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France: yellow vests but no red flag

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We are witnessing another of France’s powerful social movements. This time it is directed against the increasingly unpopular President Emmanuel Macron and his supposed eco-tax on petroleum products. In France, diesel prices have surged 16 percent in 2018, from an average 1.24 euros ($1.41) per litre to 1.48 euros ($1.69), hitting 1.53 euros in October (figures from UFIP, the country’s oil industry federation). These increases have unleashed a major popular upheaval.

On November 17, upwards of 2000 road blockades were thrown up across the country, and more than 280,000 people were mobilised. One week later, the action was repeated with blockades and demonstrations in Paris and many towns and cities with around 100,000 people participating. Major rioting occurred on the Champs-Élysées.

Clearly, the movement of the gilets jaunes (literally “yellow vests” - the high-visibility jackets French motorists must carry in their cars) expresses the widespread anger of millions of people against rising prices and taxes. These are hitting wide sections of the population hard. These include workers from the suburban areas and the periphery of the large cities, who can no longer afford rents in the city centres, and who depend on their cars to get to work, in part because of the closures of the suburban public transport systems. The same applies to the self-employed and professionals and to small-scale capitalists, whose profits are slashed by rising prices.

The movement has been organised via social media. It not only took Macron and the government by surprise but also most of the political parties and the trade unions. However, this movement is quite distinct from those during the presidency of the “Socialist” François Hollande, and then under Macron, directed against the latter’s labour code “reforms” and other social attacks. In those, it was the working class and the trade unions, most notably the CGT, who took the lead and they were accompanied by a series of occupations of universities.

Those mobilisations demonstrated the potential of the French working class and youth to wage a successful struggle against the hated combination of austerity, liberalism and authoritarianism of the Macron government. The gilet jaunes movement, however, has shown the danger of the far right Rassemblement National, RN, of Marine Le Pen and the Gaullist Les Republicains gaining ground.

Le Pen’s party has overtaken Macron’s centrist La République En Marche, LREM, in the latest polls ahead of the 2019 European Elections. The IFOP poll on November 4 showed LREM had fallen to 19 percent, while the RN, formerly the National Front, rose to 21 percent. A right split from the FN, Sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan scored 7 percent. The left populist La France Insoumise, Unsubmissive France, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon declined to 11 percent.

Working class
The gilets jaunes movement, unlike the earlier movements, did not originate from the organisations of the working class. Though clearly large numbers of working people are involved, it is a movement that is more typical of the anti-tax movements of the lower middle class. This is reflected in its ban on the involvement of trade unions and political parties, indeed its claim that it is non-political.

Nonetheless, right wing bourgeois parties like Les Republicains, and far right racist populists like the RN, and even outright fascist groups, have penetrated it without resistance. This is in large measure a result of the failure of the movement against Macron’s “reforms” of the summer and autumn to really take off. It is a testimony to the crisis of the French left more generally.

Working class leaders, and even more so left populists like Mélenchon, failed to rise to the challenge. His France Insoumise was already an expression of the crisis of the French left with its shameful adaptation to “republican patriotism”, replacing the Red Flag by the Tricolor. He presents an economic nationalist and Keynesian answer to the crisis, playing on anti-EU and anti-German sentiments. The more conservative and moderate unions, like Force Ouvriere and the CFDT, more or less openly sabotaged the struggle against Macron.

The CGT, which did give a lead to the general struggle, and that of the militant railway workers in particular, nevertheless misled the resistance by limiting the strikes to a series of scheduled one-day stoppages. It did this when what was needed was an all-out strike movement that could turn the resistance into a direct political challenge to Macron's government.

Initiative
That failure meant not only that Macron succeeded in his attacks but, more importantly, that the working class allowed the initiative to pass to those who seek to rally the unorganised, the politically more backward or inactive workers as well as the lower sections of the petit-bourgeoisie around their narrow anti-tax demands.

There is, of course, enormous and justified anger amongst “the people”, at the Macron government’s social attacks, rising prices, and failed promises. There is also the total arrogance of his self-designated “Jupiterian” style. He presents himself as spearheading a “movement” for national, indeed European, renewal, meaning the neo-liberal reforms France’s business and political elite have been trying to impose for decades. He has pledged never to yield to the pressure of the streets, unlike previous presidents.

The tax hikes on fuel have gone alongside tax giveaways to the rich. These are supposed to encourage entrepreneurship while his labour code reforms are to enable French employers to reproduce the low wage, insecure jobs, of the "gig economy" and thus massage down the 9 per cent unemployment figures. No wonder he is stigmatised as the “president of the rich” on both the populist right and the left. No wonder his approval ratings have dropped in opinion polls to around 20 per cent.

The movement of the yellow vests is clearly an expression of this widespread anger and frustration, a discontent that is all too understandable. However, this does not answer the question of the political character of this movement or the direction it is likely to take.
In fact, like many other movements today, in Europe and beyond, it is not only a movement against incumbent governments but against the “political class”, the “élite”. It also signals the loss of social and political initiative by the working class. It is, in short, a petit-bourgeois, cross-class movement.

This is not to deny the presence of large numbers of workers, particularly the low paid, forced to live a long way from the cities where they work, on the blockades and marches. Many reports suggest most have never been active in a social movement before and are participating in militant direct actions for the first time.

The question of political leadership and direction is clearly not a sociological question; it is a question of the social goals of such movement, its relation of the working class movement and of its consciousness. Just to praise the movement as “spontaneous” does not solve anything. The old slogan previously used on the French left , “tout ce qui bouge c’est rouge”, everything which moves is red, is just wrong. The right can ‘bouge’ as well as the left.

Whilst the gilets jaunes movement is not (yet) completely dominated by mainstream bourgeois or far right forces, these have a very visible influence in it. In the first period, the most visibly active forces in the movement were “Les Republicans”, the Gaullist party of Sarkozy, and the RN. The RN has been acting in more covert way, but its cadre are clearly intervening nationally and locally in the movement and Marine Le Pen has been loud in her support for it, encouraging her supporters to join the banned demonstration on the Champs Elyseés on November 24. To some extent, the movement resembles similar protests at the birth of the Five Star Movement in Italy, or the right-populist movement of Pierre Poujade in France in the 1950s.

The key demands against taxation on petrol and diesel and for lower prices are clearly taken from the arsenal of petit-bourgeois and populist movements. The labour movement's slogans against regressive consumer taxes like VAT, and for progressive taxation on wealth and corporate profits, offer the real answer to how the state should raise necessary revenue, but the exclusive focus on lowering prices and taxation makes it much easier to rally different, indeed antagonistic, classes together, since every “citizen” seems to benefit from this.

Clearly, the movement is not a fascist one, but it is dominated by right wing populism. The fact that a section within it also raises social issues and demands higher wages does not refute this. The right wing populists or even semi-fascist organisations are perfectly capable of adopting these.

At the same time, there have been cases of overt racism and homphobia, though not en masse yet. A woman wearing a hijab was attacked. A truck transporting migrants was blocked and they were threatened with violence before being handed over to the police. Such overtly reactionary and racist outbursts, even if not widespread, demonstrate that implicitly the people the movement is trying to rally are “the white French people”, not the entire working population, including the banlieues, Muslim and immigrant workers.

The “spontaneous” tendency towards the right wing was fully revealed at the demonstration in Paris on 24. November. This demonstration of up to10,000, about 10 percent of the estimated national mobilisation, clashed with police on the Champs-Élysées and fighting was spearheaded by the “extreme right”, that is, fascist and semi-fascist forces to the right of RN. Whilst most of the demonstrators were probably not fascists themselves, they were clearly prepared to accept their lead on the day. The “movement” and the main forces involved in it, have not called for a clear break with fascist elements like Les Identitaires or tried to kick them out.

On the contrary, they have played down their significance and role or even denied their reactionary character. Of course, nobody will be surprised that the RN and Marine Le Pen collaborate with such forces, or that Republicans and Sarkozy ally themselves with the enraged petit-bourgeois. However, Mélenchon and his France Insoumise also wilfully turn a blind eye to the influence and danger of the far right.

Patriotism
This is what “left populism” and “left patriotism” leads to; a gross adaptation to the real patriotism of one of the world’s oldest colonialist and imperialist bourgeoisies and the racism of the reactionary petit-bourgeoisie. Downplaying these influences and the populist character of the movement and thus its dangers, is unfortunately not only limited to the left populists. The far left Lutte Ouvriere has also been adapting to the movement without any criticism. The same applies to a lesser degree to some other parts of the French left including the NPA and its charismatic spokesperson Olivier Besancenot. He has downplayed the influence of the right:

"We are not dealing with a fronde (uprising) against an ecological government, we have a social fronde against the cost of living, which has no hostility against an ecological transition."

He does, however, call for a united mobilisation of the left, "including the left of the left, the Communist Party and the Generation.s of former Socialist Party leftwinger Benoit Hamon, the leaders of Together and others" pointing to the need for action against the current taxation system which he says “does not take money from the wealthiest, but favours the highest incomes such as the giant oil company, Total, which makes €9 billion in net profits and is exempt from corporate income tax.”

The NPA trade unionists have also issued a confused call that says numerous trade unionists want to take part in the gilets jaune movement collectively, without openly stating that the movement excluded such collective participation. Likewise it coyly says “No aggression, racist, sexist or homophobic violence is tolerable, whatever it is and wherever it comes from” again without saying that it comes precisely from RN and fascist elements in this movement.

French workers do not need to ask for permission to launch a real mass movement against Macron. If the working class organisations, the trade unions and the far left, want to regain the political initiative, they have to intervene in the political crisis, but not by adapting to petit-bourgeois forces, their populist ideology and even their methods of struggle.

If the working class wants to regain the initiative, it needs to mobilise against the real misery, combine the struggle against rising prices with a struggle against government attacks on the working class and the poor. The working class has to prove in action that it is a social force that can challenge Macron effectively and rally the masses, including the impoverished and lower sections of the petit-bourgeoisie and the middle strata.

Of course, it may well be that some local “yellow yests” amongst the thousands in the whole country might follow that lead and become “red vests”. However, this will be impossible for the movement as a whole; it needs to be broken up along class lines, not only socially, but also politically. There must be no collaboration with the fascist or racist forces like Les Identitaires or the RN, nor with the bourgeois Les Republicains. A clear break with them needs to be a precondition for any collaboration with the yellow vests.

Therefore, the CGT's initiative to call for a day of action of the workers' movement against the Macron government should be supported by the whole labour movement and the left. The CGT demands a minimum wage of €1800, with similar increases for pensions and benefits, and VAT limited at 5.5 percent for essential goods and services like gas and electricity. It also warns against xenophobic, racist and homophobic ideas.

Of course, there is the real danger, that, as in the past, the day of action will be just a one day rally, not followed up by further actions and indeed a joint struggle in the workplaces and on the streets. Therefore, we need to demand from the CGT, SUD and other unions, as well as the reformist and far left, that they unite in action around a programme of demands to address the immediate needs of the working class and the popular masses. Clearly, all those workers mobilised in the last weeks, all blockaders willing to fight together with the working class, should be invited to join in such a mobilisation.

The key demands of such a programme should include:
- withdrawal of all the anti-working class legislation introduced by Macron and Hollande: the weakening of the labour code, attacks on pension rights, on public sector jobs, etc.;
- a minimum wage for all of €1800 per month
- scrap VAT and all taxes on popular consumption; raise wealth and corporation tax
- The nationalisation without compensation of Total, indeed the whole energy sector, under workers' control
- A programme of socially useful works to rebuild public transport and infrastructure, for social housing and to address environmental needs under workers' control, paid for by taxing the rich.