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Dawn of the Yellow Vests

Issue 242

Workaday activists are injecting a fresh sense of liberty, equality and fraternity into France.

Richard Greeman Dec 12, 2018

Montpellier, France — After a month of daily roadblocks and disruptions in every corner of France, and after four successive, violently-repressed mass demonstrations in Paris and the provinces, the spontaneous, self-organized movement known as the Yellow Vests continues to seriously challenge the political and economic order in France.

Not only has the rebellion persisted despite unprecedented police brutality, misrepresentation in the mainstream media and the rejection of it by the leadership of the labor unions, it has grown in popularity. Public support hovers at around 80 percent, according to recent polls. The movement has also expanded its goals — from an initial rejection of a tax increase on fuel to the outright dismantlement of the neoliberal order in France and a near-unanimous call for President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation.

As The Indypendent print edition goes to press, French students have joined the rebellion, protesting Macron’s introduction of an anti-democratic college admissions process. Student’s walked out of 170 high schools in answer to a “Black Tuesday” appeal for demonstrations by their union. Meanwhile, the Yellow Vest revolt has spread to Belgium, Holland, Hungary and even Iraq, recalling the 2011 Arab Spring and Occupy movements.

Macron Speaks to His People

On Monday evening, Dec. 10, after a month of silence in the face of mass rallies fuelled by anger at his perceived arrogant, condescending personality, Macron finally went on television with a pre-recorded speech that combined threats with concessions.

The Jupiterian president began by laying blame for the violence that has shaken France entirely on the protesters. The state would offer “no indulgence” if the Yellow Vests persisted, he said. To movement activists, who blame Macron for the systematic police mayhem deliberately unleashed on their peaceful rallies, this was gasoline on fire.

But after the stick came the carrot. Macron went on to admit that the protesters may have a point. “We may have forgotten the single mother struggling to make ends meet,” he said, proposing “a national conversation” about the social-economic crisis which he pledged to coordinate with local mayors.

He also offered a few economic concessions: rescinding new taxes on social security retirement for some retirees with very low incomes, the elimination of taxes on paid overtime, a raise of $115 in the monthly minimum salary for some workers and a call for businesses to voluntarily give a year-end bonus to their employees.

The president’s attempt to placate them was widely rejected as “too little, too late” by the Yellow Vests, who continue to call for Macron’s resignation and for a bottom-up reorganization of French democracy.

A False Dichotomy

The uprising was originally provoked a month ago by Macron’s raising of the sales tax on gas and diesel fuel. Blue and white-collar workers, farmers and small business people in small towns who depend on cars to survive were outraged. Macron justified this bitter pill as necessary for reducing France’s carbon emissions. Ironically, France subsidizes the fossil-fuel industry, which enjoys a very low tax rate on its huge profits, to the tune of $7.9 billion a year. Meanwhile, Macron’s government has encouraged car use by cutting public transportation and delocalizing post offices and government service centers.

The “carbon tax” seemed calculated to divide working people worried about the end of the month from environmentalists worried about the end of the world. On Saturday, Dec. 8, however, Yellow Vest demonstrations across the country converged with a long-anticipated “March for the Planet.”

Yellow Vest and environmental protesters joined forces in France last Saturday. Credit: Elyane Méry.

In the city of Uzès, one Yellow-Vest woman’s homemade sign said it all: “End of the world/end of the month/same people responsible/same struggle.”

In Paris, where thousands of self-organized Yellow Vest protestors attempted to gather to express their grievances on the Champs-Elysées for a fourth successive Saturday, they were systematically filtered by police at Paris railroad stations and vehicular approaches to the capital. Hundreds were arrested for possessing ski goggles, face-masks, helmets and other protections, as well as such “weapons” as a hammer (found in the trunk of a provincial carpenter’s car) and bocci balls.

Those who managed to make it to the site of the demonstration were chased down by federal riot police who 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.

This militarized state over-reaction to a mass political demonstration breaks with a long tradition of tolerance for muscled rallies held by rowdy farmers and militant labor unions — a tolerance Macron has blamed for the failure of previous governments to pass needed pro-business counter-reforms. Meanwhile, throughout the provinces and in the small cities like Uzès hundreds of thousands of environmentalists and Yellow Vests were out demonstrating or blocking highway entrances, intersections and shopping centers.

Why France’s ‘Silent Majority’ Is Mad as Hell

Like all the spontaneous mass uprisings that dot French history going back to feudal times, the Yellow Vest revolt was initially provoked by taxes. Spurning all established political parties and unions, the Yellow Vests organized on social media and acted locally. The broadcast media, although highly critical, spread the news nationally. The movement gathered steam across France, blocking intersections, filtering motorists, allowing free passage at highway toll booths and becoming larger and increasingly militant each successive Saturday.

Why 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. 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. A large portion of the population is struggling to get by and going into debt.

In response to an appeal for calm from Macron, the leaders of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and nearly all other labor federations signed a déclaration of solidarity — not with the injured and arrested demonstrators, but with the Macron government as the representative of the “peaceful” republican order. They accepted Macron’s invitation to “resume the social dialogue” — that is, to sit at the table with him and negotiate more “give backs” of workers’ rights.

The next day, contradicting themselves, CGT Secretary General Philippe Martinez and other union leaders called for a national labor demonstration on Friday, Dec. 14. They plan to raise the same basic economic demands as the Yellow Vests but one day before the movement’s next scheduled protest.

Regardless, the stage is set for the next act of the popular uprising in France in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned.

Richard Greeman has been a socialist and international activist in the United States and France since the 1950’s. He is best known as the translator (from French to English) of the revolutionary novels of Victor Serge. Elyane Méry contributed to this report.


Illustration by Daniel Fisher.