The enigmatic gilets-jaunes
How should Marxists respond to the gilets jaunes? Mike Macnair looks at the likely winners and losers
How should Marxists respond to the gilets jaunes?Mike Macnair looks at the likely winners and losers
We have just seen the ninth weekend of gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in France. Numbers were slightly up compared to previous occasions, with the government claiming 84,000 took to the streets across the country and 8,000 in Paris, while 80,000 police were deployed France-wide.
The movement has been widely celebrated by the left - for example, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain;1 and also by the right: for example, the hard-right Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini. This poses two political questions, both of which are the subjects of present debate.
The first is whether the movement is on the road to victory - or whether it is, rather, dragging on into a slow decline, like the British anti-war movement after the actual invasion of Iraq. Spiked (January 11), interviewing Christophe Guilluy, claims in its headline that ‘The gilets jaunes are unstoppable’.2 On the other hand, Léon Crémieux in International Viewpoint (January 12) is a good deal more sceptical about their prospects, though he hopes that the movement can be kept alive, since
If it were to end at the beginning of this year, not only would it be more difficult for other mobilisations … to develop in different sectors, but the only outlet for politics would once again become the electoral system - either in negative terms through abstention or through a match between the France Insoumise and the FN [the far-right Front National, now rebranded as Rassemblement National], from which the latter would benefit.3
The second question is what sort of movement is this - of the right or the left? A ‘1968’, as some leftwing writers think, or a ‘Tea Party’? A distinct, but related, question is: is the political outcome of the movement likely to be a move to the left, or a further movement towards right-populist nationalism? The two issues are connected: a defeated mass movement of the left may perfectly well lead, through demoralisation, to a sharp shift to the right.
Victory or defeat?
The issue of the success or failure of the movement is not at all easy to address from outside France. What follows is therefore pretty tentative. But it has to be said that it will only be true that “The gilets jaunes are unstoppable” if they are to be understood as a right-populist mobilisation, and their victory will take the form (even if delayed) of a Rassemblement National government and“Frexit” - to set alongside Brexit, the right-populist government in Italy, the Orbán administration in Hungary, Polish Law and Justice, and so on. It is understandable that the Brexiteers of Spiked, who have, like Orbán, passed from the left, though liberalism, to the populist right, should be gung-ho for this view. But, so far as the gilets jaunes are to be understood as a revolt against neoliberalism as such from the left (and this is certainly an element of the movement), they are probably headed for a lingering defeat.
The narrative background is as follows. The trigger for the protests was the rise in fuel prices, thanks to increased taxation. These were sold as ‘green taxes’, but they came in a context in which the government of president Emmanuel Macron has reduced taxes for the rich; while (like many other places in Europe) public transport and other services are being cut, while urban property with access to public transport has been escalating in price.
The movement started with an online petition attracting 300,000 signatures by mid-October, and the first direct action followed on the weekend of November 17, also involving 300,000 or more in blocking roads and some fuel depots. Since then there have been weekly events, involving relatively small, but sharply militant and destructive, protests in Paris, and much wider but often less spectacular protests across France. Numbers, as indicated above, fell after the first weekend, but have risen again in the new year.
Blocking roads is not a particularly innovative form of protest for France. Farmers have done it repeatedly over one or another grievance. Fishermen and strikers have at different times blockaded Calais. Nor is it terribly unusual for protests in France to ‘turn violent’; the tradition goes back well before May 1968, though the événements may have rejuvenated it. Communication and organising protests via social media is flagged by some fans as a novelty, but in fact it only works if the state is caught short by an initial rapid development (otherwise counter-measures to shut down such communication or spread confusion can be effective).
What was distinctive about the gilets jaunes was the image of the high-visibility vest itself. Required to be carried by all drivers in France as part of breakdown kit, it was flagged for protests not just by farmers, etc, but for all drivers (and hence for much of the suburban and rural population). Associated with this is the very high level of public support for the protests (up to 84% in polls in late November). Another feature has been the persistence of the actions, which may be the result of the choice to go for weekends only.
Macron’s response has been pretty classic carrot-and-stick, combined with ‘kick the can down the road’. First, the carrot: the fuel tax increases were put on hold in early December. At the same time electricity prices were frozen until March 2019. Then the president made windy declarations promising various concessions, which turn out to be paid for by some other levy on the working population, but not by the restoration of the wealth tax he abolished on taking office, or any of the other, less transparent, tax cuts for the rich he has introduced.
Next, ‘kick the can down the road’. Macron in his December 10 speech announced that there would be a ‘great national debate’, in which many things, including additional immigration controls, are up for discussion - but not the basic neoliberal framework or restoration of the wealth tax. People have been invited to submit cahiers de doléances (lists of complaints) - a recollection of the revolution of 1789.
The ‘grand debate’ was launched on January 15 - not without a hiccup, as it turned out that the former minister employed to organise it was to be paid €176,000, and she was forced to resign. But this fairly minor embarrassment will not affect the value of the tactic, which is a routine one for governments (and corporate lobbyists). Decisions are often made and implemented too quickly for opposition to develop. But, once opposition to government policy does develop, and it is forced to concede further discussion, the issue is to be the subject of prolonged debate (and as many red herrings as possible introduced) in the hope that opponents’ willpower and resources will be exhausted by a prolonged struggle.
Here, the tactic has the great merit of distracting this programmeless single-issue campaign from the core of its concerns: the shifting of taxation from the rich onto the relatively poor, and the dishonesty of the Macron election campaign, for the benefit only of the man’s mates in finance. The doléances will naturally go all over the shop.
Finally, the stick. In early December the government authorised substantial pay increases for the police. At the same time there have been significant increases in police violence against gilets jaunes protestors; a crackdown in arrests; and kite-flying for proposals to ‘register’ unauthorised demonstrators - a technique of repression already trialled on ‘football hooligans’. Government may be unable, as yet, to persuade the hard core to give up. But it can drive away the softer periphery - and solidify the loyalty of the state forces.
The intended result is indicated by a January 16 article, spun to suggest that it is already happening: “Gilets jaunes: is the backlash underway?” argues that public support for the protests is ebbing.4 We can remember such articles all too well in the later months of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85, or in relation to the later anti-war demonstrations. The authors of such articles want the movement to ebb, but that does not alter the fact that these tactics usually work. Just continuing with weekly protest after weekly protest does not usually lead to victory.
What is most likely is that the protests will peter out over the next weeks; there will be extensive demoralisation; and there will be a shift into some form of electoral politics. It is unlikely to be a shift towards leftwing political organisation.
A limited sociological study of some of the gilets jaunes protestors was carried out for Le Monde and translated forVerso Books in December.5 The messages that come from this study were that this was predominantly a working class or lower middle class movement. There were higher than national proportions of white-collar workers (relative to manual workers) and of the self-employed. This was not the organised working class: 64% thought that trade unions had no place in the movement; 81% thought this of political parties; 33% said they were “neither left nor right”. The predominant complaints, as well as the unfairness of the tax system, were of general inequality and the belief that the constitutional order needed “total reform”.
As the authors say, their findings do not point to a movement of the far right or one primarily animated by immigration. But what they do point to is a classic movement of the traditional small business and peasant petty bourgeoisie (which is a substantially larger class in France than it is in this country) and the unorganised working class - with the usual illusions of such movements, that anti-partyism and radical reform of the constitution without serious economic change can overcome the problems. The method of the protests - a scaled-up version of peasants’ road-blocking and so on - points towards the same political assessment.
This is not to condemn the movement as such. In the first place, the working class needs to win at least a section of the petty bourgeoisie over to its side if it is to defeat capital and project a socialist alternative.
Secondly, the demand for progressive taxation is one of the historical programmatic planks of the workers’ movement, going all the way back to the Communist manifesto. In this respect, that part of the left which has succumbed to the temptations of ‘green taxes’ should see what this leads to - neoliberal variants. The socialist approach is not one of carbon taxes, but of direct planning to control carbon emissions - including, among other things, the defence and restoration of public transport.
Thirdly, the idea that France needs radical constitutional reform - as some of the sociologists’ respondents said, a “Sixth Republic” to replace the Bonapartist-presidentialist Fifth Republic created by de Gaulle’s 1958 coup - is right.
The problem is that Macron’s ‘great debate’ will not lead to such a constitutional revolution. Nor will cahiers de doléances produce a coherent constitutional and economic alternative. Nor is the currently favoured single-issue reform - the introduction of the Swiss- or Californian-style right of “citizens’ initiative” to trigger referendums any sort of solution. French activists should look across the channel and see what our three recent referendums have got us. Indeed, they should just look at Switzerland or California …
What is needed to construct a platform which can pose an alternative to the corporate lobbyists’ constitution is a party, with its own publications, independent of the advertising-funded media and based on a political programme.
The lack of a party and, indeed, the anti-partyism of the gilets jaunes protests will necessarily imply that, like the similarly anti-partyist ‘social forums’ of the early 2000s and the Occupy movement of 2011-12, the protests will run into the sand. They cannot pose a political alternative to the Fifth Republic.
What party politics is on offer, when the protest movement does run into the sand? Politico’s most recent poll for the forthcoming European parliamentary elections shows the Rassemblement National (RN) on 22%, Macron’s En Marche on 19%, Mélenchon’s ambiguous leftwing France Insoumise on 10%, Les Républicains on 9%, Debout la France (‘France First’) and the Greens on 7%, and the Parti Socialiste on 6%.6 Other polls put the Parti Communiste on 2% and the Mandelite Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) on 2.5% - neither is likely to get representatives elected.7
The NPA is an ‘If it moves, salute it’ group, and hence cannot give political leadership in the form of offering an alternative programme and constitutional conceptions. As for the PCF, it has been for a long time accommodating to French nationalism, and more recently, France Insoumise has done so too.
The problem with this approach is: ‘Why vote for the left-nationalist monkey, when you can vote for the Le Pen organ-grinder?’ The result is likely to be that mass dissatisfaction with the Fifth Republic among petty bourgeois and unorganised workers, after the failure of the protest campaign, issues in mass votes for the RN.
The French left needs to address the party question. Celebrating and tail-ending the gilets jaunes is neither a substitute for solving this problem nor a route to do so l
1. See, for example, ‘Yellow Vests pack a punch in France’ Socialist Worker January 8.
4. The Local January 16: www.thelocal.fr/20190116/gilets-jaunes-is-the-backlash-under-way.