Can Europe Make It?

On est là /Here we are!

Macron faces widespread protests against his proposed reforms, but the roots of discontent run deeper and are beginning to join up.

Bernard Dreano
3 February 2020
Hundreds of medical staff protest against ‘Hospital Break-Up’ before hospital Debre, Paris, February 2, 2020.
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Jerome Gilles/PA. All rights reserved.

On est là / On est là / Même si Macron ne veut pas nous on est là/
Pour l’honneur des travailleurs / Et pour un monde meilleur /
Même si Macron ne veut pas nous on est là !

Here we are/ Here we are/ Even if Macron does not want it, here we are/
For the honour of the workers/ For a better world/
Even if Macron does not want it, here we are!
Song of the Yellow Vest

Since November 2018, France has been facing a long-lasting social crisis. One might even consider that this social unrest started in 2016, with the resistance against the counter-reform of the Labour Code (demonstrations and strikes) and the Nuits debout movement (occupation of squares and places from March through to the summer).

After a relatively short lull and the presidential and parliamentary elections (spring 2017) the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) saga started up in November 2018. Throughout this period important social movements have been emerging in certain sectors (hospitals, teachers ...) and have grown since.

Although very different, these movements have shared several common characteristics. Massive and long-lasting. Raising fundamental questions concerning economic justice, the social contract and democracy. But they all have obtained limited or even zero political and social results. This is also likely to be the fate of the current movement against the pension counter-reform, (even if it is still ongoing at the time these lines are written), as the government seems intent on forcing it through. We will come back to this.

Nevertheless, movements are still following hotfoot one upon another, and the social anger does not dissipate.

No yellow vest electoral effect?

2016’s movement Nuits debout (awake all night) was something of a déjà-vu. One of those “occupy movements” that we saw proliferate between 2009-2011, from Wall Street to the Arab Spring, from Madrid to Istanbul. This was also an expression of opposition to inequality and for real democracy. Mobilizing mainly (or initially) educated urban youth. Thousands participated in the Nuits, mainly in big cities.

In many ways, however, the Yellow Vests constituted a new type of movement, taking the government as well as the media and most of the so-called intelligentsia by surprise. A movement of active but rather poor workers, shopkeepers, employees, with relatively few unemployed and retired people, few young people and members of ethnic minorities. Nobody from urban wealthy centres or inhabitants of the usually unruly banlieue. But a strong participation of people coming from small towns or outskirts of large cities. Half of the Gilets were women. Hundreds of thousands participated in the demonstrations and the occupations of rond-points (roundabouts, in the peripheries of cities).

Both Nuit debout and Gilets jaunes were “leader less”[1] movements. Nuit Debout was explicitly “alternative and green”. What about Gilets Jaunes? For the traditional analysts, including Marxists apparently, such a petty-bourgeois movement could only tilt towards far-right populism, even fascism. This was also the position of the government describing the Gilets as far-right factious bands.

But even after more than a year of activity it remains difficult to characterize this movement politically. Certain far-right groups have attempted to instrumentalize it (in certain regions), without much success, or were physically expelled from demonstrations. It should be noted that racist and anti-migrant themes in particular quickly disappeared from the agenda and declarations of the yellow vests.

The movement gradually weakened, the demonstrations gathering less and less people (without disappearing completely). Some Gilets tried get structurally involved with the first “Assembly of assemblies” organized in the little town of Commercy in the East of France, in January 2019. Since then, other Assemblies have taken place, each time bringing together several hundred local group delegates in Saint Nazaire, (April 2019), Montceau-les-mines (June 2019), Montpellier (November 2019) … developing progressive/leftist positions. Contact with unions (CGT, Solidaires…), associations (like alter-globalist ATTAC), and sometimes environmental movements have been strengthened over time.

All attempts to create Yellow Vest lists have been rejected by a fundamentally horizontal and leaderless movement.

But there was no yellow vest electoral effect. At least, if we measure it through the European elections of May 2019. All attempts to create Yellow Vest lists have been rejected by a fundamentally horizontal and leaderless movement. At most, there was a slight increase in abstentions compared to the European elections of 2014. On the far-right populist side, the Rassemblement National (the new name for the Front National of Marine Le Pen) which had passively supported the Yellow Vests, remained at the same 23% level of the votes as in 2014, and the other groups of extreme right (nationalists, supporters of Frexit) with 4.5% did not do better. On the left, La France Insoumise LFI, active supporters of the Gilets only got 6% – very far from the 19.5% of Jean Luc Mélanchon candidacy in the 2017 presidential elections, the other leftists forces (communists, left socialists …) being marginalized.

The main teaching of this ballot was the maintenance of the score of la République en Marche LREM Macron’s party (22% compared to the 24 % of 2017 presidential first run), the collapse of the traditional right 8% (–12% compared to 2014) and of the socialists (6%, – 8% of 2014) and, as in other countries of North West Europe, the success of the Greens (15% for EELV Green party and other environmentalists).

The carrot and the stick

After the surprise, fairly quickly, President Macron and his government responded to the anger of the yellow vests with the joint tactics of the carrot and the stick. On the carrot side we first had money: 10 billion euros to be distributed in bonuses for the benefit of disadvantaged social categories and tax exemptions.

But this was not enough to calm the anger, especially against the lack of democracy and the authoritarianism of power. Macron therefore launched the "Great National Debate", from December 2018 to April 2019. Cahiers de doléances (notebooks of grievances) were opened up in town halls, as in 1789, so that citizens could express their demands. Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly in rural areas, filled them –then the grievances were stacked carefully away…in the archives. A great Presidential tour was set up, aimed directly at French people and eventually their mayors, but carefully bypassing parliament, unions, NGOs and associations. Macron showed off his undeniable talent as a showman and manifested some physical courage. And he seemed to have gained some respite: the Yellow Vest movement declined, and the results of the European elections were not so bad after all for the presidential party.

But this was not enough to calm the anger, especially against the lack of democracy and the authoritarianism of power.

On the stick side was police and judicial repression. As the journalist Edwy Plenel underlined in the web-magazine Mediapart in January 2019, “Power has made the deliberate choice of going for a demonization of the current social movement”.

Acts of police violence in France are not blunders or accidents, but the result of a repressive policy developed over more than fifteen years (at least since the urban riots of 2005). This was amplified under the presidency of François Hollande by Prime Minister Manuel Valls from 2016-17 (at that time a member of the Socialist Party) and consolidated under Macron, and with the Minister of Interior Christophe Castaner (a “Macronist” coming originally from the Socialists).

Violence, and to a certain extent militarization, is a central component of this policy, as a mean of control and deterrence. It creates fear and deters participants and others from going to demonstrations.

It has its technical component with new tactics and new weapons (drones, LBD flash balls guns, blasting grenades, etc.). Thousands have been injured, dozens lost an eye or a hand, and if only one old woman was killed by a grenade during a demonstration, 26 persons altogether died in police interventions in 2019… The internal police investigations on violence by the police inspection IGPN have been dramatically ineffective (nearly 200 investigations, less than five cases reported to the judiciary).

Meanwhile the legal component of this violence has taken advantage of the legislative provisions introduced by France’s state of emergency measures and the fight against terrorism. Nearly 4000 persons have been condemned in relation to the Gilets Jaunes and social movements in 2019.

Social struggles: second round

Once past the strongest waves of the Yellow Vests and the Great Debate, Emmanuel Macron and his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe decided to continue down their path of neoliberal counter-reform with the "pension reform".

The first major counter-reform of this type was the "reform of the labour code" initiated by François Hollande, his Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and his Minister for the Economy Emmanuel Macron. This had passed despite a strong mobilization of the unions in 2016.

The "pension battle" appeared as the second round of this social struggle. In 1995 a previous government attempt to modify the pension and social security system had been thwarted by a strong social mobilization and, in particular, a public transport strike lasting several weeks. The failure of the right-wing Prime Minister, at the time Alain Juppé (with whom current prime minister Edouard Philippe was very close), was not forgotten in 2019.

Without going into details, to understand the issue of this pension reform you should know that the current system was globally implemented just after the Second World War, according to the principles proposed by the National Council of Resistance for social security, originally based on solidarity and managed by the social partners (employers and unions). Pensions are based on redistribution of contributions from those working to those in retirement. It is not (mainly) based on capitalization (payments to pension funds, public or private). It contained favourable specific regimes, especially in sectors where the labour movement had established an advantageous balance of power, as in public transport.

The new retirement system planned by the government no longer takes into account, for the calculation of pensions, the best years worked, but has deployed a less favourable "points" system, which assumes the abolition of specific regimes, and opens the gates to greater capitalization.

The project has aroused strong opposition. And a very bitter strike then ensued, starting in December 2019, especially in the national rail transport and public transport in Paris accompanied by big waves of demonstrations.

Government again used their carrot and stick tactics. Macron preserved the particular regimes of strategic professions: police, military, air traffic controllers, prison guards …, while he postponed for years the application of the new system for railways workers, together with promised salary increases for teachers and hospital staff. At the same time, he refused real negotiations, and tried, with partial success[1], to divide the unions. The police violence continued.

At the same time, [Macron] refused real negotiations, and tried, with partial success, to divide the unions. The police violence continued.

If, after 6 weeks, the transport strike has ended, social discontent has not stopped. Regarding pensions and the woes of the professions, many professions demonstrate, organize blockages or direct actions: lawyers, firefighters, hospital staff, teachers and researchers, opera dancers, musicians, sewer workers, dockers, energy workers, local civil servants, etc. However, in comparison to other historic social movements in France, the student body remains relatively calm – and high school mobilizations are most of the time strongly suppressed by police

Many protesters today are putting on yellow vests and almost everyone is singing "Here we are" – the most popular anthem of the Gilets.

Political confusion

On the side of the government: the scale and visibility of police violence has created a deep sense of unease in public opinion. The debate on the pension law began in parliament and there is no doubt that the Macronist majority will vote for it. But the climate is not good, public opinion is still hostile to it, the Council of State, the highest instance of administrative justice, has judged that the proposed law was a roughly spatched together and incoherent draft. The law does not specify how the new system will be financed and a "conference" is now open on this subject with the "social partners’.

The Macronist camp (LREM party and allies) explains that its main adversary is the Rassemblement National (RN ex Front National) of Marine Le Pen. She is delighted and hopes to take advantage of such a duel scheduled for the presidential elections of 2022. But the municipal elections next March 2020 may be more favorable to the traditional parties (like the rightist Les Républicains or even the Socialists) than to the RN and LREM.

The political left remains divided and fragmented. It has been unable to propose a counter-project on pensions; Jean Luc Mélenchon, the leader of LFI had dreamed of being the leader of a "popular federation" which has never materialized; while François Ruffin, another animator of LFI calls for a “popular and ecological front”. A red green alliance? Also with other parties (Communist Party and other small parties). But that does not seem to be the chosen route of Yannick Jadot, leader of the Greens, who looks as much towards the centre as to the left. As for the Socialist party, it is not entirely dead, but torn between the blandishments of an alliance with “the left of the left” and a return to a form of Blairism. In any case, in the next municipal elections there will be, depending on the municipality, all kinds of alliances and divisions.

Paradoxically, the "civil society" left seems much more united and coherent. We now regularly find together movements, associations, NGOs, in debates, common seminars and demonstrations in the streets, with sometimes joint proposals. Trade unionists of the CGT and members of Oxfam, activists of the climate movement and feminists, the Alter-globalists of ATTAC and movements of the “banlieue” and even the figures in yellow vests. Is this a promise for the future?

[1] About leaderless movements see Zeynep Tufekci: Twitter and tear gas, the power and fragility of networked protest, Yale University Press, 2017.

[2] Unions in France are divided into many confederations. Against the project, the CGT (left), Solidaires (radical left), FSU (teachers, left), FO (traditional social democracy), CFE-CGC (management). The UNSA (autonomous unions established among railway workers) participated in the strikes, before withdrawing mid-January. The CFDT (ultra "reformist") and the small CFTC (Christian) have more or less supported the governmental project.

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