The weekend of 13th/14th April marked the 22nd weekly “act” of the Gilet Jaunes protest. Over the whole of France, there were 110,000 protesters (by the estimates of the police and organisers) or 30,000 (according to the government), gathered at roundabouts, blocking traffic, marching in the streets of Paris and provincial towns.
The movement began last November to protest against a tax on diesel, imposed by the Macron government, who presented it as an ecological measure, but without making any impact assessment on ordinary people’s lives. This tax disproportionately affected low-income citizens in rural areas, who need to use their cars to get to sometimes quite distant workplaces. The other main demand focussed on the decrease or withdrawal of taxes in general. This might not sound particularly progressive, but the context was18 months of a neo-liberal government giving to the rich (abolishing the wealth tax) by taking from the poor, in a French society numbed by decades of austerity and marked by defeats and social regression. The maturity of the movement is reflected in the current demands, which focus on four areas: an end to inequality, just economic policies, the need for community public services and a renewed democracy. Moreover, the Gilets Jaunes have enthusiastically embraced the ecological transition: Fin de Mois, Fin du Monde, Meme Combat! (higher pay, saving the planet, it’s the same fight!).
The Gilets Jaune movement has an undeniably popular character. Many of them are impoverished workers and also self-employed workers whose situation is threatened by globalisation. Women are very much involved. For many protesters, many of them retired, this movement represents their first ever involvement in political activism.
Public support for the Gilets Jaunes has been striking – over 70% of the French population at some points. This reflected the unpopularity of Macron, elected more as an alternative to Le Pen than for his own personality or programme, who began his mandate by using his parliament majority to implement ruthlessly neo-liberal policies, aimed at transforming France to suit the wishes of the ruling classes who supported his campaign.
During the first few months, the unions were hesitant to get involved, and for its part the movement was mistrustful of political and trade-union interference. The extreme right of course tried to do exploit the movement, but were fortunately unsuccessful. Initially, the unions actively advised their members not to participate in the movement. During these months the presence of “casseurs” (rioters and vandals) and the consequent police repression (often violent) attracted a lot of media attention to the movement. But still this did not seem to have an adverse effect on popular support.
The government panicked. On 10th December it withdrew the diesel tax and offered some very modest changes to their reforms. By then it was too late. The demands had grown much more comprehensive and encompassed changes to the way society was run and to the government’s economic policies. So Macron decided to launch the “Grand Debat National” in an attempt to defuse the wave of discontent. This involved around one million people in various meetings all over the country. The results are being analysed and presented to the public, but are regarded with mistrust by the population at large.
Along with this came increased repression: preventive arrests, bans on taking part in demonstrations, public order prosecutions (around 1,400), coupled with police violence during marches. The police have opened 48 internal inquiries into violence committed by themselves.
The government and their parliament majority recently passed a highly controversial anti-riot law, “la loi anti-casseurs” perceived across the political spectrum and by the Constitutional Council as a restriction on freedom and the right to protest. The imposition of this law only resulted in an increase in the number of protesters.
Current development: L’Assemblée des Assemblées
An increased co-operation with the unions and with local and national organisations, as well as the creation of some formal structure to the movement, resulted in the calling of Assemblées des Assemblées, or national conferences. Two have already taken place since March, and the next one is planned for June. One of the main demands is the Referendum d’Initative Citoyenne or the involvement of the population outside formal elections, the empowerment of citizens who are “informed and not manipulated” to take control of the democratic process: Le Pouvoir du Peuple, Par le Peuple et Pour le Peuple (Power of the people, by the people, and for the people.)
An activist’s personal account
As on every Saturday, I meet my comrades on the Herblay roundabout in the Val d’Oise, 30 kilometres north-west of Paris, in a shopping area which is quite busy at week-ends. On the roadside there is a basic stall, with food and drinks brought by everyone to share. A music system with a range of songs, including militant ones. On each side, the Gilets Jaunes line up displaying placards with our slogans to drivers arriving after long traffic jams caused by our action. Many of them express solidarity and display the now famous Gilet Jaune on their dashboard.
Our slogans: Redistribution of profits! Minimum salaries for MPs and all politicians! Protection against whistle-blowers and prosecutions! We are all Julian Assange! Referendum d’Initiative Citoyenne! Fight against tax evasion! Macron: give back the dosh! Macron: resign!
At regular intervals, we block the road and sing the Marseillaise, reclaiming this iconic revolutionary song which is now the Gilets Jaunes anthem.
The local police stand by, relaxed and somewhat sympathetic to the demonstrators. On another roundabout nearby, they even bring croissants, cakes and other food. The afternoon goes on in good humour and solidarity until 6pm.
In Paris, things go differently. Demonstrators are kettled, gassed and beaten up. Some are shot with flash balls and tear gas. A comrade from the Val d’Oise got his hand torn by a sting grenade. He is a 30-year old plumber, and his recovery is slow and difficult. Crowdfunding to support him has raised 10,456 euros.
Apart from our week-end protest, we meet once a week to organise our struggle, with leaflets, posters and collections to fund the movement. The next big action is on 27th April, when we will meet with militant unions – CGT, SUD, CNT, FSU, to name a few. This cooperation is particularly important as strikes are taking place all over France: against the government’s education reform, in the health service against lack of resources and insufficient staffing, against the closure of enterprises.
Everywhere the slogan General Strike! can be heard. The aim is to topple this government and the oligarchs ruling this world. The fight goes on, but only together can we win!