John Lloyd on the Yellow Jackets
In the Irish Times of 3rd December (“Macron is shining a light on important hypocrisies”) Lloyd applauds Macron for saying that the Gilets Jaunes, and the French who support them, want to have their cake and eat it, that is, want lower taxes and at the same time more public services. But that is not what the Gilets Jaunes want. They are not asking for more public services, in general they pride themselves on their independence. On the subject of environmental taxes, they are not saying there shouldn’t be any, just that taxes should be fairly distributed.
The movement has shone a light on that vital question: what changes must be made to protect the environment, what the costs will be and how will the costs be shared. Lloyd writes: “Even those who agree human conduct is the driver of global warming still want to drive gas-guzzling SUVs and are willing to march for low fuel prices.” The SUV drivers are not marching for lower fuel prices, and the Gilets Jaunes do not own SUVs, they have old cars and live in fear of their vehicle failing the new harsher MOT regulations. It is the Gilets Jaunes who have taught the lesson that “high sounding phrases […] [endorsing] ever smaller carbon emissions are not serving their purpose.” It was Macron who tried to impose a blanket tax on fuel, without thinking through the social implications. He may have shone a light on important hypocrisies, but he didn’t do it on purpose.
Then Lloyd concludes with a general condemnation of the movement as ‘populist.’
‘Populist’ is a vague term, broadly meaning ‘bad’. It is applied to Orban, Hungarian prime minister, to AfD in Germany, to the Marine Le Pen of the ex-National-Front; they are all accused of being racist, making scapegoats of foreigners and making unrealistic demands in order to please the populace, as well as being all wrong on identity politics. The Gilets Jaunes are not a party and do not have a leader, they are not interested in immigration, are not making unrealistic demands and have no interest in identity politics.
They work very hard at not accepting leaders and not accepting support from political parties. Laurent Wauquiez, right wing leader of Sarkozy’s party, supported them at first. He desisted when they set fire to the Prefecture building in his provincial base of Puy en Velay.
They have won some successes. The fuel tax has been withdrawn; people on the minimum wage will receive a €100-euro bonus; pensioners on less than €2000 will no longer have to pay the social security tax. The government will rethink the 80km limit on non-dual-carriageway main roads; motorway companies will offer season ticket type payments for commuters (although the government has allowed a general toll price rise). The government has asked profitable firms to give tax-free end of year bonuses.
They have paid a heavy price for these concessions. Thousands were injured, some very seriously by rubber bullets, called in France LBD (Lanceur de Balles de Defense); at least fourteen have lost an eye, although the interior minister claims only four. The regulations say rubber bullets should not be aimed at the head, but these injuries show that the regulations are not followed. The police overview body is investigating 81 cases of police brutality.
Macron has not lost his contemptuous attitude to them and the populace in general, “those who are nothing” in his memorable phrase. In his New Year wishes to the nation he called the GJ ‘hate filled mobs’ represented by people ‘who are racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic’, the usual insults. The movement is conspicuous in not touching these topics. All interviews with GJ show this, even if social media is much more mixed.
Macron continued in January by talking about the undeserving poor: ‘there are people in situations of poverty who behave like arseholes’ [qui déconnent, an extremely vulgar phrase] and the many “who have lost any sense of effort”. He will not defuse the anger against him with this language.
The movement had its 10th Saturday on 19th January; the numbers are smaller, so the tactics have changed: people meet in central locations organised in advance, for example in the town of Bourges. The woman who was at the start of the movement, Priscillia Ludosky (she happens to be black) was also one of the organisers of the Bourges march via her Facebook page. She attended the march. She started the movement via a petition and she is launching a second one, asking for a reduction on taxes on all vital goods and services, such as food, gas and electricity, and a reduction of salaries and financial privileges of MPs.
The government is trying to defuse the movement by starting a national ‘great debate’, where everything will be considered, within four topics starting with tax (what taxes would be reduced, and what service should be correspondingly reduced; wealth tax will not be reinstated).
There have been ‘national debates’ before, on national identity under Sarkozy and on food and agriculture last year. Neither was a success.
The role of the mayors.
The Macron government has been busy trying to reduce the role of the mayors in running their commune, in particular by removing an important local tax la taxe d’habitation. This worries the Association of Mayors of France considerably, since it is not clear how the shortfall will be compensated.
It is remarkable therefore that the government is running to the mayors to save itself and make a success of the debate. Macron launched his initiative in a small provincial town, in the presence of 600 mayors. He has asked the mayors to organise it. The Association of Mayors of France has turned down this duty, saying “the prefects (Préfets, heads of the départements) represent the state, not us.” They stated they did not want to be associated with this initiative.
At local level things are a little different. Some Gilets Jaunes have held weekly evening meetings in their locality, in some cases with the help of the local mayor who has let them have a hall. In these cases the ‘debate’ might continue in the same hall and the Gilets Jaunes and the mayor continue to work together.
The main preoccupations
A survey of 211 GJ published in le Monde showed that most were not wholeheartedly in support of the debate; when asked what they would talk about, 6 mentioned immigration and 10 the environment. The main preoccupation was the life and future of the young.
Another document, compiled by the Association of Rural Mayors of France, is a cahier de doléances [register of grievances] where the inhabitants wrote down their preoccupations. The Mayors have edited the grievances and propositions according to the number of entries. They had opened the town halls from 8th December for this purpose, and the document was published on 14th January.
Number 1, with the greatest number of entries, concerns the standard of living. The propositions seem extremely modest: wages and pensions to keep pace with inflation; minimum retirement pension of €1000 or €1200 a month; retirement age back to 60, to provide jobs for the young; MPs should have their pension calculated like everyone else. The minimum wage should be €1500 net, or €1400 or €1600; those who work should have a higher income than those who don’t work. Wage differentials should not be greater than 50 between the highest and the lowest. The social security tax should be paid at a higher rate the higher the income, and MPs should pay it. [They pay it on their main income.] There should be better pay and conditions for carers.
Number 2 concerns fiscal justice. There are ten headings in all, and immigration comes in at number 8, after the environment at number 6.
The Gilets Jaunes movement has no national programme, they represent only themselves. Their aim of forcing Macron to resign and of reinstating the tax on wealth has not been achieved. But they have taught some important lessons.
Their class will be treated with a new respect; they have shown that the lower middle class, derided as losers with no sense of culture or style, morally dubious (probably racist, homophobic etc), are in fact, intelligent and courageous.
Without being led, on their own initiative as small groups, they have avoided the traps laid out for them. They refused leaders, they refused to meet ministers (unless the interview was filmed by them), they refused the old marching routes that led nowhere. They made it clear that identity politics do not interest them. They continued marching after it was clear that the police would aim at them with rubber bullets. They made clear that the change in behaviour necessitated by pressures on the environment must be thought out and the burden spread fairly. They showed that globalisation has a cost, which they are not prepared to bear on their own. ‘Those left behind’ by liberalisation, considered up to now as an unavoidable by-product of progress, have stood up and demanded to be taken into consideration.