Andrew Coates finds grounds to be cautious on the rise of the Gilet jaunes
In May 2017 Emmanuel Macron was elected President of France with 66.1% of the vote in the second round. Marine le Pen won 33.9%. There was a 25.4% abstention rate – a record high. An admirer wrote of the new head of state’s ‘optimism’. His ambition was to build a society open to global commerce, innovatory and entrepreneurial. Yet as Brice Couturier noted in his book, Macron, the Philosopher President, he would find it hard to win over “la France périphérique”. There are many (half-hearted or non-Macron voters) who want security rather than change.
The Gilets jaunes protests began last October over a rise in fuel taxes. Raising issues of fiscal justice up to the way French democracy is organised, and the legitimacy of the ‘political class’, 287,000 people demonstrated in November for ‘Acte I’ of a national day of protest. People wearing the High-Vis vests have blocked roundabouts and motorways. There has been heavy-handed repression. Following tumultuous protests – without formal stewarding – and vandalism on the 1st December in the Arc de Triomphe, there was a crackdown. The use of rubber bullet launchers, amongst other arms, has led to hundreds of injuries. Up to 200,000 came out in ‘Acte XII’ on 2nd February. The issue of police violence was at the forefront.
In response to ‘Casseurs’ – those who smash up shops and fight the police – Macron has proposed a law which enables the state to ban people, without independent control, from protests. Around 50 of his MPs abstained on this legislation.
Another response has been the Grand Débat National. Across the country, meetings before an invited audience have been held with the President and other government leaders. Discussion is intended to be on ‘green transition’ (the original fuel tax hike was presented as a way of reducing carbon emissions), taxation, the way the state works, democracy and citizenship. Watching some of them on BFM TV, there is polite (if heated) discussion, raising problems familiar to a British audience. These include housing, precarious jobs, poor public services, and inadequate education provision.
A grand absence is the mass of the Gilets jaunes. Instead of the Grand Débat they offered their own web platform. The importance of social media in the protests is hard to avoid. Some, optimistically, consider that this is tied to popular assemblies and new forms of democracy, (see Understanding the Gilets jaunes [pdf]). Attempts to create a national structure out of a structureless movement have, however, foundered. A widely shared demand is for government referendums called for popular petitions, by-passing Cabinets and Presidents. Conspiracy theorising is omnipresent on social media. One target is the media. Journalists have been singled out, women reporters have been threatened with rape and there have been vicious physical assaults in Rouen and Tolouse, amongst many other acts of intimidation.
An egalitarian impulse, a wish for fairer taxation, the well-founded criticism that Macron’s government represents the wealthy (15 Ministers out of 32 are millionaires) may point to the better side of the Gilets jaunes. There is hostility to globalisation and capitalism in the abstract but few criticise companies or call for alternatives to the market. If there is a demand for social justice, it is from the State, not from changes in the workplace, or a challenge to private enterprise. The rights of motorists have been promoted by vandalising a majority of speed cameras on French roads. It is hard to see any green politics at work there. While a minority of Gilets jaunes activists are on the left, the far-right Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen has a big audience in the movement. Those mobilised in the protests – not just giving passive approval – include many from ‘white van’ employment, rural and ‘peri-urban’ areas where backing for the far-right is strongest.
Researcher Luc Rouban suggests that the movement feeds into right-wing populism. The left-wing trade union federation, the CGT, has tried to challenge this. They called a day of action to ‘converge’ with the Gilets jaunes in early February. It attracted several hundred thousand supporters in protests across the country, but work stoppages were limited. Some Gilets jaunes participated, following the appeal of leading figure, Éric Drouet. Others attacked any co-operation with the CGT.
Many who have no sympathy with Macron’s Presidency are concerned that a possible meltdown of French politics will favour a ‘populist’ clean out of the left. The possibility that something like the Italian political landscape may emerge, with no recognisable left, is underlined by the support the 5 Star movement (in power with the far-right) has given to the Gilets jaunes. A left divided into Socialists, Communists, Greens, Benoît Hamons Générations, three main Trotskyist groups, and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise, risks electoral marginalisation.
For the moment, attempts to form Gilets jaunes lists for May’s European elections have shown more divisions than common purpose. President Macron is said to be on the brink of holding a referendum on that date, to decide on some of the key demands that emerge from his Grand Débat. Despite a steep decline in personal popularity, his party, La République en Marche, still heads opinion polls for the coming electoral contest.