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We’re with the Rebels

France's "yellow vest" protests against fuel prices weren't organized by the Left. But the fight to widen their demands is key to blocking the growth of Marine Le Pen's far right.

by Aurélie Dianara

Part 3 - Converging Interests?

The movement is not limited to mainland France, but has also reached France’s “ex”-colonies in the overseas territories and in particular the island of Réunion. In a territory where unemployment is sky-high and 42 percent of people live under the poverty line, the prices of petrol, gas, and electricity have also continued to increase. As in rural and peripheral France, such territories have particularly suffered the degradation of public services over the last decade or more, as governments close the hospitals, courts, and train stations taxes are meant to pay for. The social contract crumbles, and gives way to anger.

In Réunion, in fact, the movement has assumed particularly impressive proportions, with clashes with police, the torching of cars and “self-discounts” (collective shoplifting) all leading to the introduction, Tuesday last week, of a curfew imposed by the island’s police prefect.

Indeed, while the regional council announced on November 21 that it would freeze fuel prices for the next three years, the tensions have not abated and the gilets jaunes now demand a cut in petrol costs. The movement’s demands have also spread to include the cost of living, access to jobs, measures to tackle inequality, and a broader demand for respect.

On November 26 the gilets jaunes across France named eight “national communicators” on Facebook, responsible for dialogue with the government. While some in the movement question how representative they are, these spokespersons have requested a meeting with the government to carry forth the movement’s demands.

The main proposals formulated thus far are a general decrease in taxation and the creation of a “citizen’s assembly” to discuss the ecological transition, respect for citizens’ voices, the increase in purchasing power, and renewed value being attributed to labor. The assembly would also discuss such diverse measures as a ban on glyphosphate, the marketing of biofuels, the abolition of the senate, the organization of frequent local and national-level referenda, the increase in subsidies for the creation of jobs (and not precarious ones), respect for gender parity and equal treatment, an increase in the minimum wage, and the cutting of employers’ social contributions.

Yesterday, the gilets jaunes issued a press release including about forty “peoples’ directives,” sent also to MPs. These included measures such as the complete resolution of homelessness, a more strongly progressive tax system, a universal social security system, MPs on the average salary, forbidding outsourcing and posted work, creating more open-ended contracts, abolition of the CICE, investment in sustainable transport, the end of austerity policies, the introduction of a maximum salary (at €15,000 a month), rent controls, and an immediate end to the closing of rail lines, post offices, schools and nurseries, and so on.

All this seems like a challenge to the policies of the “anti–Robin Hood” president who robs from the poor and gives to the rich. Countless placards call for Macron’s resignation, and indeed this movement follows after many others which began even before November 17, from the fight against university reform and public-sector cuts to the battle against the repression conducted in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Yet it remains to be seen whether the much-sought-after “convergence of the struggles” will finally come true.

The gilets jaunes are looked at with a good deal of confusion, suspicion, and mistrust — not only by a condescending media, but also across large swathes of the comments coming from the varied world of the Left. Criticisms of their behavior have been influenced by an evident contempt for the “lower classes”: social media are awash with jokes about the “pig-headed” “imbeciles” of the “France d’en bas.” Such derision also appeared across the social networks close to the autonomous “movement” left, before the powerful demonstration of November 17.

Some doubts are legitimate. Ecologists and the defenders of nature have been, to say the least, disconcerted by the hubbub around a movement that basically asks to be able to burn more fuel at a lower price and that seemed initially uninterested in the government’s at least explicit intention to use this “carbon tax” to fund the ecological transition.

This is one of the main reasons why the unions and leftist forces initially did not support the movement. Faced with the extent of the mobilization, however, many have reconsidered their positioning; indeed, all the forces of the opposition from left to right (with the exception of the Greens) have discreetly expressed their support for the movement, while also being careful not to be accused of opportunistically “recuperating” it for their own political ends.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, writer and MP François Ruffin, and other figures from France Insoumise — as well as many of its grassroots militants — took part in the mobilizations alongside the gilets jaunes. On Tuesday November 20 the moderate trade union FO Transports voiced its backing. Even Philippe Martinez, the general secretary of the main French trade union, the initially skeptical CGT, has finally expressed his cautious support and called for a joint demonstration on December 1.

Support has also begun to arrive from the left of the movements. For instance, the Vérité pour Adama committee — which fights for justice and truth on the death of Adama Traoré, a twenty-four-year-old killed in a police station in July 2016 in Beaumont-sur-Oise, a poor district in the Parisian suburbs — has announced that it will join the gilets jaunes in the streets next Saturday. Most of the “big names” of the activist and intellectual French left – such as Assa Traoré, Frédéric Lordon, and Edouard Louis – have now called to take to the street in support of the movement.

Despite these late expressions of support, many on the Left continue to doubt this mobilization. The movement’s self-proclaimed apolitical character, and the fact that many gilets jaunes claim to have never taken to the streets before, attracts accusations of “selfishness” or claims that the movement is “petty-bourgeois” in nature. Even those who call for the “convergence of the struggles” found it hard to support the demands of people who did not mobilize last year against the government’s triple offensive against railway workers, students, and migrants.

Above all, there are suspicions of infiltration by Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN, formerly known as Front National), or even claims that fascists are providing direction to the movement. Since the start of mobilization there have been occasional expressions of racism and Islamophobia — incidents which have, unusually, been given wide media coverage. On Friday, CGT leader Martinez alerted his members that gilet jaunes blockades could include “elements of the far right that mix up the demands made with the question of immigration.

Faced with these doubts, many activists have called for caution, to wait and see what will happen and what direction the movement will take. It is undoubtedly true that the roadblockers include all sorts: above all the “apolitical,” but also the fascists of the RN, supporters of the hard conservative right behind Laurent Wauquiez (Les Républicains), nationalists, Socialists, Insoumis, Communists, trade unionists, anarchists, and so on. But precisely for this reason, the wait-and-see attitude — “let’s see how it turns out” — risks delivering the movement to reactionary tendencies.

Even the moralistic criticisms that accuse the gilets jaunes of materialism and selfishness can be called into question. Was not the increase in the price of bread the main factor pushing the women of Paris to mount their furious march on Versailles in October 1789? The history of social struggles is peppered with movements arising from an exasperation that owed to the material conditions of the popular classes, movements that can give rise to greater awareness, bring out wider demands, and which can converge with other struggles. Or not.

The gilets jaunes’ situations are complex and multiform, but they express a real discomfort. For the political left to participate in the movement poses many difficulties, but it can at least try to intercept this discomfort, to give it useful slogans, and to prevent it from being recuperated by the far right. This will help the gilets jaunes develop into a movement concerning not only tax but also important ecological and redistributive demands.

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