The Yellow Vests: potentials and dangers

Submitted by AWL on 20 February, 2019 - 11:38 Author: Michael Elms
yellow vests

The Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) movement, now fourteen weeks old, drew thousands of protestors onto the streets of France on 16 February. Although the latest demonstrations fell short of the estimated 50,000 who came out the week before, the movement shows little sign of stopping.

The general strike that some in the Yellow Vests movement called for 5 February failed to materialise, but France’s biggest trade union confederation, the CGT, did call a well-followed day of action among public sector workers. Alongside the Yellow Vest actions, ferment continues in colleges, with several institutions in Paris going on open-ended strike. There are continued mobilisations in the health sector, in particular protests by workers in the EHPAD support service for the elderly, and ongoing regional disputes on the railways and in the post. Arguments Pour La Lutte Sociale reported on 30 January: “500 workers at the CarrierTransicold factory near Rouen vote for an open-ended strike and draw the unions along with them. “Total black-out” of Kingfisher shops from 1 February. Permanent pickets at the Bayer chemical plant in Villefranche-sur-Saône/Limas …”

The Yellow Vests movement continues to be hotly debated by the French left. This a movement which has mobilised many workers and the rural poor, but also large numbers of small business-owners, some of whom have obliged their workers to join them on demonstrations, or closed shop on days of action, docking their employees’ pay. There are many warning signs of racist influence on the movement.

There was antisemitic heckling of Jewish writer Alain Finkielkraut on 16 February. The Yellow Vests have the openly stated demand that foreigners should undergo compulsory exams in “French culture”. Fascist agitators and groups are often present in the movement (that came to a head on 9 February, with violent clashes between fascists and anti-fascists within the demonstration in Lyon). Flying of the French flag and singing of the national anthem is widespread on Yellow Vests demonstrations. How should the far-right danger lurking around the movement be dealt with?

The left-wing anti-racist magazine Ni Patrie Ni Frontières has published a book of essays, “Gilets jaunes et confusion politique”, with articles from a variety of far-left writers. The best-known of the articles, from the “Collectif Athéné Nyctalope”, claims: “Supporting the Gilets Jaunes means supporting a rightwing movement”. The writers highlight the involvement of far right groups like Action Francaise, and the ambiguous, deceptively “apolitical” populism which allows both left-nationalists like Jean-Luc Mélenchon and rightwing politicians like Laurent Wauquiez to offer their support. An example: “24 November, Champs-Elysée. A bar’s terrace is wreathed in smoke. An anarchist ‘A’ is painted on the fronting, a few feet from where a couple of minutes before activists from the [far right] Bastion Sociale were yelling ‘On est chez nous’ [‘this is our home’, a widespread xenophobic slogan]… “Mélenchon, on his blog, after having spoken, like the far right, of a conspiracy aimed at putting a stop to the movement, calls on ‘the people to come together against the liberals’. And he welcomes the presence at blockades of ‘militants of all stripes’.”

Another article by Collectif Athéné Nyctalope finds comments by the left-wing Italian collective Wu Ming on the politics of Italy’s Five Star movement (M5S) to be relevant to the Yellow Vests: “There is an ‘honest’ people (taken to be indivisible: no classes, no opposing interests) and a ‘corrupted caste’, described as foreign to ‘the people’. To resolve Italy’s problems, we have to elect ‘honest folks’, who will take decisions that are ‘neither left nor right’: they will take ‘fair’ decisions…

“This is a very simplistic and consoling framework, which gets rid of contradictions, doesn’t touch on the causes of the crisis, and offers easy enemies to identify.”

Much of the book expands on the meaning of the “catch-all”, “apolitical” anti-liberal politics which allow left and right to apparently co-exist in a cloud of vagueness. Here we have “the opposition, largely spurious, between the provinces, homes of authentic workers, preferably who work on the land, and the capital, Paris, cosmopolitan, parasitic and corrupted. This idea is developed under the cover of being apolitical, which has never been the same as a critique of politics, but which has instead facilitated the rise of political demagogues...

“So while some of the problems that the Gilets Jaunes are raising are new, because they are related to the way domination is changing today, the responses that they put forward aren’t really. They have their roots in an old populism à la française…”

This vagueness, Athéné Nyctalope reminds us, was also a part of the Five Star Movement.

“Whether in terms of pay (minimum wage to raise and be linked to inflation), the vulnerable (lower gas and electricity prices, rent capping, support for the aged and pensioners), public services (reactivation of the railway network, re-opening local services like post offices, schools and nurseries), education... or jobs (creating jobs for the unemployed, more permanent contracts instead of temporary contracts), the Gilets Jaunes defend a melting-pot of originally left-wing demands.

“In Italy too, the movement carried ideas that were more left wing: a return to real policies for education and health, free internet for all, ecological demands etc. “But the similarities also run to clearly reactionary demands from the Gilets Jaunes, who, in no particular order, want to see love for the ‘forces of order’ (proper funding for the judiciary, the police, the gendarmes and the army); the fatherland (a ban on selling property that belongs to France); and the nation (living in France must mean becoming French: French language lessons, French history lessons and a course of civic education with an exam at the end).

“Too bad for failed asylum seekers or migrants: they have to go home. A similar idea was present in M5S in talk of “aiutiamoli a casa loro” (let’s help them when they’re home).”

Athéné Nyctalope point out that a major difference between M5S and the Gilets Jaunes is the lack of a charismatic leader holding everything together. Things in France are more “diffuse and volatile” than that. But Sonia, writing for Lignes de Crêtes, raises an important point about the political implications of the “decentralised” structure of the Gilets Jaunes movement:

“There are trade unions, solidarity groups or collectives. That is, persons who have chosen to organise, to commit, to define or to join a common body where there are rules (for managing money, taking decisions, deciding positions, sharing out responsibilities and work, but also respecting minorities and equality). There is always more to be said on internal democracy in a group, on its demands, its forms of action or intervention. But in spite of it all, there is this framework, which decides everything. “In the political world, for some years now, the idea of a direct link with ‘the people’ has been prominent. And in that frame there is no point in democratic debates, or common ways of functioning together. There is no point coming up with ideas or straining your brain thinking about solutions. There is someone who knows on behalf of everyone else, whether that’s a wellidentified leader or that kind of surge whose source is hard to identify.

“It’s the opposite of an emancipatory mobilisation, because in reality you accept that others have decided, without being able to bring any of yourself, your experiences, your ideas, to bear. That has a very comfortable side, because it creates the illusion of an identity (in a photocopier way), which some are clearly looking for…”

All these points should, at least, complicate the rosy view of the Yellow Vest held by some on the French and international left – including Arguments Pour la Lutte Sociale, whose material Solidarity frequently carries.

On 9 February, APLS wrote that the “broad masses” of the Gilets Jaunes are “a thousand times further ‘left’, or more accurately more advanced, than the vast majority of [left and trade union] organisations and militants”. Some, like Sonia, argue for steering clear of the Yellow Vests movement altogether.

In his contribution to the book, “libertarian communist” academic Alan Bihr argues that “waiting for a spontaneous popular movement to be ideologically pure before supporting it and intervening… are taking as a point of departure what can in fact only be a destination...

“Moreover, it is arguable whether the tricolour [French flag] and La Marseillaise [anthem] are only markers of the nationalist right or far right. We might also recall the revolutionary heritage associated with it, the only one available to populations who have been deprived of other revolutionary heritage.”

In the February edition of their journal Lutte de Classes, French Trotskyists Lutte Ouvrière [LO] attempt a balanced view. Arguments Pour La Lutte Sociale see the demand “Macron out!” (popular among the Yellow Vests, with little indication of who should replace Macron) as the necessary next link in a revolutionary chain. LO are sceptical of the slogan, saying that it “first and foremost unites the set of bourgeois politicos, from Marine Le Pen to Mélenchon and everyone in between, former and future ministers, who have their eyes on the opening that Macron’s weakness has created for their respective ambitions.” But, say LO: “it is the way of things that when the masses enter into a movement, their eyes will be drawn to the government, with all the wisdom and illusions that entails: wisdom because those who govern do so on behalf of the ruling class… illusions, because those who govern are largely interchangeable, and knowing to get rid of top servants at dangerous points has always been part of the political culture of any ruling class...

“It is just as much in the nature of things that the movement of the Gilets Jaunes will mix many different social categories. Workers, pensioners who are barely surviving, unemployed people without a hope of finding work in their region, workers who have only found work dozens of kilometres from home and for whom the price of petrol is a vital part of their cost of living, nurses, single mothers, young people toiling in precarious employment in small jobs, labourers, salaried workers, technicians in small businesses.

“The anger of wage workers mixes with that of layers of the petty bourgeoisie who are having the hardest time of it. The mistrust of institutional parties, which often takes the form of a declared ‘apoliticism’, is rooted in the desire to preserve unity between the different components of the movement.” Disrupting that “unity”, between left and right, workers and small exploiters, is surely the most important task for socialists intervening in the mass movement in France. Writing of the Italian M5S, Wu Ming said,

“What we want is vertical and horizontal ruptures, on concrete questions. These will be specific fights which will face left-wing grillini with choices that they can’t put off.”

The intervention of the socialist labour movement, amplifying the specific voice and interests of workers, organised and unorganised, migrant and native, can create such ruptures. The belated call by CGT leader Martinez on 5 February to bring the movement’s demands about wages and the cost of living into workplaces is good, although far from sufficient. The self-assertion of the labour movement and a determined political fight for socialist ideas and the democratic values embodied in the labour movement can forestall an Italian-style evolution.

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