The Eiffel Tower is dim in comparison to the Gilets jaunes or the yellow vests that have filled the streets of France for four weeks now. All romance has left Paris. There is only rage in the torching of cars and buildings, in the defacement of the city’s landmarks and structures, and in the marching of 282,000 French protesters who live on the country’s margins.
In response, the French government led by President Emmanuel Macron has ordered the deployment of 90,000 police men, the arrest of almost 3,000 protesters, and the suspension of the fuel tax — the policy which ignited the series of mass demonstrations this year. And yet, as the government is threatened to be brought to a standstill, the protest continues with an uncertain future.
But, as history would tell, rage alone is not enough to bring about genuine change. A clear alternative — more than great feelings of liberty — must lead the people.
La France d’en bas / The lower class of France
Created on Facebook, the Gilets Jaunes movement has been organized as a reaction to Macron’s imposition of the new fuel tax. The French government sees the policy as a pro-environment measure to limit public dependence on fossil fuel, in compliance to the 2015 agreement on climate change signed in the very city of Paris.
Gilets Jaunes’ reaction to the fuel tax reflects the kind of growing resistance against neoliberalism, the global order that favors market “freedom” and big businesses over social services and government spending, and now espoused by the likes of Macron. It is a system in which only 100 companies are accountable for 71 percent of global carbon emissions in the past three decades, according to the Carbon Majors Report, but the greater public is made to carry the burden of mitigating the effects of climate change.
For all its promises of “trickling-down” growth, neoliberalism has inevitably resulted in the growing gap between the rich and the poor. In his book ‘Capital in the 21st Century,’ French economist Thomas Picketty detailed the spike in inequality in several nations including France, with the wealth of the world’s richest 0.1 percent amounting to nearly 20 percent of the global wealth today.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that workers from rural and suburban areas in France comprise the Gilets Jaunes — the population alienated by Macron’s pro-business and “elitist” reforms.
The Gilets Jaunes movement particularly exemplifies the nature of mass demonstrations as “protests of innocence” in the words of art critic John Berger: it has no leadership and claims to be influenced by no ideology. In this respect, mass demonstrations like that of Gilets Jaunes become “rehearsals for revolution” — challenging “what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.”
But, paraphrasing Berger, the challenge to the Gilets Jaunes movement is whether it can transcend this “rehearsal” for the actual performance, and not suffer the same fate as its predecessors.
Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible / be realistic, demand the impossible
The French people are no stranger to protests and revolutions. The Gilets Jaunes movement banks on the same French anger that once beheaded their king and changed their society forever.
The latest series of mass action in France has been the largest and most intense in the 50 years since the Paris uprising in May 1968, which was led by university students and later attracted 10 million warm bodies in a matter of weeks. But while the May 1968 uprising is touted as a turning point in French and much of the western world’s social and cultural order, all the anger of the youth failed to upset the French political establishment.
In fact, sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello believe that following the dissolution of the movement, the May 1968 movement’s critique of the oppressiveness and rigidity of capitalism did not mean the collapse of the latter, but was later instrumental to the emergence of the “softened,” “new spirit of capitalism” — characterized by more subtle forms of exploitation such as employee initiative and relative work freedom.
The 21st century has also seen the waning of similar, initially strong mass actions. The historic Arab Spring protests beginning in 2010 made important strides in the pro-democracy struggle in the Middle East, but they failed to sustain their momentum necessary to create a true, lasting impact in the region. Meanwhile, New York’s popular Occupy Wall Street movement lacked the organization it needed to concretely challenge global inequality.
While the power and successes of these broad, cathartic social movements should not be dismissed, their weakness lies “more in the nature of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of struggle,” to use the words of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Based on his work ‘What Is to Be Done?,’ this struggle demands awakening the political consciousness of the working class, through the formation of a political party or vanguard of revolutionaries necessary to “ensure the stability of the movement as a whole.”
Mapping and expanding the common sites of struggle of the diverse Gilets Jaunes, while ensuring the continuity of the radical movement, are a daunting task that the Left in France and in other nations must undertake and own if they are to offer a legitimate opposition to the prevailing order — lest the enemy steal the whole show.
Qui n’avance pas, recule / who does not move forward, recedes
The yellow vests have become a symbol of resistance not only in France but also in other nations, where the movement has already spread but in different contexts. For one, Iraqi protesters wore the same yellow vests to demand basic social services from their government like water and electricity.
But “ideology-less” as the Gilets Jaunes movement claims to be, it has also been co-opted by several right-winged groups and populists in France and other parts of Europe. In the United Kingdom, yellow-vested demonstrators took to the streets their support for the country’s withdrawal from the European Union dubbed as the Brexit. Ironically, no major union confederations or political parties in France have openly supported the workers’ protests despite overwhelming approval among the French population.
Clearly, neoliberal globalization has spurred much insecurity and discontent in many countries, but this frustration has not been tapped into by Europe’s disorganized Left as effectively as authoritarian populists have so far done. Activist and writer Naomi Klein describes the rise of Donald Trump as “a logical culmination of the current neoliberal system”; this also applies to democratically-elected fascists like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
France may now be witnessing a major backlash against neoliberalism, but there is no illusion that this will instantly topple the system that Macron represents. Building a clear alternative to the system entails engaging, consolidating, and organizing the angry mob, and turning this movement into a radical front imperative in achieving the revolution.
For now, the Gilets Jaunes have been realistic by demanding the impossible. In this historic rehearsal of revolution, the rest of the world can no longer just be spectators.
(This article was published on Issue 5–6 of Rebel Kulê, the militant student paper of the University of the Philippines Diliman)