Published in the Morning Star 15 December 2018
NICK WRIGHT looks at the political forces at work in France’s unprecedented social mutiny
UNELECTED EU economics commissioner Pierre Moscovici said Brussels is keeping a close eye on Macron’s spending programme which the French president hastily revised in order to quell the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protests.
The yellow jackets have spawned imitation protests in several EU states and upset the calculations of a European elite that now faces a new set of problems in their eternal quest to secure the consent, passive or otherwise, to the rule of the rich.
This is not just a French crisis, it is a crisis of management for the European Union.
Following the French presidential election of 2017, when Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen, the EU establishment and its analogues in the capitals of the EU member states thought the EU would enjoy a period of stability.
Even without recourse to his favoured mind-altering fluids European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker claimed that the wind was in Europe’s sails.
None of this lasted much longer than a bad hangover.
The source of Macron’s dilemma is the EU Stability and Growth Pact which arises from the 2007 Lisbon Treaty and gives the unelected EU Commission and the Council of Ministers oversight of spending by EU states. EU-imposed economic sanctions mount quickly against states that exceed the limits on government deficit (3 per cent of GDP) and debt (60 per cent of GDP).
In the case of Italy’s coalition government, this pressure, which takes the form of the so-called Excessive Debt procedure, comes not because Italy’s budget exceeded the limits but because its doesn’t plan to reduce it. It has now cowed the Lega/Moviemento Cinque Stella [Five Star Movement] government into submission.
Before this latest crisis the French deficit was anticipated to not exceed 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product. But the rise in the minimum wage in France [Salaire Minimum de Croissance — SMIC) is to be borne not by employers but by taxpayers in general and is to be financed as a tax allowance.
This and the cancellation of a new tax on pensioners earnings will increase government spending.
There is a certain wry enjoyment at the prospect of Macron, an economics minister in the last PS government, having his spending plans invigilated by Moscovici, the economics minister of an earlier PS government.
Moscovici, a typically Parti Socialiste 1980s Trotskyist turned 21st century neoliberal, has the job of making sure this fellow neo-liberal technocrat Macron doesn’t concede too much to the rebellious French.
It’s a lot to ask. The movement lacks a coherent leadership but some kind of common programme has emerged as a series of demands upon the presidency and the National Assembly. First urgent demand beyond the cessation of the fuel tax — now temporarily conceded — is for an end to homelessness.
This combined with a calls for more progressive income tax system which taxes the rich at higher rates and a SMIC (minimum wage) of £11,700 net. The insurgent character of the movement is reflected in calls for higher taxes on big business and lower on France’s many artisans, small businesses and micro entrepreneurs — demands which unite workers with the many small to middling people, especially in rural areas and small towns. An end to tax evasion by the rich figures strongly as does the call for a maximum income.
Although the movement rejects the ecological justification for the fuel tax rise, people are not deaf to concerns about the environment and want measures to aid insulation in houses and more broadly seek a shift to rail transport and the development of a “truly environmentally friendly” French hydrogen car.
The core of the movement’s demands is for economic security. It wants an end to austerity and what it calls the “illegitimate debt,” jobs for the unemployed, a limit on fixed term contracts, wages and pensions index linked to inflation, retirement incomes fixed at above 1,200 euros and more low rent housing and rent limits.
There is a strong flavour of anger at big business looting of public utilities. “Since the price of gas and electricity has increased since privatisation, we want them to become public again and prices to fall significantly.”
This is combined with opposition to monopoly retail and big “centres commerciaux” (retail parks) which threaten the livelihood of many small retailers.
Motorway tolls, collected by the private utilities, should be spent on road improvements and safety and the sale of airports and dams ended.
There is a fascinating blend of policies that reflect the particular French take on the idea of the active citizen. They want the causes of forced migration addressed with a real integration policy. “Living in France means becoming French. This entails French language courses, French history courses and civic education courses with certification at the end.”
Asylum seekers should be treated well — “We owe them housing, security, food and education for the minors. Work with the UN to have host camps open in many countries around the world, pending the outcome of the asylum application.”
This is combined with demands that reflect sharp hostility to the elite political culture of the Republic. They want a constitutional provision for popular referendums, the return to a seven-year term for the president of the republic combined with stronger powers for the parliamentary deputies to check the president along with an end to lifelong presidential allowances.
The demands include a call for more resources for psychiatry, a maximum of 25 students per class, an end to the closure of schools, post offices and maternity homes, retirement at 60 and at 55 for those “who have worked at a trade using the body.”
Of course these demands are necessarily ad hoc and reflect the wide range of social forces mobilised by this movement with wide regional variations.
In some places there has been a meeting of the gilets jaunes with the gilets rouges, the red vests of the more militant CGT trade union federation which has called for a “convergence of struggles.”
The CGT called a strike of delivery drivers in solidarity, but the fragmented nature of the movement makes coordination a problem.
In the cities union members are prominent in the demonstrations and the CGT offered to provide security at the main demonstrations in Paris but found it difficult to reach agreement.
CGT leader Philippe Martinez said that, “in many places, there are red vests and yellow vests that demonstrate together,” but he acknowledges that, “in some places, some leaders of the gilets jaunes do not want the CGT because they have other ideas.”
The CGT, he says, “will not mix with people who have as their demand the expulsion of immigrants from France.”
“When the gilets jaunes do not agree, we will not impose,” he says, while arguing that there is a need for the forces to find each other because for the most part the demands are the same, in particular, the increase of the minimum wage and wages generally.
Pete Shield is a shrewd observer of the politics of France and of rural France in particular. As a small entrepreneur marketing herbs and spices grown on his smallholding in the Aude near Perpignan, he is often in the markets of the region.
“Down here in the South the gilets jaunes are a very mixed bag with strong FN presence. But there are also Trots, anarchists, alternatives and a lot of what I would call white van folk — sparkies, plumbers, delivery van drivers and also farmers hard hit like us with the fuel tax.”
In the Aude, he says: “There are fewer union folk than you would expect, they have other concerns and battles to fight.”
“Lots of pensioners are finding life difficult. In some places, where the RN (formerly the Front National) is influential, demonstrations are very white and male but also it depends on the time. So early morning demos are dominated by white van types, lorry drivers and RN, later in the day more it is mixed, with the violence, mainly against property, happening at night with motorway posts being burnt down. There are a few stories about firefighters being attacked. The police are exhausted, and a bit rowdy, and their unions are going ballistic.”
A fascinating by-product of this upset is the confusion, political and ideological, that now grips sections of both the left and the right.
Liberals and some leftists are worried that the road blockades and street protests include people who give voice to both the slogans of the Rassemblement National of Marine le Pen and of even more sinister forces of the extreme right-wing.
The antics of some anarchist elements who think they can demonstrate their fitness to lead these protests by frontal assaults of France’s notoriously brutal CRS worry others.
Under its new leadership the French Communist Party (PCF) is intervening more actively and protested strongly at the forced kettling of school students by the police which sparked a nationwide protest and mass meetings of students in solidarity with the gilets jaunes.
Warning that a security forces answer to the deep popular movement would fail, Fabien Roussel the new PCF leader and deputy for the Nord, said the government would bear a heavy responsibility if it did not provide a rapid political response to the requests made by the French, “whether they have a yellow vest or not.”
“Communists believe that violence, no matter where it comes from, offers no perspective” he said and put forward specific demands for an increase in the SMIC of £180 net, an increase of retirement pensions, the opening of wage negotiations in the public as well as in the private sector, the reinstatement of the wealth tax and equal pay for women and men.
Following a day of demonstrations which saw over 1,700 arrests, in a typically self-serving gesture Jean-Luc Melenchon the leader of La France Insoumise [France Unbowed] called for the dissolution of the National Assembly.
He proclaimed the famous articles of the 1793 Rights of Man and the Citizen: “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is, for the people and for every portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”
Fabien Roussel struck a less provocative note and, referencing the wide range of forces in play, he called for a convergence in the demonstrations of the yellow vests, black dresses, white blouses and blue collars. Their movement, he said, is that of dignity. The citizens, unions, associations and political movements must converge.
The PCF won agreement agreement from the Parti Socialiste, LFI and others for a motion of no confidence which the Assembly majority duly rejected.
Macron hoped that his concession on the fuel tax rise and the limited concessions elsewhere would blunt and divide the movement. A full range of deep state counter measures are deployed, from exceptionally brutal tactics by the CRS riot police to the deployment of plain clothes police provocateurs, some photographed wielding automatic weapons. There is a sotto voce media campaign suggesting that sinister Russian or alt-right forces are shaping the movement.
The reality is that Macron’s neoliberal agenda is undermining every sense of security and social solidarity. In a precarious world of fast eroding incomes, rising prices and taxes that bear down most heavily on working people, the unemployed and pensioners while the rich are given massive tax concessions new class and social forces are being drawn into action and are bringing with them all the variety, confusion and anger of the oppressed and exploited.