major social movement, in order to achieve a generalized fightback against Macron and his policy.


1. The state sector in France numbers about 5 million and includes health workers and teachers.
2. The prefecture is the office of the Ministry of the Interior for each department.

First published in English at International Viewpoint.

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