French president Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to break and divide the Yellow Vest movement by making small concessions has spectacularly failed.
He went on national television to say he had heard and understood protesters’ anger, which he said was “deep and in many ways legitimate”.
He added, “I know I have hurt some of you with my words.”
Macron went on to announce a little more money for the lowest paid through an increase in a benefit, and tax exemptions for overtime working. That policy was first pushed by right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy a decade ago.
Some pensioners, but far from all, will have a planned tax rise cancelled.
Macron added that he would like, but would not force, employers to pay everyone an end of year bonus.
But he insisted that one of his most controversial measures, a big tax cut for the richest, would go ahead.
Put forward in November, such measures might have looked attractive. But the Yellow Vest movement has moved far beyond tiny demands.
Most Yellow Vests were unimpressed. One prominent figure said, “We don’t want a few crumbs, we want the whole baguette.”
Macron’s fake retreats anger the most militant Yellow Vests because the changes are inadequate. They simultaneously encourage the less confident who notice that struggle gets results.
“Act V” of the Yellow Vests’ rebellion was due to take place on 15 December. It follows four weeks of revolt on the streets, in schools, universities and, increasingly, workplaces.
The strikes are crucial, and the call for unity of struggles and a general strike has grown.
The movement has inspired resistance in other countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands.
Protesters in Iraq have been inspired to wear yellow vests on their own demonstrations. And in Egypt the regime of dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has restricted the sale of yellow vests ahead of the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Repression has not broken the movement.
On 8 December the state mobilised 90,000 police across France to prevent protests. In Paris there were 8,000 police with 180,000 tear gas grenades and backed by 12 armoured cars.
Eventually there were over 1,200 arrests nationwide and scores of people wounded.
But it didn’t stop the furious protests, not just in Paris but in Marseille, Dijon, Bordeaux, Lille, Nantes, Strasbourg, Nice, Caen, St Etienne, Toulouse and Montpelier.
Young people in particular have been inspired by the Yellow Vests—and the repression of their protests has underlined the violence of the state.
Having failed to defeat the movement with sham concessions, Macron may turn to more violence—and racism.
In his television address he ominously called for something to be done about French people’s identity, about immigration and about so-called threats to secularism.
But united and more militant struggle can defeat all of Macron’s scheming and push for fundamental change.
This revolt of the forgotten can win if protests spread to strikes
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the student leaders in the mass revolt of May 1968, claimed that “the large majority of the Yellow Vest movement comes from the National Front, from the reservoir of the extreme right”.
This slur is easily refuted by anyone who has looked at the demands coming from large parts of the movement.
There are many different versions. But the most unifying ones are for a big increase in taxation on the rich, more money for the services ordinary people need, the removal of Macron and an end to privatisation.
A Yellow Vest collective in Commercy, in north eastern France, put out a video calling “for the formation of popular assemblies across France”.
It said protesters want “a new order in which those who are nothing, and are spoken of with contempt, take back power from all those who stuff themselves, from the rulers and the powers of money.” Not all Yellow Vests think like this. There is a battle between left and right.
But the general trend is towards the left, towards unity with strikers and the young people who are taking to the streets in growing numbers.
The most effective form of action to deepen the revolt is to spread it, and more workers striking to halt production and services.
Macron cannot withstand extended mass strikes that link the street protests and the movements by young people.
The CGT union has called Friday 14 December as a national day of action including a rail strike and strikes in significant other parts of the public sector.
All such actions are welcome. Millions of rank and file workers in the unions either are themselves Yellow Vests or support those who are fighting back.
But many union leaders are coming over very reluctantly to add extra forces to the struggle.
They are trying to run to the front of it in order to control it.
They will settle for small gains when much bigger ones—both economic and political—are possible.
Union leaders in the CGT and FO federations called off a national truck drivers’ strike that was set to start on Sunday 9 December.
The effect would have been devastating for the government if it had gone ahead.
Higher taxes on the poor will not save the planet
Big marches against catastrophic climate change also took place in Paris on Saturday 8 December and in many other cities across France.
The government has tried to camouflage its tax increases on fuel by saying that they are needed to curb harmful emissions.
This led to a Yellow Vest activist to respond that Macron “talks about the end of the world while we are talking about getting through to the end of the month”.
But the government’s attempts to caricature the Yellow Vests as ignorant and selfish about climate change have collapsed.
Some Yellow Vests joined the climate demonstrations.
Benoit came from a roadblock on the Tourville-la-Riviere roundabout in Normandy to be part of the one in Paris.
“We are here for the climate and against the excesses of the capitalist system. We are all Yellow Vests,” he said.
One prominent banner read, “End of the month, end of the world, same people guilty, same struggle.”
Several marchers had Yellow Vests daubed with the slogan, “Make the rich pay for the ecological transition.” In Lille some marchers wore half-yellow,
half-green jackets. Vital ecological changes can’t be rammed through by making working class people poorer and without their involvement and agreement.
The unity of the Yellow Vests and the climate activists is a very important step forward.
After the end of the climate march, activists who had attended both were chanting for Macron to resign—they were attacked by police.
‘We are determined now’
“I have never seen anything like it in France.
I have been going on student and then trade union demonstrations for 35 years.
But I have never seen the scale of fury against the authorities as we had in Toulouse on 8 December.
It began peacefully with thousands of people on Yellow Vest and ecological demonstrations which came together.
Then police started acting very heavy, firing tear gas and people weren’t having it. We are confident and determined now, we don’t take shit.
Protesters put up huge barricades and the police could not advance for over an hour. They were pelted with paving stones, materials from a construction site and bottles and jars from a glass recycling bin.
A metro station was set on fire.
There were dozens of arrests but it doesn’t hold people back.
This has been coming for a long time. The week before there were school strikes in Toulouse that were attacked by police.
Earlier this year in a poor part of the city there were riots over the death of a man in prison and racist attitudes by police towards Muslim women.
It’s not a revolt about fuel tax anymore, if it ever was just about that.
It’s become a place where everyone can put forward their anger and their demands. Mostly it’s very progressive, very united.”
‘Politicians are for the rich’
“We love the Yellow Vests, we admire them for going for the cops and for refusing to follow orders.
At my school we are part of the protests over the new system that will make it harder for people to go to university and will hit students from outside France. But we are also fed up with the way things are.
The politicians are for the rich and for the corporations, the ones that take our future and burn the planet.
I’m fed up with reading about ’68.
I want to be like that but better, we want a revolution.”
Elisabeth, school student, Paris