This is the first instalment of two articles taking up the “Yellow Vests” movement in France and similar movements around the world and situating these in a general characterisation of the world conjuncture. The second article will be published on the first day of the new year.
The gilets jaunes movement in France has already achieved a great feat. It has won its immediate demand concerning the carbon tax, thus bringing down the price of gasoline and diesel. It has also imposed on Macron and his government economic concessions no one would believe possible only a month ago. In the process, it has entirely capsized the economic ship of the Macron team: one major objective of Macron was to finally bring down France’s budget deficit below the Maastricht 3 per cent, whereas it hovered above that mark for ten years under the two previous presidents of the republic, Sarkozy and Hollande. The radical liberal Macron was planning to savour the glory of this “victory”. The gilets jaunes changed the entire balance: with an additional ten billion euro added to the deficit, due to lower revenues because of the elimination of the carbon tax and additional government spending for the extra measures that Macron had to concede to the people (in particular, the 100 euro raise to the minimum wage will be shouldered by the government), France will now remain above the 3 per cent mark once again! How ironic to see the European Commission fustigate the Salvini government (for that is what it is!) for a deficit below 3 per cent while it will probably have to look away when the liberal Macron exceeds the Maastricht criterion once again!
But even more important than these economic gains was the humiliation of Macron at the political and psychological levels. His presidential majesty is now a broken man. His hauteur has been shattered. He is no longer Jupiter or the roi Macron. The mass movement has driven him entirely off track to the point where the government simply did not know what it was doing. To cite only two examples: first, Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, initially announced that the carbon tax was suspended, only to be up-ended by Macron himself, whose office declared only the next day that it was annulled completely, leaving his prime minister out in the cold. Secondly, several days after this capitulation and Macron’s sunsequent announcement of various additional economic concessions, the government cancelled a subsidy that had been promised when the carbon tax was instituted, but now looked strange when the tax itself had been eliminated. However, in a few hours’ time the cancellation itself was cancelled! From the heights of his previous hubris, Macron has now descended to the depths of ridicule!
For one and a half years, Emmanuel Macron seemed finally to be the man to defeat the French labouring masses, after the failure of Juppé, Sarkozy and Hollande, among others, but now the French masses have made him bite the dust as well.
The petty bourgeoisie and the working class
There are many aspects of the movement of the gilets jaunes that require profound analysis and a cautious approach. However, one dimension is simply non-negotiable. Many on the left kept a cool distance to the movement for at least several weeks, if not longer. This was a serious political error. There seem to be two major reasons why the left kept its distance. On the one hand, years of post-modernism and liberalism on the left have estranged many leftists from the working masses, who are considered to be racist, male chauvinist, and homophobic, not to say oblivious to environmental issues. This is an intolerable attitude toward the masses. Masses change only in and through struggle. Thus there is no reason why one would assume that these masses will stick to their ideological prejudices once they start fighting alongside blacks and women and gays. The attitude of condescension of “unpolished masses” is so reactionary that it may act as a directly counter-revolutionary factor if and when a proletarian revolution breaks out in the future.
On the other hand, the unions and some left-wing political parties resolutely remained aloof to the movement since they regarded it as the hunting ground of the so-called extreme right, i.e. of the Rassemblement National (RN, National Gathering) of Marine Le Pen and a host of other reactionary parties. It was certainly true that in the preparatory phases of the movement, both the RN and the other extreme right parties were active in organising the movement. However, nothing resembling a clear hegemony of these parties over the masses was the case. They were trying to penetrate the movement and become hegemonic. Again it is a well-worn fact that in the “abandoned” French countryside (“la France péripherique”), where the movement was stronger than large cities, the troops of Le Pen are quite well-established. Yet a majority of the gilets jaunes were apolitical and, more importantly, ordinary citizens joining a massive fight to protect their meagre economic means. This was, first and foremost, a class struggle of the poorer strata of the petty-bourgeoisie and the weaker layers of the working class against the “president of the rich”, against the representatives of the capitalist class.
To turn one’s back on a movement against the capitalist government simply because of its petty-bourgeois nature is to accept losing the struggle against reaction, against what we characterise as a proto-fascist movement in the case of Le Pen and her party and as fascist circles in the case of some other marginal groupings. For as Trotsky clearly explained during the rise of Nazism to power in Germany, the whole struggle between the fascist movement and the organised working class movement is essentially a struggle over the heart and soul of the petty-bourgeoisie. If the working class movement fails to provide the petty-bourgeoisie with a different kind of solution of its problems in these times of profound economic crisis, then in the face of threatening bankruptcy, these intermediate strata will turn to the fascist (or proto-fascist) movement in despair. So the gilets jaunes movement should also be seen as the battleground between the fascists and the proletarian movement over the petty-bourgeoisie. It is extremely counter-productive to remain aloof to this movement simply because it is petty-bourgeois in nature and vulnerable to the influence of the “extreme right”. On the contrary, this makes it imperative for the proletarian movement to try to take the lead and move the masses away from the reactionary forces.
This is all the more so as the masses involved were the lower and poorer strata of the petty-bourgeoisie (as well as of the working class). In fact, there was an internecine battle, a symbolic civil war of the petty-bourgeoisie every Saturday on and around the Champs Elysées in Paris. Those who regurgitate the line put forward by the ministers of Macron to the effect that the violence was the work of far right and far left elements alien to the central axis of the movement had better pay attention to the data provided by the public prosecutor’s office. Of the hundreds and thousands of people apprehended, a clear majority were in their 40s, provincials, inserted into economic life and parents. These were not your ordinary radicals mostly coming from the youth. They were the poor petty-bourgeois or working class people from the backwaters of the French provinces: the owner of small shops, the sales attendants of an optician’s, the workers of a small-town patisserie, single mothers who work as manicurists, assistants of local pharmacies etc. etc. They were pitted against the well-off layers of the petty-bourgeoisie, represented in this instance by the owners of the chic cafés-brasseries or even the owners of some of the franchised boutiques in the area. When Macron, freshly off the plane from Buenos Aires, visited the neighbourhood on 2 December, the day after the violence peaked, the café owners applauded him, only to be shouted down by the boos of the poorer strata on the streets.
It is once again a crime against the interests of the working masses that the union leadership, including those of the CGT and the FO, kept a clear distance to the movement and at times extended support to a beleaguered Macron. Every revolutionary movement in the future will have to settle its accounts with the union bureaucracy before it wins the war against the ruling classes. As for the political parties that initially refrained from siding with the gilets jaunes only to soften their stance later, it might be said that they acted not like the vanguard of the working class but like its rearguard.
Because France has been the country of revolution for more than two centuries, the French have the habit of comparing their newly-found mass movement to one of their old social crises. This time around there was no dearth in comparisons to the “events” of 1968 or the French revolution of 1789 or even the jacqueries (peasant uprisings) going back centuries in time. Because the left was so suspicious of the movement initially, there were also comparisons made to the poujadiste movement, the decidedly reactionary petty-bourgeois tax revolt led by a small merchant of the early 1950s or even the February 1934 fascist-led street riots. Obviously, the comparisons made to reactionary historical events are totally misplaced. But, historical comparisons aside, how to characterise the true nature of the movement?
The first observation to be made is that this was a wholly spontaneous movement. The efforts made by the proto-fascist RN or other similar movements to recuperate the movement were incidental and mostly ineffective. The movement itself made constant reference to the French revolution, even the gruesome guillotine being used at times as a symbol. This must be put into context. La Marsellaise, constantly sung during the events, is the national anthem of France, albeit of a revolutionary origin. And the tricolore, French flag was seen quite often in the hands of the demonstrators and sometimes worn by them. One should not therefore exaggerate the self-perception of the movement in relation to revolution. The whole idea of the French people having been able to bring down the king had to do with the wish to oust Macron and not that of accomplishing a full-scale revolution.
However, this very fact shows that, although the movement was fired by the carbon tax, its demands immediately boiled over not only to other economic grievances, but also into the political sphere: “Macron démission!” or “Macron dégage!” (“Macron resignation” or “Macron out”) were probably the most-chanted slogans.
These two elements, the spontaneity and the immediate politicisation, show that the French people are nearing the edge of their nerves. Our use of a psychological term to characterise a political situation is not without reason. This is an imperialist, i.e. an advanced capitalist or “rich” country, one which is moreover proud of its welfare state (according to a recent OECD report, France has surpassed even Denmark this year in tax collection as a percentage of its GDP) and here is a movement that starts off over a single-issue struggle and immediately becomes political with references to revolution. To top it all, it is not the heavy battalions of the working class, but the lower strata of the petty-bourgeoisie and the unorganised layers of the proletariat that are in action. Let us be clear in what we mean: the world situation is such that the working masses and the poor in even the “rich” advanced world are prepared to go to battle. However, given the meagre forces of the revolutionary left, this usually does not assume a consciously anti-capitalist form. It expresses itself clearly in a psychological attitude of “enough is enough”, what the apt French expression clearly characterises as “ras le bol”.
Ee will take up this aspect of the question in a more general manner in the article that is planned as a sequel to this one. But before we finish, let us add that France is now the centre of political effervescence in the imperialist world. (For an early assessment, see the prescient article by our comrade Savas Michael-Matsas in the journal Revolutionary Marxism 2017, “The French Spring and the Crisis in Europe”, http://www.devrimcimarksizm.net/en/savas-michael-matsas-french-spring-and-crisis-europe.) It is no coincidence that the gilets jaunes movement erupted in France. France has been in ebullition since spring 2016, starting with the series of general strikes and marches against the Labour Law that the so-called “socialist” government of Hollande brought on the agenda. This organised proletarian movement, supported wholeheartedly by the student body, was accompanied by the “Nuits debout” (Nights awake) movement, which was very much in the spirit of the Gezi Park tent city occupation movement in Istanbul in 2013, bringing together mostly the intelligentsia and the youth engaged in an all-rounded critique of existing power structures.
This effervescence continued after the presidential and parliamentary elections in the spring of 2017, when Macron and his La République en Marche (“The Republic on the Move”) movement came to power. Macron started an all out assault on the working class and the labouring population and, despite the prevarications of the trade union bureaucracy, the working class struck back. There were new struggles waged against the further attack on workers’ gains in the labour law and the attempt to privatise the state railroad company (SNCF), coupled with an assault on the special pension regime of the workers of that company. (See the timely article on this web site of our French comrades of Renaissance Ouvrière Révolutionnaire (ROR): http://redmed.org/fr/article/acte-premier-de-la-nouvelle-lutte-de-la-classe-ouvriere-et-du-peuple, published in September 2017.) There were also university occupations attacked both by the fascists and the police. And now, in the shadow of the gilets jaunes movement, both university and high-school students have joined the fray for reasons of their own.
All in all, the gilets jaunes movement of late 2018 was but the continuation of a process that has been unfolding in France since spring 2016. Face to the callous and arrogant attacks on the working masses and the youth, the gilets jaunes movement imposed a severe defeat on Macron, shattering his whole agenda and making him going into reverse gear (“marche arrière”). However, it is also the sequel to larger movement on the march since spring 2016. More and more layers of society are joining the ranks of the discontented that are going into action. Whatever the fate of the gilets jaunes movement, watch out for France in the coming months and years!