France’s uprising of the “yellow jackets”

November 28, 2018

Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires union federation and member of the New Anticapitalist Party, describes the movement, organized around road blockades, against a French fuel tax — and the debates it has produced in the French labor movement, in an article first published in English translation at International Viewpoint, and edited slightly for publication here.

FOR NEARLY a month, an unprecedented movement has been developing in France.

On November 17, at least 2,500 blockades of road junctions and highway tollbooths were reported in all regions, involving, according to the police, at least 300,000 gilets jaunes (“yellow jackets” — protesters are wearing the neon jackets that French drivers are required to carry in their vehicles).

The following week, many blockades continued in secondary cities and rural areas. Last Saturday, November 24, many actions took place, with more than 100,000 participants, including at least 8,000 in Paris on the Champs-Élysées, with 1,600 blockades identified across all regions. (On the same day, demonstrations against violence against women were also taking place around the country. Police estimated the Paris march at 12,000 participants, and organizers counted 30,000.)

This movement wasn’t initiated by any party or trade union. It has been built entirely from social networks, around rejection of a further increase in the carbon tax on fuels through the TICPE (the acronym for the domestic consumption tax on energy products), scheduled for 1 January 2019: an additional 6.5 cents for a liter of diesel and 2.9 cents for a liter of SP95.

Protesters in the streets of Paris against President Emmanuel Macron’s tax hikes on working people
Protesters in the streets of Paris against President Emmanuel Macron’s tax hikes on working people

By 2018, the tax on diesel had already increased by 7.6 cents. On one liter of diesel fuel costing 1.45 euros, the state currently receives about 60 percent in tax, or 85.4 cents. The government plans to increase this further in 2020 and 2021, by 6.5 cents each year.

This is the largest diesel tax percentage in Europe after the United Kingdom and Italy. But in France, unlike most other European countries, diesel is very much in the majority and accounts for 80 percent of fuel consumption. The price of diesel has risen by 23 percent over the past year.

An online petition against these tax increases, quoted in an article in the country’s leading daily newspaper Le Parisien, gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures in mid-October and more than a million by early November. From there, hundreds of Facebook groups sprang up all over the country, and videos against the tax were viewed millions of times on the internet (including one made by a local representative of the far-right group “Debout la France”).

A truck driver called for a blockade of the ring road around Paris on November 17. That date was chosen for thousands of local initiatives to block roads and roundabouts, listed on a website set up for the occasion by two “yellow jackets.” The major daily news media (particularly BFM TV) took up the story, amplifying the phenomenon.

Starting from the mere signing of a petition, the movement spread like wildfire.

What Kind of Movement?

The movement has challenged the government, but also the trade unions and political parties.

The contrast was striking between its extension in the popular classes, the broad sympathy for it, especially in workplaces, and the massive backing of the population (70 percent support on the eve of November 17) and the caricature that was made in many left circles that decried it, identifying the hand of the road transportation employers and the extreme right behind it.

However, all the employers’ organizations in road transport condemned the blockades, asking the government to clear them. As far as the extreme right is concerned, it is true that Nicolas Dupont Aignan, leader of the Debout la France movement, has been enthusiastic since mid-October, displaying his yellow jacket in the media. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (as the National Front is now known) has shown support, while disavowing the roadblocks.

Most organizers of the gilets jaunes have clearly wanted to mark their distance from this inconvenient support. Discreetly, “les Républicains” and the Socialist Party expressed their sympathy with the movement.

On the other hand, while leaders of France insoumise, such as Jean-Louis Mélenchon or François Ruffin, expressed support for the movement in several televised interviews, as has Olivier Besancenot of the NPA, all of the major trade unions — not only the CFDT and FO, but also the CGT and Solidaires — have refused to support the demonstrations, insisting that they are being manipulated by the far right and the road transport bosses.

The reality is that the yellow jackets reflect a profound movement among the popular classes. Every day, 17 million people work outside of the municipality where they live — — in other words, two-thirds of those economically active. Of those two-thirds, 80 percent use their own vehicle to get to work.

The concern for the cost of fuel is therefore a popular concern, in the greater Paris region, but even more so in other regions (even in the Paris region, only one in two employees uses public transportation to go to work). The question of the extra tax therefore concerns the vast majority of employees.

Employees, especially families, are forced to live farther away from urban centers, and precariousness accentuates the distance from the workplace. In the Paris region, the 50 percent of employees who take a car to go to work are most often those who are forced to live on the periphery or who work staggered hours.

The cost of car transportation, and in particular diesel fuel, has exploded in a context where the official level of inflation has been used as a pretext for not increasing wages. The “yellow jackets” are galvanizing a popular exasperation, with an obvious class character regarding purchasing power, wages and pensions.

But this exasperation also catalyzes the diffuse anger caused by the discrediting of the government, for the accumulation of attacks on purchasing power and pensions in the face of the many gifts made to the rich and to the capitalists — and the discrediting of the political parties that, having all managed the country in turn, are responsible for this situation. Macron benefited from this discrediting to get elected, but now it has a boomerang effect.

Through government tax reforms — removing the ISF wealth tax, a flat tax on capital incomes — the wealthiest 1 percent will see their incomes rise by 6 percent in 2019. The richest 0.4 percent will see their purchasing power increase by 28,300 euros and the richest 0.1 percent by 86,290 euros.

Meanwhile, the poorest 20 percent of people will see their incomes fall — thanks to the absence of increased social benefits, the reform of housing allowances and the decline in pensions — while prices are increasing.

Unpopularity and Governmental Crisis

MACRON IS viewed by a very large part of the population as the president of the rich, the very wealthy. The increase in fuel taxes, hitting workers receiving the lowest wages after such gifts to the rich, was experienced as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Moreover, the Macron government has entered an accelerated crisis since the summer. The Benalla affair was the scandal of the summer. Alexandre Benalla, a personal security officer of Macron, was convicted of assaulting demonstrators on May 1 last year, revealing the presidential practice of using state services according to personal need, recalling in a different way the François Fillon scandal on the eve of the presidential election.

This Benalla scandal was followed by the resignation of Nicolas Hulot, Macron’s environmental front man, after many betrayals of Macron’s environmental promises. In the aftermath, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, an early supporter of the president, also resigned in early autumn. These successive internal crises testify to the accelerated erosion of this government and the weakness of its political and social base.

All polls give Macron a level of popularity lower than that of former Socialist Party President François Holland after an identical time in office.

All the messages of the gilets jaunes on the social networks or during the blockades call for withdrawal of the fuel taxes, but beyond that, there is anger at the cost of living, the demand for the reinstatement of the wealth tax.... and often, purely and simply, calls for Macron to resign.

To justify its fuel tax and gain popular support, the government notes the need to fight global warming by lowering emissions of greenhouse gases and fine particulates. The government spokesperson, Benjamin Grivaux, tried to win support from the environmentalist left by denouncing “those who smoke cigarettes and drive with diesel.” But even among environmentalist supporters, the increase in taxes did not meet a favorable response, and the contemptuous haughtiness of the government has not impressed them.

The fundamental reason for this is that all the policies of the government, like its predecessors, ignore the ecological imperatives of the hour. After favoring all-car and diesel, nothing has been done to develop public transportation in rural areas and in the periphery of large cities, while the working classes must travel ever-greater distances from their workplaces and urban centers.

There is an unbearable government arrogance in charging more to people who will not be able to change their mode of travel or vehicle. With the attacks on the SNCF, France’s national rail company, the government intends to remove more than 11,000 kilometers of railway, and rail freight has been largely sacrificed for the benefit of the road. At the same time, the oil company Total is exempt from any taxes and has a free hand to continue mining exploration.

In addition, the debates on the 2019 finance law have revealed that more than 500 million euros from the fuel tax will go not to ecological transition, but to cover the deficit of the 2019 budget as a result of the abolition of the wealth tax.

For weeks, the government and the media have tried to discredit the “yellow jackets,” with condescending contempt, the movement, as “France of the periphery,” of the “forgotten territories,” a “jacquerie” of uneducated people, unaware of climate change.

And the Organized Workers’ Movement?

THE WORKERS’ movement and its organizations did not initiate this “yellow jackets” movement. This reflects their loss of influence in many regions and among groups of workers. It is also, as the leaders of ATTAC and Copernicus say in a column in Le Monde, the result of the cumulative failures of social movements in recent years.

The readiness to set up blockades and carry out direct actions is also a rejection of traditional forms of demonstrations, but a continuation of the blockades carried out in recent years by combative social sectors.

Moreover, the policy of the trade union leaderships and the weakness of their response to such a popular movement are problematic. This policy has taken as a pretext the maneuvers of the extreme right or the “apolitical” nature of the “yellow jackets.” But as the leaders of ATTAC and Copernicus say in the above-mentioned column:

[W]e will not fight this defiance, nor the instrumentalization by the extreme right, nor the risk of anti-taxism, by practicing the politics of the Empty Chair or blaming the demonstrators. It is, on the contrary, about giving ourselves the means to weigh within it and to win the cultural and political battle inside this movement against the extreme right and the employers’ forces who want to subjugate it.

Many union structures and activists have not hesitated to lend their support and call to participate in the actions of the gilets jaunes. In the summer, this was the case, in particular, with CGT metallurgie, Sud industrie and FO Transports, with several unitary appeals that advanced an industrial platform for wage increases, against indirect taxation that hits the popular classes, and for a progressive income tax.

Often, these calls clearly rejected fuel taxes, while emphasizing the need for a genuine environmental policy, hitting Total and developing public transportation and rail freight, rather than road transportation.

Among the activist networks, and even in the press, all reports testify to the popular reality of this movement, composed essentially of employees and retirees alongside the self-employed or small entrepreneurs — all those who, with low incomes, are suffering the government’s attacks in full force.

The NPA activists who participated in the blockades or even distributed leaflets also testify to a good welcome — and above all agreement with requirements for the reinstatement of the ISF and the end of tax gifts for the richest.

What’s at Stake in the Movement?

There are therefore major political stakes in this movement. What is key is to make it democratically structured and connected with organizations of the workers’ movement who want to conduct a common struggle, through a general confrontation with the regime.

The government hopes to see in the “yellow jackets” only a disturbing interlude before a return to “normal” political and social life. After November 17, all the media dwelled heavily on the clashes, those wounded on the blockades and the death of a gilet jaune, crushed by a motorist. They also highlighted racist and homophobic acts committed on roadblocks that were unacceptable, but very marginal, in an attempt to discredit the whole movement.

Even if it is more tentative than with the demonstrations of other social movements, the government has severely suppressed the blockades in recent days, and in particular, the demonstration on the Champs-Élysées. Little accustomed to street demonstrations and even less to clashes, many gilets jaunes have been shocked by such violence, but it doesn’t hinder their determination and willingness to set up new blockades.

The government hopes that the images of the clashes and the approach of the end-of-year festivities will lead to the extinction of this movement. If the workers’ movement thought the same thing, it would be a big mistake.

Although marginal, the far right is waiting to ambush this movement and hopes that no anti-capitalist perspective will arise to give it perspectives. The “Forconi” episode in 2013 in Italy, with which the yellow jackets have points of comparison, must alert particularly anti-capitalists who want the popular anger and social exasperation not only to be turned against this government of the rich, but also to pave the way for an anti-capitalist offensive, a bearer of emancipation.

A version of this article was first published in English translation at International Viewpoint.

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