It only took three Saturdays of massive, angry protests for French President Emmanuel Macron to suspend a hated new fuel tax on Dec. 4, 2018. However, this did not stop the Yellow Vest demonstrators (wearing motorist safety jackets). Macron responded with further concessions, raising the minimum wage and cutting a tax on pensions.
Inspired by this rebellion, the global 99 percent hit the streets, many dressed in yellow, protesting unfair taxes in Taiwan; poor public services in Iraq; the astronomical price of bread in the Sudan; high food costs in Belgium; rising rents and evictions in Ireland; and chanting ‘We are broke’ in Jordan, to name only a few. In Rome, thousands marched against a new anti-immigrant law. In Pakistan, engineers in vests demanded better wages and working conditions. As this paper goes to print protests continue to erupt internationally.
Fuel tax was the last straw. France first erupted on November 17 after a social media callout. The immediate provocation was a green levy on fuel, supposedly to reduce carbon emissions. Few French disagree with the dangers of climate change, but this tax hits hard on rural folks who must drive because of lack of mass transit in the countryside. It is seen as another drain on the little guy/gal while big business polluters are let off the hook.
That first Saturday nearly 300,000 hit the streets throughout the country, with a mass gathering in Paris. Angry demonstrators have destroyed 95 percent of speed cameras, blocked tourist attractions and burned vehicles. Farmers sprayed horse manure on government buildings, and attorneys tossed their law books onto a bonfire over unpopular justice ‘reforms.’
Macron sent 89,000 police to forcefully stop the protests after the initial weekend. Hundreds were arrested and injured. Later, when high school students walked out of classes some were handcuffed and held in schoolyards on their knees. The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) defended themselves by barricading streets, facing down armored vehicles, water cannons and tear gas grenades, sometimes chasing police away.
Behind the protests lies frustration over mounting privatization and austerity resulting in dwindling quality of life. Especially galling are the increasing taxation of pensions, cuts in social services and moves to privatize nationalized healthcare. Adding fuel to the fire, Macron, seen as a “President of the Rich” with pro-business policies, began 2018 with huge tax cuts for the wealthy. Now, anti-government sentiments abound, and the President only has an 18 percent approval rating.
A populist grassroots uprising. The protests began with the economically precarious rural grassroots: farmers, small tradespeople, home aides, and truckers. Initially, they claimed to be apolitical, rejecting established political parties and boasting a horizontal, leaderless structure.
This formlessness allowed far-right politician Marine Le Pen to try to influence the movement. It was also seen when Canadian anti-immigrant and pro-pipeline rallies — as well as counter-protesters — all donned yellow, claiming solidarity with the Gilets Jaunes.
The movement has proved highly popular in France, drawing ever wider participation, including unionists. Several Left parties issued a united declaration of support, while many on the far-left, like Trotskyists with Anticapitalisme & Révolution, echoed union members’ demands for a general strike. Unfortunately, the powerful labor federation, the CGT, only called for scattered one-day actions, watering down rank-and-file militancy.
It is not clear how well the concerns of women and people of color are being addressed. Notably absent from demos are Arab and migrant poor neighborhoods. Although active in the weekly protests, women held a separate rally in early January.
The reforms won by the Yellow Vests and their militant public outpourings are inspiring. Despite thousands of arrests and over one hundred killed, the weekly gatherings continue. The movement has morphed into a broad protest of ruling class abuses, including the demand for Macron’s ouster. How far things will go remains to be seen.
The desperation and anger of the worldwide 99 percent is boiling over. But this fightback needs leadership. To stop the attacks on working people, a united left with a clear anti-capitalist program determined to bring fundamental change will be needed.