‘Gilets Jaunes’: a contradictory movement

Protestors at the Champs Elysee, Paris 24 November 2018


Since Saturday 17 November, hundreds of thousands of people across France have taken part in anti-government protests. The protestors have dubbed themselves the ‘gilets jaunes’, after the hi-vis jackets that French motorists are required by law to carry in their cars. The spark was a planned rise in fuel duty (TICPE) on both petrol and diesel, but many demonstrators are airing much broader complaints against the government of Emmanuel Macron, who they call ‘president of the rich’. Cross-class and organised through social media, the movement contains many different and contradictory political elements, ranging from racists protesting the presence of Muslims in Europe to anti-racist students fighting against rises in tuition fees for migrants. Socialists must participate, and relate to the progressive elements, in order to forge an independent, working class way forward. SEAMUS PADRAIC reports.

According to police estimates, the first mobilisation on Saturday 17 November saw 290,000 attend 2,034 sites across the country. Even this conservative estimate indicates that the turnout was as large as major demonstrations throughout 2018 organised by the unions against Macron’s anti-worker labour market reforms. Tear gas was used outside the Elysée Palace (the official residence of the French president in Paris), which protestors had vowed to reach. Across the country, 52 people were arrested and 106 were injured; five seriously. A 71-year old demonstrator died after being run over by a motorist forcing their way through a road blockade.

The protests have since continued, and the gilets jaunes have been joined by ambulance drivers, lorry drivers, the farmworkers’ union FNSEA, and university and lycée (equivalent to sixth form college) students across the country. Students blocked access to more than 200 lycées on 6 December, and shocking footage has emerged from Mantes-la-Jolie of the mass arrest of 16- and 17-year old students who were forced to kneel on the ground by dozens of officers armed with clubs and riot shields. University students at Sorbonne-Nouvelle and Tolbiac held general assemblies and decided to maintain blockades of their campuses and join the mobilisation on Sat 8 December. Paris in particular has seen police violence through the use of water cannons and tear gas against protestors. On Saturday 3 December, an 80-year-old woman was killed after being hit in the face with a teargas canister. Only the police have access to this weapon.

Despite police violence, numerous forces have condemned ‘violence’ of the gilets jaunes.  These have ranged from Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, to the opportunist left, which is eager to ensure that the movement remains within channels acceptable to the ruling class.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (LFI - France Unbowed) attended blockades on the first day of the mobilisations. He wished ‘success’ to this ‘just protest’, and has sought to profit electorally from it, calling on Macron to dissolve the government and call fresh elections. Mélenchon came fourth in the 2017 presidential elections, with 19.8% of the vote, and the LFI has worked consistently to channel popular resistance against Macron’s reforms into routine marches and electoral channels. Mélenchon has stated that the ‘one objective’ facing those trying to ‘resolve’ the crisis presented by the gilets jaunes is to ‘always act responsibly’, and he has called on the protestors not to view the police as ‘the enemy.’ He has called on Macron to ‘re-establish order’ by granting concessions. On 28 November 2018, he wrote on his blog that he was ‘hostile to all violence’ because it ‘frightens off greater numbers and dissuades the hesitant from taking action.’ On 1 December, he argued in an interview on TF1 that the violence was ‘pre-planned’ and ‘very Parisian’, and praised the fact that throughout the rest of the country the demonstrations had been ‘totally peaceful.’

Among the unions, the CGT, FO, and CFDT have all condemned the violence and called on the government to ‘find a solution’ to falling spending power. The CGT is France’s largest and most militant union federation which is led politically by the French Communist Party (PCF). On 16 November, L’humanité, the newspaper of the PCF, warned of the ‘co-optation’ of the movement by the far right and quoted the FI deputy Clémentine Autain who said he would refuse to participate ‘alongside Marine Le Pen.’ Realising that they could not simply write the movement off, by 22 November, the PCF was explaining that instead it would ‘develop its own initiatives.’ Thus, the CGT called on people to mobilise on 1 December, but not to join the gilets jaunes march to the Elysée palace. Instead, the call was to join their routine annual march. According to Le monde, just 2,100 turned up.

The initial response of the government was intransigence. On the day of the first protest, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced on France2 television that he would not budge on the changes to TICPE. Within two weeks, cracks appeared as on 2 December, Macron asked Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to receive both the heads of the other political parties, and representatives from the gilets jaunes. On 4 December, Philippe announced a six-month moratorium on the fuel tax rises, electricity tariff rises and increased MOT standards. He also announced a period of ‘national debate’ on taxes. The next day, in the National Assembly, Philippe announced that he was willing to abandon entirely the fuel duty rise, and that it would not feature in the budget for 2019. 

These concessions were insufficient as 8 December saw ‘Act IV’ take place across the country. In Paris 8,000 additional police and armoured cars were deployed and 400 ‘preventative’ arrests made as tens of thousands once more took to the streets. Even the threat of the re-introduction of a state of emergency was no deterrent. The ‘state of emergency’ under French law gives the government the power to shut down demonstrations, impose curfews and conduct ‘administrative searches’ – violent raids carried out without a court-issued warrant. It was introduced in 2015 following terror attacks and has been used to crack down on protest.

As violent protests continued, Macron announced on 10 December that the government would concede to another of the movement’s demands. In a public address on prime-time television, he said that the protestors concerns were ‘in many ways legitimate’ and announced that the minimum wage will be increased by €100 per month. The protestors have vowed to continue.

The fact that the movement has continued demonstrates the deep dissatisfaction felt by working- and middle-class people across France. A poll published on 4 December by Ifop-Fiducial for Paris Match and Sud Radio found that Macron’s approval rating had fallen to just 23%, down six points on the previous month. Philippe’s rating had meanwhile fallen 10 points to 26%. Polls conducted throughout the last month have consistently found that the vast majority (around 75%) support the gilets jaunes. One Odoza poll on 27/28 November found that 84% of those surveyed considered the protests ‘justified’, of which 53% considered them ‘totally justified.’

Since May 2017, the price of petrol has risen 19 cents per litre and diesel 31 cents per litre. Much of this down to international changes in oil prices, but 34% of the rise in petrol prices and 37% of the rise in diesel prices are down to increases in TICPE fuel tax. This has particularly hit those who live in rural or semi-rural France who rely on cars for work. The bottom 10% of earners have on average €180 left monthly after necessary expenses like rent, food and bills. Transport costs must be drawn from this €180. The planned rises in TICPE would have meant that a further 6.5 cents per litre on diesel, and on petrol a further 2.9 cents.

What has added to popular anger is that the tax rise follows the abolition of the ISF, an annual wealth tax which Macron’s government removed shortly after coming to power in May 2017. The replacement of the ISF with the IFI, a property tax, eliminated 49% (€2bn) of the ISF tax burden which used to fall on those holding assets worth over €1,300,000.[1]

The French government has attempted to present the rise in fuel duty as motivated by environmental concerns, and part of an ‘ecological transition.’ However, of the €37.7bn in TICPE revenue in 2018, only €7.2bn (19%) will be going towards the ‘transition’. Additionally, the amount being put toward the ‘transition’ in 2019 is the same as 2018, despite an expected increased income of €3.9bn. .

From its earliest days, the movement has seen the involvement of reactionary political forces. One of the most watched videos in the social media promotion leading up to 17 November was a call for a ‘general mobilisation’, by Frank Buhler, a supporter of Debout la France (a Eurosceptic nationalist party). The ‘Barjols’, a right-wing group, four members of which were recently arrested for plotting a terror attack, were also involved in planning initial mobilisations. During the mobilisations, there have been reports of a homophobic assault, the targeting of Muslim motorists at road blocks, and of gilets jaunes searching trucks for ‘illegal immigrants’.

On the other hand, the movement also involves many progressive political tendencies. Slogans on the t-shirts of protestors, or daubed in graffiti, include condemnations of racist police violence, the observation that ‘climate change is war on the poor’ or the slogan ‘down with imperialism!’. The demands of the Parisian university protestors include the prevention of the increase of fees for foreign students. Prominent far-right figures have been attacked by leftists on the streets of Paris.

The role of the trade union leadership and the opportunist left has given ground to the right. The gilets jaunes do not want their movement confined to what is acceptable to the ruling class, and will turn to political leadership which does not enforce such limitations as ‘non-violence’. Whether anything new and progressive emerges from this struggle will depend on the role that socialists play within it. To stand aside will hand it over to reactionaries: socialists in France must fight to give it independent leadership.

In Britain, ‘gilets jaunes’ protests have been held by both the right and the left. On Friday 14 December reactionary pro-Brexit campaigners flying union flags and wearing pro-US President Donald Trump clothes donned hi-vis jackets and briefly blocked Westminster Bridge. They chanted ‘Brexit Now!’ and sang ‘Rule Britannia.’ Perhaps the most farcical attempts to mirror the gilets jaunes, however, have come from the British left. In Nottingham, the People’s Assembly (PA) called an ‘anti-austerity’ rally and called on attendees to wear hi-vis jackets. There was to be no direct action; the Facebook description of the event asked ‘But what about the violence?’, and answered: ‘There won’t be any violence on our protest. We’ll contact the police to ensure the protest is properly organised. And we’ll raise the issue of Police cuts – because the police can’t protest in the way that we can.’ This obsession with non-violence, echoed in a letter to The Guardian on Extinction Rebellion signed by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and others, has one purpose only: to re-assure the ruling class and its Labour politicians that no serious challenge is intended.

[1] For further analysis of the tax changes brought in by Macron, see ‘France: Macron sets out to bust unions’



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