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After a year of the Yellow Vests – a new chance for united struggle in France

This article is over 4 years, 3 months old
Richard Greeman, a Marxist writer and activist best known for his work on Victor Serge, marks the one-year anniversary of the Yellow Vests by looking at what the movement has achieved and the prospects for future struggles
Issue 2681
Yellow Vests in Montpellier to mark the one-year anniversary of the movement
Yellow Vests marching in Montpellier

The Yellow Vests celebrated their first birthday last weekend with convivial barbeques on traffic circles (roundabouts) across France followed by direct actions such as liberating tollbooths.

The number of protesters has declined to about 10 percent of the estimated 400,000 who rose up a year ago on 17 November. This is thanks to a year of violent police repression, media distortion and sheer fatigue.

Yet a surprisingly large number of women and men throughout la France profonde – middle France – came out of “retirement” for Act 53 of the weekly Yellow Vest drama. That’s double the previous weeks’ numbers.

Recent polls indicate that 10 percent of French people consider themselves “Yellow Vests”. And two thirds still support them – although a majority wish they would go home!

The first anniversary of the Yellow Vest uprising marks an historic moment. It is perhaps the first time in history that a self-organised, unstructured, leaderless, social movement has survived for so long.

There was eager discussion on the traffic circles last weekend of an unlimited general strike called by the CGT and other unions for 5 December.

At the start of November, the Yellow Vests’ nationwide “Assembly of Assemblies” called for “convergence” with the strike. The leader of the CGT, who had previously snubbed the Yellow Vests, reacted by inviting them to join.

Yellow Vests have faced a year of lonely, increasingly dangerous, physical resistance to the neoliberal counter-reforms of the arrogant, unpopular “president of the rich”. Now suddenly new perspectives are opening for the Yellow Vests in their unequal struggle with the powerful, unified, increasingly authoritarian, capitalist state.

None of the above events transpired through the French mainstream media, which as usual concentrated on two subjects – violence and Paris.

In the capital last Saturday, as happens every Saturday, robo-cops outnumbered demonstrators and prevented them from marching along routes that had been (for once!) agreed. A few bands of black-cladcasseurs – vandals who never seem to get arrested – smashed bank windows and set a couple of cars on fire. The usual.

Yellow Vests take issue with capitalism

Yellow Vests take issue with capitalism (Pic: Photothèque Rouge /Photothèque Rouge/DamienVergne)

Sociologists, historians and analysts universally recognise that the Yellow Vests are unique among such movements as they are based in the provinces, rather than Paris. You would never guess this from French TV.

The highpoint of Channel 3’s evening coverage of the nationwide anniversary, was a woman reporter standing in front of the Arc of Triumph, with a perfectly empty Champs Elysées in the background, going on at length about the great achievement of the “forces of order” in keeping this rich Parisian neighborhood safe by emptying it.

The next day’s top story quoted a thuggish gangster named Costner, Emmanuel Macron’s minister of interior (Police), calling the Paris vandals “thugs and gangsters.” Nothing new.

On Sunday, Channel 5 aired a serious, well-produced, hour-long retrospective on the Yellow Vests. The words “convergence” and “Assembly of Assemblies” – of which there have been four – were never spoken.

Clips of Yellow Vests acting violent were shown, but no images of the government’s systematic excessive violence against demonstrators. This has been sharply condemned by the Human Rights Commissions of both the United Nations and the European Union. No wonder, “Turn off your TV and come out to talk with us,” was among the Yellow Vests’ first slogans.

The fourth Assembly of Assemblies in Montpellier brought together 500 Yellow Vests delegated by over 200 local groups from all over France.


Cops attacking Yellow Vests in Nantes

Cops attacking Yellow Vests in Nantes

It was pulled together at the last minute in an abandoned, futuristic Agriculture museum known as “the Saucer”. It was a convivial event, with food supplied by local soup kitchens, endless small-group discussions and endless goodwill.

There was controversy around the issue of “convergence” with the unions, of which many Yellow Vests are suspicious, as they are of political parties.

Montpellier was chosen at the Third Assembly of Assemblies to host the Fourth. The somewhat secretive local organisers designed the format so as to exclude plenary sessions and official appeals, for example for convergence with the unions.

But the huge majority of delegates, although critical of the unions’ bureaucratic leaders, were eager to ally themselves with organised workers and converge with the strikes.

At the last minute, the efforts of the organisers to limit debate were overwhelmed, and a near-unanimous Assembly voted for the following appeal:

“After a year of tireless mobilisation, the situation has reached a turning point. The time has come for convergence with the world of work and its web of thousands of union members who, like us, don’t accept it. All the constituent sections of the people of France must join together – peasants, retired people, the youth, artists, people with disabilities, artisans, artists, the unemployed, temps, workers in both the public and private sectors….

“Beginning on 5 December hundreds of thousands of workers will be on strike and meeting in general assemblies to ratify its continuation until the satisfaction of our demands. The ADA of Montpellier calls on the Yellow Vests to be at the heart of the movement, with their own demands and aspirations, at their jobs or on their traffic circles with their Yellow Vests clearly visible!

“The defeat of the government’s reform of retirements would open the way to other victories for our camp. Everyone into the street beginning 5 December, on strike, on traffic circles or in blocking actions.”

CGT leader Philippe Martinez immediately declared that the Yellow Vest appeal to join the strike movement was “a very good thing”. He added, “We have been trying for a year to find convergences, and little by little we’re getting there.

The press chose to focus on a few burning cars in Paris instead of broader Yellow Vest actions

The press chose to focus on a few burning cars in Paris instead of broader Yellow Vest actions (Pic: Photothèque Rouge /Martin Noda / Hans Lucas)

“We have the same preoccupations – the cost of living, the environment, unemployment.”

The Assembly of Assemblies also voted for unanimous appeals for international solidarity with all the social movements and uprisings around the globe, including in Algeria, Chile, Iraq, Catalonia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Sudan, Colombia, Haïti, and Guinée-Conakry, as well as the Syrian Kurds.

It recognised France’s heavy responsibility as an imperialist power and arms producer. The Yellow Vests were clearly proud and encouraged that people across the world were following, as it were, in their footsteps.

Since the Yellow Vests first rose up – after the abject failure of organised labour to mount credible resistance to Macron – the social crisis has only deepened. Signs of cracks in the system are everywhere as working people organise themselves to resist.

In hospital emergency rooms, patients wait hours on stretchers in corridors. Dedicated doctors and nurses are protesting over lack of beds and lack of personnel.

In schools, classes are overcrowded and incomprehensible new programmes are imposed from above, forcing students to choose their future at 15.

On the railroads, for the first time in a generation, workers spontaneously walked off the job after a safety emergency without asking permission from management or the union.


And firefighters, whose demonstration was gassed by police in Paris, have now formed an interprofessional alliance with the striking emergency room personnel.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was Macron’s recent unveiling of his proposed “reform” of France’s retirement system. Like much that is positive in France, this dates back to 1945 when the French owning class was in disgrace for collaborating with the Nazis and the Communist- and Socialist-led Resistance was still powerful.

Macron’s pension “reform” would do away with early retirement for workers in dangerous or arduous jobs, for example railways. It would replace today’s system, where retirement income is about 75 percent of your last year, to one based on “points.”

Points are calculated on the total number of weeks you worked in your life. This penalises, for example, workers who have been unemployed and women who have taken time off to care for children.

Each point would be worth a sum in Euros to be decided by the government in power when you retire! Based on current estimates, people would commonly lose around 30 percent of expected benefits.

In their arrogance, Macron and the financial groups he represents are finally crossing a line which even Donald Trump and the Republicans are afraid to cross – cutting retirement.

It is the last straw in their systematic shredding of France’s admirable historical French social contract. They can expect trouble.

Popular anger and resentment have been building up in France since early 2018. Then Macron starting pushing through reactionary decrees and the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student-worker uprising and general strike was on everyone’s mind.

When the unions failed to rise to the occasion, ordinary people were so angry and disgusted that the pot boiled over. In November, the Yellow Vest movement burst on the scene out of nowhere.

Far from having “achieved nothing” by refusing to negotiate, the Yellow Vests got more out of Macron than all the unions. They won 1.7 billion Euros in concessions last December including year-end bonuses, tax breaks for the poor and the rescinding of the gas tax that set the movement in motion.

When these concessions failed to stop the movement, Macron unleashed a PR “great debate” where he did most of the talking and doubled down on police repression. But the Yellow Vests, whose theme song is, “We are here!” are still here.

Today, French workers in almost every sector are already in motion in advance of the planned general strike. The issue of retirements – along with health, education and public services – unites the whole population against the government and the narrow financial interests it represents.

The declared goals of the Yellow Vests – Macron’s resignation, fiscal justice, economic equality, and participatory democracy – are frankly utopian.

And when the general strike gets going, they are unlikely to be willing to stop half way when Martinez and the union bureaucrats decide to settle and end the strike as they did in 1936, 1945, 1968 and 1995. New perspectives?

Yellow Vests and trade unionists united on May Day in Paris this year
Yellow Vests and trade unionists united on May Day in Paris this year (Pic: Photothèque Rouge /CC Martin Noda)


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