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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 4 - Movements and Media

It is also true that for now the enormous visibility that the media have given the gilets jaunes has eclipsed other important movements also taking place in France at the moment. The most striking example is the events organized on Saturday 24 for the international day against violence against women. For months, collectives and feminist associations have been set up to organize a “tide” against sexist and sexual violence.

One year on from #MeToo, which had real resonance in France, Nous Toutes sought to create a unitary and mass movement, in a country where the feminist movement has been marked by tensions and sharp divisions. This was, indeed, a success: on Saturday more than fifty thousand people took to the streets throughout France, including thirty thousand in Paris. This was much less than Rome (where organizers claimed two hundred thousand participants) but a big increase on the two thousand that turned out in France last year. And the numbers who took to the streets against sexism were in any case much greater than the eight thousand gilets jaunes that marched on the Champs Elysées and then dominated headlines in subsequent days.

There are many other examples of mass struggles that have taken place in recent weeks in France, without getting the same media coverage as the gilets jaunes: teachers demonstrated on November 12 to defend schools from job cuts; from the Dordogne to Rouen, postal workers took strike action against the dismantling of the public postal service; on November 20, nurses mobilized for hospital funding. Although today we are seeing less a convergence of struggles than a multiplication of different ones, there are signs that this situation could evolve into a real converging of the peripheral France, the France of the cities and the banlieues, and the rest of the French activist left.

We will see in the next weeks whether peripheral France can unite with the great urban centers of France, students, and unionized workers. For now, the government seems determined to hold firm. On Sunday 25, the transport minister, Elisabeth Borne, reiterated that the government will not retreat on the “carbon tax.”

On Tuesday, November 27 Macron made a series of announcements on the ecological transition, without making concessions to the movement. This Friday, a delegation of gilets jaunes should meet with the French prime minister Edouard Philippe. In the meantime, the state has been breaking up the roadblocks and arresting hundreds of people: some have already been sentenced to jail time. On Saturday night a tweet from Macron confirmed his support for the police and declared: “Shame on those who tried to intimidate elected officials. There is no place for violence in the Republic.” As usual, mainstream media have largely served the government’s strategy, focusing attention on violence to discredit the movement.

But there is something more subtle and more Machiavellian — and certainly more dangerous — in Macron’s own strategy. In the government’s (and the media’s) attempt to paint the gilets jaunes movement as a reactionary movement directed by the far right, there is a maneuver to rally support behind his La République en Marche, and thus prepare the ground for the European elections.

This maneuver already began some months ago, and is also connected to the police raids on the offices of La France Insoumise, the main opposition force on the left. In September, after a spring of mobilizations, but especially after the “Benalla affair” (the revelation of videos in which the president’s bodyguard, disguised as a police officer, beat protesters) Macron crashed into the polls.

The France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, conversely, reached his peak support, becoming the main opposition leader. In October, the government hit further crisis with the resignations of the environment minister, the Green Nicolas Hulot — who quit denouncing the lobbyists’ influence on government policy — and of Interior Minister Gérard Collomb.

This was the context in which police raids were ordered on fifteen LFI and connected properties. This was an operation of unprecedented breadth in French political history, especially if we consider that it was just part of a preliminary investigation into LFI’s electoral expenses.

Macron thus opened his campaign for the European elections of May 2019, which aims to present his party as the only “progressive” force standing against the various “nationalisms,” thus pairing the Rassemblement National and France Insoumise in the same “populist” basket. In 2017, Macron was elected mainly thanks to the vote against Le Pen — as had already happened in 2002 when Jacques Chirac won the election against her facther Jean-Marie Le Pen, with the important difference that while Chirac had won with 82 percent of the votes, Macron took 66 percent.

Macron’s strategy is to recreate the same polarized scenario for the European elections. For this reason he has presented himself as the “anti-Salvini” and the “anti-Orban.” Yet Macron’s migration policy, as enacted with last year’s Asylum and Immigration Law, is perfectly compatible with that of Salvini or Trump: for example, its measures permitting the detention of children and the lengthening of administrative detention.

The identitarian and xenophobic populism today flourishing throughout Europe is not a reaction or alternative to neoliberal policies, but its extension. As recently pointed out by Quinn Slobodian, exponents of Alternative für Deutschland and the Austrian far right have close ties with the famous Mont Pellerin Society, the global intellectual hub of neoliberalism.

The flat tax promoted by Italy’s Salvini-Di Maio government is another example of the connivance between the ideas of the (center-left and center-right) neoliberal bloc and those of the identitarian right. Their common aim is to allow capital to circulate and to block the road to human beings. The Europe desired by Salvini and Orban is an identitarian extension of neoliberal Europe, not its opposite.

On the horizon for May 2019’s European elections is thus a blue-brown continent. Le Pen’s party is ahead in current polling for next year’s vote, ahead of Macron’s party, Les Républicains, and France Insoumise. Indeed, over recent days the main media have been whipping up the specter of extremism, as they repeat that Le Pen’s party, presented as the country’s main opposition force, is working behind the scenes to set the gilets jaunes along a violent path. But there are also forces on the Left determined to shape the movement and prevent Macron or Le Pen exploiting it for their own ends. These activists, too, will be on the Avenue des Champs Elysées next Saturday, alongside and with the yellow-vested protestors.

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