Thursday 6 December 2018

Vivid Yellow

Fraser Myers writes:

The French are certainly not shy of taking to the streets. Strikes, demos and protests are a normal feature of French political life.

But the rise of the gilets jaunes – a leaderless, bottom-up protest movement sparked by green taxes – is something different.

These protesters, whose symbol and uniform is the hi-vis jacket that all French people are required to keep in their cars, have staged the most significant revolt in France since les événements of May 1968.

For the past month, hundreds of thousands of yellow vests have taken to the streets all over France.

Some have blocked fuel depots, supermarkets and motorway junctions, others have staged barricades outside government buildings.

Organised on social media, this spontaneous, leaderless movement initially sprang up in response to a hike in tax on diesel.

But it has grown to encompass a wider mood of anger against the French establishment.

High levels of taxation, low wages, declining purchasing power and the growing divide between the big cities and their peripheries have all played a role.

Last Saturday, protests in Paris exploded into full-blown rioting on the Champs Élysées: cars were torched, windows were smashed and the Arc de Triomphe was daubed in anti-Macron graffiti.

But these violent scenes in Paris have not dented the movement’s popularity.

A poll for RTL, conducted after the riots, showed that while 85 per cent of the public are uncomfortable with the violence, a whopping 72 per cent support the movement.

Other actions have contributed to the mood of insurrection.

On Monday, paramedics staged a surprise protest against social-security reforms, with over 100 ambulances blocking traffic to the National Assembly.

High-school students have staged blockades in over 500 schools to protest education reforms.

In Pau, in the south-west of France, an extraordinary stand-off between yellow-vest protesters and police ended up with the police agreeing to remove their helmets before the crowd would disperse. 

What is more, the movement has already achieved some concrete successes.

Prime minister Éduoard Phillipe has agreed to suspend the rise in fuel taxes for at least six months. But it is unlikely that this will appease the protesters.

All of this raises the question: where is the left?

Where is the section of politics that is supposed to agitate for political change, for the advancement of working-class people, their interests, their purchasing power and their political power?

It is telling that when the protests were organised, they bypassed France’s organised left entirely, eschewing not just the political parties, but the trade unions, too.

The reaction of some on the left suggests they were right to.

As soon as the first protests emerged, Macron’s ministers immediately tried to discredit the gilets jaunes as having links to neo-fascists.

Many on the left initially bought into this establishment line.

Former presidential candidate for the centre-left Socialist Party, Benoît Hamon, dismissed calls to join the gilets jaunes, saying he would not march side-by-side with the far right.

Much of the left-leaning media has similarly struggled to get to grips with the yellow-vest phenomenon.

After the first weekend of protests, L’Obs magazine ran a cover story warning of the dangers of a ‘populist’ revival via the protests.

As the centre-left daily, Libération, put it, commentators are divided between those who see the protesters as representing the ‘just anger of the people’ and those who see them as a ‘band of polluting oafs, addicted to their cars, who need to be dealt with by the police’.

One Libération correspondent tweeted that the yellow-vests were simply a ‘movement of hicks’, who were mostly ‘far right’.

Jean-Luc Mélonchon, leader of the far-left France Insoumise, initially offered tentative support to the movement. But he was reluctant to get involved himself.

He has since written many excitable blogs, declaring the yellow-vest revolt to be a ‘citizens revolution’. But he is conspicuously late to the party.

That even an avowed revolutionary was initially wary about working people taking to the streets to stand up for their interests is revealing.

Despite understanding the grievances of the yellow vests, the left is disoriented.

In part, this is because it is broadly supportive of the government’s environmentalist agenda. The Socialist Party introduced the fuel tax that Macron had planned to raise.

France Insoumise promises environmental policies that are even more radical – it wants to transition to a zero-carbon economy (although it claims that there are less regressive ways to achieve this than taxes which fall disproportionately on the rural poor).

But there is a deeper disconnect, too.

Across the West, the left has struggled to know how to respond to the populist uprisings of recent years.

There is a tendency on the left to denounce any shock to the status quo as driven by reactionary forces.

The revolting masses are often written off as fascists.

That the yellow vests – a mass, largely working-class movement, defying the government and standing up for its interests – makes many on the left, at best, wary and, at worst, scornful is a damning indictment indeed.

And John Wight writes:

Though the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement in France may appear to have erupted from nowhere, its arrival has been a long time coming.

“Men make their own history,” Karl Marx reminds us, “but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

And confronting the thousands of Yellow Vest protesters who’ve been laying siege to central Paris these past few weeks – along with millions of ordinary working people across France – have been and are the deepening consequences of a broken and defunct neoliberal economic model, compounded by the refusal of its prime movers, chief among them French President Emmanuel Macron, to wake up to the deepening dystopia fashioned in its name.

The French government’s decision to suspend the proposed levy on fuel was a victory for the French people, whose tradition of fighting and struggling for the right to a quality of life consistent with human dignity is centuries old.

In forcing Macron – whose disregard for those at the sharp end of the neoliberal god he worships has been inordinate – to back down, the Yellow Vest movement has rendered working people throughout the EU a great and significant service, reminding them that passivity in the face of injustice only succeeds in inviting more injustice.

Macron’s initial ‘let them eat cake’ refusal to countenance backing down (before, that is, he did back down), proclaiming with the bombast of the mouse to the cat that “People complaining about rising fuel prices are the same ones who complain about pollution and how their children suffer,” will follow him all the way to his resignation or the next French presidential election, whichever comes first.

Clearly and obviously the fact (remember those?) that just 100 of the world’s leading companies and corporations are responsible for 71 percent of emissions is not something that overly intrudes on the consciousness of the current occupant of the Elysee Palace.

It is those very companies whose interests and whims Macron with his recent raft of tax cuts for employers and the wealthy and cuts to pensions and welfare benefits for those at the bottom of the income scale, serves so avidly.

Moreover, said companies and corporations are the recipients of mammoth sums of institutional largesse, courtesy of the world’s leading banks and financial institutions; the very banks that brought us the 2008 global financial crash and worldwide recession.

This, in turn, was met by the unleashing of an economic war against ordinary people, who were not responsible for the crash, in the form of austerity.

Only in joining the aforementioned dots are we are able to cut through the fog of neoliberal propaganda relentlessly spewed out by an establishment media that long lost the right to be considered anything other than part of the problem; its primary role not to hold the rich and powerful to account but instead to throw dust in the workers’ faces.

Straddling the world stage like a colossus in his own mind, but a low rent Napoleon in everyone else’s, with his talk of a European army, Macron is the epitome of the confected politician to which neoliberalism has given birth over the years.

Even before the current crisis his approval rating was so low it was drilling its way through the floor; yet as with other leaders who are cut from the same expensive cloth, being impervious to the real world is deemed compatible with strong leadership.

It really does beg the question of when, if ever, those who inhabit this cloistered Western neoliberal establishment will finally wake up to the consequences of their ruinous economic dictatorship?

In the UK we have the unedifying sight of Tony Blair being wheeled out as the de facto leader of the ‘reverse Brexit’ movement.

That there is anyone who actually believes that the man who took petrol and matches to the Middle East, and who carries about as much weight in the country’s Brexit heartlands as a fly’s wing, is capable of directing anything except his chauffeur from one of his gilded mansions to a TV studio and back again, is remarkable.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the lid of Hillary Clinton’s political coffin has been prised open by an out of touch Washington liberal establishment – one that left planet earth after Trump’s election in 2016 and has been floating around somewhere in outer space since.

The catastrophic refusal of liberal America to confront the truth that Trump is the political child of what Clinton and Obama served up to the American people over too many years, rather than an unpleasant interruption to business as usual, is one of the strongest arguments yet in opposition to the legalization of cannabis across freedom’s land.

Returning to the sage of Trier, Karl Marx, the following from his classic 19th century work, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, delineates in Technicolor detail the reality of governments that genuflect at the altar of capital in the 21st century: “Bonaparte [Macron] would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another.”

The Yellow Vests have made it known that the days of the French working class being the class that is taken from are over.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the country in Europe where the austerity has wrought most carnage – i.e. the UK – the absence of anything approaching a Yellow Vest movement hitting the streets in response lends truth to the old saw that whereas in France the elites are frightened of the people, in Britain the people are frightened of the elites.

Up and down the UK, in communities gutted and garroted by the country’s neoliberal establishment since the Tories came to power in 2010, the only sound emitted in response up to now has been the rumbling stomachs of hungry children – of which in 2018 there are over 4 million.

But, then, even the most slumberous lion has to awake sometime. And when it does?

No comments:

Post a Comment