On February 5, as the Macron government pushed harsh repressive laws against demonstrators through the National Assembly, the Yellow Vests joined with France’s unions for the first time in a day-long, nation-wide “General Strike.”
At the very moment when in Paris the lower house was voting to implement Macron’s proposed laws designed to suppress public demonstrations (a legal right protected in both the French Constitution and the U.N. Human Rights Declaration), tens of thousands of their constituents were out in the streets all over the country demonstrating and striking against Macron’s authoritarian, neo-liberal government. The demonstrators’ demands ranged from better salaries and retirement benefits, restoration of public services, equitable tax codes, an end to police brutality, and banning the use of “flash-balls” on demonstrators, to Macron’s resignation and the installation of participatory democracy.
Deaf to the angry people’s legitimate grievances, unwilling to deal with them, Macron has given himself no other choice than to legislate new repressive legal restrictions to suppress their continued free expression. This resort to open repression can only serve to discredit the government’s handling of a crisis largely of his own making, treating a spontaneous social movement among the 99% as if it were a terrorist or fascist conspiracy. The unpopular President’s repressive tactics will inevitably backfire on him. The French are extremely jealous of their liberties, and Macron’s monarchical arrogance can only remind them of how their ancestors dealt with Louis XVI.
Moreover, the Yellow Vests, who have been a painful thorn in Macron’s side since last November, were now demonstrating together with the French labour unions, whom he thought he had tamed last Spring. This convergences came in response to a call for a one-day “General Strike” issued by the CGT and Solidaires, who for the first time invited “any Yellow Vests who felt like it” to join. In the event, quite a few did feel like it, despite the CGT’s previous hostility to the Yellow Vests and despite their own fundamental suspicion of all “representative” structures, like established parties and unions (whom the Yellow Vests justifiably fear would attempt to coopt them, speak in their name, and sell them out).
A Day of Action and Convergence
For a “first date” the one-day Strike came off very well, somewhat to the surprise of both parties. And if this tentative Red–Yellow alliance continues to solidify (and there is every indication that it will) France will likely become ungovernable and the ruling classes will be up against the wall. What might happen next is rich in possibility, for the French, with their long history of popular revolutions, have been singularly inventive in coming up with new political arrangements. For now, let us look more closely at what may in retrospect be an historic day.
The Strike began at exactly midnight when a rowdy crowd of 200–300 demonstrators near Paris blocked the giant Rungis produce market, cutting off food to the capital with trucks lining up outside. They even set up a barricade. In the early hours there were also blockages at the airport of Nantes and at the University there. All told there were demonstrations in at least 160 different localities, all different in size and conduct, mostly improvised by people on the spot at the last minute. There were big ones in the Channel ports Le Harvre, Rouen and Caen. In Strassbourg about 1,500, in Lyon 5,000 including 500 Yellow vests. In Marseille the Yellow Vest march converged with the CGT at the Stock Exchange, a shift of targets for the Yellow Vests from government to finance capital.
In Paris, the CGT-led strikers invaded the fancy Right Bank territory, marching boldly up the Rue de Rivoli with its luxurious shop-windows. They then held an impromptu rally at a major intersection, tying up traffic and baffling the police.
Who Are these Yellow Vests?
Since November 17, 2018, the popular, nation-wide, self-organised Yellow Vests movement has been keeping up the pressure on the neo-liberal Macron regime with daily protests at traffic circles and weekly demonstrations in dozens of cities. It is made up of average, lower middle-class French people, mostly provincials, whose lives have gotten worse under neo-liberal policies. They are mostly “little people” who are struggling to make ends meet and are tired of being ignored and humiliated by France’s elites.
The Yellow Vests represent a demographic cross section of France—minus the top 2% or 3%. And, unfortunately, for the moment, minus the 10% (?) of France’s doubly oppressed, discriminated immigrant communities—the Arabs, Berbers, Black Africans and other immigrants who do most of the dirty jobs.
Coming from many different backgrounds, the Yellow Vests wisely chose to put aside their political differences and party preferences, avoid pointless arguments, and focus on the struggle that unites them, each speaking for her or himself (alternating genders to maintain parity). As the weekly protests continued, the Yellow Vests were slowly refining their goals and tactics and discovering how to organise themselves while retaining their autonomy. After more than two months, on January 25–27, delegates from 75 local Yellow Vest Assemblies came together in the town of Commercy (Lorraine) for their first “Assembly of Assemblies” and wrote a democratic, egalitarian, anti-racist Declaration (discussed below) which soon achieved a consensus around the country. So a functioning federation with common goals is now emerging.
Remarkably, the Yellow Vests’ rebellion has persisted week after week despite a government campaign of brutal police repression—including thousands of injuries (some serious), several deaths, a thousand arrests, and routine tear-gassing of peaceful groups. The Yellow Vests have persisted despite being constantly vilified by the government and media as fascists, violent terrorists, “a hate-filled mob” (Macron), etc. Yet, amazingly, according to the latest polls, 77% of French people think their mobilisation is “justified” (up from 74% in January).
Most remarkable of all, they have wrung some actual concessions from Macron, who, after disdainfully declaring he would “never” give in to an unruly mob, was forced to rescind the tax on diesel fuel that the movement had originally crystalised around, and promised a raise in the minimum wage and a cut in taxes on retirement income (both of which turned out to be shams on close examination).
These practical victories, won by an autonomous group that refuses to anoint leaders or to negotiate, have deeply embarrassed the French labour movement and particularly the “militant” CGT (General Confederation of Labour, historically affiliated with the French Communist Party) which, after months of stop-and-go strikes last Spring, failed to block the implementation of Macron’s neo-liberal “reforms,” which took away many benefits won by French labour during the great struggles of the past.
The defeated strikers returned to work last September with their tails between their legs, simmering mad; and it was out this void of active opposition to Macron’s ongoing neo-liberal offensive that the Yellow Vests spontaneously emerged and spread across the country, with their spectacular direct action tactics. Many union members, more or less disgusted with their leaders, joined the Yellow Vests from the start. The Yellow Vests organised themselves via Facebook pages, socialised in traffic circles and parking lots and grew into an autonomous social movement. They stood up for themselves and for the rest of France’s working poor, unemployed, single mothers, and retired people. They spontaneously organised mass civil disobedience, successfully opposing Macron’s economic program of taking from the poor and giving to the rich (from whose soft white hands the wealth will theoretically “trickle down”).
The immediate response to the rise of the Yellow Vests on the part of the CGT and its leader, the unsmiling, mustachioed Martinez, was suspicion (‘petty-bourgeois fascists?’) and hostility. Martinez and the other union bureaucrats could not help seeing the Yellow Vests as competitors, and thus as a threat to their own hegemonic status as official representatives of the workers—especially after Macron’s “concessions.”
After shocking reports of police violence unleashed by Macron’s government against the Yellow Vests’ third Saturday demonstration, and in direct response to an appeal for calm from Macron, on December 6, the leaders of the CGT and all the other labour federations except for Solidaires, signed a Déclaration of solidarity—not of solidarity with the injured and arrested demonstrators, but with the Macron government, the alleged representative of the “peaceful republican order!” In return for what many described as a “betrayal”, the labour movement’s clique of professional negotiators accepted Macron’s invitation to “resume the social dialogue”—that is to allow them to sit at the table with him and negotiate more give-backs of workers’ rights.
The union leadership’s pledge of allegiance to the neo-liberal flag did not go down well in the union ranks. And so the very next day, Martinez and the other union leaders spun in the wind like weathercocks, started acting militant, and called for a national labour demonstration (legal) on Friday, December 14. The union leaders’ strike demands covered the same basic economic demands as the Yellow Vests. The event was to be a demonstration of power, a public relations leadership challenge, and it was pointedly planned for Friday, not Saturday—the day the Yellow Vests’ demonstrate. The Friday December 14 union demonstrations were hardly imposing compared to Saturday’s Yellow Vest events, so the ploy fizzled.
Two months later, the CGT issued another call for a one-day “General Strike” on February 5 (a Tuesday). It seemed like a replay of the same ploy, but in a gesture toward the more and more obvious need for “convergence,” Martinez opened a crack for Yellow Vests “to join if they wished” (as he said the day before the Strike). However the next day, blowing with a different wind, he changed his tune and actually made some sensible remarks about convergence:
“People have been saying for more than two months that we must talk and find common demands. We have them. There is no reason we shouldn’t march side by side, the ones behind the others. What is important is to have a successful first day of action together, because I find that the bosses have been let off easy (by the Yellow Vests–Ed.) and it is time to bring to account the big bosses of this country.”
Martinez remark about needing to attack the big bosses was both pointed and to the point. The Yellow Vests, given their broad and varied social composition, have naturally focused on the consumer issues they have in common as working folk struggling to make ends meet: high prices, unfair taxes and declining social services, directing their anger at the government, the media and the political elite. Their signs often denounce “capitalism”, but as a group they have no direct relationship with big industry and finance in whose interest Macron rules. Yet clearly, only with the active participation of France’s organised workers can this broad popular movement succeed—for example through an unlimited general strike with occupations of workplaces and public spaces as in 1968.
The Opening of Chapter Two in the Movement?
More encouraging, Martinez’ co-organiser of the February 5 strike, Cécile Gondar-Lalanne, whose union Sud-Solidaires has been supportive of the Yellow Vests from the start, declared: “if today works out, we must look forward doing it again, to constructing a common movement.” Such a convergence of the Reds with the Yellows, if it develops, might release a revolutionary power greater than anything we have seen in modern history.
The Yellows, composed of a cross-section of the common people in the provinces, already have the support of the vast majority of French people. They have held off the government for thirteen weeks and show no sign of relenting. The Reds, meaning the organised workers, have the power to strike and bring a halt to France’s major industries, transportation, energy and all public services, as they did in 1936 and 1968.
United, the Reds and the Yellows have the potential to change the system, and many of the Yellows clearly have system-change on their agenda.
System-change is definitely not on the agenda of Martinez and the other union bureaucrats, whose social status, like that of the members of the National Assembly, depends on their role as the official “representatives” of their constituents within the existing system. Given the pressure from below, Martinez has no choice but to play at “convergence” with the Yellow Vests today, but it is only to outmaneuver them and secure his official status as labour’s representatives. This is precisely what the Yellow Vests feared from the start when they founded their movement on autonomy—perhaps remembering the dismal role played by the CGT in ending the general strike and popular uprising that shook up the De Gaulle regime in 1968 (and whose 50th anniversary was being celebrated all over the media all last year).
So Red–Yellow convergence is taking place in a conflictual context pitting the traditionally hierarchical, vertical discipline of the CGT and other French labour organisations against the innovative, horizontal self-organisation of the proudly autonomous Yellow Vests. The presence, of demonstrators with big red CGT badges on their Yellow Vests, is already significant. The fact that these Red-Yellow (Orange?) activists dare to openly display their independence within the tightly organised culture of the CGT is a sign of cracks opening in that bureaucratic structure through which imaginative wildcat initiatives may emerge.
Convergence is also developing from below, through mutual understanding. According to the investigative journalism site Médiapart, there are several Yellow Vest activists who understand that the problem is big capital. Likewise, there are several CGT activists who distributed CGT flyers on February 5 showing a red arm and a yellow arm holding each others hand. As a Yellow Vest activist concluded: “Today may be the beginning of Chapter Two of our movement. We must all converge!”
Yellow Vests’ Self-Education in Action
Over time, the Yellow Vests’ objectives have indeed deepened, as evidenced by the evolution of the home-made signs at demonstrations, by lists of progressive demands from various local groups, and finally, at the end of January 2019, by a Declaration voted by a “General Assembly of General Assemblies” held in the town of Commercy, attended by Yellow Vests mandated by some 75 different local groups. A second Assembly, bringing together many more groups, is being prepared as the Yellow Vests structure themselves in a loose federation and learn to represent themselves through delegates selected (always one woman and one man) with limited mandates and subject to recall (the system of the Paris Commune of 1871).
The Commercy Declaration defines their goals as “dignity,” an “end to inequality”, “free public services”, “higher” salaries, retirement benefits, etc., taxing the super-rich to pay for them and the restructuring of France as a participatory democracy through referendums. At the same time, in response to charges by Macron, the media and any number of groups on the far Left, The Yellow Vests Declaration declares: “we are neither racist, nor sexist, nor homophobic, we are proud to come together with our differences to build a society of solidarity.” Although this radical Declaration is not a binding program, it expresses a consensus and has been quickly adopted by many Yellow Vest groups, who are looking forward to a larger nationwide Assembly of Assemblies in two months.
Macron’s Throne Is Shaky
As for Macron, his popularity is hovering at around 22% thanks to his regal pretentions, inflexible neo-liberal orthodoxy, methodical use of violence to suppress the expression of legitimate citizen grievances and criticism, and his contemptuous way of talking down to his angry subjects. This figure is slightly above the 18% of the 2017 Presidential vote he got on the first round, before being elected as the only alternative to “the fascist LePen”. Compare this with approval of the Yellow Vests, which stands at 77%.
Curiously, the French public intellectuals and philosophers, who occupy a much larger space in the media than their American counterparts, have mostly turned a cold shoulder to the Yellow Vests. Only two have seriously take up their defense: the popular libertarian philosopher Michel Onfray (author of 100 books) and the historian–anthopologist–essayist Emmanuel Todd. They alone carry on the contrarian tradition of Voltaire, Zola and Sartre into the 21st Century, our epoch in which the mediatised intellectuals, like the media personalities, the media owners, the politicians and the labour leaders have all become integral parts of what the French call “the political class”.
Meanwhile, Macron is traveling outside of France and playing a role in international affairs to deflect from the intractable crisis at home, while the media keep up a business as usual façade, reducing the Yellow Vest insurrection to a weekly tally of the number of demonstrators (aren’t they declining yet?), the number of arrests and of cars burnt. Like frightened little kids, the French elites think that if they hide their eyes all these angry little people will go away, but they won’t. What will Act XIII (or Chapter Two) reveal?
(Richard Greeman is a left scholar long active in human rights, anti-war, anti-nuclear, environmental and labour struggles in the US, Latin America, France and Russia.)
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