The movement has put poverty among workers at the centre of public debate and remains defiant amidst the slapdash handouts of an ailing neoliberal President, reports John Mullen
The 15th December was Act Five for the popular Yellow Vest revolt against poverty in France, but it was not the finale. The movement remains vibrant and determined, especially in the big Southern towns like Toulouse and Bordeaux, and its effects are considerable, with pre-Christmas commerce heavily hit, privatised motorway companies losing tens of millions of euros, and images of burning cars and smashed bank windows on the Champs Elysées tarnishing Macron’s image as 21st century European capitalism’s blue-eyed boy.
Christmas trees have been put up on a number of Yellow Vest-held roundabouts and motorway toll booths, symbolising the fact that they are definitely not giving up. At some roadblocks the movement collects for food banks; at others they set up mock guillotines. One of Macron’s MPs turned up for work the other day to find her offices had been repainted in bright yellow.
New initiatives are to be noted every day. A picket of Monsanto offices, another at the home of the chair of the main boss’s organization, the MEDEF, and a blockade of the major wholesale food market at Rungis outside Paris are just three examples. When Yellow Vests blockaded the tax office at Figeac, some of the workers came out on strike in support of them. There is a plan to blockade the frontier between France and Spain this weekend.
In several places (like Toulouse or Clermont-Ferrand) large general meetings are for the first time being set up to debate demands. People speaking on behalf of parties or unions are often not welcome, but commentators who had believed exaggerations about the influence of the far right were surprised to see that in Toulouse there were no racist demands even being debated, whereas in Clermont the one anti-migrant demand was shouted down. Of the thirty or so different slogans I personally saw on vests and placards in Paris on Saturday 15th, exactly zero mentioned immigration.
Police interventions against roadblocks are on the increase, dozens every day now, but Yellow Vests cleared out sometimes come back the following day, some town mayors support them, and anger remains very high (several motorway toll booths have been burned down this week). There are still a couple of hundred roadblocks active.
After Act Four and the high school students’ and students’ mobilisation, Macron went on national television on 10th December. He pretended to apologise for his attitude, and made a further series of concessions (after having cancelled the fuel tax rises the previous week). The concessions are small but tremendously important, since they have broken his image as the Thatcherite Iron Kid. He is desperately hoping that these minor retreats, and the Christmas break, will be enough to bury the movement.
The first concession was more money for workers on the minimum wage. Obviously, this money is useful, but the mechanics of the proposal are rotten through and through. Instead of raising the minimum wage, which acts as a benchmark for many other wages, Macron decided an increase in a top-up benefit paid to low-income workers by the government. This means it costs nothing to the employers (and the suggestion was that public service cuts would pay for it).
The exact amount of the increase, around 100 euros, was understood as including planned increases already in the pipeline. However, the following day (when it had become clear that the Yellow Vests were unimpressed) a new statement said that it would be on top of what was already planned, a small additional gain of about twenty euros. The government also scrambled to make sure the increase would apply in just a few weeks’ time, after leaked information suggested it would take six months.
The second concession was the cancellation of a new tax imposed on pensioners recently, for those whose household’s monthly income is under 2000 euros.
Thirdly came the reintroduction of a scheme which originated under Sarkozy: overtime hours will no longer be subject to income tax. This could put money in the pockets of up to a third of French workers, but large numbers of people are in jobs where overtime is not available anyway, and above all, the unemployment situation requires a policy where there is less, not more, overtime being worked, so as to create jobs. Scrapping income tax on overtime is an attempt to buy off those who are willing to wear themselves out on an individual way out of low wages.
Fourthly, Macron announced the government would be encouraging employers “who were able to” to pay an end of year bonus to employees. This bonus will be tax free if it is under a thousand euros. Invited to cocktails at the Elysée Palace, a number of large employers including Total, Orange and Publicis said they would pay such a bonus. According to a left news magazine, their mission was “Saving Private Macron.”
In Macron’s televised speech, some ominous dog whistling was to be noted. He declared that a “national debate” was needed on a whole series of issues, including “the deep identity” of the French, immigration and threats to secularism. Macron had been known as someone who used considerably less islamophobia and racism than other right-wing leaders. He had said last July for example “the Republic has no reason to have any difficulties with Islam” and he sharply criticised extreme secularism. But it seems the possibility of diverting attention to scapegoats was just too tempting this time. The “national debate”, announced a few days later, omitted the question of immigration, but these mentions may be dark signs for the future.
Macron is very scared, there is no doubt about it. He and his friends are frantically leafing through their copies of Neoliberal Government for Dummies, looking for ideas. Suddenly the railway and the Paris metro nationalised companies, and the Post office, declared their intention to pay a Christmas bonus of a couple of hundred euros to all their 300,000 employees. One of Macron’s ministers just announced the government will be levying a new tax on the internet giants Google Facebook Amazon etc., who have been denounced by Yellow Vests for avoiding tax. And 400 million euros of money for hospitals which had been bureaucratically blocked for five years suddenly became available, as the health minister announced last week.
When, on the 11th December, there was the tragic shooting incident in Strasbourg, the right jumped on the opportunity to try to close down the movement. 24-hour news channels and concerned ministers insisted that "reasonable yellow vests" were calling to stop demonstrating, that the heroic police were exhausted and needed to concentrate on terrorism. There was also a continuing attempt to discredit the radical left by bundling them in with the fascists. "Mélenchon and Le Pen are calling for more violent demonstrations" was last week’s theme song. Current affairs shows on all channels invited the best dressed and wittiest Nazis in the country to speak of their feelings about the movement. Viewers are supposed to conclude that Macron is the only alternative to fascism.
Meanwhile, police violence increased in intensity. Several protestors have lost an eye from being fired at with rubber bullets. Amnesty International has denounced police violence as excessive, counting over 1,500 injured, 47 of them gravely so.
The union leaders
One of the advantages of a movement which does not have a recognised leadership is that leaders cannot close the movement down in return for minor but complicated concessions. The role of the union heads in recent weeks has generally been dreadful, whereas overwhelming public support for the movement had made a call for a general strike perfectly plausible.
First, on the 6th December a joint declaration by all the union confederations except one declared they were keen to negotiate with the government. The statement did not even denounce police violence, much less call for building the Yellow Vest movement.
Then, under pressure from below, the biggest left federation, the CGT, called for strike action on Friday 14th. But the call was half-hearted and routine, and hardly mentioned the Yellow Vest movement. This helped to ensure the Friday strikes were relatively weak. In addition, many workers, demoralised having seen the massive strikes of last Spring fail in their objectives, are hoping that the Yellow Vests will sort out the problem without mass strikes being necessary, and so are only showing passive support. Nevertheless, a series of sectorial strikes have been sparked off this week (in commerce, for example), some demanding a Christmas bonus like the one agreed by the big companies mentioned above.
The school student and student mobilisation was strong but has not yet managed to grow and affect a majority of institutions. It is after the holidays that we will see how much energy there is available in this movement. Meanwhile, an additional cause of destabilisation for the government is an incipient movement in the police force, demanding more resources and the settling of a problem of unpaid overtime. On Wednesday the 19th police on passport control held a go-slow, and some police stations were closed. This led to a wage rise of 150 euros for the police within twelve hours!
In parliament Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the France Insoumise, demanded a minute of silence for those Yellow Vests who have died in the movement (the latest was run down by a lorry forcing a road block). The government refused to take part in this mark of respect. The France Insoumise MPs have been very impressive defending the movement, on the TV, and on the ground. Nevertheless, the reformist FI conception of the division of labour between trade unions and political parties mean that Mélenchon will not call for a general strike. The far less influential New Anticapitalist Party does call for one, but remains marginal, though their activists work along FI activists in many Yellow Vest groups.
This week, one particular demand of the Yellow Vests has hit the headlines. This is for a constitutional change allowing referendums to be called by a sufficient number of citizens petitioning for one. Such referendums might decide to abrogate a law or sack a Member of Parliament, for example.
Constitutional reform has often been important to the French Left and this proposal already figured in the Programme of the France Insoumise in last year’s elections. It is an extremely popular demand which reflects distrust in present democratic structures, but it is one question among a number of others. A big rise in the minimum wage, the reestablishment of the recently abolished wealth tax or Macron’s resignation are all at least as popular.
There appears to be an attempt in the mainstream media to put the referendum proposal at the centre of the debate. This is not good for the Left, since it is the kind of question which can easily be buried in a promise to set up a commission to investigate the many kinds of referendum which might improve democracy. “Bring the wealth tax back now”, and “More money on wages and pensions” are better demands to prioritise, since they are harder to wriggle out of.
One of the reasons the referendum demand is popular among Yellow Vests is it appears to be “neither left wing nor right wing” and so can allow people to avoid the more difficult political questions. It is far from clear that this demand will remain central, though Macron’s ministers are making noises that they would be open to discussion about it. Other proposals abound. Some have suggested setting up a Yellow Vest slate to stand in the European elections next May.
The future for Macron
News magazines are headlining “Is Macron finished?” His popularity ratings are around 23% of positive opinions, as against 50% at the beginning of 2018, despite his comfortable majority in parliament. Worried right-wing commentators are saying that his position is so weak he may not be able to push through the vicious attack on retirement pensions he was planning. Meanwhile his jerry-built party is multiplying blunders. Its leader explained this week that the problem was that the party had been too subtle and too intelligent!
The ruling class has been making extreme efforts to support Macron, since previous neoliberal maniacs Sarkozy (from the Right) and Hollande (from the Left) didn’t weaken workers’ positions half as much as the capitalists wanted, and Macron, they often felt, was their last available card. But, though a number of huge gifts for the rich are going through parliament right now, Macron’s popularity has fallen below 30% even among business owners.
No one can say how far the Yellow Vest movement will go in the coming weeks, but we could be in for many more surprises yet. Poverty among workers is now at the centre of public debate. And tens of thousands of previously unmobilised working-class people have discovered radical collective action; this is a step forward which will bear fruit.
John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
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