By MICHAEL CHANT
(December 15) – Despite French Prime Minister Eduard Philippe’s declaration of a moratorium on the increase in energy taxes, “Act IV” of the mass demonstrations of the “Gilets Jaunes”, or Yellow Vests, went ahead on the December 8-9 weekend. In fact, even more demonstrators took to the streets in the face of the simultaneous unleashing of a militarised police force whose role was to quell and intimidate the people’s forces with brutality and terror. It is clear that the Yellow Vests were having none of it and the protests spread throughout France and into other countries as well.
With thousands of mobilisations across France, with the focus on Paris, the monopoly-owned media have found it difficult to calculate the numbers, and even to report on the mobilisations in a coherent fashion. Nevertheless, it is estimated that over half a million people took part in wearing the yellow vests, the hi-vis jackets that all French drivers are obliged to keep in their cars for safety reasons. The wave of country-wide protests began on November 17, hence “Act IV” for the fourth weekend of protests in a row. “Act V” is still on for December 15.
At the heart of this movement are rank-and-file workers and in large part unorganised and low-skilled workers. Many strands of discontent have coalesced into the protests. Students and workers have swelled the ranks of the rural poor and the unemployed, who have continued to block roads around France. While Eduard Philippe was forced to scrap the planned fuel tax rise, saying, “No tax deserves to put civil peace in danger,” this has by no means reined in the actions which highlight the demand for social and economic justice and an end to austerity. Particular emphasis has been put on demands for tax justice, with lower taxes for the poor and against tax cuts for the rich, and for wide social benefits to relieve the burden on the vulnerable and poor.
Attempts by monopoly-owned media to say the workers are against a healthy environment or against immigrants have failed to sideline the protests and marginalise their thrust against the neo-liberal anti-social offensive. Students’ demands also put forward the need to end to rising administrative fees and new university admissions procedures.
It was reported that in Paris, hospital workers fighting for jobs also joined the Yellow Vests, while ongoing strikes in steel and in oil depots have added to the rising tide of discontent and protests.
The actions of the government and the stands of President Macron have given the lie to the claim that Macron represents the “moderate centre”. This has become exposed as a bankrupt reference point favoured by neo-liberalism to justify dividing the polity into “left” and “right”, both of which are portrayed as extremes, while claiming to occupy the “centre ground”, which is supposedly where all good moderates should position themselves and succumb to the strictures of austerity.
“The range of slogans in the protests against November’s petrol price increases – ‘Stop the taxes!’, ‘Macron’s a pickpocket!’, ‘Working is becoming a luxury’, ‘Right and left=taxes’, ‘Stop the racket, the revolt of a powerful people may end in revolution’ – suggests both the possible emergence of a political movement and the anger directed at taxation, the very foundation of the social state,” Le Monde diplomatique wrote.
The actions of the Yellow Vests to say that Enough Is Enough! have shown that this outlook will not wash. President Macron is a proponent of making France competitive in the global market and he defines a centrist as being pro-business. Although he is the focus and main target of the Gilets Jaunes, he has been keeping in the background hoping that he can get away with not accounting for the bankruptcy of this self-serving outlook.
Just as in Britain the sentiment for Brexit among working people represented their opposition to the anti-social offensive which sought to make them shoulder the burden of the chaos and crisis while the oligarchs and the financial elites enriched themselves at their expense, so in France the discontent is finding an outlet in the demonstrations and demands of all the different currents that are converging in the Yellow Vests. President Macron and his En Marche coalition and government are incapable of finding a way out of the chaos and crisis. They have been ruling by exception to give the police powers in France free rein to keep the people in check but this has not been able to stem the tide of protest against the anti-social offensive. The use of unfettered police powers along with agents provocateurs and the media to justify the criminalisation of the protestors has thus far only fuelled the revolt. The French working people are definitely on the move. The numbers of people who are vulnerable and living in poverty, particularly children, single parents and the national minority communities, as well as the ordinary workers who dwell outside the big cities and in rural areas, have continued to rise.
One of the exacerbating factors has been the so-called anti-poverty plan Macron launched in September. Social programmes have also been under attack, and unemployment and job insecurity have become a scourge. Macron’s claim that “I don’t want a plan that leaves the poor living in poverty, only more comfortably,” has been exposed as a fraud, and he himself is seen for what he is, a president of the rich, while the political system is seen as clearly representing the police powers of the state to put the people down. According to news reports citing police sources, the number of people arrested since the mass protests began in November has surpassed 4,500, of whom some 4,100 still remain in police custody. In Act IV, on December 8 alone, close to 2,000 people were arrested, and all but around 300 taken into custody, many before the protests actually began. According to the government, these were part of “preventive control” measures.
The Gilets Jaunes are also rejecting the claim that the fuel tax hikes were to benefit the environment or for “green” projects when they are part of the project to pay the rich.
The crisis in France is also an indication of the deepening crisis in which the European Union itself is caught. What is happening in France puts the lie to the claim that the EU is the defender of rights and prosperity. People see the actions of the police forces in France as part of the militarisation of life, which goes hand in hand with the militarisation of the economy and the push to form a European Army, whether under the control of NATO or the EU. The French state expenditure on the military is reported to stand at over £40 billion per year, funds which people see could be spent on social programmes.
The mobilisation of the working people of France is objectively against the old order and demands something different which does not make the working people the targets of attack. The working people and their allies are demanding that their rights be recognised and that the government must change course or be jettisoned. They reject the call to be “moderate” and take the centre ground as a big diversion to justify their criminalisation. As 2018 comes to an end, the French people have joined the world-wide movement for empowerment. Despite attempts to say it is extremist, nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-environment, violent and many other things, by persisting in their struggle, the people put the lie to all these claims. They are most definitely taking a firm stand in defence of the rights of all!
Workers’ Weekly, Number 24, December 15, 2018