Vol. XLIII No. 20 May 19, 2019
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Why is France Burning?

R Arun Kumar

FRANCE, for the last four weeks, has been witnessing one of the major political demonstrations since 1968, ie, almost after fifty years. While the 1968 demonstrations were hailed as the ‘student demonstrations’ that initiated a popular movement against the then governments in many of the capitalist States, there is a substantial difference with what is now taking place in France. The present protests are mainly led by the toiling classes in the country, chiefly those from the rural regions, with students too joining them at a later stage. These protests that continue to rock France, are taking place not only in Paris, but all across the country. Hundreds of thousands of protesters came out onto the streets wearing ‘yellow vests’ (gilets jaunes), initially expressing their anger against the fuel tax imposed by the Macron government. The protesters are now talking against inequality, injustice and are demanding wage rise.

The true character of the participants in the ‘yellow vest’ protests was best described by a famous French novelist as those with ‘suffering bodies ravaged by work, by fatigue, by hunger, by the permanent humiliation of the dominated by the dominant, by social and geographical exclusion and are tired bodies and tired hands, broken backs and exhausted faces’. It is these ‘tired bodies and tired hands’ that are today tirelessly leading the protests. These are the ‘little people’, the ‘class populaire’, or the working class – to whom Macron promised social advancement and who now feel cheated.

Since Emmanuel Macron took over French presidency, he has hastened the implementation of ‘austerity’ measures and launched severe attack on the working class. Macron is a committed neoliberal ideologue, who was swept to power due to the popular frustration of the French with both the Socialist and Conservative parties in France. He won over the people with his sweet talk, promising to ease their hardships, which were caused by the very neoliberal policies that he adheres to. The contradiction between his promises and his commitment to neoliberalism were immediately visible once he assumed office.

Days into his presidency, Macron slashed taxes on the wealthy, in the name of ‘easing the way for business investments’ and ‘spurring growth’. On the other hand, he increased taxes on pensions, reduced housing allowances and further cut the welfare measures in the name of ‘economic prudence’. He followed these measures by launching an attack on working class and their rights. He weakened business regulations, curbed the right to form unions, organise and protest and introduced educational ‘reforms’ – increase in fees and initiating the process of dismantling the public education system – that made it more difficult for young people to attend colleges and universities.

All these measures of Macron meant a massive transfer of wealth to the country’s wealthy. The reforms he had introduced in the taxation policy have left the bottom 20 per cent much poorer, while the top 1 per cent made enormous gains. Cost of living increased due to the rise in prices of the essential commodities, making life harder for the working people. Unemployment rate hovers around 9 per cent and with no new jobs on the offer, youth are extremely unhappy.

In this background, the fuel tax was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. The rise in fuel taxes severely affected the rural people in France. The present demonstrations in France are a reflection of popular anger against all these measures, and hence, have swelled into broader protests against the whole neoliberal agenda. Moreover, it should be remembered here that the present wave of protests follow the militant working class demonstrations against the labour law reforms introduced by the Macron government. It remained adamant and refused to roll back labour law reforms and accept other demands raised by the working class when they had organised massive demonstrations earlier in the year.

Initially, Macron employed similar tactics and thought of quelling these ‘yellow vest’ protests too through using police force. Nearly 90,000 police were used to brutally suppress these demonstrations. As result, four people died and more than a thousand were injured and around a thousand people were arrested. The police brutality on school students was universally condemned and brought in further more people onto the streets against the government. Latest surveys point that more than 80 per cent of the French support these protests and express their indignation at the government.

The general feeling among the people is that Macron is an ‘arrogant president of the rich’. Marine, a participant in the protest, states that they could no longer put up with what is happening. Taking a dig at the rich who are benefiting from Macron’s policies, she stated: “Our anger is legitimate. We want to eat organic vegetables sometimes too, not just noodles”.

A reflection of this popular anger is evident in the demands of the protesters. They demand a ‘reinstatement of the nation’s wealth tax, increase in the minimum wage and the minimum pension to 1300 Euros a month, government jobs programmes, higher taxes on big companies, rent ceilings, expanded mental health services, and a general rollback of austerity policies’. Another important demand that is now finding an echo everywhere in France is the demand for real democracy. The ‘yellow vests’ have called for a popular referendum whereby citizens could force the French parliament to debate and vote on a law within one year for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution meant to create a new French government based on popular sovereignty and majority rule. They do not want the present type of government, which acts upon commands of the corporates and finance capital. Some commentators noting this demand, are drawing parallels to the demands made during the great French Revolution of 1789.

This demand is very significant, as it represents the popular anger not against 'this' particular government in France, but it reflects popular anger against 'this particular type of government' – a product of the present stage of capitalist development. The people are now saying: “I am suffering because of those who rule. I am suffering because of the class system, not only because of Emmanuel Macron and prime minister Édouard Philippe". This once again testifies to the popular search for alternatives in this crisis period.

Ruling classes from the beginning are trying to demean these protests by calling the protesters as ‘barbarians’ and ‘idiots’. They are trying to paint the protests as being against ‘efforts to control climate change’ and to reduce the dependence on ‘fossil fuels’. This is nothing but an extreme falsity. The yellow vests accept that climate change is a major concern, which should be immediately addressed. However, these protests should be understood, as peoples ‘anxiety of putting food on the table at the end of the month’. They want the government to tax the giant oil corporates, which are responsible for pollution and not common people.

Another lie that is being spread about the ‘yellow vest’ protests is that they are similar to the ‘right-wing’ protests, which are against immigrants. The protesters have made it amply clear that they are not against immigration and do not support racist policies. They stated that they are for ‘improved integration policies to help foreigners settle in France, for all foreign citizens working in France to have the same labour rights as French citizens, and for policies that address the causes of forced migrations’. This clearly separates them from the far right movements in France and other parts of Europe.

It is because of this clarity in what they are against and what they are for, that these protests are attracting hundreds and thousands of participants. Bowing to the popular pressure, French government agreed to withdraw the fuel tax. It had also offered a 100 Euro rise in the minimum monthly wage, abolition of a tax on pensioners earning less than 2,000 Euros a month and non-taxation of overtime pay. But in the same breath, Macron also stated: “We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns”. It is for this reason that the people are skeptic of the government promises and have decided to continue with the protests.

The protests in France are a positive development and are a challenge to the dominant neoliberal rhetoric and ideology. They have not only, once again, brought to the forefront many class issues, but succeeded in earning popular support. How far these protests will last and whether they will succeed or not, cannot be predicted now. But for sure, they reflect popular anger against neoliberalism – its economic policies and authoritarian streak.

The legend of French politics goes: ‘The street always prevails in the end’. Let us hope that the legend turns true.