On Saturday 5 January, an estimated 50,000 demonstrators came onto the streets of France to take part in “Act VIII”, the eighth national protest of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement. In Paris, a bloc of working¬class women in yellow jackets came to the fore and broke police encirclements. The movement has shrunk since “Act I” on 17 November 2018, which saw an estimated 300,000 on the streets, but it has defied predictions that it would die off during the Christmas¬New Year break.
The protests began in the autumn, against a hike in fuel tax that would have hurt millions of workers and self¬employed people who rely on motor transport for their work, and saw tens of thousands setting up roadblocks at roundabouts, many of which continue to this day. French media reports estimate that business losses from traffic disruption over the Christmas period now run into the billions of euros. The student movement has revived to join the protests, bringing their slogans against selection in education from last summer’s movement.
The determination and militancy of this movement of workers and self¬employed people is without recent precedent in French history – but it has not yet been joined by a strike movement of any size. The protests have so far withstood the government’s combination of minor concessions and violent repression. The government has repeatedly resorted to the most draconian measures, deploying tens of thousands of police, killing grandmother Zineb Zerari with a teargas canister, and on 2 January arresting prominent Gilet Jaune, lorry driver Eric Drouet, on charges of organising an illegal protest.
Since Macron’s government announced the withdrawal of the fuel tax increase, and then an increase in the minimum wage (he stressed that this would be compensated from the public purse and not cost bosses a penny more), the movement has faced a political dilemma. Two slogans seem currently to be most popular on demonstrations: a demand for the reinstatement of the “ISF”, the wealth tax on the richest; and the call for Swiss-style “RICs” or “citizens’ initiative referendums”, whereby petitions with a certain number of signatures are to be put to a referendum, and if they win, become law.
But the ISF had been in force for almost 30 years before Macron scrapped it in 2017, and France’s wealth¬inequality index (Gini coefficient) was still even higher than the UK’s. Swiss-style “direct legislation” has surely not abolished inequality in Switzerland, where in 2015, so Crédit Suisse reported, 1% of the population owned 35% of the wealth. German Marxist Karl Kautsky explained in 1893 why the Swiss model was a very poor form of democracy: “Here the population is not called to vote on entire, comprehensive programmes for the reorganisation of society and politics, but merely on a single measure, a single proposal — which, moreover, always has to be adapted to the momentary power relations in state and society, if it is to be a ‘practical’ vote and not intended as a mere gesture.”
A third demand that remains popular is the demand for Macron, the “President of the rich”, to resign. To be replaced by whom? The Gilets Jaunes aren’t a coherent party capable of making a government. The movement has no internal democracy: spokespeople rise to prominence through effective self¬promotion online. Jacline Mouraud is launching a party, “Les Émergents”, which she vows will be all about “respect for institutions”. Christophe Chalençon has called for Pierre de Villiers, the armed forces chief who resigned last year over military spending cuts by Macron, to take over the government. To make a workers’ government, the inspiring militancy of the protestors isn’t enough. Democracy and a political programme are needed – and the leadership of the organised working class.
Moreover, some ideas in the Gilets Jaunes mix are harmful. Two long “manifestos” of the Gilet Jaunes have been circulated online, both endorsed or semi¬endorsed by the movement’s prominent, self¬selected leaders. One called for “Frexit” and described current immigration to France as “intolerable”. The other was silent on Frexit, but demanded classes in “French culture” for migrants (though it did also say that the answer to the exploitation of migrant labour was to level up conditions rather than simply to bar migrants).
The far-right Front National (now trading as Rassemblement National, or RN) has risen higher in the polls than any other party over the course of the movement (from 17% in September to 24% in December). But the distinctive demands of the far right (abolition of speed limits, halting immigration) are currently marginal in the movement. The “racism” of the movement is no more worked¬out fascism than its “socialism” is fully¬fledged Marxism. There is an urgent political fight to be had among the Gilets Jaunes.
Elements of the movement parallel the Poujadiste anti¬tax movement of the 1950s, a movement of the French worse¬off led by small businesspeople and standing apart from the labour movement. The Gilets Jaunes as a movement express not only the just and heartening rage of the exploited against the arrogance of the rich, but also in part the small-minded jealousy of the small entrepreneur. The organised working class has the “socialist common sense”, the hardened hostility to the fascists, the deep roots, the democratic organisations and customs that can clean out the nationalist crap and draw the Gilet Jaunes movement behind clearer slogans; and the power at the point of production to win.
Ironically, the leader of the biggest union confederation, CGT, Philippe Martinez, responded to the movement at the outset in the tone of a jealous shopkeeper: saying that the CGT “would not mix with just anyone” and protesting that the movement had stolen the CGT’s slogans. The CGT policy slowly changed until the leadership called separate but parallel protests in mid¬December.
In Martigues, in southern France, the local CGT and FSU union organisations managed to agree common demands for 5 January with local Gilets Jaunes: cut taxes and VAT; bring back the wealth tax; increase all wages, pensions and benefits; access to health and care for all; a fair tax policy for the people but also for small and middling businesses; development of public services (hospitals, crèches, schools etc.); regular consultation of citizens (“Small and middling businesses” are precisely defined in France: anything less than 250 workers and an annual turnover of €50 million).
Socialists in groups like Lutte Ouvriere and Etincelle, as well as groups of rank¬and-file workers, most notably Parisian railway workers, have been doing the job that Martinez was so slow to get on with: going to Gilets Jaunes protests with socialist arguments and working to marginalise the petty bigots and small exploiters. Labour movement initiative is needed to bring a spring flood of socialism, and not a swamp of nationalism and Poujade¬style anti¬worker populism, from this crisis.