Interview with John Mullen
Q: What happened on Saturday in Paris and in France? What did you see?
Of course, the media like to show mainly the couple of dozen burning cars, but this is not the principal element. The Yellow Vest movement has broadened its revolt. At least a hundred high schools were blockaded across the country (French high schools work Saturday morning).
In many towns, Yellow Vests and Unions marched together, while in the Paris area some Black activist organizations called to march along with the Yellow Vests; Road blocks on motorway junctions are having a big slowdown effect on commerce. Meanwhile, In the French overseas territory of Reunion island, the whole economy is blockaded by the Yellow Vests.
In Paris, I went to the demonstration planned for the Champs Elysées, which ended in a long battle with police, industrial amounts of tear gas, a hundred injured and a couple of hundred arrests. Behind the Arc de Triomphe in the extremely rich part of town (a one-bedroom flat will set you back a million euros),
I saw vague barricades being put together from street furniture. I saw that the bank branches were thoroughly smashed up by Black Bloc types, some with anarchist logos, and not wearing Yellow. The rest of the Yellow Vests did not seem to mind the banks being smashed up, though. The small chic bistros, organic food supermarkets and the very expensive clothes shops were left alone: the media story of wild animals on the rampage is, as usual, nonsense.
The atmosphere was friendly. A building worker had left the keys in a JVC digger, and demonstrators were trying to work out how it worked or what use it could be put to against the police.
Naturally, we do not know how far police agents provocateurs were involved in the smashing up of banks and cars, but it has to be remembered that this is not an uncommon police tactic.
The most visible element of the crowd of a few thousand Yellow Vests was working-class people from Brittany (with Breton flags) and from other parts of France. There were five or six French tricolour flags.
At one moment, a section of the demonstrators broke into the national anthem, which calls to “take arms, citizens, form up our battalions” and wishes that the farms of France should be irrigated by the blood of the powerful. After the first verse the song turned into a chant taken up widely: “Macron, resign!” This singing and chanting shows the novelty and no doubt the contradictions of the political base of the movement.
Party political symbols, banners or placards were nowhere to be seen. It was understood that most Yellow Vests do not want them on demonstrations in Paris, or on the motorway blockades, though in other towns the situation is different. Some people had written slogans on their yellow vests: anti-capitalist slogans, “France awake!” types of slogan, or references to the French Revolution of 1789. The press says there were small far right groups of thugs there, but I didn’t see any.
That was on the Champs Elysées. Elsewhere in Paris, the Stock Exchange was attacked, a joint Yellow Vest – Trade Union rally was held, and a CGT parallel demo had Yellow Vest people involved too. In other French towns such as Bordeaux and Toulouse there was fighting, and in Rennes, Marseilles and elsewhere joint Yellow Vest and Trade Union actions were very much in evidence.
Q: Some of the British press are suggesting that Macron may not survive. Is that your impression?
The numbers of people, and the economic effects of this movement on the economy are considerably smaller than last Spring’s union-led movements, which Macron won. He was helped by the fact that the bosses were prepared to wait the movement out, since Macron’s so-called “neither left nor right” game was their last card after neither right nor social democratic governments had succeeded in accelerating neoliberalism enough for the bosses’ liking.
But there are other important differences. Up to 83% of the population including over 50 % of those who voted Macron in the first round of the presidentials express some support for the movement in polls, whereas numbers for those thinking Macron is doing a good job hover around 20%. As we know, public opinion does not bring down presidents, but this is quite extreme, and the numbers may hold up despite 24 hour a day media lies.
In addition, the symbolic power of burning cars on the Champs Elysées every Saturday afternoon is not good for Macron in the world media (this week’s idiot prize goes to Time magazine which headlined on civil war).
Thirdly, the main body of the Yellow Vests come from a section of the working-class population not usually prone to revolt. It seems to me more threatening to Macron than riots in poor suburbs, for example.
Q: What can Macron do now?
I am expecting him to try to wait it out, and meanwhile ban all demonstrations in Paris next week, etc. Sunday, as I write, he seems to be hesitating, and has organized meetings between his Prime Mininister and each of the Political Parties represented in parliament before deciding what to do.
Ten days ago, he tried the “friendly” approach, and two yellow vests met with the environment minister. A few days later the Prime Minister invited very publicly a delegation to meet him, and in the end most of them refused, some because he would not allow the meeting to be live streamed to social media.
Macron seems determined not to make significant concessions – in particular he does not want to freeze the January fuel tax rise, which would be an obvious concession to make, and his Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has announced there will be no rise in the minimum wage (presently standing at 1188 a month for a 35-hour week). He has dispatched his sharpest ministers off the all the Tv chat shows they can get on.
Governments over the last 25 years in France, faced with mass revolt, have often slowed down their neoliberal attacks on the rest of us. But Macron sold himself to the capitalist class as the one who would not do that, who would instead transform the country into a “Start-up nation” of entrepreneurs.
And the bosses are in a hurry. Among many others, two huge neoliberal attacks are in the air. A reform of the pension system so retired people, in particular from the public sector, get far less money, and a plan for university tuition fees to be raised massively. The initial stage of the latter plan is to make non-EU students pay a few thousand euros a year instead of a few hundred. Students organizations were demonstrating against this on Saturday.
The key question for the week to come is whether the spreading of the movement to high schools and unions, and/or à link up with the ongoing refinery strikes will pose the question more sharply and threaten Macron’s position.
Q How are Left forces reacting, and what comes next?
Political reactions are coming in thick and fast. Mélenchon, leader of the France Insoumise, underlined the responsibility of aggressive policing in the sparking of violence (some demonstrators were gassed at 9am as soon as they approached the Champs Elysées: the press interviewed a retired woman who recounted this). There may well be a joint Communist Party -France Insoumise proposal for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the government.
Marine Le Pen was obliged yesterday to clarify her position concerning some of the movement’s main demands and explained that she was opposed to any rise in the minimum wage. Her party is proposing government help for small businesses who have high fuel bills, showing more clearly the class base of the party.
There are already calls for a further day of action next Saturday 8th December, and in some places, high school students are planning blockades in the next few days. On the 8th December there are climate marches in several cities. Macron’s pathetic excuse for the fuel tax rises is the environment, whereas in fact he is busy closing down thousands of kilometres of regional railway lines, cutting the funding for local government, and slashing the social housing programmes which allow employees to live near their workplaces. So it would be good to draw the links.