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France: The Yellow Vests, Act IV—Turn the Movement into a Revolution!

The yellow vest movement entered its “fourth act” this weekend, with another round of radical protests by well over the officially cited 130,000 people (possibly as many as 500,000). This time, the state response was even more brutal, with 89,000 gendarmes mobilized across France in an attempt to prevent the yellow vests from demonstrating—peacefully or otherwise—resulting in over 2,000 arrests.

The youth, both university and high school students, have also now decisively entered the scene, and faced ruthless repression from the police as a result. Meanwhile, despite determined participation by rank-and-file unionists, the leaders of the main trade union federations are playing a shameful role in trying to “calm down” the protests and “negotiate” with the government. Moreover, an international media campaign of hysteria and misinformation has attempted to undermine the movement by identifying the yellow vests with far-right nationalism, and (surprise, surprise) the nefarious machinations of Russia.

Throughout these dramatic events, President Macron (whose approval ratings have now fallen to around 20 percent) has been conspicuously absent. The task of announcing the delay and then cancellation of the new carbon tax that triggered the movement instead fell to Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, in a humiliating concession for a head of state who vowed “never to bend to street protests.” However, this concession has done nothing but embolden the French masses, who have now learned that the only way to win is to fight! Their demands have expanded considerably beyond cancelling the fuel tax to a whole range of issues linked to the cost of living and rejection of the hated political establishment. Popular demands include the restoration of the ISF wealth tax, increased pensions, raising the minimum wage, cutting salaries for politicians, and—most prominently of all—Macron’s resignation, as well as the dissolution of the National Assembly.

A revolutionary situation is developing in France: all that is now lacking is leadership and a clear program of action, rooted in the working class, involving a campaign towards an all-out general strike to deliver the coup de grace to Macron.

Police clampdown

On Saturday, Macron employed new police tactics, which to all intents and purposes did away with the right to demonstrate. In Paris alone, 1,000 people were arrested, passersby were subjected to “stop and search,” whether or not they were wearing wearing yellow vests (any found in bags were confiscated); and groups gathering to join the demonstration were blocked in many parts of the capital. Arié Alimi, a lawyer at the Paris Bar and a member of the League of Human Rights, said of this scandalous policy: “We have seen people who just wanted to protest arrested . . . [the police] have arrested people who have done nothing, simply because they believe they have dangerous intentions.” In fact, what the French state is doing is arresting people “preventatively” before they have committed any crime, thus breaking all principles of bourgeois law and entering into Minority Report territory.

The police repression in Paris was merciless. Tear gas, foam projectiles, water cannon and even armored cars were deployed to disperse the demonstrators who had declared their intention to march to the Elysée presidential palace. Images are circulating online of people being knocked off their feet by water cannon, and collapsing in agony after being struck by rubber bullets. There are many images on social media of horrific injuries inflicted by the police (and yet 99 percent of the media coverage focuses on the violence of the protesters). In all, 700 people have been injured in the course of the yellow vests movement thus far. Still, large numbers of people managed to make their way through different parts of the centre of Paris, some of whom were chanting revolutionary songs, like Bella Ciao.
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Outside of Paris, protesters in some cities were allowed to march and they did so in large numbers. For instance, 2,000 protesters mobilized in Brest on the northwestern coast: a town with a population of only 140,000. Invariably, these demonstrations in the provinces were also met with police repression.
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In Toulouse, different groups of protesters broke through police lines which prevented them from joining together, while in Bordeaux, demonstrators chanted “anticapitalistes:”
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But the vicious behavior of the police is merely serving as a whip of counterrevolution, driving the masses forward. Already, an 80-year-old woman has been killed after she was hit by a tear gas canister while on her balcony, dozens of unarmed protesters have been isolated and beaten by gangs of police, and one video is even circulating of a disabled man in a yellow vest being tipped out of his wheelchair by a gendarme. These despicable acts are pouring petrol on the flames and enraging the public, as evidenced by one comment on the latter video on Twitter: “Oh, you son of a bitch! I hope [the police] all end up in wheelchairs, soon!”
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Interestingly, the movement of the yellow vests is starting to acquire a more organized character, with the convening of General Assemblies in a number of towns and cities. Thus, in Toulouse, about 500 yellow vest activists from the region held a general assembly to discuss the aims of the movement and strengthen their organization. These are important steps forward. These assemblies should be linked up through a network of elected and recallable representatives, which in turn should meet together with representatives of students and workers on strike, and struggle at a local, regional and national level.

Students strike back

The youth in high schools and universities have been signaling their support for and participating in the yellow vest movement all over France. Many institutions (both high schools and universities) are now blockaded or under occupation (including Nanterre and Tolbiac), and there have been enormous general assemblies held across the country to discuss students’ position on the yellow vests, among other issues (including education reform).

A motion written by comrades of the IMT, voicing support for the yellow vests and calling for coordinated strike action to bring down the government, has already been passed overwhelmingly at l’université Paul-Valéry-Montpellier and Toulouse, and will be debated in Lyon. In Nanterre, a resolution passed at a 2,000-strong assembly (of both students and staff) today that declared the university’s solidarity with the yellow vests, and opposition to state repression; and vowed that the university would go on strike until such time that a range of demands (including the cancellation of education counterreforms) are met. The resolution also calls for Macron’s resignation.

Moreover, student blocs were prominent on the weekend’s demonstrations, with a large contingent from the University of Sorbonne marching with the yellow vests in Paris on Saturday, raising slogans against Macron’s economic policy and police repression:
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High school students have also been mobilizing nationally following a call by the National Union of High School Students (UNL). On Thursday last week, over 700 high schools blockaded or were on strike, and the number was higher on Friday.

The police have treated the students with particular brutality, which has only further aggravated the movement. For instance, on Thursday 7 December, over 150 high school students from Mantes-la-Jolie in the Île-de-France region in north-central France, who were protesting reforms to national exams, were forced by riot police to kneel with their hands behind their heads. This absurd “mass arrest” of the entire school was quite rightly described by France Insoumise MP, Eric Coquerel, as “unacceptable and humiliating.” In response to this outrage (footage of which went viral on social media), dozens of students and teachers across France knelt with hands behind their heads in solidarity, including a large group in Place de la République in Paris on Friday. In some places, like Marseille, the CGT stewards have come out to physically defend the school students from the brutality of the riot police.

Far from being cowed by repression, such provocations will drive the students to more radical conclusions and bring them closer to the mobilizations of workers on the streets. This has already begun to happen, as evidenced by the overwhelming support for our comrades’ motion in Montpellier and Toulouse. The students are also moving towards proper organizational structures. The resolution on Nanterre called for the universities of the Paris region to elect delegations for a mass assembly at Ile-de-France, starting on 13 December. Additionally, a call has gone out for a general education strike (currently under debate by the student assemblies). Finally, in Toulouse, contingents of yellow vests are attending student general assemblies and vice versa. These are very important and positive steps forward, and show the effect that the yellow vests are having on students’ consciousness.  We should remember, it was the coordination of students in solidarity with the working class that brought De Gaulle to his knees in May 1968.

altRadical motions in support of the yellow vests have been passed by student general assemblies across France. / Image: Nanterre Marxists

The trade unions: revolution from below, reformism at the top

From the beginning, the leadership of the main trade union federations have had a terrible policy on the yellow vests: refusing to support them and even denouncing them, before being dragged into mobilizing alongside them by pressure from below. We have seen more and more layers of the working class entering the struggle and standing with the yellow vests—including firefighters and ambulance workers—as the gravitational pull of the mass movement draws broad layers of the working class into the struggle.

Even workers from traditionally apathetic, “middle-class” professions are starting to move. For instance, 160 lawyers of the bar of Béziers started a total strike last Tuesday (4 December) over attempted counter reforms to the justice system. The striking lawyers declared their solidarity with the yellow vests movement, and they protested together outside the Beziers court last week. This action is highly significant, and recalls the events of 1968, where the revolutionary general strike also encompassed extremely broad layers of society, including clerks, administrators, civil servants and so on.

In contrast to this radicalism at the base, the leaders of the six main unions (including the CGT, but excluding SUD) reached a new low on Thursday, by signing a joint statement rejecting “all forms of violence in the expression of demands,” welcoming government negotiations and saying nothing at all about the then-upcoming demonstrations planned for the following day. This scandalous statement almost read as a direct acquiescence to Macron’s appeal, made that same day to all political and trade union organizations, to “meet and talk” instead of deepening the “violent” protests or pushing for strike action.

Unsurprisingly, this treacherous move enraged the union rank and file, who have been coordinating with the yellow vests since the start of the movement. The joint statement was immediately and strongly condemned by the local branches of the trade union federations. The CGT Departmental Union 13 (Toulouse) has issued a strongly worded statement denouncing the joint statement from the union tops and saying “we will continue to denounce and fight the real violence which is that of the ruling class against working people.”

CGT UD 31 from Marseille (the branch that protected high school students from police repression that same week) said that the joint statement “sends a catastrophic message to those [in the] struggle. It puts our activists in danger,” and has called for an emergency meeting of the CGT to hold their leaders to account.

The CGT National Federation of Chemical Industries has also rejected the joint statement, saying it is “unworthy of the CGT,” and condemning instead “the violence of the bosses, police and trade union repression, as well as reformist complicity.” The statement continues: “if there is violence, the cause for it is amongst the ranks of the oppressors not the oppressed . . . the role of the CGT is to be side by side with the workers and not as an auxiliary of the bosses and the government.” The Paris energy sector branch of the CGT has condemned the joint statement, and will join CGT-affiliated transport workers with a 48-hour strike on Thursday. The CGT UD 59 (Lille) is the latest to join in the chorus of protest at the joint union statement, and has also issued a communiqué demanding an emergency meeting of the CGT national leadership.

The stark contrast between the radicalism below and reformism at the top is becoming clearer by the day. While ordinary workers and trade unionists are moving closer to the yellow vests and drawing bold, even revolutionary conclusions against the hated Macron regime, the leadership are afraid of this radicalism at the base going too far, and have tried to pour cold water on events. It is likely that this anger and frustration will result in a rebellion against Philippe Martinez and the current leadership of the CGT at their 52nd annual congress in May 2019.

In the meantime, with a CGT day of action planned for 14 December, it is imperative that rank-and-file unionists continue to intervene in the struggle and deepen its links with the organized working class, if possible raising the perspective of a coordinated campaign of strikes and for the election of democratic, national leadership to carry the movement forward. At the moment, there is a danger that the leaders of the trade unions could deepen the perception that the unions are part of the same “political establishment” the yellow vests are railing against, which could isolate them from the movement.

CGT yellow vests Image Twitter CGTWhile ordinary workers and trade unionists are moving closer to the yellow vests and drawing bold conclusions, the leadership are afraid of this radicalism at the base going too far. / Image: Twitter, CGT

The ruling class realizes that it needs to use the authority of the trade union leaders to try to contain the movement. That was the meaning of the 6 December joint trade union statement “against violence” and today’s meeting between Macron (along with members of his government), the heads of the association of local mayors, the president of the Senate, the leaders of the largest trade unions (including the CGT) and the representatives of the three main bosses’ organizations. Macron wants to be seen as “consulting” with “society as a whole,” when faced with a “threat to the Republican regime.” However, by involving these organizations in his maneuvers, Macron risks discrediting them even further, tainting them with his own failure, and making them less useful as instruments to contain the yellow vests.

Furthermore, on Friday, the Labour Minister asked private employers to increase workers’ wages. As in 1968, when threatened with losing everything, the ruling class might be prepared to make concessions. There are, however, some differences with 1968. First of all, those revolutionary events took place at the peak of the post-war boom and the bosses had more room to maneuver in terms of their accumulated profits. Right now, the situation is completely different, as the French economy has barely recovered from the crisis of 2008. Furthermore, in 1968 it was the Communist Party, which had a massive authority amongst the advanced workers and trade unionists, which ensured that the offer of higher wages was accepted, against the wishes of many mass workers’ assemblies. Today, there is no such force with any authority in the workers’ movement, and even less amongst the yellow vests, which could impose such a deal. The reaction of workers to the appeal by the Minister or Labour was to say: “We were told there was no money for any concessions, but now that the yellow vests are on the streets fighting, suddenly money is found. The conclusion is clear: all out!”

“It’s the Russians, again!”

The capitalist class and their political and media representatives are terrified of the yellow vests movement, which has already begun to spread beyond French borders, with protesters in high-visibility vests mobilizing in Belgium and the Netherlands and raising similar demands to their counterparts in France. The European bourgeoisie recognizes that this movement puts the entire regime of French capitalism at risk, with alarming implications for the whole of Europe.

As such, they have done everything in their power to blacken and discredit the yellow vests as violent hoodlums led by far-right and far-left extremists. Ahead of the protests this weekend, the government warned tourists and citizens alike to stay indoors, saying that “far-right and far-left” extremists were coming to “smash and kill.”

The international press has internationally consistently downplayed the scale of the protests this weekend, to give the impression that the movement is weakening. The Guardian, for example, claimed that only 30,000 took part in national demonstrations on the weekend, in spite of a considerable amount of video and photographic evidence to the contrary on social media. A huge amount of emphasis has also been placed on acts of violence and hooliganism, with images of burning cars and rioting plastered over newspapers and beamed out of screens all over the world. Meanwhile, acts of violence by the state have been given very scant coverage; as have the mostly peaceful marches that have taken place across the country—where the police have permitted them to go ahead.

Attempts have also been made to paint the movement as a violent, chaotic, far-right phenomena against a “progressive,” “green” carbon tax. The Observer, for instance, wrote in its editorial statement on the yellow vests:

The movement has no leaders with whom to negotiate; it lives and organizes, for the most part, on social media platforms; and, as is evident from the violent clashes in Paris, it has been too easily hijacked—including by far-right groups bent on overthrowing an elected government.

Right wingers in France and internationally have attempted to profit from or co-opt the yellow vests, but so far have been unsuccessful. In a spectacular piece of fake news, Donald Trump managed to convince himself that the protesters in Paris were chanting “we want Trump!”, and Marine Le Pen of Front Nationale has repeatedly stated her support for the movement against the fuel tax in order to steer the movement in a reactionary, nationalist direction and demagogically boost her own profile. But so far, the only politician who has benefitted from the movement has been the far-left Mélenchon, who has consistently supported the yellow vests, and whose approval has climbed eight percentage points to 29 percent, becoming the most popular party leader in France. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s approval has barely changed since the movement began, increasing just one point to 20 percent.
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Moreover, while publications as far flung as the Telegraph and New Scientist have condemned the yellow vests’ “anti-environmentalist” rejection of Macron’s carbon tax, a climate march took place on Saturday and many of the participants were pictured wearing . . . yellow vests! As was clear from the start, the yellow vests do not object to environmentalist policies as such, just the idea that ordinary working-class French citizens should carry the burden of reducing emissions rather than the big capitalist companies who are overwhelmingly responsible for carbon emissions. In many towns, yellow vest protesters and climate change activists marched together.

In an especially desperate move, the bourgeois press tried the old trick of describing the yellow vests as a conspiracy orchestrated by the Kremlin. A report by the Times declared that “hundreds of social media accounts linked to Russia have sought to amplify the street protests that have rocked France.” French intelligence is apparently investigating claims that the movement, which originated on social media, has been spread with the help of “Russian sock puppets” (fake accounts controlled by Russian agents). Exactly what interest Putin would have in opposing a fuel tax hike in France is anybody’s guess, but in any event, to put down this mass outpouring of rage and frustration against austerity and equality to Russian meddling is simply laughable.

Despite this calumny (and small but genuine elements of hooliganism), support for the movement and its demands from the French public has held strong at between 60 and 70 percent. Moreover, there is building evidence of international solidarity with the yellow vests. Aside from the mobilizations in Belgium and the Netherlands, videos of yellow vest protests are being circulated online on British Labour Party forums, for example, receiving hundreds of comments to the effect that workers in the UK need to “fight like the French!”

Macron’s Waterloo

Macron’s authority and international standing have been completely shattered by this movement, and with the European elections coming up (which will be seen as a referendum on his presidency) his position is extremely weak. The speed of this collapse is striking: in a matter of months, he has gone from the great white hope of “sensible, moderate, pro-market democracy” to a barely-visible prisoner of a crisis over which he has lost all control. He is due to deliver a public address tonight, but it seems unlikely that anything will restore his standing at this point. As Marc Lazar, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, said in the Washington Post: “Macron emerges from this extremely weakened and isolated. Both at home and in Europe.”

Emmanuel Macron Image Remi JouanAs we predicted during the last national elections, Macron’s “pro-EU, pro-business” agenda has proved incapable of resolving any of the contradictions in French capitalism. / Image: Remi Jouan

The international bourgeoisie is alarmed and frustrated at Macron’s humbling climb down over the fuel tax and his plummeting approval ratings, and are skeptical of his ability to resolve the crisis, noting with exasperation that his haughty, arrogant, “out-of-touch” style and aggressive police clampdown have only exacerbated the situation. But Macron’s hubris was always built on pillars of sand. The crisis of his regime runs deeper than his personal incompetence (glaring though it is), to a fundamental impasse of French capitalism, which has been consistently falling behind the rest of Europe of many years and has not recovered from 2008. The implementation of austerity and squeezing of the working class demanded by the crisis has totally discredited the entire French political elite, and previously sealed the fate of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, along with that of the two main establishment parties (the Socialists and the Republicans). As we predicted during the last national elections, Macron’s “pro-EU, pro-business” agenda has proved incapable of resolving any of the contradictions in French capitalism. The yellow vests are proof of this. As the Financial Times wrote this afternoon, the bourgeoisie are starting to see their faith in Macron was misplaced:

If Mr. Macron had been able to break this dismal cycle [of French presidents rapidly losing popularity], his international credibility would have soared. He could have emerged as the global champion of liberal values — such a champion is sorely needed. Now, however, it seems highly unlikely that Mr Macron can save the world. He will be lucky if he can save his own presidency.

The crisis has also manifested in the form of splits at the top. MPs and Ministers are divided between “hardliners” who want to continue with police repression and move no further, while others are calling for “new measures,” contemplating further concessions and proposing an unclear “change of course.” But tiny reforms (if, given the economic crisis, they are even possible) are unlikely to satisfy a movement that now encompasses a multitude of different demands, and seems increasingly intent on the collapse of Macron’s regime. As one spokesperson for the movement stated in response to the cancellation of the fuel tax hike: “we don’t want crumbs, we want the whole baguette!”

These splits at the top are a symptom of a revolutionary process taking place. Our French comrades said in a statement on Friday that all the ingredients now exist in France for a revolutionary situation. What is currently lacking is the necessary working-class leadership leadership to translate the momentum on the streets into a campaign of strikes that will paralyze the economy and finally finish off Macron’s ailing administration. The development of proper, democratic structures will also preserve the movement’s coherence and prevent it from burning out over the Christmas period, or degenerating into undirected hooliganism. These are the objective tasks facing the yellow vests at this juncture. Onward to Act V!

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