Important, radical and contradictory movements have shaken both France and Italy in recent months. Tax rises and subsidy cuts have been at the forefront in both places, but the social forces at play are not quite the same.
In Italy the “pitchfork protests”, a movement of the self-employed and small business owners, have spread from Sicily to various cities. They demand tax cuts for small businesses.
Thousands demonstrated on 9 December. Transport was stopped and many shops closed in Turin, as protesters hurled stones at the local government building.
Street vendors and unemployed people have joined the movement.
The grievances of many protesters are real. Austerity hit workers first through unemployment and lower wages. But shop owners and the like are now suffering from rising taxes and as people buy less.
The main trade unions are widely seen to be complicit in the austerity policies of successive governments, including the present coalition led by the centre left. The movement’s spokespeople name unions as targets for anger.
The far right Northern League and the disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi have voiced their support for the movement. So has populist Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Star Movement had a surprise success in last year’s election.
Italian socialist Franco Turigliatto has argued that, in the absence of a strong left, the movement is leading to a consolidation of ultra-reactionary and fascist tendencies.
Meanwhile in France, a widespread wave of anger took hold of the Britanny region in the autumn.
Sacked workers in the food industry have led the way calling for a ban on layoffs. And local bosses have seized on discontent with a new “eco-tax” to try and wrestle concessions from the besieged centre left government of Francois Hollande.
They have also blamed the end of some European Union subsidies for the layoffs. Tens of thousands of workers have marched—with bosses’ organisations also present.
Part of the left, including the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and some unions, have taken part in order to promote their own demands and stop the bosses taking the leadership of the movement.
Other organisations, such as the Front de Gauche led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, steered clear and dismissed it as entirely reactionary.
Instead, it decided to attack the government’s taxation policy from another angle. It called for a demonstration in Paris against the rises in VAT, which over 10,000 people attended on 1 December.
The NPA also participated in this march in order to push for left unity. Marches and strikes continue in Britanny.
What the events in France and Italy show is that in a period of prolonged crisis, social explosions will always occur.
But they don’t necessarily take a progressive direction, especially if the labour and trade union movement have not opposed austerity.
It also shows that nothing is written in advance.
Socialist activists have a crucial role to play in order to give confidence to workers so they can take the initiative and lead other impoverished layers of society.
If not, the forces of the right and the far right will leap at the opportunity.
As things stand the forces of the right are forging ahead in Italy, while in France the outcome is still open. It will take a stronger, unified, radical and non-sectarian left to score victories.