‘Yellow Vests’ in France: An inter-classist movement - an obstacle to the class struggle

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From November 2018 to June 2019, the media was filled with news about the social movement of the "gilets jaunes". It was "unprecedented dissent" according to the experts, an expression of a new social model of struggle. For some it was supposed to be better adapted to the evolution of society. Faced with the crisis in the traditional "representative" parties and the trade unions, faced with the excesses of globalisation and liberalism, the "people" were supposed to have found the means to express themselves and make their voices heard, to pressurise the major national political orientations, to say no to injustice, no to precarious jobs and no to the growth of poverty. In brief, the original and particular form of this movement made its mark on the future. The unions called for a future convergence of struggles between the world of work and that of this new social contestation, promising a new "Popular Front". Some organisations of the left and extreme left even saluted the creativity of the demonstrating Yellow Vests. Was this a new, more efficient form of workers' struggle? In reality the "gilets jaunes" are in no way the expression of a workers' struggle. It is an inter-classist movement, an obstacle to the class struggle. The workers are drowned when they are mixed up with the population in general; outside all considerations of social class, they are diluted into the so-called "people". The "gilets jaunes" distil the poisonous ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie which is strongly impregnated with nationalism and xenophobia and bloated with dreams of liberty... entrepreneurial liberty. This movement submits to an institutional framework feeding the worst democratic illusions as if a more "just" and "human" capitalism could be possible in order to ameliorate the institutions of the Republic. In reality everything points to this movement weakening the capacity of the working class to struggle in a unified and organised way.

The petty-bourgeoisie at the centre of this movement

At Perigueux , Dordogne on January 27 2018, around 250 people marched, demanding the withdrawal  of a new speed-limit of 80 km/h. Some wore yellow vests with slogans on the back against the cost of living, the increase of the CSG (social tax) and taxes linked to motoring (tolls, fuel...). They also blocked traffic on roundabouts.  This action called "Anger", launched on social media January 12 by a bricklayer, Leandro Antonio Nogueira, immediately received the support of Jean Lassalle (presidential candidate under the banner of "Resistons") and those close to Marine Le Pen. If a fight over a speed-limit rapidly veered to the larger question of taxes, it's because the 80 km/h was seen as a pretext to mount up fines and thus nick more money from the pockets of motorists. According to the paper Liberation, "this question of the 80 km/h was much more than a road safety measure (...) it was the point of departure of a fiscal revolt". Thus, here appears to be the birth of the "gilets jaunes" movement. As Nogueira affirmed: "I wouldn't want to say that it's the party of Anger (some early elements of this movement took part under the banner of "colère", anger and rage). But if you look at the "gilets jaunes" they are often old members of "colère". In some areas, such as Dordogne or Correze, all the "gilets jaunes" are old members of the Anger movement."

On March 29 2018, the name "gilets jaunes" appeared for the first time in the media at the time of a demonstration on the Paris-Rennes TGV railway line.

The same day a self-employed entrepreneur, Priscilla Ludosky, launched an on-line petition demanding the lowering of fuel prices at the pump.  The response was meteoric. She later became one of the official representatives of the movement.

On October 10 2018, a lorry-driver Eric Drouet called, again through Facebook, for a demonstration for November 17: "A national blockade against the increase in fuel prices". His message was relayed through all the social networks. According to the government, on November 17 287,710 people spread out to 2034 different points, paralysing crossroads, trunk roads, roundabouts, motorways, toll booths and supermarket car parks. The "gilets jaunes" movement was definitely underway. A new, great day of action was programmed for November 24, called "Act II: all of France to Paris". The objective was to blockade the most prestigious areas and the power of the capital: the Champs-Élysées, the Concorde, the Senate and, above all, the Élysées Palace: "It's time to deal a knockout blow and get to Paris by all means possible (car-sharing, train, bus, etc.), Paris because it's here we find the government! We wait for everyone, lorries, buses, taxis, tractors, etc. Everyone!" proclaimed Eric Drouet. The same evening an appeal was launched, again through Facebook, for a third demonstration, a day of action proposed for Saturday December I: "Act III, Macron resign!", putting forward two demands: "an increase in purchasing power and the cancellation of fuel taxes".

How do you explain the success of these different appeals through the internet? Before everything, the breadth of this movement comes from the immense anger gnawing at the entrails of society. Generalised hikes in taxes of all kinds, growing unemployment, the systematic implementation of precarious jobs including in the public sector, inflation hitting basic necessities, unaffordable rents... the reasons for the anger are numerous. That said, we should measure the real breadth of the mobilisation of workers within the movement which, at its highest, brought together some hundreds of thousands at most. The big battalions of the workers were never really involved, neither at the roundabouts, nor on the Champs-Elysees, beyond a Platonic sympathy. What appeared clearly on the contrary, was that this movement was launched on the initiative of the representatives of the petty-bourgeoisie and their aspirations. It's not by accident that, among the eight spokespeople of the "gilets jaunes", designated on November 26, there is an overwhelming majority of small bosses and entrepreneurs. It's not by chance that the leader Eric Drouet called on, in the first instance, "lorries, buses, taxis, tractors", areas dominated by the self-employed. The "gilets jaunes" formed an inter-classist movement: here all classes and the exploited and intermediate layers of society are mixed up and thus are expressing the ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie.

The list of the 42 claims of the "gilets jaunes", published November 29 2018, reveals its inter-classist nature and the dominant weight of petty-bourgeois ideology. Here we find, all mixed together, both workers' demands around wages and pensions for example, but also nationalist, localist and small-business requests regarding the economy of enterprises and taxes and even xenophobic and nauseous positions on immigration. And here's some extracts from the unusual mixture on this list:

- "Zero SDF: URGENT.

- SMIC at 1300 euros, minimum.

- Favour small businesses in villages and town centres.

- The likes of Google, Amazon, Carrefour and MacDonald's should pay a lot and small businesses (artisans, TPE, PME) pay a little.

- Social security system for all (including artisans and entrepreneurs).

- Retirement system must remain solid and thus socialised (no retirement points).

- End the tax increases on fuel.

- No retirement pension to pay under 1200 euros.

- Protect French industry: ban relocations. Protect our industry; protect our way of doing things and our employees.

- Those seeking the rights of asylum go back to their country of origin.

- A real political integration is implemented:  living in France means becoming French (language courses, French history courses and courses in French civic education with certification at the end).

- Consequent means given to the police, gendarmerie and the army".

Yes, with the movement of the "gilets jaunes" thousands of workers, unemployed and retired have expressed a cry of legitimate anger faced with poverty. But this diffuse anger was very easily monopolised and manipulated from its early days by the small business people who initiated the demonstrations and their principal slogans so as to pressurise the government and obtain some satisfaction for their cause: the lowering of taxes which are choking their businesses. All the rest, their demands for support for the French economy, tightening of immigrant controls, etc., constitutes the background scenery of the ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie[1].

A movement without any perspective

The principle method of action at the origin of the "gilets jaunes" movement consisted of virtual links on social networks, the daily occupation of roundabouts and the setting-up of road-blocks. In a few weeks these links became living links, islands of resistance with camps and barbeques. Here we find agricultural workers, artisans, unhappy small bosses and above all precarious workers in dire straits. The dominant feeling is wanting "to be visible" and show togetherness. The wearing of the yellow vest thus serves as a rallying point for those "just trying to live". The "gilets jaunes" attract motorists who, for the most part, support them by waving and beeping their horns. Every point of the blockade is festooned by the tricolore, La Marseillaise  regularly sung. But the sterility of this method of struggle very quickly appears in the eyes of many and from this, at the end of November, came the decision to occupy the symbolic areas of the large French towns each Saturday, especially the Champs Élysées in Paris. What mainly feeds the immense anger of the "gilet jaunes" is being “taken for granted", ignored by the government, wanting to be heard and recognised by "those on high", which explains the urge to go to the Champs Élysées, "the most beautiful avenue in the world", in order to make themselves "seen and heard".

The days around the end of November and beginning of December 2018 were thus marked by an extremely violent confrontation with the forces of state repression.

Saturday December 1, in Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire), a confrontation with the police degenerated after some demonstrators were gassed; the prefecture was set on fire. But it's above all in Paris that the confrontations are the most spectacular. L'Arc de Triomphe was overrun and vandalised, cars were set on fire and some shops pillaged: images which went around the world. The ruling authorities seemed overwhelmed at first, incapable of maintaining order within the capital. The great majority of the bourgeois political parties exploited the situation in order to try to weaken the position of President Macron; they criticised him for his incompetence over security because of his arrogance or indifference to the suffering of the "people". There is a real danger that he will find himself isolated on the political chessboard, with his international image and stature of a chief of state degraded. On top of that, his party, La Republique en Marche, is not yet sufficiently planted inside the state Moloch and it bases a great part of its stability on its leader:  the "auspicious and Juperterian" Macron. His team in charge responded on two levels, carrot and stick or, more exactly, a little carrot and a very big stick. Saturday December 8, 264 people were injured, including serious injuries (loss of an eye and a hand), notably due to the use of "flash-balls" or grenades exploding solid rubber pellets, only used by the French in Europe. This was a very concrete change of strategy from the Minister of the Interior, who had previously ordered his police to make contact with the demonstrators. On December 10 2018, President Macron gave a televised address in which he announced several measures to prove he was "listening" to "the suffering of the French people". That said, the demonstrators were in reality conscious that their living conditions would continue to get worse despite the ten billion euros waved in front of them. The anger did not abate and the movement continued. December 15, 69,000 members of the forces of order were deployed around France - a ratio of one cop to one demonstrator - 8,000 in Paris; 179 people were arrested and 144 placed under guard. The images on the French and world's media were very different from those on December 1. This time the Champs Elysees was occupied by tanks and cordons of "robo-cops". The state, with Macron at its head, unleashed a real demonstration of force and showed what a few burnt cars and broken windows of the previous weeks mean to capitalism: an insect bite on the skin of an elephant. Order reigned in Paris.

The poison of the democratic illusion

Little by little, one demand came to supplant all the others: the Citizens' Initiative Referendum (RIC), a device for "direct democracy". With the RIC, citizens can collect a number of signatures fixed by the law enabling them to petition for a referendum without the need for action by parliament or the President of the Republic. The "gilets jaunes" wanted four procedures: vote for a proposition of law; abrogate a law or treaty already voted for by parliament; modify the Constitution (constitutional referendum) and revocation of political mandates.

From January 2019, the three letters, RIC, progressively appeared on almost all the backs of the yellow vests. But these hopes for a more democratic capitalism are just illusions and above all a real poison for the working class.

We wrote in 1978: "For the bourgeois ideologues, the state is the emanation of popular sovereignty. Democracy is the supreme form of the state, the achievement and perfection of its being. Marxism, however, sees it very differently; revealing the division of social classes, it demonstrates that there can be no community of interests between exploiters and exploited. Consequently the state, far from managing a so-called common good, is nothing but a trick in the hands of the exploited class. That remains true even if democracy extends its hypocritical veil over class relationships and conjures up the idea of ‘free and equal’ citizens. Behind the formal ideas of freedom and equality comes the shadow of the big stick which the oppressor class uses to subjugate the oppressed class (...) Proletarian struggles that get underway thus find in their way the democratic and parliamentary mirage aiming to mislead, weaken and push aside the dangers that they bear for the bourgeois state, stopping or breaking up their struggles and its élan and, without the use of force, pushing them away from their aims. Because if ‘the military and political apparatus of the bourgeois state organises direct action against the revolutionary proletariat, democracy represents a way for its indirect defence by spreading the illusion amongst the masses, the illusion that they can realise their freedom through a peaceful process’ (Theses of the Italian Left, 1920). Through this means of indirect defence, no state of the dominant class can, in the longer-term, avoid heating up social antagonisms".

Democracy is the most sophisticated and efficient political organisation of bourgeois class domination over society and particularly over the class that it exploits, the proletariat. This or that detail of democratic functioning, such as the RIC, only takes place within this framework. Moreover this type of referendum already exists in about 40 countries including Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Uruguay and even Germany and the United States, all of them parts of the planet where capitalist exploitation, the economic and political domination of the bourgeoisie, exists as much as in France. Democracy is the sharpest weapon of capitalism and with the RIC and the movement of the "gilets jaunes" it allows the ruling class to sharpen it up a bit more. That's why Macron and his government jumped at the opportunity by launching on January 15 2019, a "Great National Debate". For three months (January -March) a particularly rancid debate occupied the news and all opinions: participating in the "Great Debate" or organising discussions between the "gilets jaunes". In reality, these discussions, whether orchestrated by the government or by the "gilets jaunes" (in municipal rooms loaned out... in town halls), are the two faces of the same coin: opposed in appearance they form a whole. Wherever they take place and whoever initiates them, these great and small debates are based on the hope of a "real democracy", where the democratic institutions listen more attentively to the spokesmen and women of the "people". But, to repeat, this democratic system is only a mystification masking the fact that all governments are the managers of their respective national capitals, instruments of a minority class that exploits the majority class: the proletariat.

A state repression calculated to prolong the anger

A part of the "gilets jaunes" was aware of the vacuity of these talks; they wanted to impose their demands by force. The day after the end of the "Great National Debate", Saturday March 16, the anger exploded. Hundreds of Black Bloc members and "gilets jaunes" rioted, trying first of all, unsuccessfully, to launch an assault on the Arc de Triomphe similar to that on December 1, then to ransack the Champs Élysées and neighbouring streets, breaking windows and burning kiosks in order to attack "the symbols of capitalism". The images of the fancy restaurant, Les Fouquet's, ablaze went around the world. According to Le Monde: "more and more demonstrators concluded that wrecking things was the only means to make themselves heard and make the government give in". This revolt of despair was thus increasingly infested with the nihilism of the Black Blocs who extolled the idea: "France is a window and I'm a paving stone". A tag appeared on more and more walls:  "The people applaud the wreckers". The "people" could well applaud but these acts of destruction did nothing at all to undermine the fundamentals of the system. Worse, they allowed the bourgeoisie and its government to legitimise the strengthening of its juridical and police apparatus through an "anti-wreckers" law passed by parliament. If the government and its Ministry of the Interior had wanted to protect "the most beautiful avenue in the world", it could have easily deployed its coach loads of cops, its CRS cordons and even the armoured cars of its gendarmerie in order to block access, as at the time of their demonstration of force on December 15 2018. You would have to be particularly naive to imagine that the government had been completely by-passed by an unexpected situation. Moreover, according to the confession of the Secretary General of the UNSA-Police, the forces of order were "ready to intervene" but did not get "the authority to do so". If Macron and his government clique allowed things to get out of hand on March 16, it was first of all to oblige the other electoral competitor parties and "public opinion" to tighten their ranks around the defence of the Republican state "threatened by chaos" and the acts of destruction of the "wreckers" disguised as "gilet jaunes" or in black costumes: the anti-wreckers’ law was uncontested.

Then Macron declared that: "no-one can tolerate the Republic being attacked in the name of the right to demonstrate". A "national union" had to be set up against vandalism with "the greatest firmness"; all the "people of France" had to accept the measures of strengthening the police against those who demonstrated "illegally", who threatened "to put the Republic in danger".

Thus on March 20, Benjamin Griveaux, government spokesman, calmly announced the implementation of the Sentinelle plan, i.e., the intervention of the army. As a direct consequence of this increased state repression and aggressive government declarations, March 23 in Nice, Genevieve Legay, a "gilet jaune" militant of Attac aged 74, was seriously injured in a charge by the forces of order. She became the symbol of victims of the incessant police violence; images on social media of eyes coming out and hands torn off abounded.

Anti-police hatred welled-up inside the guts of some of the most radical "gilets jaunes" and on April 20, during the demonstration called "Ultimatum", some demonstrators shouted at the police: "Kill yourselves!"

What lessons can we draw from the demonstrations of March and April? The government has continued to use police violence in order to keep the heat on. The aim is to keep up the anger within the "gilets jaunes" movement and use it as a means to mystify the proletariat:

- occupying the whole media space and all social preoccupations, which meant that a large number of small isolated strikes which were going on throughout France were ignored;

- concentrating reflection on how to make the French Republic more democratic (are you with Macron's Great Debate, or with the RIC of the "gilets jaunes"?);

- playing up the vandalism of a minority of "gilets jaunes" and the Black Blocs so as to present all struggle as non-democratic and a "criminal act" of blind violence and thus legitimise the strengthening arsenal of the repressive state in order to deal with it;

- and, finally, presenting the workers' struggle as old-fashioned and tacky compared to the new contestation of the "French people" waving tricolores and singing the Marseillaise.

The unions: the extension…of interclassism

The "gilets jaunes" movement didn't just develop outside the union structures; it largely positioned itself against them. The breadth of this inter-classist movement can be explained by the difficulty of the working class to express its combativity due to the union manoeuvres sabotaging its struggles (as we saw recently with the long, drawn-out go-slow at SNCF). The discontent with the unions that exists within the working class has been recuperated by those who launched this movement. What many of the supporters of the "gilets jaunes" wanted to happen was that the methods of workers' struggles (strikes, general and sovereign assemblies, massive demonstrations, strike committees...) came to nothing. So now it’s necessary to trust in small bosses (protesting against taxes and their general increase) in order to find "other methods of struggle" against the high cost of living and to ameliorate the democratic institutions and their representatives, bringing together "all the people of France".

That said, the unions have profited from the movement in order to try to limit their discredit. Certainly not by defending the methods of struggle of the working class, since they spend their time trying to undermine and break up any possibility of autonomous workers' assemblies. No, they did so by taking up the idea of the "peoples' revolt". This was the sense of the successive calls for "convergence" between the movement of the "gilets jaunes" and the unions' mobilisations. Thus, there was the multiplication of all sorts of coloured body vests for each sector or corporation. For pre-school nursery workers, the "gilets rose"; for the CGT, the "gilets rouges"; for the independent public transport workers, the "gilets oranges"; for the teachers, the more original "red pens"! Not only have the unions accentuated the divisions in an already very fragmented struggle broken up into sectors, a practice that they have systematically used for a century now, but more, the already atomised workers have been called upon to further dilute themselves into the "people", wearing coloured body vests and disappearing as a class. The unions, with the CGT at the head, thus organised large, multi-coloured carnivals for February and the first of May. In Paris, these demonstrations gave rise to a real cacophony where the Marseillaise was echoed by the Internationale and the French national flag flew alongside the red and black flags of the Trotskyists (from the NPA and LO) and the anarchists (of the CNT).

On May 1, the presence at the head of the procession of thousands of "gilets jaunes" and hundreds from the Black Bloc with the blessing of the unions sanctified this atomisation of the workers, their dilution into this inter-classist concoction.

The proletariat must re-discover its class identity

This movement of the "gilets jaunes" is, at best, only the most visible and spectacular manifestation of the enormous anger which eats away inside the population and particularly in all the exploited classes faced with the cost of living and the austerity measures of the Macron government. It's nothing other, at best, than a sign announcing future combats of the proletarian class. Numerous workers are facing poverty, incessant economic attacks, precarious jobs... But in joining up with the "gilets jaunes", these workers are now being misled and they are being towed along behind a movement that can only lead to an impasse. And it's this impasse which today allows the Macron government to re-double its arrogance and continue its preparation for new attacks.

The working class is going through a very difficult period. From 1989, with the campaigns around the collapse of Stalinism presented as the so-called failure of communism, the proletariat has not been able to rediscover its class identity and recognise itself as a class and as a revolutionary subject. Incapable of outlining the contours of a society without exploitation, the exploited class today lacks confidence in its own strength, leaving it very vulnerable and feeling impotent on the field of struggle. The working class is not conscious of its existence as an antagonist of the bourgeois class and distinct from intermediate social layers (notably the petty-bourgeoisie). It has lost its memory of its own past and is not at all up to drawing on its immense historic experience; it's even somewhat ashamed of the latter since the bourgeoisie endlessly assimilates the word worker to an extinct species and the word communism to the hell of Stalinism.

However, despite these important difficulties, the proletariat is not beaten. Taking account of the general discontent and the attacks coming down the line, the great masses of the proletariat are quite capable of coming out of this lethargy in the period to come. Certainly, the proletariat has momentarily lost its class identity and is cut off from its history and experience. But it is still here and very much alive. It remains the gravedigger of capitalism. Deep within itself, reflection on the absence of any perspective for capitalist society continues, notably among its most conscious and combative elements. Pushed by the aggravation of the economic crisis, at first without being conscious of its own strength, without thinking of its possible unity and self-organisation, the proletariat will necessarily be constrained to engage in the combat for the defence of its conditions of existence. Remember what Marx said: "It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.” (The Holy Family). The insurrectional days of June 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871, the struggles of the 1890's in Belgium, the revolutionary combats in Russia in 1905 and 1917 in eastern Europe, the German revolution of 1918 -1919, the eruption of a new movement in May 68 in France and in the rest of the world after a long period of counter-revolution, the mass strikes in Poland 1980, etc., have nothing in common with the populist, inter-classist, falsely radical, "do or die" movement of the "gilets jaunes". As the proletariat develops its struggle, it will be the massive and sovereign general assemblies, open to all workers, which will be at the heart of the movement, links where the proletariat can organise the struggle together and reflect on the unifying slogans for the future. There will be no place for nationalism, on the contrary: the mass strike of the future will have international solidarity at its heart, because "the proletariat has no country". The workers must refuse to sing "their" national anthems and wave their national flags such as the tricolore, the flag of Versailles under which 30,000 workers were murdered at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871!

In order to prepare for this future all those conscious of the necessity for the proletarian struggle must try to regroup, discuss, draw lessons from the latest social movements, reflect anew on the history of the workers' movement and not give into apparently radical siren voices of citizens' mobilisations, the populist and inter-classist voices of the petty-bourgeoisie!

“The autonomy of the proletariat in the face of all the other classes in society is the first precondition for the extension of its struggle towards the revolution. All alliances with other classes or strata and especially those with factions of the bourgeoisie can only lead to the disarming of the class in the face of its class enemy, because these alliances make the working class abandon the only terrain on which it can temper its strength: its own class terrain”. (Platform of the ICC).

The future still belongs to the class struggle!

Révolution Internationale, August 14 2019


[1]  It's this inter-classist nature of the "gilets jaunes" movement which explains why Marine Le Pen saluted it from the beginning as a "legitimate movement"  of the "French people": why Nicolas Dupont-Aigan, President of Debout La France, has supported the movement: "We must blockade all of France (...) the French population must say to the government : That is enough!": why Laurent Wauquiez, then President of Les Republicains qualified the "gilet jaunes" as "dignified, determined people who justly ask for the difficulties of working people in France to be heard"; why the deputy, Jean Lassalle, at the head of Resistons, has been one of the figures of the movement and wore his yellow jacket at the National Assembly and in the street. This "welcoming approach"  contrasts sharply with the fact that any real proletarian movement is always subject to rejection and lies from the dominant class.


A balance sheet of the "gilets jaunes" movement