Gilets jaunes flood the historic Champs-Élysées in Paris in scenes reminiscent of the May 1968 general strike, photo Kris Aus67/CC

Gilets jaunes flood the historic Champs-Élysées in Paris in scenes reminiscent of the May 1968 general strike, photo Kris Aus67/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Clare Doyle, International secretariat, CWI

After three weeks of increasingly angry mass protests, president Emmanuel Macron of France has suspended the massively contested tax on diesel.

Whether this will defuse the mass movement calling for his government to resign remains to be seen.

On Monday 3 December, when the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, met opposition party leaders, the movement was still broadening to include new layers of the population hit hard by the policies of this ‘government of the rich’.

100 schools were blockaded by students protesting against Macron’s education ‘reforms’. Paramedics blocked the approaches to the National Assembly in protest against changes in their working conditions with at least 100 ambulances. Facebook has shown firefighters protesting outside municipal headquarters.

The “citizens’ protest movement”, as it has been called in the press, far from subsiding after last Saturday’s (1 December) dramatic demonstrations had expanded.

There were more and more anti-government demonstrations at barricades on roads, at fuel depots and elsewhere across France.

Even now, this movement is not yet over! The leadership of the main trade union federation – the CGT – has announced a national day of action on 14 December.

It would have been better sooner, to build on the momentum of the movement and the retreat of the government.

But it still may be taken up enthusiastically by workers and young people who remain angry at the government and keen to push forward, taking advantage of the government being on the back foot.

Third weekend

On Saturday 1 December, the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protests against the Macron government escalated in Paris and across France.

It also spread beyond the country’s borders to Belgium and the Netherlands. Thousands converged on the Hague in an angry demonstration. In Brussels there were burning barricades and street fighting.

Paris saw tens of thousands of protesters face water cannon, police batons and tear gas. Barricades were built, paving stones were thrown at riot police, attacks were made on the shops of the super-rich and demonstrations broke out at the steps of the Paris stock exchange.

This eruption of anger was described by Sky News as the worst rioting in France in five decades and by the BBC, the worst since before the current president was born!

Since it erupted three weeks ago, the wave of protests against the tax on diesel fuel had become a massive anti-government force.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back coming after a spate of cuts in social spending – including on pensions and a big increase in unemployment (with ten million unemployed or under-employed). This was at the same time as the bosses were given massive new tax breaks.

On 1 December alone, as well as the events in the capital, there were demonstrations and blockades at nearly 600 different places around the country, some also involving clashes with state forces.

There have now been protests at more than 2,000 different locations in France since the movement broke out.

Tragically, three people have died in road accidents as a result of the protests but a fourth person – an 80-year-old pensioner – died after being hit by a police tear gas canister.

More than 130 have been badly injured, hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested and over 300 held in custody.

There was talk in the media of a state of emergency being introduced to deal with the escalating security ‘threats’.

But the Macron government has already incorporated into law many of the provisions of the two year-long state emergency imposed by its predecessor, Manuel Valls. This includes the power to ban demonstrations.

Macron could have done little more to increase policing powers; the army and police are already stretched to breaking point.

Rather than cowing the demonstrators, the very declaration of a state of emergency would have inflamed the situation.

Gilets jaunes protest, photo Jean-Paul Corlin/CC, photo Jean-Paul Corlin/CC

Gilets jaunes protest, photo Jean-Paul Corlin/CC, photo Jean-Paul Corlin/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

How far could this movement have gone?

Many, young and old, were speaking of ‘a new ’68’ – a repetition of the revolutionary events that came very close to ousting the president of the time, General de Gaulle, and opening the way to socialism on a European and world scale. The slogan on one of the current protesters’ yellow jacket in Paris read: “I was here in 1968 and I am still here fighting!”

The origins of the struggle are very different from that of May 1968. Neither students nor organised workers were at the forefront in the beginning. But that was beginning to change.

Most of the people at the road blocks initially were from country areas, dependent on using their cars daily for work, for shopping and for leisure.

Many have been relatively comfortable in the past; now they say their living standards have been driven down to intolerably low levels.

The Macron government has been regarded as the ‘government of the rich’ almost from its inception. But this movement, the expression of accumulated anger, brings together many who have voted very different ways in recent elections – right, left and centre, or not at all.

Workers’ representatives

Last year in the presidential election, the leader of France Insoumise (FI – France Unbowed), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, came close to getting into the second round to face Emmanuel Macron, when he got more than seven million votes in the first round.

He has spoken of the current movement being part of the “citizens’ revolution” that he has long advocated and calls for the dissolution of the Assembly and new elections.

A similar call has been made by Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front).

The leader of the main party of French capitalism – Les Republicains – feels moved to call for a referendum on the government’s tax. The result is already plain from the depth of this anti-government upsurge.

For the first time since the movement began, and very late, the leadership of the CGT called on workers to demonstrate against austerity and unemployment at the same time as the third Saturday mobilisation of the gilets jaunes.

But the movement is very diverse. It has some ‘leaders’ who had talks with the prime minister, but they have ‘organised’ online and have no structure with which to pursue the struggle.

A part of the movement in some regions is rejecting ‘representatives’; some others are organising elections on the blockades themselves.

A workers’ party based on socialist policies would advocate the immediate setting up of a revolutionary constituent assembly on the basis of democratically elected representatives at every level. Assemblies in the workplaces are vital for developing the protests from below.

Macron, resign!

Eight out of ten French people said they support the present protests on which the slogan ‘Macron resign!’ has come to predominate.

In the last month the president’s ratings have dropped to an all-time low – worse than Francois Hollande at a similar stage of his presidency.

Macron has already ‘lost’ seven ministers since coming to power in 2017, either embroiled in some form of corruption, violence, or, at best, disillusionment.

At least half the members of his party – the LREM – have stopped going to meetings and the party itself is said to be splintering. There is a crisis opening at the top of society.

It was always possible that the government could move to postpone the diesel tax rises – a reform to prevent a further mass uprising. But its moratorium does not seem to be calming things down.

The discontent of many has come to the surface and can find expression in new strikes and mass protests, including a renewal of the general strike movement of two years ago against changes in the labour law under Hollande.

Members of Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI in France) report that strikes continue to break out on a local or sectoral basis

The movement

The idea of blockading the motorways as a form of protest is not new. But initially many left forces did not want to support this particular movement as it had elements of Poujadism – a movement of small businesses – rather than a working-class character.

It is true that the far-right Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, which has overtaken Macron’s LREM in voting intentions for the European elections, lent its support early on in the protests.

But more and more people who voted for Mélenchon and the FI and other lefts have been on the streets, along with disappointed one-time Macron supporters and workers and young people who have not voted at all in recent elections.

It has been a lack of struggles led by the unions that has seen the gilets jaunes movement articulating the pent-up frustrations of all layers in society.

The situation that has opened up raises urgently the need for a left party to adopt a programme that channels the dissatisfactions of every layer of society behind socialist demands – the impoverished middle class, the workers whose jobs and wages are threatened and the young people who now leave school with no guarantee of higher education or jobs.

A Gauche Révolutionnaire representative reported on the special features in the present movement. There are not only blockades on roads and roundabouts, but pickets at the toll booths are very popular with motorists who are waved through without paying! As much as half of the participants are women – the ones, who more often than not, have the responsibility of balancing the household budget.

In their leaflets on all the demonstrations that they can reach, Gauche Révolutionnaire argues for a day of action to be called on which the whole economy is brought to a standstill through strikes and blockades.

“It is through a struggle of all workers together – a strike in every sector of the economy – that Macron can be defeated…

Gauche Révolutionnaire fights for a truly democratic, fraternal and cooperative society – for socialism. Join us!”