Highschool students demonstrate against the reform of the baccalaureate up on the new bridge of Toulouse, France,Dec.6,2018. Pierre Berthuel/Press Association. All rights reserved.
To be in France over the last three weeks was to be in a country in a state of complete political paralysis, at least within the corridors of power, much like the Brexit-bound UK. Every time you turned on the radio or TV or opened a paper, you would be confronted by two words: Gilets Jaunes.
Paralysis has seized Macron, the politicians in the National Assembly and frequently the traffic on the roads. Meanwhile the streets of France were alive with political dynamism as les Gilets Jaunes have “blocked” and marched in anger, to make their voices heard.
The riots in Paris leaving Les Champs Elysees looking like a battleground, together with the hundreds of thousands of more peaceful protests across France, have given the lie to the idea that the centrist, technocratic post-politics that Macron champions are the sensible, necessary policies that he and his En Marche team “beyond left and right” would claim.
Tinkering at the edges of the system for the many, while facilitating an upwards transfer of wealth for the few cannot be sensible or moderate in a post-2008 world where, according to INSEE reports, wages of French workers have remained stagnant with any growth being outstripped by inflation. It cannot be considered sensible in a world where everyday more people are forced to sleep on the street, lined up like tiles. It cannot be considered sensible in a world where a rise in taxes on fossil fuels prompts an uprising across the entire nation which, despite the violence, has had upwards of 70% backing in the polls. People’s living standards have fallen for too long, they feel they have been disregarded for too long. Whether or not you agree with either populist movement, like Brexit, Les Gilets Jaunes make one thing clear. A significant cross-section of the French people have had enough.
Who are the yellow vests?
Yellow vest 'unofficial list' of demands as of December 7, 2018.Although many on the left have hailed these protests, progressives should be careful as there are several forces at play. The continued exposure of neoliberalism as a failing project can only be to the good. It is certainly also heartening to see that, as with the Occupy movement of 2011/2012 a mass mobilisation with ambitions for social justice has occurred organically without leaders or hierarchy. It is an intensely positive thing to see the linking of struggles to resist the free market agenda. A reflection of the ’68 protests has occurred. The ’68 protests began with students protesting higher education reform, and then was taken up by workers causing a general strike in what was perceived by many who took part as resistance to capitalism and the values of the market. This time, the workers started it (the yellow vests are clearly a working-class movement although unaffiliated to trade unions) and students and lycéens (sixth formers) have reanimated their struggles against the free market reforms of the baccalaureate and universities, in solidarity with them.
There is talk on the Gilets Jaunes’ Facebook pages of ditching the iconography of the motorists’ yellow jacket for the protest in Paris this Saturday, to make it clear that this is no longer just about the hike in fuel prices. They have expanded their demands to include a higher minimum wage among other things to make life better for the majority. They want Macron to know that they are the people and they will be ignored no longer.
Despite a somewhat chequered start Les Gilets Jaunes has developed intriguingly. I will admit, at first I was sceptical, the anti-ecological murmurings on their pages troubled me. But what has happened since has made it clear that they do care about the environment even if this is not apparent in their rhetoric. They are even joining arms in solidarity with the monthly march held by climate alarm. Some really interesting things are happening on their pages, the principal mechanism through which they organise.
Pages are established with the word colère (anger) then a number corresponding to the département e.g colère10 organises blockades in Aube. Then, there are also pages dedicated to the entire movement to exchange ideas, lifts, stories etc. There is increasing talk on these pages of coalescing to have an “e-election” in an attempt to become more organised. Another post doing the rounds is the call for the RIC, the ‘citizens referendum initiative’ combining different types of referendum in order to amend the constitution and inject some much-needed life back into democracy after years of post-politics.
Constitutional reform is a recurring theme, there was talk at the last election of the establishment of a 6th republic. This could actually be the advent of it. One more noteworthy development is that the two words that feature most on their list of demands are removal and freedom. They are attempting to rebalance power between the people and the élites: this includes calling for the ceasing of public funding for trade unions. They are seeking to break down oligarchies and overly hierarchical centres of power. Perhaps there is democracy in the streets after all.
However, for all the merits of the movement, progressives cannot rest on their laurels. Some of the most vocal champions of the movement are figures on the far-right. Tweeting about the Troyes protest with the Gilets Jaunes hash tag gained me two high profile members of Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale as followers. There is no automatic guarantee that an alternative to the neoliberal consensus is going to be progressive. A look into one of their Facebook pages reveals a real mélange of people and ideas floating around. Moderator Marc Le Roux says that they do their best to filter out racism, sexism and homophobia, but the sheer number of posts makes this impossible. As well as being online, this reactionary sentiment is manifested on the streets as far-right activists have used the movement to articulate racist and anti-migrant ideas.
They are not indicative of the wider movement, but such infiltration does point to the fact that the far-right could well gain from the popular anger that has been unleashed if progressives do not act quickly to own it. At the November 17 protests in Troyes the atmosphere was comprised of the thrilling solidarity present at any good protest, and of a cold rage brewing at what had they had to experience. The scenes of people trying to break down the police station gates as they taunted the heavily armed cops on the other side were troubling and striking in equal measure. The prevailing sentiment was certainly one of anger.
This comes with a more general willingness to intimidate. Rioters aside, in Troyes, drivers and people not on the protest that showed anything but agreement were greeted by some sections of the crowd with cries of “conard” (wanker), the rabble rousing spilling over into petty violence in several towns across the country. The Occupy movement had its black-bloc, les gilets jaunes has its ‘casseurs’, giving rise to left voices and figures like Weev, the neo-Nazi hacker, at the same time. A comparable contemporary example would be the 5-star movement. The dismissal of all elites and the cries of conard are reminiscent of the Grillini’s “vaffanculo” (fuck off) chant. 5-star ended up partnering with the Lega Nord, so Les Gilets Jaunes needs help from progressives to prevent the narrative snowballing into something retrogressively nationalist.
Les Gilets Jaunes have won their first battle, Edouard Phillipe announcing recently that they would halt the tax rises on fossil fuels. This is a fantastic victory for the many passionate people that have given time, effort, money and in a few tragic cases, their lives, to this cause. Researching a dissertation on social movements, I had been following the activities of the local group Colère10 for a couple of months and spoken to organisers from several other departments, when administrator and organiser Gwen Yaya thanked me for showing an interest in “what the French people have suffered here”. She seemed terribly tired, and I’m sure a great many people are exhausted.
Yet, they carry on. Marc said they have no intention of stopping now. This is great news, I hope they win more concessions. But, the first victory could be seen as somewhat bittersweet. Ecological concerns have been secondary in the framing of this debate. As Danica Jorden put it, there is a tension between “The end of the month and the end of the world”. We must make the transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as we can, though the pain should not be borne equally by the rich and poor. These protests, and the frustrated departure of Nicolas Hulot, Macron’s environmental minister, from his cabinet a few months ago, remind us that neoliberalism and climate justice are like oil and water. So the French left, from Les Insoumises to the Parti Socialiste (and ideally everything in between) have to do all they can to push for a green economy and an equitable distribution of society’s resources.
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