In 1968, the Communist Party and its militants were caught on the hop: upstarts with no experience suddenly grabbed the political limelight and left them standing. They were virtuous militants, who had spent years writing and distributing leaflets and magazines, marching, knocking on doors, standing on street corners with placards, and no one looked at them now.
There is something of that in the present demonstrations by the gilets jaunes in France this November and December, starting spontaneously without a political or union framework.
There are no leaders and no national organisation. Small groups communicating on Facebook organise blockades of their local shopping centre or nearest motorway slip road or tollbooths and oil depots.
A map of blockades in the North region showed a huge number of such blocks, evenly spread throughout the region. Participants wear the yellow vest, and motorists display their yellow jacket on their dashboard to show support.
For such a disparate movement, they are remarkably astute and united.
They chose an excellent symbol, the yellow jacket, signifying visibility, but also a reminder of the safety measures imposed on motorists, yet another government ‘norm’ imposed on the population that costs money and feels like a tax. Each motorist is supposed to carry a number of such things in their glove compartment or boot.
They chose a very effective means of protest, blockading sensitive spots.
They refused to be bound to the traditional demonstration route in Paris (starting Place de la République) or the one offered to them (Champ de Mars) and used instead the forbidden area near the presidential palace; this occasioned violence, although not necessarily more than normal, as the usual routes often end with violent disruption from groups of looters; this refusal was a show of strength.
They refused negotiations, until their main demands were met. Those gilets jaunes who put themselves forward for meeting ministers had threats against them and desisted. They refused the invitation to meet the Prime Minister unless they could film the proceedings; they refused to meet Macron Tuesday 4 December and threatened those who would meet him.
They avoided being associated with the ex-National-Front, which had jumped in to support them from the start. They refused their support. One gilet jaune associated with the ex NF who was being frequently interviewed in Toulouse was made to desist.
They also refused the support of school children who had started wearing the yellow vest. (In 1968 school children joined in).
Who are they?
They are not the lowest income people; they are people who have a car, sometimes families with two or three cars. They are mostly from the countryside and distant suburbs, what the French call the ‘peri-urban’. These areas have seen their population grow in recent years, in response to the increase in the cost of housing in cities, and also perhaps, although no one says so, to live somewhere with no immigrants, no very poor people or no derelicts.
Judging by the spelling on their Facebook posts they have not passed the tests that can bring you some of the higher paid jobs.
26% of the French population live in the countryside, but most don’t work there (of the active population who live in the countryside, 7% work in agriculture, but 32% work in industry); they commute to the nearest town or the nearest factory; commuting on public transport is out of the question and would not make sense: only one person from one village might work in one particular factory 30 km away, not to mention variable shift times. Most villages have no shops; the only service is the mayor’s office, open a few hours a week.
The reduction in public services has seen closures of post offices, hospitals, and government offices. Many railway lines have been cut or their traffic reduced. People absolutely rely on their cars, and the price of fuel is critical. They already feel persecuted with more demanding ‘norms’ for MOTs, they are exasperated by the new law that limits speed to 50 m/h on main roads, and the resulting fines. It’s all very well saying that slower is safer and more economical, if you have to have to get to work at 5 am, why should you have to get up even earlier so that you can drive slowly on an empty road? Motorways, safer and faster than main roads, and very often running in parallel with them, so you can see the moneybags driving faster than you, have expensive tolls.
The French followed government advice to buy diesel cars, encouraged by the lower tax on diesel. Now government advice has been reversed, and they are stuck with a car which has lost its value, and higher fuel bills. Lorry drivers have not joined the protest because road haulage firms can claim back part of the tax on fuel.
The French were on the receiving end of disparaging remarks from Macron, who called them lazy and told them anyone could get a job ‘just by crossing the road’. The gilets jaunes have got jobs, their point is that it costs too much to get to their place of work, but they also have children, who find it hard to get employment (youth unemployment is 20.4%). Macron also talked about those ‘who are nothing’, as opposed to those who are successful in the modern technological and globalized economy. He made a point of being intransigent during the actions against the liberalization of the Labour code: ‘I won’t give in to the lazy’. In 2016 he said ‘if you don’t have a suit, it’s because you don’t work for it’.
He tried to present a dignified image as a French president that the French could be proud of, and ended up being photographed, during an official trip to the French West Indies, with his arms round two young men, one bare chested and making rude gestures. Now he is photographed in front of the graffitied Arc de Triomphe, the red paint above him saying ‘Macron on veut ton cul’ (cul means arse).
Another aspect of Parisian arrogance, which is not mentioned, is that the capital and the government consciously occupy the moral high ground; giving priority to homosexual rights and women’s rights, which together with anti-racist speech, marks their supposed moral superiority. Being environmentally conscious tends also to be part of moral superiority, as the gilet jaune at the beginning of the movement said: ‘The elites worry about the end of the world, we worry about the end of the month.’
At the start of the gilet jaune movement, the media accused them of racism and homophobia, as well as being close to Marine Le Pen; that approach was quickly abandoned, for lack of evidence. But the accusation is clear, these people are morally inferior.
When interviewed, gilets jaunes said they did not vote, or else cast a blank vote. This is probably true, as abstention is the greatest party in France. Besides, gilets jaunes know each other, and want to get on with each other; declaring a political affiliation would be detrimental to their living together as well as to their action.
The first demonstration, 17th November, coincided with another one previously scheduled, of feminists against violence against women, and expecting (and getting) few participants. The media gave them as much airtime as to the gilets jaunes in their reports. The 1st December gilet jaune demonstration also coincided with that previously organised by the CGT, to defend the standard of living. Not a peep from the media, no mention all day regarding that rally.
Photos of the CGT gathering showed not that many people, but interesting posters signed ‘gilets jaunes’: ‘fachés pas fachos’ [angry, not fascists], ‘vivre pas survivre’ [we want to live, not just to survive], ‘sans étiquette pas sans éthique’ [no label, but ethical].
Looking at the CGT website however is not encouraging. They say they support the ‘recent protests’, which are legitimate, and which the CGT has been fighting for anyway all these months. But then they demand that ‘employers meet the cost of transport’. The gilets jaunes would not support that. There are jobs where the cost of transport should be added to the wages on principle, such as visiting nurses and care assistants, but it can’t be a realistic general demand.
And then the CGT ends with an appeal not to give in to the ‘xenophobic, racist and homophobic’ temptation; in other words, the CGT are just as contemptuous of the ordinary person as the government and the media; they won’t get members that way.
One MP who does not make that mistake is Francois Ruffin, MP for the same region that Macron comes from, Amiens in the North. His paper, Fakir, describes the life of ordinary people and their difficulties. Homophobia etc are never mentioned by him, as these topics are not his priority. He castigated Macron, ‘the injustice of his acts, and the arrogance of his words’. That does not mean at all that he is the leader the gilets jaunes are waiting for. It is not clear how much they want to be involved in politics; they want the tax increase on fuel to be annulled; they also want the reinstatement of the tax on wealth which Macron abolished, and which favoured the ultra-rich, whose income has risen starkly since Macron became president, leading to his nickname, president of the rich. When these injustices are corrected, they will resume their life.
On Tuesday 4th December the Prime Minister announced the increase in the tax on fuel was suspended for six months as well as the increase in the price of electricity and bringing together the price of diesel and petrol. It remains to be seen what will be done about the tax on wealth, and if the gilets jaunes will continue their action after winning their most immediate demand. The question of what happens to the Macron regime is also not clear. His entourage is now busy quoting Churchill: ‘To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to change often’. The weakness of the opposition, and of the unions, might help him to survive this kick in the face. In 1968 a small movement led to general strikes and the Grenelle agreements, a large increase in the minimum wage and a 10% increase in wages overall. The government is hoping to avoid such an escalation.