The Yellow Vest movement in France shows no sign of fading away after ten weeks of protests, blockades and battles with police. Charlie Kimber from Socialist Worker looks at what the movement shows about struggle—and asks how it can win
The French Yellow Vest movement has shown how deep class bitterness can suddenly turn from sullen passivity into extraordinary revolt.
It has seen ten weeks of inspiring challenge to the government of president Emmanuel Macron and his corporate supporters.
Macron came to office in 2017 resolving never to bow to strikes or protests. He said he would, at last, make French workers and pensioners accept the harsh facts of capitalist life.
But the durability and fury of the Yellow Vest movement has forced Macron into humiliating retreats.
It exploded into view on 17 November last year when 280,000 people joined road blockades over fuel price rises. It is a political earthquake, tearing up lazy ideas that people can’t fight or that social discontent is always captured by the right.
Some of Paris’s poshest shops have been looted, and fires have lit up city centres across much of France.
Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of the 8th district area of Paris, close to the Arc de Triomphe, said, “We are in a state of insurrection. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The movement has forced issues of poverty, low pay and inequality into national discussion. Above all it has given a focus for the bitter resentment at the arrogance and contempt the rich and politicians display towards ordinary people.
Resentments that have been building for decades have found an outlet—and the elite are terrified.
After Macron made concessions on 10 December, the head of the Medef bosses’ organisation said, “It’s true that 15 billion euros is a lot. But if it helps to restore civil peace, it’s worth it.” He then claimed to quote Lenin, “We must always be a step ahead of the masses.”
But the masses were ahead of him. The concessions led many people to conclude that Macron’s rotten government could be forced to concede more—or be toppled by revolt.
Issues that people normally grumble about but feel powerless to affect have become open to collective action. “I used to spend my evenings yelling at the telly but together, you know, we can make things change,” said Jean, a construction worker from Lille.
After a report that an Amazon warehouse at Saran in the Loiret was destroying unsold products to avoid taxes, a group of Yellow Vests blocked the site.
They cut off virtually all incoming and outgoing traffic. Amazon bosses were forced to admit that they had scrapped 293,000 items in the last nine months, and that they would seek to change.
The most visible and confrontational aspects of the movement are the mobilisations on Saturdays.
But its real base is the blockades on roads, tollbooths and roundabouts, local events, and assemblies of hundreds where people thrash out their demands.
The Yellow Vests movement has brought together workers, unemployed people, small business owners, pensioners and students. It has encouraged creativity, social contact and shared the idea that people’s problems are not because of their individual failings but the way society is organised.
There have been constant slurs that the Yellow Vests are guided by the far right. But although such elements do exist within it, the general trend has been leftwards.
A major survey of protesters in Le Monde newspaper found less than 1.5 percent of those interviewed mentioned immigration as an issue that was important to them.
A poll released by France 2 TV found 33 percent of Yellow Vest protesters said they were neither left nor right. Some 15 percent described themselves as extreme left and 5.4 percent said far right.
There has been a conscious process of weeding out fascists.
On 5 January in Bordeaux, far right activists were physically expelled from a Yellow Vest demonstration. Known activists from the Nazi Action Francaise and hard core elements from far right youth groups were pushed off.
In Paris members of Groupe Union Defense, a far right student group, have been removed from Yellow Vest events after chanting racist, sexist and homophobic slogans.
Celine is a Yellow Vest from Toulouse. She told Socialist Worker, “In many areas we have won the argument that it is not possible to fight for more justice, for better wages and pensions, alongside fachos.”
And sometimes the struggle itself has taught people lessons.
In Caen before Christmas the Yellow Vests had nowhere to meet because of state repression. The one place that welcomed them was a migrant squat.
Although at first some people were nervous about it, the assembly of 400 Yellow Vests took place in a warehouse where 200 undocumented people live. The right wingers hated it, but most people learned that the migrants were their allies.
Many Yellow Vests have also developed a hatred of the cops.
State forces range from the normal police to the CRS riot squads to the shadowy groups of masked men identified only by police armbands. All have been unleashed in huge numbers against peaceful protesters.
Up to 80,000 state thugs are mobilised every weekend against the Yellow Vests, backed by armoured cars and all the technology of modern repression.
They habitually use fire tear gas, percussion grenades and “flashballs”—a projectile fired from a special gun. Zineb Redouane, 80 years old, was killed in Marseille after a police tear gas grenade hit her in the face.
More than 2,000 people have been badly injured by police. According to the website Desarmons-les! (Disarm them!), four people have had their hands torn off by grenades and 17 have been blinded. Dozens of others have had feet mutilated, faces smashed and jaws fractured.
Some 5,000 people have been arrested. Last week 28 year old Hedi Martin was sentenced to six months in jail for a Facebook post calling for a Yellow Vest blockade of the petrol refinery at Port-la-Nouvelle.
Macron hoped this would intimidate people off the streets. He failed.
People have defended themselves—and learned many valuable lessons. Aline, a factory worker from Marseille, told Socialist Worker, “I used to think the police were doing their best in hard situations. I didn’t sympathise with the students or the ecologists when they got attacked.
“I have been with the Yellow Vests for eight weeks. Now I think the police are there for the rich, for the puffed-up people, and for the powerful. I have gone from anger to being frightened to feeling strong again when we are together.
“When I saw Christophe Dettinger [a former professional boxer] fight the police I cheered him. I wanted him to knock them all down! Listen to me, I can hardly believe I’m saying this.
“Now if the youngsters in the housing estates take on the cops I will wish them well.”
Women have played leading roles and participated in large numbers. In some areas there are childcare services to enable women, particularly single mothers, to be part of the movement.
Laeticia, a Yellow Vest and single mother from the Haute Garonne region, wrote about how the movement was a way to express her pent-up rage about her conditions of life. “Wearing this piece of yellow fabric is warmer than a good duvet in winter,” she said.
And there are experiments in movement democracy. General meetings regularly take place in a dozen cities and towns in order to coordinate protests and decide where to target next.
On the outskirts of Rennes, there has been an almost continuous gathering of a group called the “Yellow Rabbits” (“Yellow Vests who run fast”) for a month. People debate tax, inequality, police violence, what happened in 1968 and much more.
But the movement still has serious weaknesses. It is not yet big enough to guarantee defeat for Macron. Although they are far more militant, the mobilisations are smaller than the union-led ones last year.
To be really effective the movement has to be linked to action in the workplaces—strikes and occupations.
This is how it can win.