by Serge Halimi
translation by George Miller
female cleaner at work at
judicial police headquarters in Paris
France's yellow vests, coming together
in informally organized groups, took just one month
to challenge policies on taxation, education,
transport and environment, and make the
government back down...
Three yellow vests read out an address 'to the French people and the president of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron' saying:
The anger provoked by a fuel tax produced, within a month, a wider diagnosis of what ails society and democracy.
Mass movements that bring
together people with minimal organization encourage rapid
politicization, which explains why 'the people' have discovered that
they are 'dispossessed of their future' a year after electing as
president a man who boasts he swept aside the two parties that
alternated in power for 40 years.
As did previous wunderkinder just as young, smiling and modern:
The liberal bourgeoisie are hugely disappointed.
His French presidential election win in 2017 - whether it was a miracle or a divine surprise - had given them hope that France had become a haven of tranquility in a troubled West.
When Macron was crowned
(to Beethoven's Ode to Joy), The Economist, that standard-bearer for
the views of the international ruling class, put him on its front
cover, grinning as he walked on water.
But when old angers build and new ones are stirred up without consideration for those enduring them, then, as the new interior minister Christophe Castaner put it, (1) the 'monster' can spring out of its box.
And then, anything
Philosopher and campaigner Simone Weil wrote:
Was Macron similarly enlightened by hearing yellow vests describe their daily life?
Tense, pale, his eyes
riveted to the teleprompter, he did admit in his address to the
nation that 'the effort demanded of them was too great' and 'not
fair'. The tables had turned and he was now the one learning a
After always having
submitted, endured everything,
in silence for months and years,
it is about daring
to straighten up, to stand up.
To take your
turn to speak
Thanks to the yellow vests, everyone is more aware of the government's injustices:
The costliest measure was the replacement of the tax credit for competitiveness and employment (CICE, a corporate tax credit scheme for businesses) with a reduction in employers' social security contributions, which mean that this year the Treasury will effectively pay a double bonus to Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe, owner of,
This policy will cost almost €40bn in 2019, 1.8% of GDP and more than 100 times the saving from housing benefit cuts.
In the short, angry video, viewed 6.2m times, that helped launch the yellow vest movement, Jacline Mouraud, 51, a composer and hypnotherapist from Brittany, asked Macron three times,
Now we know.
A government that raids pensions, already too low, as if they were a treasure chest.
Single mothers who have trouble getting child support from their former partners, equally poor. Couples who want to split up but are forced to stay together because they cannot afford two rents.
The Internet, computers and smartphones which are now necessities that have to be paid for, not for leisure purposes but because service rationalizations by the post office, tax authorities and railways, and the disappearance of public phones, make it impossible to live without them.
And everywhere there are maternity unit closures and shuttered shops while Amazon opens new warehouses.
This universe of anomie,
imposed technology, form filling, productivity tracking and
loneliness can be seen in other countries too. It has arisen under
very different political regimes and predates Macron's election, but
he seems in love with this new world and has made its accomplishment
his social project - another reason why he is hated.
People who are doing well - graduates, the middle class, those in big cities - share Macron's optimistic outlook. As long as the country is calm, or in despair, which amounts to the same thing, the world and the future are theirs.
A yellow vest who owns a detached house that in the 1970s would have been a symbol of upward mobility said,
a 'gilet jaune' clashes with riot police
near the Champs Elysées in Paris
...the EU cannot do without France nor punish it like Greece when its books don't balance.
However weakened Macron
is, he is one of the last strong pieces on neoliberal Europe's
chessboard. So the EU and Germany want him to remain in place, even
if they have to permit France a few deadly sins.
Instead, he let it be known that he had no objection:
The Spanish, Italians and
Greeks should translate this (LMD's national editions will handle
it) and future French governments, whose economic sovereignty might
be more challenged and budgetary misdemeanors less well received,
should keep a transcript.
Angela Merkel quickly backed his climbdown; it was intended, she said, to,
And France's rightwing opposition soon called for the demonstrations to end.
The middle class, which knows where its interests lie, sticks together when the house is on fire. To 'save Private Macron', bosses even encouraged businesses to pay their workers a special bonus, in reaction to his call for a higher minimum wage.
The press too curbed its criticism when faced with a stumbling government.
An economist and a political scientist had warned them:
The conservative daily Le Figaro got the message, as an editorial suggested after Macron's speech:
The government has not collapsed; it pulled itself together, protected by the institutions of the Fifth Republic, and by its parliamentary majority, which will be even more loyal since it owes everything to Macron.
The government also made it clear that its ostensible liberalism does not stop it deploying armored vehicles on the streets of Paris and preventatively arresting hundreds of demonstrators (1,723 on 8 December), as it had done in the weeks before.
And the executive does not balk at manipulating fear - the Elysée palace warned darkly against a 'hard core' of people who had come to Paris 'to kill' - or alleging foreign intervention ('Russian' of course...!)
Moreover, Macron, by
choosing to highlight the 'immigration question', confirmed his
instinctive political cynicism.
Yet the words 'Europe'
and 'European' do not appear among the yellow vests' 42 demands.
The sudden emergence of the yellow vests, just as miraculous and much more powerful, demonstrates the gradual impoverishment of an ever-larger section of society.
It also demonstrates the feeling of absolute defiance towards - almost disgust at - the usual channels of representation:
This probably explains
its popularity, which it managed to retain even after violence any
other government would have capitalized on.
It is as though two worlds, s
eparated by just six kilometers,
have turned their backs on each other.
With no possibility of the ‘tough guys'
from the factory joining
what one worker called
middle class out for a walk'
Its political prospects are uncertain and its eclectic character contributes to its appeal but threatens its cohesion and power.
It is easier to make agreements between workers and the middle class over rejecting a fuel tax or abolishing the wealth tax than over changing the minimum wage, since small business owners and independent traders fear their costs will go up.
Yet, there is a potential unifying bond, since many demands result from transformations of capitalism:
In 2010 journalist François Ruffin described two protest marches in Amiens on the same day, which crossed paths but did not join forces:
Sociologist Rick Fantasia noted around the same in Detroit that there were 'two lefts… separate and distinct',
Even if the divisions in Amiens and Detroit are not identical, they show the growing gulf between a working-class universe constantly attacked yet trying to fight back, and a world of contestation inspired by intellectuals whose radicalism on paper is no threat to the social order.
The yellow vests remind
us of this division, but it's not up to them alone to bridge it...