The Popular Volcano is Back!

Paul Elek on the « yellow vests » (gilets jaunes) uprising.

The French volcano is erupting again, after years of deep underground activity. Saturday 1st of December the world has discovered how deep is the social crisis ongoing in France. After a long day of riots spreading over the most prestigious neighbourhoods of Paris, the media and the French government finally realised the extent of this social movement that started a few weeks before. I will try here to give to the best of my knowledge a few key information to understand the « yellow vests » (gilets jaunes) uprising.

The yellow fever spread over the country before any one had time to realise. If numerous were the actors to constantly claim that the social fracture in France was on the verge to lead to a social burst out the last decade, from the union to political parties no one would seek to deny that no one saw this one coming! Originally the movement started as a call to put forward a yellow vest on the dashboard of the cars to protest against a rise of a tax on fuel[1]. The government had announced his intention to rise taxation in order to finance investment in renewable energies. However only 7 billions (20,5%) of the expected outcomes of the tax were to be directly invested in it[2]. In October various videos calling for a mobilisation on social media started to receive momentum at the grassroots level.  At the end of a month a petition calling for a « non-punitive » ecologic policy and the withdrawal of the tax gathered a million signatures in the time of a week. These calls to a « citizen » and « apolitical » mobilisation echoed in the popular classes, the activity on social media peaked and soon a proposition of demonstrating on the 17th of November reached a consensus on various facebook groups. What was striking at the beginning was how the political topic was understood as an anti-tax revolt, a refusal to pay more. The left was indeed very suspicious of this demand, qualified by certains of « poujadist »[3] or feared by others as a « fascist » or «far right led initiative». Defying any media coverage and political discourse the few initiators of the movement called for a mobilisation beyond « political parties and unions ». On the 17th of November while some demonstrations took place, the originality of the actions that took place resided in the numerous blockade and occupations of roundabout, highways, roads and even commercial zones (nowadays, in rural and peri-urban areas, all the commercial activities are concentrated on these areas outside of the cities, mainly accessible by car). The mobilisation saw around 300.000 to 400.000 people self-organising and wearing the famous yellow vest that the law imposes to possess in every vehicle as a way to stay visible in case of a car crash.

Shift from Anti-Tax Claim to Deeper Social Crisis

It’s been 20 days and the movement is still standing strong. Every day people are still occupying roundabouts, slowing down traffics on highways and roads, controlling the access to commercial areas located in peri-urban and rural areas. However, the movement shifted from an anti-tax claim to a deeper social crisis. The second week, on November 24th, a demonstration on the Champs Elysées turned to a debacle for the government. These last years were characterised of recurrent and frequent repression and police brutality. This time people organised barricades on the most famous French avenue. The clashes with police lasted all days however they were concentrated on the Champs Elysée. While the media and the government tried tirelessly to blame « far right groups » and « professional breakers » in order to discredit the movement, the support of the public opinion grew stronger[4]. The more the government refused to hear popular claims the more the movement shifted to a social uprising against the « high cost of life » and the « social injustice of the government policies ». Indeed, the government launched once in power various policies that nowadays backfired. The most emblematic is the decrease of the ISF (a tax on high fortunes). The 100 richest people of the country received the equivalent of a million Euros each in tax reduction. People living in rural and peripheral areas -and therefore forced to use cars to go to work or any social activity- refused to be the one to pay and make an over effort while the most privileged remained spared by the antisocial policies of President Macron, known nowadays as « the President of the rich ». The left had warned that years of austerity and contraction of wages would lead to an eruption of « deep France », the one of the 8,5 millions living under the poverty line, the one of minimum wage (1187euros) workers. What is however interesting is the profound heterogeneity of the people involved. An ongoing study of Espaces Marx has reached the early conclusions that people mobilising count numerous non-voters, people that had voted for the National Front as well as partisans of the France Insoumise. At the moment, the involvement of supporters of Le Pen does not seem to influence the course of the movement. The grassroots characterisation of this movement resides in the large involvement of popular classes, deprived, poor and precarious workers as well as numerous seniors living on miserable pensions. The existing political consensus is however to refuse any political exploitation of their anger, from unions to political parties. 

Why did the movement shift to a deeper social and political crisis? At first, it was very interesting to see the media inviting these improvised activist on their channels explaining their refusal to pay more and more. The bourgeoisie always supported this discourse that consists in blaming France high fiscal rate and social contribution. It helped indeed in the past the mainstream discourse aiming at dismantling social protections and public services. However, sooner than they realised, the more the government was answering they will « stay the course », the more the political demands evolved. Soon enough people started to ask to withdraw the decrease of the ISF, to increase the minimum wages as well as the level of pensions. They also expressed a high demand of public services to come back, particularly in these rural and peri-urban areas that suffers from the disparition of these services (from health to postal services or transportations). The second main political idea put forward was the necessity of an institutional change: different demands started to emerge, from the suppression of the Senate to dissolving the National Assembly and asking for new elections. The government and its ruling majority -composed by the high class MPs absolutely disconnected from people’s reality- are still not realising how the situation is aggravating.

Broad Support for the Yellow Vests

The whole political opposition from left to right had called to support the movement while the public opinion was showing a support from 72 to 80% of the population according to the different polling stations[5]. On Saturday 1st of December, the mobilisation reached another level in terms of violence and radicality. Riots erupted in Paris and six others cities while the blockades and actions spread over the countries were still on going for more than two weeks. People trying to reach the Presidential Palace took over the streets in the most bourgeois neighbourhood of Paris. Since the beginning of the movement more than 800 people have been injured[6], an old lady died after received a teargas grenade in the head, two persons are in a coma after being shot with a LBD40 (a rifle shooting rubber bullets) in the head[7], despite the strict police procedure forbidding « flat trajectory ». The repression is unthinkable and numerous have been arrested (1600[8]) and sentenced after expedite procedures. The political power got scared last Saturday and his narrative on « ultra leftist » and « ultra right » wanting chaos and attacking the Republics did not convince the population. At the beginning of the week, the Prime Minister announced a « moratorium » on the fuel tax for six months. People did not demobilise, understanding it was just a trap. Two days later the government canceled the tax for the year, almost begging people not to call for a new demonstration on Saturday, asking for a dialogue to be open. However, it was too little and too late and now people are asking for way more. The most common one is the resignation of President Macron. The government claimed this week the Republic was in danger, and calling for demonstrations on Saturday would be irresponsible. The same President that had despised the unions and the opposition is asking them now to call for a lull. Now, the student and high schoolers have joined the movement, demonstrations escalated with the police repression. On Thursday the 6th of December, while the government announced they will use military armoured vehicle for the Saturday demonstration to come, videos of a hundred high-schoolers kneeling down, hands on their head, « under police supervision » surfaced in the press and social media[9]. The crisis is unprecedented and the political power seems lost in translation.

The potential of this multifaceted movement is strong. It has stalled the ability of the government to continue its objective of dismantling the whole social protection and welfare system in France. However, the potential political outcomes of the movement are yet to be defined. If the left (France Insoumise, PCF, some socialist) and some of the unions (Solidaires and local sections of the CGT) have entered the battle, some of the political demands are not progressive. It’s difficult in the current period to determine which political demands are supported by all or put forward by the majority and not some individuals. Some still can not be accepted by the left: decrease of social contribution of firms,  expelling migrants that have been denied asylum, … For the moment, the politicisation of the movement has settled on the « high cost of life » and the necessity to tax the rich and the big companies to support a new ecology policy. Defining the course of this deep crisis is a daily battle, one that seems to be won at the moment by progressive forces. Macron, be aware, the French people want you out!

For further reading: Demands of France’s Yellow Vests as uploaded by France Bleu, Nov 29;