Socialist Voice (SV) interviewed Philippe who is a teacher and trade unionist (a member of Sud Education and part of the Solidaires union central), an active member of the yellow vest struggle in France.
SV: The yellow vests struggle started on 17 November 2018, with a huge outburst of anger – what were the reasons it started?
It is the outcome of deep austerity policies that have been carried out for decades and that dramatically worsened living conditions for a large part of the population due to low wages and precarious work. It started outside of Paris in the provinces and from January it developed in Paris and in the city outskirts.
Nicolas Sarkozy, was elected president in 2007. Acting on behalf of the ruling class and the privileged, he attempted to get rid of all the protections and safeguards that existed in our social system including social security, public pensions and employment laws.
From 2007 to 2012 he was only partially successful because of widespread resistance from workers. He lost the next general election to François Hollande (of the ‘social democratic’ Socialist Party). He promised he would fight against finance capital, but he continued the attack on workers’ rights and was discredited long before the end of his term.
In the next election Emmanuel Macron, who became known as the “president of the super-rich” was elected. Macron tried to hide the brutality of his proposed programme by calling himself a progressive and a moderniser. But he continued extending the anti-worker laws that were passed by Holland in 2016.
When he took office, in September 2017, he pushed through laws that removed workers’ rights but first he got rid of wealth tax on investment capital and lowered taxes for big business with a flat tax on dividends paid on shares.
The union leaders’ reaction was miserable, there were some demonstrations but nothing was organised that could get stop this project and Macron won the first battle.
In the spring of 2018 Macron attacked education rights. The method of selecting students was changed and it became much more difficult for working class students to enter universities and he advanced the interests of the middle class. From March to June 2018 struggles took place in the universities.
At the same time, he continued to dismantle the public rail company and restricted the rights of railway workers to organise and mobilise. That paved the way for rail privatisation, and 9000 km of track is planned to close.
Macron took on the rail workers because he wanted to make an example of workers who had such a long history of struggle. The struggle strategy decided by the majority of railway union leaders, particularly by the CGT (the main union in the railways) was wrong as they decided to strike two days every week, and announced the date of strike days in advance which gave the SNCF (public railway company) and the government a chance to organise around the strike, and they became ineffective.
There are further attacks against pensions, unemployment security, public education spending and which means rising inequality. For example, pensioners had to pay increased amounts for national insurance.
So, when Macron increased taxes for gas and petrol, it was too much for many people to bear because those who live in suburbs or rural areas spend a large amount of their wages on transport costs. The government presented this as measure to safeguard the environment, but demonstrators burst onto the streets and after three weeks of protest Macron removed the tax increase on fuel.
SV: Why is it still going on?
Macron’s retreat encouraged the yellow vests. They continued to meet at roundabouts, occupy motorway tolls, block oil refineries, roads and gas stations. They discussed the issues that fuelled their anger and decided to struggle for higher wages, better pensions, because their wages and pensions are so low.
The yellow vests are determined to get rid of Macron and the demand Macron Go unified the struggle and it continues.
People in the movement think that democracy is fake and they need real democracy.
Macron said the minimum wage would increase by €100 a month but in fact he lied and tried to manipulate people. The majority do not get a large increase, social problems are very profound and continue.
SV: What is Macron’s response to movement now?
Macron’s first line is repression with the police destroying yellow vests blockades and sheds they built to hold their meetings. Many police were sent in against them – 10,000s of officers in Paris (and up to 89,000 police officers nationwide). They used “non-lethal weapons” which they are “prohibited” to aim at the face or genitals – but they did!
The police use a range of controversial weapons. These include rounds of tear gas (that creates clouds of gas 20 feet high), ‘flash ball’ rubber bullets that have caused scores of injuries and sting-ball grenades -if you touch one of these they can blow hands or feet off.
We now count around 2,200 injuries including over a 100 severe ones: 22 people lost an eye (some shot at point blank range), 5 lost a hand… some people have been maimed to such an extent they cannot work anymore. Dozens are severely injured.
So far, some 8,000 have been taken into custody, 1,796 have been sentenced and there are 316 detention warrants. Some are ridiculously harsh sentences.
The government made a barrage of lies against the protestors For example, they were ‘against the environment’ (when they were against the heavy increases in fuel) or anti-Semitic (when it was a small group of fascists wearing yellow vests who used anti-Semitic language). They have attempted manipulation by creating a “great debate” with the main aim to get people discussing basically which services they preferred to save [editor’s note: choosing cuts to stem the fight against them], while the austerity measures already taken could not questioned.
On 16 March they prepared for the assault on the demonstrators by using right-wing intellectuals and leading journalists to denounce the yellow vests on TV. They said they were ‘idiots’ with ‘low IQs’ and that it was impossible to reason and debate with them. The police attacked even before the national demonstration was supposed to begin. They were trigger happy and extremely aggressive. Large clouds of tear gas swirled around the Arc De Triumph, which also entered the metro stations. The police were arresting and sometimes releasing later without charge.
The struggle has probably slowed down some key counter reforms and further attacks on pensions.
SV: How can it develop?
The question of democratic control has been gaining ground because people arose from the yellow vests who spoke on their behalf without authorisation. But one of the government’s problems is that they cannot manipulate the leaders because there is no real authority. For example, the government invited eight leaders in early December, but only one showed up and that one wanted to record the meeting and the government refused, so the meeting ended.
There are assemblies and a few attempts to build democratic national assemblies. Two places are Commercy and the port of St Nazaire and the key idea was to build an assembly of assemblies, build local democracy and not allow anyone to decide for the movement.
The first assembly of assemblies was the end of January in Commercy, a small town in the East of France. There were 75 local assemblies who sent two delegates, a woman and a man, and in all 400 travelled to attend.
There were long debates and at the beginning it was difficult to determine who had the legitimacy to vote. A local assembly could be a town, a city or a yellow vest group built around a roundabout.
It was decided to agree a call for a general strike. The assembly turned out to be in favour of a better connection with the organised unions (but there was also sharp criticism of union leaders). A majority understand that there is a difference between union activists who make common struggles, and trade union leaderships that attack the yellow vests and are poison.
The assembly called for a ‘renewable’ general strike because the CGT had called for a single day general strike for the 5 February. The CGT did not organise and mobilise around that a great deal. Another general strike, 19 March, was then called for by the CGT.
Yellow vests in many areas and sectors understand that it is necessary to work with serious and honest militants to build a strategic alliance and that the general strike is a key issue in winning their struggle demands. In the south of France and in other areas such as Nanterre, near Paris, they wrote to local unions to make a common struggle and in defence of yellow vests.
The Solidaires Union Central is the most supportive of the yellow vests but generally speaking many unions are divided. For instance, some CGT activists and branches work with the yellow vests, but some follow the CGT leaders who have attacked the yellow vests.
The yellow vests are strong enough to disturb Macron’s government. The bourgeoise was very worried early on because it can block the economy in local areas, but it needs a general strike to block the national economy.
It is absolutely necessary for revolutionaries to participate in the yellow vests. Many on the far left thought otherwise but the yellow vests movement is open, welcoming and has a strong anti-capitalist potential. The way I see it, the yellow vests have to take initiative to continue to self-organise geographically and build their organisation to be part of the overthrow of capitalism.
The movement of yellow vests can develop into something much broader and include the struggle in the factories and workplaces but only through a general strike. We are sowing seeds that can be used to be the background of a new democracy, because we need to control production and define local needs.
Importantly, the yellow vests movement has rejected fascist forces in many places, and fascists have been thrown off of demonstrations.
There are a growing number of demos and strikes (and some occupations) in education and the Climate Change struggle. There can be an alliance with the yellow vests, the students, and with local strikes – a two-way support.