The French Yellow Vest movement has shown how deep class bitterness can suddenly turn from sullen passivity into extraordinary revolt.
It has seen ten weeks of inspiring challenge to the government of president Emmanuel Macron and his corporate supporters.
Macron came to office in 2017 resolving never to bow to strikes or protests. He said he would, at last, make French workers and pensioners accept the harsh facts of capitalist life.
But the durability and fury of the Yellow Vest movement has forced Macron into humiliating retreats.
It exploded into view on 17 November last year when 280,000 people joined road blockades over fuel price rises. It is a political earthquake, tearing up lazy ideas that people can’t fight or that social discontent is always captured by the right.
Some of Paris’s poshest shops have been looted, and fires have lit up city centres across much of France.
Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of the 8th district area of Paris, close to the Arc de Triomphe, said, “We are in a state of insurrection. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The movement has forced issues of poverty, low pay and inequality into national discussion. Above all it has given a focus for the bitter resentment at the arrogance and contempt the rich and politicians display towards ordinary people.
Resentments that have been building for decades have found an outlet—and the elite are terrified.
After Macron made concessions on 10 December, the head of the Medef bosses’ organisation said, “It’s true that 15 billion euros is a lot. But if it helps to restore civil peace, it’s worth it.” He then claimed to quote Lenin, “We must always be a step ahead of the masses.”
But the masses were ahead of him. The concessions led many people to conclude that Macron’s rotten government could be forced to concede more—or be toppled by revolt.
Issues that people normally grumble about but feel powerless to affect have become open to collective action. “I used to spend my evenings yelling at the telly but together, you know, we can make things change,” said Jean, a construction worker from Lille.
After a report that an Amazon warehouse at Saran in the Loiret was destroying unsold products to avoid taxes, a group of Yellow Vests blocked the site.
They cut off virtually all incoming and outgoing traffic. Amazon bosses were forced to admit that they had scrapped 293,000 items in the last nine months, and that they would seek to change.
The most visible and confrontational aspects of the movement are the mobilisations on Saturdays.
But its real base is the blockades on roads, tollbooths and roundabouts, local events, and assemblies of hundreds where people thrash out their demands.
The Yellow Vests movement has brought together workers, unemployed people, small business owners, pensioners and students. It has encouraged creativity, social contact and shared the idea that people’s problems are not because of their individual failings but the way society is organised.
There have been constant slurs that the Yellow Vests are guided by the far right. But although such elements do exist within it, the general trend has been leftwards.
A major survey of protesters in Le Monde newspaper found less than 1.5 percent of those interviewed mentioned immigration as an issue that was important to them.
A poll released by France 2 TV found 33 percent of Yellow Vest protesters said they were neither left nor right. Some 15 percent described themselves as extreme left and 5.4 percent said far right.
There has been a conscious process of weeding out fascists.
On 5 January in Bordeaux, far right activists were physically expelled from a Yellow Vest demonstration. Known activists from the Nazi Action Francaise and hard core elements from far right youth groups were pushed off.
In Paris members of Groupe Union Defense, a far right student group, have been removed from Yellow Vest events after chanting racist, sexist and homophobic slogans.
Celine is a Yellow Vest from Toulouse. She told Socialist Worker, “In many areas we have won the argument that it is not possible to fight for more justice, for better wages and pensions, alongside fachos.”
And sometimes the struggle itself has taught people lessons.
In Caen before Christmas the Yellow Vests had nowhere to meet because of state repression. The one place that welcomed them was a migrant squat.
Although at first some people were nervous about it, the assembly of 400 Yellow Vests took place in a warehouse where 200 undocumented people live. The right wingers hated it, but most people learned that the migrants were their allies.
Many Yellow Vests have also developed a hatred of the cops.
State forces range from the normal police to the CRS riot squads to the shadowy groups of masked men identified only by police armbands. All have been unleashed in huge numbers against peaceful protesters.
Up to 80,000 state thugs are mobilised every weekend against the Yellow Vests, backed by armoured cars and all the technology of modern repression.
They habitually use fire tear gas, percussion grenades and “flashballs”—a projectile fired from a special gun. Zineb Redouane, 80 years old, was killed in Marseille after a police tear gas grenade hit her in the face.
More than 2,000 people have been badly injured by police. According to the website Desarmons-les! (Disarm them!), four people have had their hands torn off by grenades and 17 have been blinded. Dozens of others have had feet mutilated, faces smashed and jaws fractured.
Some 5,000 people have been arrested. Last week 28 year old Hedi Martin was sentenced to six months in jail for a Facebook post calling for a Yellow Vest blockade of the petrol refinery at Port-la-Nouvelle.
Macron hoped this would intimidate people off the streets. He failed.
People have defended themselves—and learned many valuable lessons. Aline, a factory worker from Marseille, told Socialist Worker, “I used to think the police were doing their best in hard situations. I didn’t sympathise with the students or the ecologists when they got attacked.
“I have been with the Yellow Vests for eight weeks. Now I think the police are there for the rich, for the puffed-up people, and for the powerful. I have gone from anger to being frightened to feeling strong again when we are together.
“When I saw Christophe Dettinger [a former professional boxer] fight the police I cheered him. I wanted him to knock them all down! Listen to me, I can hardly believe I’m saying this.
“Now if the youngsters in the housing estates take on the cops I will wish them well.”
Women have played leading roles and participated in large numbers. In some areas there are childcare services to enable women, particularly single mothers, to be part of the movement.
Laeticia, a Yellow Vest and single mother from the Haute Garonne region, wrote about how the movement was a way to express her pent-up rage about her conditions of life. “Wearing this piece of yellow fabric is warmer than a good duvet in winter,” she said.
And there are experiments in movement democracy. General meetings regularly take place in a dozen cities and towns in order to coordinate protests and decide where to target next.
On the outskirts of Rennes, there has been an almost continuous gathering of a group called the “Yellow Rabbits” (“Yellow Vests who run fast”) for a month. People debate tax, inequality, police violence, what happened in 1968 and much more.
But the movement still has serious weaknesses. It is not yet big enough to guarantee defeat for Macron. Although they are far more militant, the mobilisations are smaller than the union-led ones last year.
To be really effective the movement has to be linked to action in the workplaces—strikes and occupations.
This is how it can win.
Union leaders, parties and revolts today
One of the clearest features of the Yellow Vests is a hostility to the existing political parties and to features of the trade unions.
That’s not surprising. Many trade union leaders have insulted the movement.
Laurent Berger, the head of the second largest union federation the CFDT, said the movement was “totalitarian”. The CGT, the biggest federation, has been forced to express sympathy for the Yellow Vests’ demands.
But its leaders have said previously they don’t want to march alongside the far right and therefore won’t directly join the movement. Instead they offer largely ineffective calls for days of action—the same strategy that has failed over the past decades.
The distance of the unions from the movement has worried some right wingers.
The conservative Le Figaro newspaper wrote in December, “For a century, the CGT channelled popular discontent. The crisis of the Yellow Vests showed how valuable this expertise was. And how the general crisis of trade unionism is problematic.”
For some bosses the union leaders are too ineffective to close down the resistance.
There is growing anger inside the unions at the lack of action from the top. At rank and file level there are links between strikers and Yellow Vests. These need to develop much further.
The CGT federation has called for a general strike on Tuesday 5 February. The demands—reform of the tax system, a rise in the minimum wage and other wages, defence of the right to protest and the end of state handouts to private firms—are similar to some of those put forward by the Yellow Vests.
But the CGT’s official call does not even mention the Yellow Vests.
Carried through everywhere the strike could be another hammer-blow against Macron. But it must not just be a face-saving exercise for the union leaders
Bernard, a CGT rep from Lille told Socialist Worker, “We have pushed for this, let’s build it big. But it is quite a long time to 5 February, I wish it were sooner.
“And it can’t just be one day followed by back to usual. France is on fire. We need bolder and bolder measures. Workers at the base have to fight to take control and make their own links with the Yellow Vests.
“Maybe in some places we could keep going after 5 February, and that idea could spread.
“We have to keep thinking how to go beyond slogans and actually bring together workers in unions and the new movement.”
But there is also an important general lesson. Protests like the Yellow Vests will be seen elsewhere.
The decline in most countries of Labour-type parties and of union strength means such forces won’t necessarily be in charge when revolt breaks.
Movements against the existing order can be messy and shot through with contradictions. But revolutionaries have to get involved and seek to shape them towards left wing solutions.
Revolt that has slipped the moorings of control by the union leaders or the traditional parties can move further to both left and to the right than when the equivalent of the TUC and the Labour Party are in charge.
None of this should lead socialists away from a determination to build the unions or lead union struggles. The unions are not finished or irrelevant.
But the Yellow Vests underlines that our vision of trade unionism must not be the besuited general secretary explaining why struggle is impossible and why the Tories’ rule must be obeyed.
When we say that it’s critical for the Yellow Vests to fuse with strikes and, the power of organised workers, that does not mean ”Do what the union leaders tell you to”.
It means the opposite—link up with workers’ power but don’t trust the union leaders.
Equally any revolutionary in Britain has to take the Labour Party seriously. But insisting that revolt is channelled through Labour or parliament misses out on what is inspiring about the Yellow Vests. It’s significant that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have been wholly silent on the movement taking place just across the Channel.
If a social explosion comes in Britain it will have many complex features. We can see in miniature how already there is a battle with the fascists for who expresses the soul of the movement here.
But we should wholly welcome the Yellow Vest revolt and be ready for such mass events in Britain.