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Yellow Vests: France’s President Backs Down in Face of Mass Demonstrations

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After three weeks of increasingly angry mass protests, French President Emmanuel Macron suspended the massively contested tax on diesel. It remains to be seen whether this will defuse the mass movement calling for his government to resign.

On Monday, December 3, when French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met opposition party leaders, the movement was still broadening to include new layers of the population hit hard by the policies of this “government of the rich.” A hundred schools were blockaded by students protesting against Macron’s education “reforms.” Paramedics blocked the approaches to the National Assembly in protest against changes in their working conditions, with at least a hundred ambulances involved. Facebook has shown firefighters protesting outside municipal headquarters.

The “citizens’ protest movement,” as it has been called in the press, far from subsiding after last Saturday’s dramatic demonstrations had expanded with more anti-government demonstrations at barricades on roads, at fuel depots and elsewhere across France. Even now, this movement is not yet over.

The leadership of the main trade union federation – the CGT – announced a national “day of action” on December 14. It would have been better to have called this action sooner, to build on the momentum of the movement and the retreat of the government. But it still may be taken up enthusiastically by workers and young people who are still angry at the government and keen to push forward, taking advantage of the government being on the back foot.

Third Weekend

On Saturday, December 1, the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) protests against the Macron government escalated in Paris and across France. It also spread beyond the country’s borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. Thousands converged on The Hague in an angry demonstration, and in Brussels there were burning barricades and street fighting.

Paris saw tens of thousands of protesters face water cannon, police batons and tear gas. Barricades were built, paving stones were thrown at riot police, attacks were made on the shops of the super-rich and demonstrations broke out at the steps of the Paris stock exchange.

This eruption of anger was described by Sky News as the worst rioting in France in five decades, and by the BBC as the worst since before the current president was born.

Since it erupted three weeks ago, the wave of protests against the so-called “environment tax” on diesel fuel has become a massive anti-government force. This tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It came after a spate of cuts in social spending, including on pensions and a big increase in unemployment (with ten million unemployed or under-employed). This was at the same time as the bosses were given massive new tax breaks.

Last Saturday, alone, as well as the events in the capital there were demonstrations and blockades at nearly 600 different places around the country, some also involving clashes with state forces. (There have now been protests at more than 2,000 different locations in France since the movement broke out.)

Three people have died as a result of the protests, more than one hundred and thirty were badly injured, hundreds of demonstrators arrested and over three hundred held in custody.

There was talk in the media of a ‘state of emergency’ being introduced to deal with the escalating security “threats.” But the Macron government has already incorporated into law many of the provisions of the two-year long state emergency imposed by his predecessor, Manuel Valls. This includes the power to ban demonstrations. Macron could have done little more to increase policing powers; the army and police are already stretched to breaking point.

Rather than cowing the demonstrators, the very declaration of a state of emergency would have inflamed the situation.

How Far Could This Movement Have Gone?

Many people – young and old – were speaking of “a new ’68” – a repetition of the revolutionary events that came very close to ousting the president of the time, General de Gaulle, and the overthrowing of capitalism in France, opening the way to the real possibility of a successful struggle for socialism on a European and world scale. The slogan on one of the current protesters’ yellow jacket in Paris read: “I was here in 1968 and I am still here fighting!”

The origins of the struggle are very different from that of May 1968. Neither students nor organised workers were in the beginning at the forefront of the current protests. But that was starting to change. A French author, Christophe Guilluy, commented last weekend that the hike in the price of fuel that triggered the “yellow vest” movement was not the root cause. “The anger runs deeper, the result of an economic and cultural relegation that began in the ’80s and affects the ‘peripheral’ population of France.”

Most of the people at the road blocks initially were from country areas, dependent on using their cars daily for work, for shopping and for leisure. Many have been relatively comfortable in the past; now they say their living standards have been driven down to intolerably low levels.

“My father used to tell me there are the rich, the middle class, and the poor,” one woman at a blockade commented on a video report. “Now there are only the rich and the working class.” Her husband is a manager and her daughter is going to university but now she is finding it hard to make ends meet. When she joins the other protesters, “We don’t ask each other what our politics are and how we voted, but just how we can defeat this government.”

The Macron government has been regarded as the “government of the rich” almost from its inception. But this movement, the expression of accumulated anger, brings together many who have voted very different ways in recent elections – right, left, and center or not at all.

Workers’ Representatives

Last year, in the presidential election, the leader of France Insoumise (France Unbowed), Jean-Luc Melenchon, came close to getting into the second round to face Emmanuel Macron, when he received more than 7 million votes in the first round. Melenchon has spoken of the current movement being part of the “citizens’ revolution” that he has long advocated and calls for the dissolution of the Assembly and new elections. A similar call has been made by Marine Le Pen of the far right, Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front). The leader of the main party of the French bourgeoisie – Les Republicains – feels moved to call for a referendum on the government’s carbon tax. The result is already plain from the depth of this anti-government upsurge.

For the first time since the movement began, and very late, the leadership of the biggest trade union – the CGT – called workers to demonstrate against austerity and unemployment, at the same time as the third Saturday mobilization of the “yellow vests”. In many cities, like Toulouse, Rouen, and Marseille, both mobilizations merged together. The CGT leaders eventually agreed to combine their own national protest against government policies on jobs and services planned for last Saturday, in Paris, with that of the fuel tax protesters. Local CGT leaders have now linked up with the ‘High Viz’ protests in many parts of France.

But the movement is very diverse. It has some ‘leaders’ who have gone into talks with the prime minister this Monday. The leaders voice some elements of a minimum left program but they “organize” on-line and have no structure with which to pursue the struggle to the end. A part of the movement in some regions is rejecting ‘representatives’; some others are organizing elections of representatives at the blockades themselves.

A workers’ party, arguing for a socialist society, would advocate the immediate setting up of a revolutionary constituent assembly on the basis of democratically elected representatives, at every level. Assemblies in the workplaces and neighborhoods are vital for developing the protests from below.

Macron Resign!

Eight out of ten French people said they support the present protests, on which the slogan “Macron resign!” has come to predominate. In the last month, the president’s ratings have dropped three points and are at an all-time low, worse than Francois Hollande at a similar stage of his presidency. The president tries to calm the situation by acknowledging he “hears” the voice of the demonstrators. But General Gaulle said just the same thing before he fled the country at the end of May 1968 – “The future rests not on us, but on God!”

One demonstrator in the current upsurge of revolt – a 62 year-old school teacher – told the British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, she was angry at being made to pay extra in taxes “instead of the airlines, the shipping lines and the companies who pollute more but pay no tax!” She also said “Macron is our Louis XVl and we know what happened to him. He ended up at the guillotine!”

Emmanuel Macron has variously described himself as “Jupiter” or “Napoleon.” Could he now be meeting his Waterloo? He has already “lost” seven ministers since coming to power in 2017, which were either embroiled in some form of corruption, violence, or, at best, disillusioned. At least half the members of his party – the LREM – have stopped going to meetings and the party itself is said to be splintering. There is a crisis opening at the top of society.

The government introduced a moratorium to introducing the diesel tax rises – a “reform” to prevent a further mass uprising. But it does not seem to be calming things down. The yellow vests have already moved on from this demand. The discontent of wide layers of the population has come to the surface and can find expression in new strikes and mass protests, including a renewal of the general strike movement of two years ago against changes in the labor law under Hollande.

Members of Gauche Revolutionnaire (the CWI in France) report that strikes continue to break out on a local or sectoral basis. The price of fuel was recently not only affected by the new ‘environment tax’ but also by strike action in seven out of eight of the country’s huge refineries.

The Nature of the Movement

The idea of blockading the motorways as a form of protest is not new. But initially many left forces did not want to support this particular movement as it had elements of “Poujadism” – a movement of small businesses – rather than of a working class character. It is true that the far right Rassemblement National, led by Marine Le Pen, which has overtaken Macron’s LREM in voting intentions for the European elections, lent its support early on in the protests. But more and more people who voted for Melenchon and the FI and other lefts have been on the streets, along with disappointed one-time Macron supporters and workers and young people who have not voted, at all, in recent elections.

It has been a lack of struggles led by the unions that has seen the “yellow vests” movement articulating the pent-up frustrations of all layers in society. There could well yet be an escalation towards a generalized movement to bring down the government. There is widespread disappointment with what was a ‘new’ political force around Macron – not that there were huge hopes at the beginning! He won 43% of the votes of the total electorate, and only 16% of those actually voted for him did so out of support for his program rather than to defeat Le Pen.

The situation that has opened up urgently shows the need for a left party to adopt a program that channels the dissatisfactions of every layer of society behind socialist demands – the impoverished middle class, the workers whose jobs and wages are threatened and the young people who now leave school with no guarantee of higher education or jobs.

A Gauche Revolutionnaire representative at an international meeting of the CWI spoke of “special features” in the present movement in France. There are not only blockades on roads and roundabouts, but also pickets at road toll booths, which are very popular with motorists who are waved through without paying! As much as half of the participants in the protests are women, who more often than not have the responsibility of balancing the household budget.

In the leaflets distributed by Gauche Revolutionnaire on demonstrations, they argue for a day of action to be called, on which the whole economy is brought to a standstill through strikes and blockades. “It is through a struggle of all workers together – a strike in every sector of the economy – that Macron can be defeated…Gauche Revolutionnaire fights for a truly democratic, fraternal and cooperative society – for socialism.”

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