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Gilets Jaunes march with a banner with photo of Zineb Redouane (80) killed by a tear gas shell fired by police in Marseilles.Photo: Youcef Brakni[1]

The amazing movement of Gilets Jaunes is continuing for 18 weeks, while six central trade unions CGT, FO, Solidaires, UNEF, UNL and UNL SD jointly issued a small leaflet[2] with the call of a General Strike on March 19. There they declared, “The social situation in France is marked by the diverse and multiple expression of a growing social discontent… The movement of yellow vests is the recent expression of this deep social crisis.” While prices and unemployment is continuously on the rise the government and the President did not consider a requisite rise of minimum wages as expressed by the Gilets Jaunes. Students are facing great difficulties in continuing studies. The President has declared a National Debate but the proposal as well as the conduct of the government clearly say that it will not be able to address the concern of the people. And so, the unions were calling for a great Day of Action on March 19.

 

It is going to be the second general strike this year, after February 5, only six weeks before this strike. Gilets Jaunes Saturday mobilisations are also continuing. According to the Gilets Jaunes enthusiasts the Interior Ministry was always showing less number of participants in the figures published by the government, and so they started their own calculation of number of participants in each Saturday and started publishing it a Twitter account @LeNombreJaune from early January this year.

Table 1: Participation in different Actes of Gilets Jaunes

Date Acte According to

Ministre Interieur

According to

Le Nombre Jaune

29-Dec VII 12,000 68,110
05-Jan VIII 50,000 1,23,440
12-Jan IX 84,000 1,59,157
19-Jan X 84,000 1,47,365
26-Jan XI 69,000 1,23,151
02-Feb XII 58,600 1,15,954
09-Feb XIII 51,400 1,18,222
16-Feb XIV 41,500 1,04,070
23-Feb XV 46,600 1,23,087
02-Mar XVI 39,300 96,427
09-Mar XVII 28,600 90,469
16-Mar XVIII 32,300 *2,69,270
23-Mar XIX 40,500 1,26,246

Source: Compiled from different newspapers and @LeNombreJaune
* it was total figure of Gilets Jaunes (all over France) and the Climate March in Paris as per @LeNombreJaune

 

Government responses so far have been, mainly, four:

  1. In December there was a confusing rumour that the president has announced a hike in minimum wages (SMIC – Le salaire minimum de croissance) by €100,a shabby rise vis-à-vis demand of the Gilets Jaunes ofa SMIC equivalent to €1300 per month. But later we came to know that actually ‘Prime Minister Edouard Philippe detailed the terms of this “boost”. “The premium will be paid to supplement the salary of January and thus achieve the increase of 100 euros,” he said.’[3]As one friend of La Colonie, Paris, Alix Hugonnierinformed us, “The minimum wages were kept untouched. What Macron suggested is actually a « prime d’activité » (activity bonus) of 100 euros paid by the government. This prime d’activité was in reality already planned by the government but was just accelerated. The government is the one giving the prime d’activité to the workers not the companies. So, the companies actually don’t pay their workers better. The workers do not contribute on those 100 euros which are taken from global contribution… The left wing is very much against this prime d’activité because in the end it doesn’t make their total income any better, it takes money from the common ‘caisses’ [funds] and not from the companies and it doesn’t create any common wealth.”
  2. To defuse the situation President Macron issued an open letter to the French on Sunday, 13-Jan. In that letter Macron made it clear that he would not bulge from his pro-rich anti-people rightist economic policies, he would not reconsider re-imposition of Wealth Tax on the rich, the tax which his government abolished. Benjamin Griveaux, spokesman for the government, said that it was out of the question to restore the ISF. Rather, he tried to divert focus to immigration issue suggesting fixing some immigration quota. He appealed to the citizens to think, discuss and debate the matters for two months before a final decision is taken by consultation with citizens. This will definitely embolden the far-rights, particularly fascists.Moreover, he showed no respect to the protesters in France, he did not even mention the term Gilets Jaunes that is haunting him and compelled him to address the nation!
  3. Police atrocity on protestor increased and the so-called ‘non-lethal’ crowd control equipments actually hurt many protestor, even two persons died – one from a tear gas shell and another from flash-ball. The atrocity was so severe that the United Nations, on 6-March, asked the Govt. of France to make a ‘thorough investigation’ on ‘police violence’[4].An 80 old Algerian woman called Zineb Redouane received a piece of a grenade hurled by police in Marseille while she was watching at the protest from her balcony, and she died on 2-December … The picture of Zineb Redouane was displayed in one of the banderolle [banners] at the head of Saturday’s protests [in Marseilles in a subsequent Gilets Jaunes march there].
  4. The government and media controlled by the right are trying to trivialize the Gilets Jaunes and their movement, blemishing protestors as violent mobs, rioters,even at times as looters, whilethe govt. is in wait-and-see mode, so that the spontaneously run movement gradually fizzles out.
  5. Last week many citizens of France were outraged knowing that the government has given order to the Sentinel soldiers to mobilise for Giles Jaunes protest and was given power to shoot on yellow vests protest as and when they think it necessary[5].

As we have already seen in our previous discussions like “Behind of the phenomenon Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) and various colours of the yellow flame spectrum”[6], there are some complex features in this movement and there are reasons behind those. To highlight the most important ones: (i) Geographical: the problem of petrol-diesel price hike is felt more by persons in provinces, not by dwellers of main cities and their suburbs that have good public transport facilities, while major show of forces takes place in cities. (ii) There always had been many militant protest-demonstrations, road-blocks, strikes in France. In the later half of 1990s and also in this century. (Time magazine once made a headline in 2009: Why the French Love to Strike[7].) There is even an MOBILE APP which warns about incoming strikes and blockages![8]But such pictures usually hide a bitter truth: the erosion of the working-class movement, low ebb of revolutionary socialism (not the reformist variety), which can be felt partially by right-ward swing in the parliamentary political arena. In case of presidential election, the choice was not in between a parliamentary left vs. a parliamentary right candidate, but rather in between shades of rights and far-rights. In France we see a fascist regeneration through the RN party of Mme Le Pen which amassed 21.3% votes in the primary and 33.9% votes in the second round.If we compare votes in first round received by lefts and fascists we find: In the primary roundLa France Insoumise (LFI) of Mélenchon got 19.6% votes and Ford factory worker Philippe Poutou of Anti-Capitalist Party (along with Lutte Ouvrière) got 1.7% votes. What is more worrying, among blue-collar workers Anti Capitalists got 4%, LFI got 24%, whereas Mme Le Pen got 37% support; among white-collar workers Anti-Caps got 4%, LFI got 22%, whereas Mme Le Pen received 32% support[9]. (iii) This led to the fact that among the protestors also there are pro-fascists and anti-fascists who on some occasioned clashed in Toulouse[10]. There were also acts of vandalism on behalf of pro-fascist yellow vests[11]. (iv) But among whatever happened one thing was clear that people somehow summarised main points out of 42 demands of yellow vests as (a) increase purchasing power, and (b) end extreme inequality in distribution of income and wealth.

As the spontaneous movement continued, naturally will come the question of crystallisation around said/unsaid political/ideological orientations, even if those are still embryonic or hazy and also ‘spontaneous’. An indirect manifestation can be seen in splitting of the ‘movement’ into different directions. Mme Priscilla Ludosky, who initiated the petition against fuel price rise and Éric Drouet who first issued the call for protests on 17-Nov with yellow vests, both are among the eight spokespersons of Gilets Jaunes. But their relationship is so bitter now that they are not even in talking terms[12]. Then, some other ‘leaders’ of Gilets Jaunes, Ingrid Levavasseur and Hayk Shahinyan, issued a statement that they will finalise a list of candidates to contest in the coming European Parliament election in May 2019. Such an announcement made Éric Drouet fuming, he saw in it an attempt to politicalise the movement, to utilise this movement for election, whereas he champions apolitics[13]. Éric Drouet called them to get out of Gilets Jaunes.Israeli press Times of Israël (on Feb 24, after the Acte XV of Feb 23, in their French portal) seemed to be worried about Anti-Semitism inside the movement Giles Jaunes, though they clearly said that only a little part of the movement behaved in a Anti-Semitic manner like fascists, the other part of the movement was not anti-Semitic, rather they openly criticise anti-Semites. The newspaper mentioned some names of both camps – for example the famous ‘star’ Fly Rider (actual name Maxime Nicolle) behaving in an anti-Semitic way, in the famous Montmartre Gilets Jaunes mockingly singing the well-known anti-Semitic song ‘La quenelle’, while on the other hand, the ex-Algerian Karim Mohammedi organising under the slogan ‘Unite Against Anti-racism” (Unis contre l’antisémitisme). Such actions were reported from Paris. However, in March 9, last Saturday, a vandalism took place in the south, at Tarbes, near mid-night or past-midnight, as reported by La Dépêche. That time only about 100 Gilets Jaunes were still there, though most have gone after the evening when the Gilets Jaunes march ended. The crowd then moved to a well-known Freemason ‘temple’ at that town and vandalised the place, breaking down glasses, destroying interior decors, furniture, and even displaced the swords. Right-wingers, openly fascists, are trying to put their imprint on the Gilets Jaunes movement.

On the other hand, we have seen another ‘pole’ –Philippe Poutou, himself a worker at Ford factory and leader of NPA (New Party Anti-Capitalist) with many workers, many of whom affiliated to CGT, joining the Gilets Jaunes. Then, we have seen Mélenchon of LFI supporting and joining the metal-workers and Gilets Jaunes at Florange[14].

In many factories and establishments workers staged local strikes in the atmosphere of struggle created by the Gilets Jaunes movement. In Blagnac, near Toulouse, about 200 employees of the company Derichebourg Aéronautique, a subcontractor of Airbus, began a strike on Tuesday, February 19 in front of the company’s headquarters. Yellow vests came in support. In that atmosphere several big companies like Arcelor-Mittal, L’Oréal, Renault, PSA, Airbus etc tried their best to cool down their workers with announcements of bonus increase as reports the revolution permamnente.[15]

The corporate world was also taking sides demonstratively, for example On Feb 4 Amazon workers in France received “dozens of notifications” of dismissals sent to employees for their ‘misconduct’[16]. That misconduct of the Amazon employees was that they were taking active part in Gilets Jaunes blockages in many cities in France.

Six central trade unions CGT, FO, Solidaires, UNEF, UNL and UNL SD jointly issued a small leaflet with the call of a General Strike on March 19[17] Tuesday.There they declared, “The social situation in France is marked by the diverse and multiple expression of a growing social discontent… The movement of yellow vests is the recent expression of this deep social crisis.” While prices and unemployment is continuously on the rise the government and the President did not consider a requisite rise of minimum wages as expressed by the Gilets Jaunes. Students are facing great difficulties in continuing studies. The President has declared a National Debate but the proposal as well as the conduct of the government clearly say that it will not be able to address the concern of the people. And so, the unions are calling for a great Day of Action on March 19. On Saturday, March 16, the Gilets Jaunes expected more mobilisation and it really happened.

The IFOP organisation regularly surveys the public on many issues. Related to Gilets Jaunes there are some disturbing facts: after a steady 58% support from the people of France for the January, in early February support dropped to 55%; while opposition or hostility, after being steady 27-26% in January, rose to 29% of the people of France! But amount of support or sympathy or indifference or oppose or hostility is different, naturally, among supporters of different parties. Let us see the picture as on early February — (below each party a known leader’s name is given)

 

Attitude % among France Feb 05-06 2019 % among La France Insoumise

[Mélenchon]

% among Parti Socialiste

[Hollande]

% among La Républic En Marche

[Macron]

% among Républicains

[Sarkozy]

% among Rassemblement National

[Le Pen]

                        You Support 29 65 16 9 16 54
                        You Sympathise with them 26 28 38 6 25 23
                        You are Indifferent 16 4 17 12 15 7
You Oppose 17 3 20 40 27 8
                        You are Hostile to them 12 9 33 17 8
TOTAL 100 100 100 100 100 100
Total Sympathy Support 55 93 54 15 41 77
TOTAL Opposition

Hostility

29 3 29 73 44 16

Source: IFOP[18]

Anyway, in the beginning of March we have a different picture of French support or opposition to Gilets Jaunes. In brief it is – as on March 07-08 Support and/or Sympathy climbed up to 54% from 50% in mid Feb; Opposition or Hostility dropped to 30% down from 34% in mid Feb. 90% among LFI (of Mélenchon) and 70% among RN (of Le Pen) supports or sympathises with this movement.[19]

The latest IFOP picture, however, issued an indirect warning about waning of the movement. “The impact of violence last Saturday [16-Mar 2019] in Paris is expressed …. 66% of respondents say they condemn the violence, a measure that is stable compared to December 2018 (69%). But the length of the conflict (5 months) leads for the first time since our measure a fall in support for yellow vests. Fewer than one in two French people say they support them or have sympathy for them (46%), a decrease of 4 points compared to our last measure in February. At the same time, more than three in ten (36%, +2 points) say they are opposed or hostile to the movement.” But this data was, in a way, was indirectly refuted by the fact of increase in number of participants on the next Saturday, 23-March. Even according to the interior ministry figures number of participants increased by 25% on week to week basis. The Huff Post headline declared an increase of participation (hausse de la participation[20]).The government banned any farther Gilets Jaunes entry to Champs-Élysées and ordered soldiers to maintain law and order[21].

How long this Gilets Jaunes affair will continue is really difficult to predict. But surely it will make a long-lasting impact in the political domain in France. Already the Gilets Jaunes made a departure from the so-called ‘leaderless movements’of the #Occupy trend in at least one way – they are not doing something against everything or against very generalistic notion of capitalism and it is not a movement without any demand – Gilets Jaunes havevery definite demands which boiled down to two themes: increase purchasing power and end inequality in wealth distribution. President Macron is labelled as ‘the President of the Rich’. Suburban and provincial rural protestors take the cities on Saturdays[22]. Political forces are openly taking sides with respect to this movement. And the State is behaving in a perfectly state-like way. We are seeing class struggle in a changed geography, changed by the capitalist development in the last fifty-sixty years – we see a rural space where workers and employees make up 29% and 28% of population whereas agricultural population plummeted to 5%, a rural space with shrinking public services, and on the other hand we seeghettoization of the rich – the supper wealthy cities with so many amenities, as beautifully put by Gilles Laferté in Liberation[23].

The author is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India.  Presently he is a research worker. He can be reached at sandeepbanerjee00@gmail.com

[1] Photographe source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10155647439571601&set=a.399432366600&type=3&theater

[2] It is available as a pdf at http://www.fo-snfolc.fr/Mardi-19-mars-greve-interprofessionnelle-pour-l-elargissement-et-l

[3]Various sources like https://www.marianne.net/economie/smic-100-euros-augmentation-prime-d-activite-pour-qui

[4]https://www.liberation.fr/depeches/2019/03/09/gilets-jaunes-les-etapes-d-une-fronde-inedite-en-france_1714092

[5]For example https://www.nouvelobs.com/societe/20190322.OBS2247/gilets-jaunes-les-militaires-pourront-aller-jusqu-a-ouvrir-le-feu-en-cas-de-menace.html and then https://www.francetvinfo.fr/economie/transports/gilets-jaunes/si-leur-vie-ou-celle-des-personnes-qu-ils-defendent-est-menacee-les-militaires-pourront-aller-jusqu-a-l-ouverture-du-feu_3244961.htmlhttps://www.francetvinfo.fr/economie/emploi/metiers/armee-et-securite/oui-malheureusement-il-risque-d-y-avoir-des-morts-les-militaires-tres-alarmistes-sur-leur-implication-dans-les-prochaines-mobilisations-des-gilets-jaunes_3244015.html etc. See also http://www.lessentiel.lu/fr/news/france/story/les-soldats-pourront-tirer-sur-les-manifestants-28709529

[6]https://countercurrents.org/2019/01/03/behind-of-the-phenomenon-gilets-jaunes-yellow-vests-and-various-colours-of-the-yellow-flame-spectrum/

[7]http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1891775,00.html

[8]https://phys.org/news/2018-12-gilets-jaunes-movement-facebook-revolution.html

[9] Taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_French_presidential_election

[10]For example http://www.francesoir.fr/politique-france/gilets-jaunes-extreme-gauche-agresses-toulouse-generation-identitaire-dans-le-collimateur

[11]For example https://www.ladepeche.fr/2019/03/10/a-tarbes-des-gilets-jaunes-saccagent-le-temple-des-francs-macons,8059663.php

[12]https://www.atlantico.fr/pepite/3563549/gilets-jaunes–la-tension-monte-entre-priscillia-ludosky-et-eric-drouet and then https://actu.orange.fr/france/gilets-jaunes-priscillia-ludosky-et-eric-drouet-deux-figures-du-mouvement-ont-mis-fin-a-leur-collaboration-magic-CNT000001bXP63.html

[13]https://www.lepoint.fr/politique/les-gilets-jaunes-sont-determines-pour-l-acte-xi-malgre-les-divisions-25-01-2019-2288894_20.php

[14]https://www.nouvelobs.com/politique/20181123.AFP9115/a-florange-melenchon-soutient-les-metallos-et-des-gilets-jaunes.html

[15]https://www.revolutionpermanente.fr/Les-greves-locales-pour-exiger-une-augmentation-des-salaires-se-multiplient  and also https://www.matierevolution.fr/spip.php?breve982

[16]https://www.initiative-communiste.fr/articles/info-luttes-chez-amazon-il-est-interdit-de-soutenir-les-gilets-jaunes-n-9-fevrier-mars-2019/

[17]it is available as a pdf at http://www.fo-snfolc.fr/Mardi-19-mars-greve-interprofessionnelle-pour-l-elargissement-et-l

[18]https://www.ifop.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/116176-Rapport-Atlantico-Gilets-Jaunes-08.02.2019.pdf

[19]Detail is available at https://www.ifop.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/116276-Rapport-Atlantico.pdf

[20]https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2019/03/23/pour-lacte-xix-des-gilets-jaunes-demonstration-securitaire-et-rechute-de-la-participation_a_23699114/

[21]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47666245

[22]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/paris-rich-ablaze-macron-french-gilets-jaunes and also https://jacobinmag.com/2019/03/gilets-jaunes-rural-dispossession-macron

[23]https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2018/12/20/apres-les-gilets-jaunes-repenser-les-classes-sociales_1699016

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