[WSMDiscuss] France in movement…, People in movement… : The state buckles / France Suspends Fuel Tax Increase That Spurred Violent Protests (Adam Nossiter, New York Times) / Yellow Vest Protest Movement : Inequality and the Hollowness of the French Regime (Richard Greeman)

Jai Sen jai.sen at cacim.net
Tue Dec 4 20:07:15 CET 2018

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

France in movement…, People in movement…

[Further to yesterday’s post (‘Tear Gas and Water Cannons in Paris as Grass-Roots Protest Takes Aim at Macron’), an update : The state buckles… and an analysis of what has happened, but before the buckle :

France Suspends Fuel Tax Increase That Spurred Violent Protests

Adam Nossiter, New York Times

Yellow Vest Protest Movement : Inequality and the Hollowness of the French Regime

Richard Greeman


France Suspends Fuel Tax Increase That Spurred Violent Protests
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, center, before announcing the suspension on rising fuel taxes in Paris on Tuesday.CreditLudovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Image
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, center, before announcing the suspension on rising fuel taxes in Paris on Tuesday.CreditCreditLudovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By Adam Nossiter <https://www.nytimes.com/by/adam-nossiter>
Dec. 4, 2018
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/world/europe/france-fuel-tax-yellow-vests.html <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/world/europe/france-fuel-tax-yellow-vests.html>
PARIS — Trying to quell its most serious political crisis, the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday that it would suspend the gasoline tax increase that had set off three weeks of increasingly violence protests in Paris and around France by the so-called Yellow Vest movement.

The step was an extraordinary concession by a president who has been criticized as remote and unempathetic, and who has refused to bend to previous protests and plummeting poll numbers as he pushes through changes <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/world/europe/macron-france-nuclear-yellow-vests.html?module=inline> that he insists are necessary to make France’s economy more competitive.

Whether it was enough to appease the Yellow Vests’ varied complaints about the declining living standards of the French working class was far from clear. But there was little doubt that the gesture was intended as a nod to widespread anger over perceived economic injustice, and to blunt the momentum of a popular revolt that now threatens Mr. Macron’s agenda <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/02/world/europe/france-macron-yellow-vest-protests.html?module=inline>.

“No tax warrants putting the unity of the nation in danger,” said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe after briefing lawmakers in a closed-door meeting in Parliament. “One would have to be deaf and blind not to see or hear the anger,” he said.

“This anger is rooted in a profound injustice, that of not being able to live decently from the fruits of one’s work, of not being able to provide for the needs of one’s children,” he added.

The Yellow Vest movement has been named for the roadside safety vests adopted by its protesters as a symbol of their distress and despair. The gas tax increase, which was scheduled to start in January and was equivalent to up to 25 cents a gallon, proved to be a tipping point in a country that already has some of the highest taxes in Europe.

It spurred thousand of protesters into the streets of Paris and other cities <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/02/world/europe/france-yellow-vest-protests.html?module=inline>, many from small villages and towns where stagnant salaries, steep utilities costs and onerous taxes have squeezed working families.

Largely organized over the social media, the movement is as diffuse as it is distrustful of authority. The government’s announcement of merely a six-month suspension of the gas tax increase — not a scuttling of it — left those who have emerged as Yellow Vest spokesmen wary, at the very least.

“We’re not satisfied, because the French have been struggling for years now,” Benjamin Cauchy, one of the spokesmen, said on BFM TV, a television news channel. “This could have been done weeks ago, and we would have avoided all these problems.’’

Ambulance workers and students joined anti-government demonstrations after hundreds were arrested or wounded in confrontations in Paris over the weekend. It’s the third week of the “Yellow Vest” protests that have been spurred on by a gasoline tax.Published OnDec. 2, 2018CreditCreditAbdulmonam Eassa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
‘‘Our demands are much bigger than this moratorium,’’ he added. ‘‘They’ve got to stop hitting the wallets of the small earners. We want a better distribution of wealth, salary increases. It’s about the whole baguette, not just the crumbs.”

Lionel Cucchi, a spokesman in Marseille, told BFM TV that protesters were prepared to continue.

“There’s no guarantee it won’t be back in six months,” he said of the gas tax. “There will be more demonstrations. We remain mobilized.”

Along with a suspension of the gas tax increase, the government said it would also delay new vehicle inspection measures and increases in electricity rates that were intended as part of Mr. Macron’s plans to transition France toward cleaner energy.

But to the protesters, Mr. Macron is concerned about the end of the world, while they are worried about the end of the month. They say that their purchasing power has dwindled so much that they have trouble making ends meet in rural areas and in the suburbs and exurbs of big cities.

There, working people need cars to get to jobs and conduct their daily lives, unlike many wealthier city dwellers who are unburdened by the gas tax increase and form much of the core of Mr. Macron’s support.

Indeed, Mr. Macron’s long-term vision for the country has collided sharply with the short-term needs of the working class, many of whom already ridicule Mr. Macron — a 40-year-old former banker with no political experience before he was elected — as the president of the rich <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/world/europe/france-emmanuel-macron.html?module=inline>.

The movement quickly latched onto much wider and deeper discontent <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/02/world/europe/france-yellow-vest-protests.html?module=inline> with Mr. Macron’s fiscal policies, notably his almost immediate reduction of tax on the wealthy, which to many set the tone for Mr. Macron’s priorities, especially as he then proceeded to raise taxes on many people’s pensions and on gasoline and diesel fuel.

The third weekend of demonstrations on Saturday turned violent around the country and especially in Paris <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/world/europe/france-yellow-vests-protests-macron.html?module=inline>, where protesters fought running battles with riot police officers, set cars on fire, shattered store windows and attacked banks.

The protests, responsible for millions of dollars in property damage and lost tourism revenue, have highlighted a deep socioeconomic split in the country.

On one hand, there are a few prosperous cities, where many residents strongly supported Mr. Macron in the 2017 election; on the other, there are the struggling rural areas and small towns of the postindustrial era that either voted for candidates on the extremes or did not vote at all.

It is that second France that has come into the streets against Mr. Macron in recent weeks, furious over his perceived tilt toward the wealthy and demanding his resignation. The French president has until now tried to sail above the discontent, deploying lofty abstractions and determined to discourage the French from using cars.

Burned cars in Paris on Sunday. The protests have been responsible for millions of dollars in property damage and lost tourism revenue. CreditThibault Camus/Associated Press
Burned cars in Paris on Sunday. The protests have been responsible for millions of dollars in property damage and lost tourism revenue.CreditThibault Camus/Associated Press
That response has gone down badly in the provinces, with protesters erecting mock presidential palaces at traffic circles and demanding his resignation.

Throughout Paris <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/travel/travelers-need-to-know-paris-riots.html?module=inline>, where the cost of damage has been estimated at 4 million euros, or $4.5 million, protesters sprayed graffiti that read “Macron resignation” and, on the Arc de Triomphe, “We’ve chopped off heads for less than this.”

Mr. Macron inspected the damaged <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/world/europe/france-yellow-vests-protests-macron.html?module=inline> monument on Sunday and had lunch with police forces on Monday, but so far he has not publicly addressed the unrest since his return from the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina. Many protesters see his silence as evidence that he is disconnected from the movement’s demands.

Although the protests have been modest in size, they have been unusual in their spontaneous and widespread nature, and have received enormous support on social media and near-constant coverage by the French news media.

The movement has so far failed to name representatives who could negotiate with the government. A meeting between Mr. Philippe and moderate members of the Yellow Vests was canceled on Tuesday after two of them said they had received death threats from within their own movement.

The demonstrations spread on Monday to high school students, who blocked more than 100 schools to protest some of the government’s education policies and to show support for the Yellow Vests movement.

Members of Mr. Macron’s party have warned against the rigid, solitary governing style of the president, while the far-right and far-left leaders, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have called for the dissolution of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament.

“Emmanuel Macron must question himself,” Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a former Green Party member of the European Parliament and a supporter of the president, said on France Inter radio.

“The moratorium is not enough,” he said of the suspension of the fuel tax. “It’s not a shame to back away.”

Protesters have already argued that the government’s concession would not be enough.

“We have to stop stealing from the pockets of low-income taxpayers,” said Mr. Cauchy, one of the Yellow Vests, on BFM TV. He also asked for increases in the minimum wage and pensions.

“We are not going to drop our guard,” he added, calling for another weekend of protests.

Elian Peltier and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.

Yellow Vest Protest Movement: Inequality and the Hollowness of the French Regime

Social Movements <https://socialistproject.ca/category/social-movements/>  •  December 4, 2018  •  Richard Greeman <https://socialistproject.ca/author/richard-greeman/>
https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/ <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/>
Ignored by French President Emmanuel Macron, distorted by the media, courted by the Right, snubbed by the Left, the self-organized mass movement known as the Yellow Vests <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_vests_movement> (Mouvement des gilets jaunes) is seriously challenging the political and economic order in France.

In Paris, on the morning of Saturday December 1st, as thousands of self-organized Yellow Vest protestors attempted to gather to express their grievances on the Champs-Elysées at a planned, peaceful demonstration, French CRS riot police in Paris attacked them savagely with tear-gas, flash-bombs and water-canons. By the end of the day, cars were burning near the Arc de Triomphe, and all of Paris was in chaos as groups of would-be peaceful marchers, joined by the usual casseurs (smashers) spread throughout the capital, expressing their anger at the system and calling for the resignation of President Macron.

This militarized state over-reaction to a peaceful mass demonstration breaks with a long tradition of tolerance for muscled demonstrations by rowdy angry farmers and militant labour unions. A tolerance Macron, in speeches, has blamed for the failure of previous governments to pass needed pro-business counter-reforms. Predictably, Macron (who must have ordered Saturday morning’s unprovoked, violent attacks on unarmed  demonstrators arriving early for the planned march) blamed the victims: “What happened today in Paris has nothing to do with the peaceful expression of legitimate anger,” he said on Saturday <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/world/europe/france-yellow-vests-protests-macron.html>. “Nothing justifies attacking the security forces, vandalizing businesses, either private or public ones, or that passers-by or journalists are threatened, or the Arc de Triomphe defaced.”

Meanwhile, throughout the French provinces, at least 75,000 Yellow Vest protesters (police estimate) were blocking highway entrances, intersections, and shopping centers all day – all with minimal violence and apparent general approval (80% according to recent polls).

Why France’s ‘Silent Majority’ Is Mad as Hell

Like all the spontaneous mass uprisings that dot French history going back to Feudal times, the Yellow Vest revolt was initially provoked by taxes. In this case, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Macron’s decision to increase taxes on gas and diesel fuel, which affect ordinary working and lower-middle class French people dependent on their cars to earn a living. The rebels, donning the yellow breakdown-safety vests they are required to keep in their cars by the government, have been on the warpath for three weeks now. Spurning all political parties, the Yellow Vests got organized on social media and acted locally. The broadcast media, although highly critical, spread the news nationally, and the Yellow Vest movement spread across France, blocking intersections, filtering motorists, and gathering to demonstrate, more and more numerous and militant, on successive Saturdays.

Why Saturdays?: “I can’t go on strike,” explains one woman. “I’m raising three kids alone. My job, that’s all I have left. Coming on Saturdays is the only way for me to show my anger.” Women workers – receptionists, hostesses, nurses-aids, teachers – are present in unusually large numbers in these crowds, and they are angry about a lot more than the tax on diesel.

To begin with, inequality: Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron has showered corporations and millionaires with huge tax cuts, creating a hole in the budget which he has compensated by cuts in public services (hospitals, schools, transit, police) and by tax increases for ordinary people (up to 40% of their income), large numbers of whom are struggling hard to make ends meet and going into debt. “We’re hungry and we’re fed up,” said Jessica Monnier <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/24/world/europe/france-yellow-vest-protest.html>, 28, who works in a watch factory in the French Alps. She earns €970 a month, and said: “Once I pay my bills, I don’t have enough to eat. We’re just hungry, that’s all.”

This anger has been building since last Spring, the 50th anniversary of the 1968 worker-student uprising <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1968_events_in_France>, but was frustrated when Macron won the stand-off with labour over his neoliberal, pro-business counter-reforms. This labour defeat was facilitated by the leadership of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) and other unions, played the same negative role in the 1968 sell-out to Charles de Gaulle. A half-century later the French union leaders, eager to keep their place at the political table (and on the government payroll), avoided a major confrontation, met with the government behind the scenes, and only went through the motions of carrying out strikes, spreading them over months and tiring out the workers [see my “French Labour’s Historical Defeat <http://divergences.be/spip.php?article3348>”].

Macron is also hated for his truly monarchical arrogance, ruling alone like Louis XIV, imposing his will by decrees, ignoring his opponents and patronizing the common people in a pedantic style that humiliates and enrages them. By dismissing the Yellow Vests, haughtily refusing to address their issues, and then violently repressing them despite their popularity, Macron has revealed the vast gap between his authoritarian, neoliberal regime and the mass of the French population. The French elected him in 2017 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_presidential_election,_2017>, in the run-off following the first round collapse of the traditional parties of the Left and the Right. Macron was a stop-gap to prevent the election of Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right, openly racist National Front. He has no real mandate and no political party behind him, despite an unorganized parliamentary majority.

This Saturday, the demonstrators were heard booing the TV network people on Place de la Concorde, furious at being been presented as deliberate vandals, calling the press “Usurpers.” “We wanted to come and demonstrate calmly,” said one fifty-ish Yellow Vest interviewed by Médiapart <https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/france/011218/les-gilets-jaunes-debordent-dans-les-rues-de-paris>. “I came by train, I had my ID card in my pocket. They threw so much tear-gas at us that we ran like rabbits.” He then held out a rubber cartridge. “They even fired Flash-balls at us” he added as two nearby women nodded. “Who are the Vandals?”

Another would-be demonstrator, Franck, from nearby Seine-et-Marne, added: “We came to the Champs-Elysées this morning and when we tried to approach the entry-points, we were immediately inundated with tear-gas, 300 meters before the check-points.” Furious, he spits out “Macron gasses his own people like Bashar al-Assad!”

Marité, a retiree from the suburbs, kept repeating over and over: “I confess before the CGT that I voted for Macron, and beg your forgiveness.” She has worked for 42 years, her husband for 44; together their retirement comes to $3,200 a month and their anger is deep. A woman named Morgane hisses through clenched teeth a phrase heard all over France since the beginning of the movement: “Marie-Antoinette was living high off the hog just before the Revolution also. And they cut off her head.”1 <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/#easy-footnote-bottom-1-2414>
What was remarkable at this Saturday’s chaotic mass outbreak in the streets of Paris was the fortuitous convergence of the Yellow Vests with previously scheduled demonstrations organized by the CGT and other unions as well as the feminist #MoiAussi <https://twitter.com/hashtag/MoiAussi> (#MeToo) movement, and the LGBT movement. So happenstance created the first real dialogue between members of these disparate movements which took place under clouds of tear-gas as the various demonstrators, driven away from the Champs-Elysées area by the police, wandered through the half-empty streets.

A start: Angry French people waited all Spring for the promised “convergence” of the various unions of students and workers united against Macron’s reactionary anti-reforms which the leaders never organized, leaving the different groups of strikers isolated.

Popular Risings, Elite Contempt

The French popular classes have long historical memories, and seem unaffected by the postmodern scholarly denigration of the 1789 French Revolution and its successors as useless explosions of popular violence which inevitably led to bloody dictatorships. Morgane knows all she needs to know about the guillotine. According to Gérard Noiriel <https://noiriel.wordpress.com/2018/11/21/les-gilets-jaunes-et-les-lecons-de-lhistoire/>, author of a monumental history of France ‘from below,’ “The Yellow Vests who block highways and refuse to be coopted by political parties have taken up, in confused form, the tradition of the Sans-culottes of 1792-93, the citizen-combatants of February 1848, the Communards of 1870-71 and the anarcho-syndicalists of the Banquet Years.”

Indeed, these traditions go back much earlier, to the Feudal period, with its periodic uprisings of peasants burning landlord’s chateaux and urban rioters taking over towns. What changed in late 18th Century France was the development of roads and mail service, that enabled revolutionary Committees of Correspondence to coordinate and organize discontent on a national level. Today, Internet social networks and network news play the same role in real time.

Like today’s Yellow Vest rebellion, all these historical uprisings were initially about excessive unfair taxes, like the Tithe of 10% (imposed by the wealthy Catholic Church on the poor), the royal Gabelle tax on salt (necessary for life and preserving foodstuffs) and the Corvée (days of free labour owed to the noble landlord, the Church and the government). Although violent, these spontaneous, self-organized risings eventually led to the democratic republic, the Rights of Man and of the Citizen <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen>, free secular education, etc. (all under threat today).

The other common denominator between the Yellow Vests and historical popular movements is the near-universal contempt with which they were (are) treated by France’s elite classes: the royalty, the nobility, the upper clergy, official academic historians, and today the media and the leadership of the unions and Left parties, who have joined the establishment and are an integral part of what the French call the “political class.”

Class Prejudice

Not so much has changed since the Old Regime. Then, the nobles derisively referred to any peasant as “Jacques Bonhomme” (Jack Goodfellow), and to their violent uprisings as “Jacqueries.” Around 1360 the revered French chronicler Jean Froissart reported: “These evil folk assembled together without a leader and without arms were stealing and burning everything and killing without pity and without merci, like rabid dogs. And they made a king among them who was the worst of the bad; and this king they called Jacques Bonhomme.”

In fact, says Noiriel, the archives show the peasants selected as their spokesman one Guillaume Carle, known to be “a good thinker and a good talker.”

Similarly, for three weeks the government, the media, and even the Left (parties and unions) have been attempting to present the Yellow Vests as red-necks and/or vandals, while reducing their generalized anger to the issue of gas taxes. On one TV broadcast, the reporter kept trying to get the Yellow Vest being interviewed to say she was rebelling against taxes, but the woman kept repeating over and over: “Fed up to the ass-hole,” “We’ve had it up to the ass,” “Everything.”2 <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/#easy-footnote-bottom-2-2414>
The organized Left has shown little sympathy for this, self-organized, autonomous (albeit amorphous) uprising of desperate and angry lower middle class people who, out of long experience, reject domination by union and party leaders. Plus, they live in places no one has heard of and sing the Marseillaise <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Marseillaise> (originally a revolutionary song, but who remembers). More, the color “Yellow” used to stand for “scab unions.” So the unions and Left parties, as usual embroiled in infighting among each other, instead of supporting the Yellow Vests’ struggle against Macron and offering leadership by example, left the field open to the Right. Le Pen’s people (also embroiled in internal squabbles) attempted to manipulate the movement and made little headway, as did belatedly Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

France in Crisis?

Hegemonic Balance Sheet:

An autocratic President without a party or a mandate. Crowds calling for him to resign. A desperate lower class population angry over growing economic inequality in a rich country and government indifference to their plight. A class of organized civil servants and unionized workers still licking their wounds and paying their bills after failing to block the President’s counter-reforms last Spring.

Traditional parties – Left (Socialists, etc.) and Right (Gaullists etc.) – that have alternated in power since the end of WWII diminished and eclipsed. The parties of the far Left (Mélenchon, various Trotskyists, etc.) and the far Right (the former National Front) are too preoccupied with internal fights to play any significant role.

Powerful, effective mass media dominated by the interests of big business but viewed with suspicion by more and more of the population.

A brand-new “leaderless” spontaneous mass movement connected by social media, “finding its way by walking,” more or less consciously embedded in a long history of rebellions and struggle, finding its natural leaders (“good thinkers, good talkers” like old Guillaume Carle), putting forth its own ideas for the reorganization of society.

Here are the two latest proposals coming from the Yellow Vests and borrowed from the history the 18th Century French revolution. First, a call for a kind of democratic constituent assembly. Second, the creation of Cahiers de doléances (Grievance Notebooks) like the ones in 1788 listing all the people’s complaints and proposed remedies. Both great ideas. We can only hope that given the hollowness of the hegemony of the French political class, the convenience of social media for self-organization, and the desperate desire for dignity and participatory democracy incarnated in this latest historical uprising, something good may come of it.

Meanwhile, here are excerpts from the 2018 Yellow Vest Grievance list3 <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/#easy-footnote-bottom-3-2414>:

No one left homeless.
End the austerity policy. Cancel the interest on illegitimate debt. Don’t tax the poor to pay it back, find the €85-billion of fiscal fraud uncollected.
Create a true integration policy, with French language, history and civics courses for immigrants.
Minimum salary €1500 per month.
Privilege city and village centers. Stop building huge shopping centers.
More progressive income tax rates.
Big companies like McDonald’s, Google, Amazon and Carrefour should pay big taxes, and little artisans low taxes. •

Quotations translated from Les «gilets jaunes» débordent dans les rues de Paris <https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/france/011218/les-gilets-jaunes-debordent-dans-les-rues-de-paris>. <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/#easy-footnote-1-2414>
«on en a ras le cul», «ras le cul», «ras le bol généralisé” BFM-TV, Nov.17, reported in Les gilets jaunes et les «lecons de l’histoire». <https://noiriel.wordpress.com/2018/11/21/les-gilets-jaunes-et-les-lecons-de-lhistoire/> <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/#easy-footnote-2-2414>
Great long list. <https://aplutsoc.org/2018/12/01/la-methode-des-cahiers-de-doleances-par-robert-duguet/> <https://socialistproject.ca/2018/12/yellow-vest-protest-movement/#easy-footnote-3-2414>

Richard Greeman has been active since 1957 in civil rights, anti-war, anti-nuke, environmental and labour struggles in the U.S., Latin America, France (where he has been a longtime resident) and Russia (where he helped found the Praxis Research and Education Center in 1997). He maintains a blog at richardgreeman.org <http://richardgreeman.org/>.


Jai Sen

jai.sen at cacim.net <mailto:jai.sen at cacim.net>
www.cacim.net <http://www.cacim.net/> / http://www.openword.net.in

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