Ignored by the president, distorted by the media, snubbed by the left, courted by the right, the self-organized mass movement known as the Yellow Vests is seriously challenging the political and economic order in France.
In Paris, on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 1, as thousands of self-organized Yellow Vest protestors attempted to gather to express their grievances on the Champs-Elysées at a planned, peaceful demonstration, French riot police attacked them with tear-gas, flash-bombs and water canons. By the end of the day, cars were burning near the Arc of Triumph, and all of Paris was in chaos. Groups of would-be peaceful marchers, joined by the usual casseurs (‘smashers’), spread throughout the capital, expressing their anger at the system and calling for the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron.
This militarized state over-reaction to a peaceful mass demonstration breaks with a long tradition in France of tolerance for muscled demonstrations by rowdy farmers and militant labor unions. A tolerance Macron, in speeches, has blamed for the failure of previous governments to pass needed pro-business counter-reforms. Predictably, Macron blamed the victims of his state’s violence on Saturday.‘‘What happened today in Paris has nothing to do with the peaceful expression of legitimate anger,” he said. “Nothing justifies attacking the security forces, vandalizing businesses, either private or public ones, or that passers-by or journalists are threatened, or the Arc de Triomphe defaced.”
Meanwhile, throughout the French provinces, at least 75, 000 Yellow Vest protesters were blocking highway entrances, intersections and shopping centers — all with minimal violence and apparent general approval (80 percent according to recent polls).
Rejecting Politics as Usual
Like all the spontaneous mass uprisings that dot French history going back to feudal times, the Yellow Vest revolt was initially provoked by taxes. In this case, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Macron’s decision to increase taxes gas and diesel fuel, which affect ordinary working and lower-middle class French people dependent on their cars to earn a living. The rebels, donning the yellow breakdown-safety vests they are required to keep in their cars by the government, have been on the warpath for three weeks now.
‘Marie-Antoinette was living high off the hog just before the revolution also. And they cut off her head.’
Spurning all political parties, the Yellow Vests organized on social media and acted locally. Broadcast media, although highly critical, spread the news nationally, and the Yellow Vest movement spread across France, with mass demonstrations becoming larger and more militant on successive Saturdays.
“I can’t go on strike,” explained one Yellow Vest participant. “I’m raising three kids alone. My job, that’s all I have left. Coming on Saturdays is the only way for me to show my anger.”
Women workers — receptionists, hostesses, nurses-aids, teachers — are present in unusually large numbers in the Yellow Vest crowds, and they are angry about a lot more than the tax on diesel. To begin with: inequality.
Like Trump, Macron has showered corporations and millionaires with huge tax cuts, creating a hole in the budget which he has compensated for with cuts to public services — hospitals, schools, transit, police — and through tax increases for ordinary people (up to 40 percent of their income), large numbers of whom are struggling hard to make ends meet and going into debt.
“We’re hungry and we’re fed up,” said Jessica Monnier, 28, who earns $1,140 a month working in a watch factory in the French Alps. “Once I pay my bills, I don’t have enough to eat. We’re just hungry, that’s all.”
This anger has been building since last spring, the 50th anniversary of the 1968 worker-student uprising, but was frustrated when Macron won a stand-off with labor over his neo-liberal, pro-business counter-reforms.
Labor defeat was facilitated by the leadership of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and other unions, who reprised the role they played in their 1968 sell-out to Pres. Charles de Gaulle. A half-century later, French union leaders, eager to keep their place at the political table and on the government payroll (unions in France are government subsidized), avoided a major confrontation with Macron. They met with the government behind the scenes and only went through the motions of carrying out strikes, spreading them over months and tiring out the workers.
Macron is also widely despised in France for his monarchical arrogance, ruling alone like Louis XIV, imposing his will by decrees, ignoring his opponents and patronizing the common people in a pedantic style that humiliates and enrages them. By dismissing the Yellow Vests, haughtily refusing to address their issues and then violently repressing them despite their popularity, Macron has revealed the vast gap between his authoritarian, neo-liberal regime and the mass of the French population.
The French elected him in 2017, in a run-off following the first round collapse of the traditional parties of the left and the right. Macron was a stop-gap to prevent the election of the extreme-right, openly racist National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. He has no real mandate to govern and no political party behind him, despite an unorganized parliamentary majority.
Happenstance created the first real dialogue between unionists and members of the disparate social movements.
This Saturday, demonstrators were heard booing the TV network people on Place de la Concorde, furious at being been presented as vandals.
“We wanted to come and demonstrate calmly,” said one fifty-ish Yellow Vest, one of a number of protesters interviewed by Médiapart. “I came by train. I had my ID card in my pocket. They threw so much tear-gas at us that we ran like rabbits.
“They even fired flash-balls at us,” he added, holding out a rubber munition cartridge as evidence. “Who are the vandals?”
“We came to the Champs-Elysées this morning and when we tried to approach the entry-points, we were immediately inundated with tear-gas — 300 meters before the check-points,” said Franck, from nearby Seine-et-Marne, describing his attempt to demonstrate.“Macron gasses his own people like Bashar el-Assad!”
“I confess before the CGT that I voted for Macron and beg your forgiveness,” Marité, a retiree from the Paris suburbs, repeated over and over. Marité has worked for 42 years, her husband for 44. Together their retirement comes to just $3,200 a month and their anger is deep.
A woman named Morgane expressed through clenched teeth a sentiment heard all over France since the beginning of the movement: “Marie-Antoinette was living high off the hog just before the revolution also. And they cut off her head.”
What was remarkable at this Saturday’s chaotic mass outbreak in the streets of Paris was the fortuitous convergence of the Yellow Vests with previously scheduled demonstrations organized by the CGT and other unions as well as the feminist MeToo movement and the LGBT movement. Happenstance created the first real dialogue between members of these disparate movements. Under clouds of tear-gas the various demonstrators, driven away from the Champs-Elysées area by the police, wandered through the half-empty streets.
‘Fed Up to the Asshole’
The French popular classes have long historical memories. They seem unaffected by the postmodern scholarly denigration of the 1789 French Revolution and its successors as useless explosions of popular violence which inevitably led to bloody dictatorships. “The Yellow Vests who block highways and refuse to be co-opted by political parties have taken up, in a confused form, the tradition of the sans-culottes of 1792-93, the citizen-combatants of February 1848, the communards of 1870-71 and the anarcho-syndicalists of the Banquet Years,” notes historian Gérard Noiriel.
The government, the media, left parties and unions are attempting to present the Yellow Vests as rednecks, to reduce their generalized anger to the issue of gas taxes.
Indeed, these traditions go back much earlier, to the feudal era, with its periodic uprisings of peasants burning landlords’ chateaus and urban rioters taking over towns. What changed in late 18th Century France was the development of roads and mail service that enabled revolutionary Committees of Correspondence to coordinate and organize discontent on a national level. Today, social media and network news play the same role in real time.
Like today’s Yellow Vest rebellion, all these historical uprisings were initially about excessive unfair taxes, whether it was the 10 percent tithe imposed by the Catholic Church on the poor, the royal gabelle tax on salt or the corvée (days of free labor owed to the noble landlord, the Church and the government). Although violent, these spontaneous, self-organized uprisings eventually led to the democratic republic, the Rights of Man, free secular education — all under threat today.
The other common denominator between the Yellow Vests and historical popular movements is the near-universal contempt they received from France’s elite classes. In the past, it was the royalty, the nobility, the upper clergy, official academic historians. Today the elites include the media, the leadership of the major unions and left parties who have joined the establishment and are an integral part of what the French call the “political class.”
The attitude of France’s privileged has not so much has changed since the Ancien Régime when the nobles derisively referred to any peasant as Jacques Bonhomme (Goodfellow Jack) and to their violent uprisings as “Jacqueries.”
Around 1360 the revered French chronicler Jean Froissart recounts a peasant uprising. “These evil folk, assembled together without a leader and without arms, were stealing and burning everything and killing without pity and without mercy like rabid dogs,” he writes. “And they made a king among them who was the worst of the bad and this king they called Jacques Bonhomme.”
In fact, according to Noiriel, archives show the peasants selected as their spokesman one Guillaume Carle, known to be “a good thinker and a good talker.”
Similarly, for three weeks the government, the media and left parties and unions have been attempting to present the Yellow Vests as rednecks and vandals, while reducing their generalized anger to the issue of gas taxes. On one television broadcast, a reporter kept trying to get the Yellow Vest activist being interviewed to say she was rebelling against taxes. The woman kept repeating that in fact she was “fed up to the asshole” with everything.
The organized left has shown little sympathy for this self-organized, autonomous (albeit amorphous) uprising of desperate and angry people who, out of long experience, reject domination by union and party leaders. They live in places no one has heard of and sing the Marseillaise (originally a revolutionary song, but who remembers?).
Instead of supporting the Yellow Vests’ struggle against Macron and offering leadership by example, the unions and left parties, embroiled in infighting amongst themselves, have left the field open to the right.
LePen’s people, while also embroiled in internal squabbles, are attempting to manipulate the movement — though so far they have made little headway.
Recipe for a Rebellion
To recap, here are the ingredients to the current uprising underway in France:
- An autocratic president without a party or a mandate.
- A desperate lower-class population angry over growing economic inequality in a rich country and government indifference to their plight calling for Macron to resign.
- A class of organized civil servants and unionized workers still licking their wounds and paying their bills after failing to block the president’s counter-reforms last spring.
- Traditional parties — left (socialists, etc.) and right (Gaullists etc.) — that have alternated in power since the end of World War II diminished and eclipsed.
- The parties of the far left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon supporters, various Trotskyists, etc.) and the far Right (the former-National Front) are too preoccupied with internal fights to play any significant role.
- Powerful mass media dominated by the interests of big business but viewed with suspicion by more and more of the population.
- A brand-new “leaderless” mass movement connected by social media, “finding its way by walking,” more or less consciously embedded in a long history of French rebellions and struggle, discovering its natural leaders (“good thinkers, good talkers” like old Guillaume Carle), putting forth its own ideas for the reorganization of society.
The two latest proposals coming from the Yellow Vests are borrowed from the history 18th Century French revolution. First, a call for a kind of democratic constituent assembly. Second, the creation of cahiers de doléances (grievance notebooks) like the ones in 1788 listing all the people’s complaints and proposed remedies
Here are excerpts from the 2018 Yellow Vest grievance list:
- No one left homeless.
- End the austerity policies. Cancel the interest on illegitimate debt. Don’t tax the poor to pay it back, find the 85 billion Euros of fiscal fraud uncollected.
- Create a true integration policy, with French language, history and civics courses for immigrants.
- Minimum salary €1500 per month
- Privilege city and village centers. Stop building huge shopping centers.
- More progressive income tax rates.
- Big companies like McDonald’s, Google, Amazon and Carrefour should pay big taxes and little artisans low taxes.
We can only hope that given the hollowness of the hegemony of the French political class, the convenience of social media for self-organization and the desperate desire for dignity and participatory democracy incarnated in this latest historical uprising, something good may come of the movement.
Richard Greeman has been a socialist and international activist in the United States and France since the 1950s. He is best known as the translator (from French to English) of the revolutionary novels of Victor Serge. A version of this article also appeared at newpol.org.
Photo: The Yellow Vests are coming! Credit: NightFlightToVenus/Flickr.