Yellow fever in France

Yellow and Green in climate march.

What is this yellow
fever that has seized France since mid-November? Wearing these yellow safety
vests (that every European motorist must have in his car), the Gilets Jaunes,
by day and often night, have been occupying motorway interchanges, highway intersections,  roundabouts and shopping
centers all
over France, and going out into the streets every
Saturday. With the apparent general approval of French public opinion
(80% according to polls).

They
are members of the white lower middle-class, driven by a diversity of
motivations, generations and backgrounds. An unprecedented involvement of pensioners, a significant number of women.
They are nurses, shopkeepers and artisans, employees of small businesses,
farmers or jobless persons. They come mainly from suburban and rural areas, and very often from small
towns.

A deep sense of injustice

As has happened so often in France – and elsewhere –  this movement started as an anti-tax
movement, against the rise of a tax on gasoline and diesel. Was it also an anti-ecological
gesture, since directed against a carbon tax? The historian of social movements
Gérard Noiriel has pointed out that this type of anti-tax struggle always
reaches its climax when people have the feeling that they have had to pay
without getting anything in exchange. The feeling, widely shared, that the tax
serves to enrich the small caste of the ultra-rich has fuelled a deep sense of
injustice in the lower classes
. Most of the Gilets Jaunes revolt less against the tax than
against its unjust distribution.

Most of the Gilets Jaunes revolt less against the tax than against its unjust
distribution. The fuel taxes were the
last straw that broke the camel's back. The movement is particularly strong in areas where the withdrawal of public
services is most obvious, where people are condemned to using their cars to
find, beyond the moribund sub-prefectures where they live, access both to
public services and jobs. They are defending what holds a society together: schools,
hospitals, police stations, transport, free of charge education, and so forth.

The initial response of President Emmanuel Macron, and the government of
Edouard Philippe was that of contempt (towards his people who “understand
nothing”) and an added provocation. This was an answer they had already
deployed in opposition to the hundreds of thousands of people (workers and
civil servants – that is categories other than the Gilets) who had taken to the streets at the behest of the main
unions, against laws reforming the labor code in 2017.

After the first big demonstration of the Gilets in Paris on November 24, and a few incidents on the
Champs-Elysée avenue, Christophe Castaner, the Minister of interior spoke about
the “brown plague” in reference to the supposedly fascist character of the
movement. This was in line with Macron's own strategy to proclaim
himself and his policy "progressive" in contrast to the fascists-populists that, the government began to explain, were drowning out the Yellow
Vests from the ultra-right. Macron duly spoke of “scenes of war”, a
self-fulfilling prophecy, since on the following Saturday (December 1) there were
spectacular scenes of violence in the Arc de Triomphe and the rich
neighborhoods surrounding it.

Here, before proceeding with our story, we must make two remarks.

First about the “political character” of the Gilets. Historically extreme-right parties have always been rooted
in the social movements of the poor “white petit-bourgeois” social classes. And
it is also the case with the new national-conservative populism of today. This
time, the Rassemblement National (RN, former National Front) of Marine Le Pen,
or Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s smallest party Debout la France, immediately
supported the movement, and RN or radical-rightist groups were soon to be
spotted as active in certain rallies and demonstrations. We've also seen people
from the ultra-right spreading fake news, conspiracy theories and racist themes
in the Yellow Vest gatherings and on social media.

But this movement is horizontal, locally self-organized, with no leaders
or representatives emerging (until now). The Gilets are anti-party, (and also anti-trade-union). In their many
and sometimes confusing speeches and claims, racist and anti-migrant themes are
not very visible. And we will also see that the Left is not totally out of the
game.

Second remark. When Gilets Jaunes come to a demonstration, particularly
in Paris, it is striking to see how they do not have the traditional codes and
skills of demonstrations. They  do not go
to the east of Paris, traditional location of all popular manifestations, but congregate
in the Champs-Elysée, because it is the most famous place. The majority of the protesters
have never been to any demonstration before and are coming "from the
provinces" (as the Parisians say). Such people constitute the great
majority of those arrested and convicted "for violence" after the
demonstrations of December 1 and 8. The majority of the protesters have never been to any
demonstration before and are coming "from the provinces" (as the
Parisians say).

Yellow and Green vests together?

At the forefront of Gilets Jaunes,
what are the positions of the left and progressive forces? There has been, and
there still is a lot of contestation over this, even if almost everyone agrees
on the analysis of what caused this movement: the growth of inequalities, the
marginalization of certain regions and social categories, austerity and neoliberal
politics, etc.

The trade-unions
initially maintained their distance, noting the anti-unionism of many Gilets. Only Solidaires (minority and
radical union) supported the movement, the CGT (the main union) remaining more
cautious, although some of its activists participate in the actions, and  the CFDT (the second most powerful, moderate
union) proposed its "mediation services" with the government (which was
initially refused).

NGOs and the social movements
(and especially ecological campaigns) perceived the importance of the movement
from the outset. In a tribune published on the November 22, leaders of the
alter-globalist movements ATTAC and Fondation Copernic[2] wrote: 

The "yellow
vests" are also the product of a succession of failures of the social
movements. (…) We organisers, activists and leaders of the political,
trade union and left networks, are all a part of these failures.
Two questions are posed by this movement: that of growing
social misery, especially in the popular neighbourhoods of metropolises and
rural or ultraperipheral deserts; that of the rise of an ecological and
climatic crisis which threatens the conditions of existence even of a large
part of humanity beginning with the poorest ones.

December 8 was the
4th Saturday of demonstration for Gilets Jaunes and was also the international day of climate protest.
Was there a risk of a clash between Green and Yellow? Overly zealous Préfets even arrested the leaders of the march for the
climate in Nancy and of the yellow vests in Grenoble, since "potential
confrontations" could disturb the public order. The number of
"yellow" and "green" demonstrators that day were roughly
equivalent (15/17,000 in Paris). In the climate march there were a significant
number of “greens” with yellow vests, bearing slogans such as:  End of
the world and end of the month, for us, it's the same fight!
Or No climate justice without fiscal and social
justice!
In some towns, like in Lyon, “Greens” and “Yellows” joined together
and a significant number of Gilets Jaunes expressed their concern about climate
change.

This does not mean, however, a unity of the people or a convergence of these
struggles. We have seen that the Gilets
Jaunes
are rather white and lower middle class. Those who joined the climate
marches are mainly young urbans (like those who occupied places during the Nuits Debout movement in March-June
2016) or traditional leftist activists.

And what about inhabitants of the banlieues,
those populated neighborhoods where especially the youth from Arab or African
origin reside? There was debate, some groups called on others to join the protest
or support the yellow vests against their repression, but as the Collectif Rosa
Park underlined in their response:

There will be no broad front against the Macron regime or the fascism that
is coming if immigration and the suburbs that make up a few million souls are
ignored.

In early December, high school
students, and to a lesser extent university students, also began to move. High
schools in the banlieues are
particularly mobilized and have been particularly repressed by the police in places
such as Aubervilliers or Mantes la Jolie where the spectacle of young people, stopped
and arrested, kneeling at the foot of the police, has became a symbol taken up even
by the yellow vests (kneeling hands on their head in protest in front of the
police). And by mid-December the movement
had spread to many high schools in large cities or their suburbs.

High school students and police in Mantes la Jolie.

And by
mid-December the movement
had spread to many high schools in large cities or their suburbs.

Social and political crisis

Is there a political
way out of this social crisis? One of the problems is the extreme
polarization of the debate. In the political system of the French’s Fifth
Republic there is a concentration of symbolic and real power assumed in the
hands of the President of the Republic. 

The call Macron resign ! is extremely popular among Yellow Vests. For the French editor of the popular
leftist website Mediapart, Edwy Plenel, Macron is paying for his irresponsible unconsciousness, added to a personal exercise of power woven out of scorn and contempt. [2]. Esther Benbassa, Member of the
Senate for the Green Party (EELV) walking on December 1 alongside a group of
youth from the banlieue of leftist activists and trade-unionists, to join up
with the Gilets Jaunes, described in
her blog:

All along the way, the
yellow vests I met told me about the "king's head" they wanted.
Macron's. The tone was hard, angry, whole. We did not speak of the President of
the Republic but of the King.

But the king is naked. Trust is destroyed. The possibility of a “party of fear“ supporting Macron
(like De Gaulle in 1968) does not exist… Macron will keep the instruments of
power and parliamentary majority but is no more the wonder-boy elected eighteen
months ago. The possibility of a “party of fear“ supporting Macron
(like De Gaulle in 1968) does not exist.

The government has retreated on the increase of fuel taxes and some
other measures, and desperately seeks a "framework of negotiation".
It calls to its aid those Macron has previously treated with disdain: unions,
local elected representatives, associations. And the King (Excuse me, President Macron) spoke to his subjects on December
10 (Pardon, the French citizens). He
announced some measures in favor of low wages and poor pensioners, but no
fundamental change in social or ecological policy.  However, it is going to be
difficult for Macron to pursue the neoliberal demolition of the French social
model at the same pace as before.

On the political
field, the opposition parties, leftist Jean Luc Melanchon’s France Insoumise
(LFI) and Ultra-right Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National are asking for new
legislative elections (without really believing that it can happen). The Parti
Socialiste has not yet recovered from its 2017 defeat. The centre-right
conservative party Les Républicains, hesitates, especially because if they were
in power, they would enact the same neoliberal “modernising” policy as Macron, while
their leader, Laurent Wauquiez, took up the themes of the extreme right.

The
next election deadline is the European elections next spring. We can expect a
considerable number of abstentions, and the success of europhobic and
xenophobic extreme right-wing forces, as elsewhere in Europe.

Some
of the yellow vests going to the polls will no doubt be tempted by this
far-right populist vote. Could others support a progressive, social and
environmental alternative? The aspiration to find such an alternative has also
been expressed in the yellow-green fever of recent weeks.

At
the level of programmes of “ the left of the left" parties, the convergence
on social and ecological objectives, (if not ecosocialist), seems, on paper,
possible, between La France Insoumise (LFI), the Greens (EELV), the movements
Génération.s of the former socialist Benoit Hamon, the French Communist Party
(PCF) and even the popular Trotskyist leader Olivier Besancenot.

But
this unity will not take place for these European elections, because these
different forces are divided on Europe. Even more, because they are in
competition, and because Jean Luc Mélanchon and the LFI are persuaded that they
alone embody "the movement of the people".

Pity.
But we may not have to miss out on the next instalment entirely. The municipal
elections of 2020 or multicolored alliances are both possible … if the crises
afford us sufficient time…

 

[1] Annick Coupé, Patrick Farbiaz, Pierre
Khalfa, Aurélie Trouvé, In Le Monde, November 20th

[2] Edwy Plenel : The battle of equality, Mediapart
December 2.

All photos courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

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