France: striking workers confront Macron as historic ‘gilets jaunes’ movement approaches ‘Act XIV’

Gilets jaunes on the move in Nice, photo Aeroceanaute/CC

Gilets jaunes on the move in Nice, photo Aeroceanaute/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

The ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) revolt in France, now in its fourth month, threatens the survival of President Emmanuel Macron, his government and his party.

It has inspired movements of discontented workers and young people far beyond its borders and has helped widen the fissures that already exist between the major European capitalist powers.

The ‘high vis’ movement is made up predominantly of people who felt they had become invisible – neglected, deserted, impoverished in today’s France. Protesters’ daily experiences are generally far from the pampered bourgeois lifestyle represented by Macron.

The movement encompasses views from across the political spectrum. It rapidly forced the ‘president of the rich’ and his dwindling band of cronies to reverse the plan for a tax increase on diesel fuel and pension ‘reform’.

When the tens of thousands at the roundabouts and toll booths refused to disperse, the government announced a programme of reforms costing €10 billion – although to be taken from other budget expenditure! And still the movement goes on, and in some ways intensifies.

On 5 February, hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets of Paris and other cities to back the demands of the movement against Macron, answering a call of the major trade union federation – the CGT – and others, to strike and demonstrate.

This marked a long overdue step forward. If it is followed up with further action, this workers’ involvement can play a decisive role in winning the demands of the gilets jaunes movement.

Cecile Rimboud of Gauche Révolutionnaire writes: “It is the trade unions’ role to launch an active and combative campaign in all workplaces and in the public services to fight now for wage increases, jobs and better conditions.

“Strikes are currently multiplying, and such a campaign could not only help link them all together – it would also encourage workers who are supportive of the gilets jaunes’ movement and demands to actually enter the struggle themselves and be confident that they could win. The movement could thus spread and involve much broader layers of the working class.”

European rivalries

On the same day as the ‘generalised’ strike movement, Luigi di Maio, deputy prime minister of Italy, visited gilets jaunes protesters at a roundabout near Paris. He told reporters that he fully supported the movement. “The wind of change has crossed the Alps”, he boasted, identifying the movement in France with the early days of his populist Five Star Movement.

Macron responded angrily, recalling France’s ambassador to Italy and describing relations between the ‘oldest allies in the continent’ and co-founders of the EU as the worst since 1945.

The French government is already impatient with Italy over continued delays to the €8.6 billion Lyon to Turin high speed rail track. But this latest ‘spat’ is blatantly linked to Di Maio’s campaign to win back his own party’s flagging support in Italy. It is also aimed at undermining the French president’s campaign for a more integrated capitalist Europe.

Di Maio repeated the accusation levelled by his rival and co-deputy prime minister – Giuseppe Salvini of the far-right ‘Lega’ party – that France’s continued exploitation of former colonies in Africa was behind the exodus of desperate asylum seekers to Europe.

Salvini has also called for the French people to “free themselves of a terrible president”, supporting his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. Neither leader has much time for the pro-EU Macron.

National tensions in Europe are running high – not least because of declining economies across the continent. Italy has fallen into recession and France is unable to bring its joblessness below 9% (or 21% for young people).

It is the failure of the major economies to make any real recovery in the decade since the crash of 2008 and the crippling austerity policies that have been pursued by Europe’s governments, which lie behind the rejection by voters of many older capitalist parties in favour of populist formations of both right and left.

Tensions have developed over the plight of thousands of immigrants fleeing nightmare situations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia within the ruling alliance in Italy and between Italy and France.

The Italian government last year turned away hundreds of immigrants, demanding that France take a share. Macron’s government tried to resist.

Already many immigrants have found their way to France. Without a government programme for house building, decent jobs and welfare for all, the far right of Marine Le Pen can gain ground.

Still, all the attempts by the Rassemblement National – the newly rebranded Front National – to shift the debate to so-called “immigration issues” in the gilets jaunes movement have so far failed. The gilets jaunes instinctively understand that their problems are caused by the rich and their servant Macron, not other poor people!

Nature of movement

The European elections in May are already looming and the protests in France are by no means quelled. President Macron and his team have been travelling the country to conduct the so-called “Great Debate”.

But it has fallen flat. Practically everything is on the table for discussion. But Macron stipulated in advance that one of the main demands of the mass protests was not up for discussion: the re-imposition of the wealth tax that he had removed.

And this is one of the main demands of the mass protests. Others include the building of 5 million houses and organising for France to leave the European Union (‘Frexit’).

“The Great Debate is just bla bla bla!” said placards on a gilets jaunes protest in Caen last weekend. At meeting after meeting complaints are heard about the lavish lifestyle of the president and his wife – who famously spends thousands of euros on shoes and had the Elysée Palace redecorated for half a million euros. “They should use paper plates when entertaining visiting heads of state instead of the €50,000 presidential dinner plates that have just been purchased!” shouted one pensioner in Cherbourg.

The glow that may have surrounded this self-styled Napoleon or Jupiter has definitely paled. His approval ratings, which fell below that of Francois Hollande at a similar stage of his last presidency, have recently crept back up to around 34%.

According to journalists, even this is due to a certain rallying of support among the better off layers in society. But his position is by no means secure.

Macron has managed to ‘lose’ a number of his ministers. He has seen the active membership of his party decline. In parliament last week, when a law to curtail the civil rights of demonstrators was presented, National Assembly members of his own party publicly dissented. An MP of the UDI centre party told parliament: “It’s as if we’re back under the (Nazi collaborationist) Vichy regime”.

There is an unofficial permanent state of emergency at present in France. The police force’s so-called defensive weapons – rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear-gas canisters – are responsible for the loss of no less than seventeen eyes and four hands so far in the present ‘uprising’, as many call it.

Political parties

The majority of people in France still support the gilets jaunes in spite of all this. 13% would vote for specific candidates of the movement.

Some polls in the run-up to the European elections have shown Le Pen’s party edging ahead of Macron’s. It is also ahead of prominent left-wing figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s organisation France Insoumise (France Unbowed). But, as Pauline Bock wrote in the Guardian newspaper on 29 January, among the gilets jaunes, “Le Pen-style anti-immigration rhetoric is not part of their anti-elite pitch”.

Now, at least three lists of candidates for the European and local elections next year have emerged from within the gilets jaunes movement.

One of them is known as the Citizens Initiative Rally. A front of pensioners’ trade union-associated organisations rails at Macron: “You have chosen to ignore the anger of all the victims of your policies. Policies which make inequalities rocket (explode), worsen tax injustice and deal a lasting blow to the economy of the country… Resign!!”

Some of the gilets jaunes activists have called for a referendum to get rid of the government. But, as John Lichfield wrote in the Observer newspaper on 2 February: “If the referendum asks marginal questions – like ‘Should there be fewer French MPs?” – it would seem like a betrayal of the promise of Macron’s ‘Great Debate’. If it asks explosive questions – ‘Should Macron resign?’ ‘Should he push ahead with his state-shrinking reform programme?’ the results could be catastrophic for him”.

But, without a clear call for a socialist alternative, the present movement could be losing an historic opportunity for the working class of France to set an example to the rest of Europe.

France Insoumise should not just be applauding the movement, but campaigning to become the voice of the gilets jaunes, developing a programme of clearly socialist demands on the issues they feel so strongly about – including the nationalisation of the banking system and the ecological planning of production, which are popular demands among the gilets jaunes.

The movement is still politically diverse and is generally extremely tolerant of different points of view. There have been initiatives aimed at bringing together representatives from different gilets jaunes collectives like that in Commercy a couple of weeks ago. Many views were aired. But generally lacking is a clear lead to link up with militants in the unions and in the workplaces and to take up clearly anti-capitalist demands.

There are workers at the roundabouts and on the Saturday demonstrations – approaching ‘Act XlV’ this weekend. They have begun to appear with union banners, and the momentum for strike action may yet develop. The demands are universal, the anger is there, but Macron is still in the saddle.

Even the Financial Times wrote on 26 January of a “broad, anti-Macron, anti-establishment uprising… A mass movement has developed which is opposed to everything he stands for”. The article went on to give the stark facts. “France’s richest 1% remain by far the biggest winners from Emmanuel Macron’s tax policies, even after the emergency measures passed (in December) to appease anti-government protesters… an average rise of 17.5% for the top 30,000”.

Macron is a supreme representative of the rich and privileged – he and his ‘magouilles’ (shenanigans) against the whole of the working class and middle layers in society. But he is on the ropes.

Socialists have a mighty task to encourage the linking up of all the forces ranged against him including within the factories, depots, offices and colleges across the country as well as at the blockades and roundabouts.

What to do?

Gauche Revolutionnaire (sister party of the Socialist Party – the CWI in france) proposes the sending of representatives elected by assemblies to region and countrywide gatherings at which a clear programme can be hammered out and representatives be democratically elected.

It is both a strength and a weakness of the movement that it does not have a clear, elected leadership. It is one of the reasons the movement is carrying on in the way that it is.

Egalité is the paper of Gauche Revolutionnaire. It takes up and develops the demands of the movement into a programme that exposes the inability of a government based on capitalism to satisfy the needs and demands of the majority – the working class and poor middle class who are at the centre of this struggle.

Egalité proposes demands like a €1,800 minimum wage, jobs and further education for all, prices controlled by democratically elected committees of consumers and workers, nationalisation of the banks and big companies under democratic workers’ control and management.

To enable these demands to be implemented and to ensure the planned development and use of resources to protect the future of the planet, capitalism has to be eliminated.

The more the struggles against austerity and exploitation develop, the more this must become the conclusion drawn by the mass of workers and youth in society – at the roundabouts, on the trade union demonstrations, in the schools and universities and in the neglected and impoverished ‘banlieus’, or people’s neighbourhoods.

The movement of the gilets jaunes is in some ways growing, but it is also radicalising. It has awoken, on the part of millions, a deep will to revolt, and even to make a revolution. It has even inspired billions of oppressed people around the world.

They know what they are against. They have begun to express what they are for. The task of galvanising a movement that can truly change the old conditions and open the way to a new, socialist society worldwide has never been more urgent.