By Vincent Presumey in Paris
Where is France going? Without a doubt, towards serious social and political confrontations. This is not a question of either optimism or pessimism: just realism. The outcome of these confrontations will depend on the level of political organisation of the exploited and oppressed.
Two years ago, the election of Emmanuel Macron as president was hailed as a real change. Here was a new man with new qualities to sound the fanfare for… what was actually an old policy agenda: the complete liberalisation of the economy by means of the destruction of all social gains, so that France can “catch up” with the policies of Thatcher and Schröder! Macron hoped that he had the perfect solution for the employers: to restore the strength of French capitalism to European and global levels. There’s no risk in predicting his failure in this project. But the stakes for the proletariat are very different: can Macron succeed in defeating the current wave of popular protest in France?
To force through a Thatcherite programme entails huge consequences for France’s political institutions and the constitution. For Macron, it was a question of fully re-establishing the Fifth Republic as it was originally intended, and was in fact becoming less and less: a strong state centred around the person of the President. The use of authoritarian power and legal orders, an enfeebled National Assembly, constitutional reforms, a clampdown on the media, an enhanced role for the police, all conjure up “imperial power”. It is therefore no accident that Macron was nicknamed “Jupiter” during his first few months.
He won the presidency through the collapse of all the other political forces, rather than through the construction of a movement of his own. Most crucially, it was due to the collapse – and not just on an electoral level – of the parties inherited from the labour movement: the Socialist and Communist Parties. This flowed from the entire history of the twentieth century and in particular from the catastrophic consequences of Francois Hollande’s presidency.
This crisis could well have gone further. The development of France Insoumis [RS2] e, the new current around Melenchon, was both the result and the final step in the breakdown of the old left. It explicitly aimed to break with the traditional workers’ movement and outflank its traditional “parties” and trade unions. But the political decisions that it took prevented it developing further.
Macron won in the second round against Le Pen, whose vote went well beyond the traditional base of the National Front. She had tried to present herself as a right-wing alternative to Macron. She consoled herself in defeat with the hope that Macron would succeed in carrying through the most thoroughgoing reforms, and was aiming, if not at an unlikely 2017 victory, to win in the longer term.
Macron still needed to build a firm base for himself at all levels of society, within the administration and the state apparatus. There was what seemed to militant activists a long period when it appeared he might succeed, for the same reasons that enabled him to win the election.
He carried through a “reform” of the labour laws, intensifying and aggravating the effects of an earlier law which had been passed under Hollande: the “El Khomri” law. Days of protest action were called by the reformist trade unions (CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires), though without mobilising the mass of workers. Then there was reform of the SNCF (the publicly owned railways) which was resisted by a long series of lighting strikes; yet these strikes were announced in advance by the trade union federations in this sector (CGT, SUD, CFDT and UNSA) – a sure way to guarantee defeat! Then there was the “Parcoursup” project, a drastic reform of the conditions for entry to higher education, which was forced through quite easily, despite some uncoordinated student strikes. This series of defeats overshadowed the less publicised grassroots movements which was bubbling up spontaneously amongst health workers and pensioners, and various local protests and strikes.
The triumphal march of “Jupiter Macron” came to a halt in the summer of 2018. We can pinpoint the start of the crisis, symbolically, to his harsh confrontation with a young high-school student who had mildly mocked him by addressing him as “Manu” during an official visit. A few weeks later, the “Benalla affair” exploded, thanks to those sectors of the media that remain free. One of Macron’s close bodyguards had posed as a police officer and gone around beating up demonstrators. At first Macron tried to take the high ground (“are they really going to come for me?”), but the “affair” progressively grew to enormous proportions. Benalla was the head of a sort of praetorian guard who was to have been playing an increasingly important role at the highest ranks of the state apparatus. Furthermore, it emerged that he had connections to Mafia networks suspected to be close to Putin, and to French interventions in Africa, notably Chad. It became clear that this was no fleeting incident. It showed that in order to build himself his own bonapartist presidential base, Macron was resorting to Mafia methods, thus aggravating the weakness of his position within the country.
The resulting resignation of Macron’s Minister of the Interior – without whom he could never have launched his presidential campaign in 2016 – just about contained the public reaction. But Macron is no longer known as “Jupiter”. Not long afterwards, hundreds of thousands of proletarians attempted to march on the Elysee, shouting “We’re here Manu, we’re coming to get you!” The crisis at the top had given rise to an explosion from below, where, unnoticed for months, local strikes had been simmering. The way in which this explosion developed completely bypassed the traditional workers’ movement. Large numbers of people were alerted by messages on social media to gather at roundabouts and wear yellow vests (gilets jaunes: emergency jackets that are mandatory for all drivers) to protest against the increase in fuel prices and related taxes.
There were conspiracy theories, prejudices and attempts by the far right to ingratiate themselves into this new movement. Tricolour flags were more common than red. Concerns about this were raised by some left activists, and this was used as a pretext by trade union leaders, starting with Phillippe Martinez of the CGT, who attempted to isolate this movement and treat it as if it were fascist.
They succeeded neither in isolating nor exposing the extreme right, despite the indisputable fact that many of the gilets jaunes had voted for Le Pen, as proletarians who up to this point had been unorganised and pauperised petit-bourgeois. But both the social composition of this campaign to raise the lowest incomes, and its political composition, against Macron and for democracy, was inherently hostile towards the extreme right. As time passed, this became more evident, until eventually there were alliances forming between gilets jaunes and trade unionists, feminists and illegal immigrants. The figure of the gilet jaune has become a permanent feature of the situation; and more often than not it is female rather than male, because both working and unemployed women constitute an important and defining element of this movement. It is evident that even though they are hostile to political organisations (all of them), the gilets jaunes have nothing against trade union support, and even welcome it. However, the attempts of political and trade union leaders to isolate them have deterred the best organised layers of the working class from building grassroots connections with this movement.
The crucial moment was at the beginning. On 17th November 2018, hundreds of thousands (many more than the official figure) gathered at roundabouts and, spontaneously, tens of thousands of them – unemployed, retired, women who hitherto had stayed at home – all decided to keep these locations permanently occupied on a shift system. On the Saturdays which followed, the movement grew and became the target of violent repression. This surprised millions of proletarians, many of whom were taking action for the first time. And then… surprise, surprise: they hit back! We witnessed the spectacle of police charges being repelled by women and men by no means young, outraged and discovering the true nature of the state apparatus.
On 8th December, the Champs Elysees narrowly escaped being taken by storm by a crowd who were discovering the luxury districts of Paris for the first time in their lives. A few days later, Macron had to flee when he was recognised by the crowd in a small town (Le Puy-en-Velay).
This movement spontaneously targeted the highest institutions of power and attempted to overthrow them. While various tendencies and many activist groupings were holding forth on the subject of “a lack of perspectives”, these proletarians without political organisation were creating a perspective of their own by directly “going for Manu”.
There is no question that the political parties and trade unions had a perfect opportunity to agitate for the overthrow of the president and the regime, and to call for new elections to the legislature, posing a fundamental political challenge. By avoiding any action that could have led in that direction, they effectively saved the regime. It is for this reason that we characterise the events of November-December 2018 and the beginning of 2019 as a “pre-revolutionary crisis”.
Macron and the executive in France have been terribly weakened; but they have hung on, and been forced to make a sharp turn. They have broken with the rule of law: that is, with those rules which (even if controversially) govern the state apparatus. Police violence, not only towards the gilets jaunes but in all situations, even festivals; a biased judicial system; attacks on the rights and conditions of public service workers; attacks on press freedom… these are just as widespread in France as they are under “illiberal” regimes such as in Hungary or Poland.
Not a single one of these political problems is being addressed by the political parties and currents of the workers’ movement. What were supposed to be European elections last May served at least partially to get Macron back into the driving seat, and they underlined the fact that, from an electoral point of view, he has no rival. Marine Le Pen has scarcely any solid base of support. The majority abstained. In fact, the most striking thing about the European elections was that they were quite similar to what could have been expected had nothing been happening. We will leave aside the predictable failure of the sectarian “Fourth International”, which gained nothing from the gilets jaunes actions even though their members participated.
Notwithstanding the strikes by health service workers and the rising tensions within national education, according to the mainstream media Macron was out of the woods . There was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in their support for him, because the employers were counting on him to push on with their “reforms”, attacking public services and the rights of public sector workers, which were passed in Parliament over the summer. There is an attempt to “reform” the so-called “universal” pensions: a prelude to destroying all collective rights and replacing them with an individual points-based system, the value of which would be annually adjusted by the government. We need also to understand the political significance of this continual obsession with “reforms”: if the executive fails to take action, they suffer paralysis. The only alternative is to counter-attack; hence the violence.
So what is on the horizon is social confrontation. It will end in a new challenge for Macron. Yet, contrary to what had been perhaps the over-riding impression at least since the European elections, there is no question that there is a double crisis: a crisis at the top triggered by the Benall a affair, and a crisis from below ushered in by those who precipitated the pre-revolutionary crisis at the end of 2018. One important fact suddenly became apparent: the promise made to step down by M. de Rugby, number two in the government, the minister for “energy transition”. He is a typical “ecologist” politician with his snout in every trough. The online journal Mediapart had led enquiries into his lavish expenses taken from public funds. Macron did not want this resignation; it immediately put a stop to his attempt to rekindle public support in the opinion polls. He is now forever going to be Manu. All hope of being “Jupiter” has vanished.
New and crucial confrontations loom which will crystallise the lessons of the last eight months. But the problems of the left and of the workers’ organisations, which have until now played into Macron’s hands, are not going to disappear by magic; they have stalled temporarily and can only re-appear in a more acute form.
If necessary, we can cite two facts to illustrate the situation.
First: in mid-May the CGT conference – still the principal workers’ organisation within the country – witnessed delegate after delegate coming to the rostrum and posing all the important questions. But it strictly avoided playing the role which you would expect in these circumstances from a big trade union assembly: it did not prepare united action to resist the laws aimed at public service workers and pensions.
Fact No. 2: not a single one of the forces of the “left”, nor the “FI”, called for the enforced resignation of de Rugby – while all of them were claiming to be shocked by Mediapart’s journalistic investigation. They did not organise a single demonstration; nor take any initiative against the repression that was going on; nor call for the resignation at least of Castener, minister of the interior, despite the fact that across the whole country young people and not so young were demanding “where is Steve?” – referring to a young man who is understood to have drowned as a consequence of charges by police on the evening of a festival.
The official left are all “fighting Macron” within the perspective of the presidential elections of 2022, and are therefore effectively keeping him in post. Social confrontations will take place, and they will happen before 2022. They are happening already. They are political. Public agitation, debate and organisation are therefore crucial in preparing for victory.