Share the wealth, not the misery
Paul Cudenec argues that, despite scepticism on the left, France’s Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement has moved on from demands about petrol prices to a broader anti-capitalist struggle.
SOMETHING extraordinary has been happening in France. Since November 2018, a vast movement of dissent has broken out across the country with huge energy and seemingly unlimited staying power. It has staged weekend after weekend of revolt against President Emmanuel Macron’s regime.
From abroad, people will mainly have seen images of thousands of Yellow Vests, or Gilets Jaunes, flooding the streets of Paris, battling with riot cops amidst a fog of tear gas and fusillades of rubber bullets. These dramatic scenes mask the fact that the Gilets Jaunes are not a product of the French capital but of another, deeper, poorer France that has little in common with the ostentatious wealth targeted by angry protesters on the Champs Elysees.
The movement began in the countryside, in small towns and villages, where people mobilised through social media to occupy roundabouts and block roads in protest, initially, at the rise in petrol prices. If its emphasis very quickly broadened into a general call for social justice, that is because this was always the underlying cause. The petrol was just a trigger.
Reasons for rebellion
Ask any protester why they are there and you will get more or less the same reply.
It’s all about ‘sharing wealth better’, one Gilet Jaune, Benoit, tells me. ‘Equality and opposition to a world of inequality,’ says Audrey, on the same roundabout. ‘We are in a vertical world and it would be good to make it a horizontal and proportional one,’ declares Thierry.
It was a stroke of genius to use as the symbol of revolt the hi-vis waistcoat that has to be carried, by law, in every vehicle on the road. Immediately it created the impression of a brand-new movement, with no history or fixed political dogma, to which anyone could belong.
It is, however, debatable whether this is in fact the case. Many on the left regard the Gilets Jaunes as merely the latest guise of a social struggle that has been going on for decades, if not longer. In many ways the Yellow Vests have merely seized the battle-soiled political banner last wielded in the intense struggle against the Loi Travail labour reforms under President Francois Hollande in 2016 and by the Nuit Debout movement, which filled France’s city squares at the same time.
But in some respects, the Yellow Vest movement is very different. It has managed to grab the imagination and support of sections of the French public who showed little interest in previous social struggles.
The rural small-town origins of the uprising are the key to understanding why. When Macron became president in 2017, it was on the ticket of ‘modernising’ the French economy and, thus, its way of life. But a lot of people in France don’t want to be modernised. They like their traditional communities, where people look out for each other rather than compete, where social protection exists for those in trouble, where the emphasis is on conviviality and enjoying life, rather than on working furiously just to stay alive and pay the bills.
A lot of the Gilets Jaunes represent what is called ‘la vieille France’, ‘old France’, the France that has its own values, its own ways of doing things. For Macron, this traditional old France is an obstacle to be swept aside in order to drag the country into the 21st century – as defined by neoliberals.
Back in August 2018, Macron told an audience in Denmark that the French people were ‘Gaulois refractaires au changement’ – Gauls who stubbornly hold out against change. This little poke did not go down well at home and the Gilets Jaunes have since reclaimed the label as a positive one, imagining themselves as the Gauls of the popular Asterix comic books, holding out against cohorts of Roman soldiers. Like their cartoon ancestors, the Yellow Vests don’t want to be ruled by Rome or Brussels. And they don’t want to end up like les anglais, with Macron widely depicted as the French version of Margaret Thatcher.
Social not national
However, their fight for social justice and rejection of neoliberal capitalism has, somehow, become partly and often uneasily aligned with a very different political tradition – that of the nationalist far-right. The waving of the French flag and the singing of the Marseillaise has been awkward for many on the left. When the Gilets Jaunes first appeared, many veteran activists didn’t know how to react and waited on the sidelines for a week or two. Some purists were never convinced, but the majority of anti-capitalists quickly realised that the thrust of the movement was social rather than national and decided to join their ranks.
I chatted about this issue with Jean-Marc, a 30-something libertarian Marxist who has been taking part in Gilets Jaunes protests in Paris and in the south of France since the early days of the uprising. ‘Right from the start, it was all about social justice,’ he insists. ‘The problem was the lack of political culture. They weren’t using “good” political language, so people on the left thought they must be “bad”. But it was soon obvious this wasn’t the case.’
Jean-Marc has little time for comrades who shun the Gilets Jaunes struggle because of the minority far-right presence. He says: ‘It’s as if in Egypt you’d said you couldn’t participate in the revolution because the Muslim Brotherhood were there. There are struggles that exist outside the usual political framework.’
He says that he was struck by a report of a known neo-Nazi arrested during a Yellow Vest protest in Paris for spraying graffiti. The message he wrote was simply calling for an increase in unemployment benefit. ‘It’s the struggle that’s important, not the people involved,’ he says. ‘Gilets Jaunes tend to be very wary when anyone starts talking party politics.’
As well as blocking roads and packing the streets, Yellow Vests in France have been busy building an alternative democratic structure around their movement. Local assemblies have been established all over the country and two ‘assemblies of the assemblies’ have been staged on a national level, featuring hundreds of delegates.
The declaration that emerged from the first of these, at Commercy, was then sent back down the structure to be endorsed locally. It gives a good idea of the principles behind the movement. It says: ‘We are revolting against the high cost of living, against precarity and misery. We want our loved ones, our families and our children to live in dignity.
‘Twenty-six billionaires own as much as half of the human species and that is unacceptable. Let’s share wealth and not misery! Let’s do away with social inequality! We demand immediate increases in pay, in the minimum wage, in benefits and in pensions; the unconditional right to healthcare and education; free public services for everyone.’
The declaration says that priority Yellow Vest issues include ‘real democracy, social and fiscal justice, environmental and climate justice, the ending of discrimination’.
For a movement which was superficially sparked by a demand for cheaper petrol, the environmental element of the yellow message is surprisingly strong. As early as December, Gilets Jaunes set out to block a Monsanto-Bayer site at Trebes in southern France under the banners of ‘GJs for ecology’ and ‘Monsanto = cancer’. Many other such protests have been held since. For the big 16 March protests in Paris, the Yellow Vests were hoping to join forces with climate change protesters. The chaos on the streets meant the planned convergence did not quite materialise, but this did not stop the head of Greenpeace France, Jean-Francois Julliard, from telling media his organisation shared many aims with the Gilets Jaunes.
He told Sky News: ‘We are gathering under the banner “environmental and social emergency”. So today we are creating the link, like maybe we have never done it before, between the climate movement and the social movements. Between the message carried by the yellow vests and the message carried by environmental organisations. Because we realised we have many things in common, many similar messages.’
Radicalising the revolt
Another attempted convergence is between the Gilets Jaunes and the trade union movement. But this has been problematic, as there is a lot of distrust of the unions. They were seen by many during the Loi Travail protests as putting the brakes on revolt, rather than encouraging it, and some feel it was their lack of radicalism that forced popular discontent to find another, yellow, means of expressing itself.
But if the trade unions themselves, rather than their members, have been kept at arm’s length by the Gilets Jaunes, the same is not true of the more radical anti-capitalist left. The Yellow Vest revolt is basically against capitalism, even if that is not the language in which it was originally expressed.
As this became apparent, so the make-up of the protesters changed. Opinion polls showed a drop in support for the Gilets Jaunes among wealthier parts of the population, which was matched by a corresponding rise in support from the working class.
The refrain ‘a-anti-anticapitalista!’ has become a familiar one in Gilets Jaunes protests, alongside protest classics such as ‘police partout, justice nulle part!’ – ‘police everywhere, justice nowhere!’ By the start of April, after 20 weeks of repression, propaganda and intransigence on the part of the government, the chant ‘Revolution!’ was also increasingly in evidence.
It was announced in April that the Gilets Jaunes will be playing a leading role in the anti-capitalist mobilisation against the G7 summit of leading industrial countries being hosted by France in Biarritz from 24-26 August. This follows their presence alongside local activists and railway workers in December to protest against a preliminary G7 meeting in the Basque city. The tear gas, rubber bullets and nasty injuries give a hint of what to expect when Macron and other world leaders turn up in town later this summer.
A glimpse of sunshine
And so what for the future? Social protest movements in France, as elsewhere, have the habit of disappearing pretty quickly once the initial energy has dropped. This may yet be the case with the Gilets Jaunes, but it seems less likely. For a start, there is the impact of the enormous levels of police violence, with literally thousands of protesters injured by grenades, rubber bullets and batons and several even losing eyes and arms.
This has installed a deep hatred of the ‘forces of order’ among the kind of people who, at the start of the movement, fondly imagined that the police might turn out to be on their side. The corporate media have, likewise, gone so far in their contempt for the Yellow Vests that they have completely alienated a large section of their audience. Months of violence and lies are not forgotten easily and the relationship between the French elite and the larger public will probably never be the same again.
These factors have also helped in ensuring that, in the course of half a year, the Gilets Jaunes have succeeded in creating not just a network but also a culture. They have their very own political colour, their own icons, their own songs and their own distinctive war cry of ‘ah-oo!’
A documentary film about the Yellow Vests, J’veux du soleil, has been attracting big and enthusiastic audiences in cinemas across France. Made by Gilles Peret and Francois Ruffin, a left-wing MP, it focuses on individual Gilets Jaunes encountered on roundabouts across France.
It is unashamedly positive about the spirit behind the movement and the effect it has had on the lives of isolated, anxious provincial people who are struggling to make ends meet. The Yellow Vest uprising has given many of these people new friends, a new family, a sense of purpose, fraternity, community, belonging. It has, as one young woman tells Ruffin in the film, brought a glimpse of sunshine into their otherwise grey existences.
Why would they want to give all that up and go back to watching helplessly on TV as President Macron tears French society apart?
Paul Cudenec is a writer based in southern France and a member of the writers’ cooperative Shoal Collective. His further reports on the Gilets Jaunes movement can be seen at winteroak.org.uk. The above article was first published in Red Pepper (Summer 2019, www.redpepper.org.uk).
*Third World Resurgence No. 339/340, 2019, pp 55-57