Monday, 3 December 2018

12 things you should know about the gilet jaunes movement


Over the last week France has been rocked by the biggest riots in over a decade but much of the media coverage has been sketchy at best.

Fuel protest

The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement started as a grassroots protest against a hugely unpopular hike in fuel tax designed to load the economic burden of climate change goals onto ordinary people, and especially those in non-urban areas who rely on cars to survive.

That these planned tax rises on petrol and diesel have coincided with a global spike in fuel prices has exacerbated the situation, leaving millions of French families wondering where they're going to find the cash to pay for these huge fuel price hikes.

Climate change

As gilets jaunes the movement has spread it has evolved and grown into a much broader protest against Emmanuel Macron and the French government.

Macron and his supporters keep on banging on about ecology and how progressive it is to tax fuel, but they're talking a completely different language to the people facing the economic burden of these policies.

Of course a lot of people accept that something needs to be done to combat climate change, but loading the majority of the burden onto ordinary people who have no choice but to drive, whilst actually giving handouts to the mega-rich with the other hand is the exact opposite of a progressive approach.

Anyone trying to characterise the gilets jaunes movement as a simple fuel protest against reasonable and progressive climate change measures is either catastrophically under-informed or behaving in a deliberately disingenuous manner.

Yellow vests

The reason for the yellow vests is that since 2008 French drivers have been required by law to have a yellow high visibility vest in their vehicle in case of breakdown, meaning that high visibility jackets are a cheap and widely available symbolic "uniform" for the protesters.

Violence

The vast majority of the 280,000+ gilets jaunes protesters have been peaceful and non-violent, but as is always the way the vast majority of the mainstream media coverage has focused on the violent minority.

This isn't an effort to downplay or excuse any of the unacceptable violence and vandalism, it's just an effort to redress the balance a bit by pointing out that the violence and chaos in Paris is unrepresentative of the enormous movement that is going on across the whole of France.

Delegitimisation

Assorted 'centrists' and Macron fanboys have tried to create the argument that the entire movement "lost legitimacy as soon as it turned to rioting/looting/car burning".

The problem with this tactic of tarring an entire movement of hundreds of thousands with the behaviour of the very worst minority is that it would make it ridiculously easy to render all political protest illegitimate through the tactical insertion of a small number of violent agent provocateurs into any and all protest movements.

Any reasonable person should be capable of differentiating between the hundreds of thousands of non-violent protesters across France who blocked roads and fuel depots without rioting or violence, and the small minority of lawless thugs the media have concentrated on.


The price of Macron

When Emmanuel Macron won the French Presidency "I'm alright Jack" centrists across the world went into raptures that their favoured brand of neoliberalism-lite was back on the agenda, but now that Macron's opinion poll ratings have collapsed to minus 50, hundreds of thousands of people are actively protesting against the government, and the streets of Paris are ablaze, perhaps it's time for a quick reappraisal.

Macron only won the Presidency because the only other option on the ballot was the hate-mongering extreme-right ultranationalist Marine Le Pen. In a choice between the neoliberal frying pan and the fascist fire, the French public understandably chose to stay in the frying pan.

As you'd expect from a neoliberal with a huge parliamentary majority, the result has been a massive squeeze on poor and ordinary people in order to fund handouts and tax cuts for the mega-rich.

It's not like the French public could have had any illusions about what was going to happen given that Macron was personally responsible for the massively unpopular anti-worker legislation that destroyed the parti socialiste from within before he jumped ship to create a 'centrist' protest movement against the political establishment that he was one of the worst examples of!

Given the long history of public protest in France, a revolt against Macron and his neoliberal agenda was always on the cards, the only surprising thing being that it's taken so long to happen.

Rebellion

One of the big ironies is that Macron connived his way into power by creating and leading a faux rebellion against the French political establishment, yet he's only halfway into his second year in office and he's the focus of a new, more genuine, and more furious anti-establishment revolt.

If you promise the people a revolution and a government that listens to and works on behalf of ordinary people, then deliver nothing but a 'more of the same' anti-worker, neoliberal agenda, is it any wonder they'd be furious?

Social media

The gilets jaunes movement began on social media with petitions and a Facebook event aimed at disrupting traffic on November 17th. Since then it's spread onto the streets.

The spontaneous social media growth of the protest means there's no real defined leadership structure, which has its advantages and disadvantages.


Extreme-right opportunism

The French extreme-right have been quick to jump on the protests with Macron's defeated Presidential rival Marine Le Pan trying to associate herself with the movement and encouraging her supporters to infiltrate it.

The structureless and leaderless nature of the movement has made it possible for the French extreme-right to infiltrate the protests, but this leaderless nature also prevents them from usurping it by establishing themselves as its leaders.

Popularity

Various opinion polls have put public support for the gilets jaunes at between 72% and 84%. meaning Macron is in a really tricky situation. He's styled himself as an authoritarian who won't give in to protest, but he's only going to increase his (already extraordinary) levels of unpopularity if he seeks to crush this extremely popular movement by force.

The squeezed middle

The reason the  gilets jaunes movement is so popular is that they're representing the frustration of millions of ordinary French people who feel they're getting insufficient return for their labour and their taxes.

Like most Europeans the French are reasonably content to pay high taxes in return for quality public services, decent pensions, and a strong social security system, however Macron's fuel tax hikes have coincided with hardline neoliberal policies from Macron such as gutting the social security system, attacking pensions, and attempting to flog off the French rail network to his private sector mates. And to top it all off one of Macron's first reforms was to slash wealth taxes paid for the extremely rich.

Of course anti-worker legislation, privatisation mania, attacks on the social security system, and massive handouts to the mega-rich must sound familiar to British people who have been suffering these same policies under 8 years of disastrous Tory rule, but the French are different. They won't just sit back and accept this ideologically-driven assault on their living standards, and even twice re-elect the bastards who have been doing it like the British have, they're making it clear they're simply not having it.

What next?

With Macron outright refusing to drop the next 6.5% hike in fuel prices sceduled for January, and with such high levels of public support it seems unlikely the 
gilets jaunes protests will just stop altogether any time soon.

The extent to which the protests continue over the next few weeks and months would seem to depend on whether Macron decides to cede ground by dropping the planned fuel hike, or intensifies the situation by outright ignoring the concerns of protesters and seeking to forcibly clamp down on the protests by imposing emergency legislation.


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