The demonstration this Friday in Paris looked far different from the protests of the last month. The whole world has seen images of riot police with tear gas and tanks fighting against working people in bright yellow vests. The confrontations over the last four Saturdays have grown increasingly violent.
But on Friday, some 15,000 demonstrators gathered at the Place de la Republique and marched slowly and peacefully to the Place de la Nation. Many wore vests, but these were red, not yellow. In many ways, the procession looked like a fairly standard trade union demonstration in France, with red flags and large balloons of the different trade union federations – as if the country was not in a deep political crisis with a hugely unpopular government.
The CGT and other trade unions called for this “Day of Action” to deflect criticism of their passive and divisive line over the last month. Two weeks ago, while the government of president Emmanuel Macron was at its lowest point yet, rocked by the growing protests of the Yellow Vests, the union leaders put out a scandalous declaration that denounced the “violence” of the movement (but not of the police) and offered indirect support to the government.
Many union members, and even entire federations, called this a betrayal of a movement that was forcing the government to retreat from its neoliberal agenda. On Thursday, a number of prominent activists from the CGT published an open letter demanding that their leadership call for a general strike alongside the Yellow Vests. The left wing of the bureaucracy – especially CGT president Philippe Martinez – was under significant pressure to concede to this demand. On Friday morning, Martinez declared in a TV interview that he wanted to “generalize” the struggle – while carefully avoiding any mention of a general strike.
On Friday, some sectors of workers – including petrochemical workers, railway workers and teachers – were able to strike. But a large number of those who came to the demonstration have trade union positions that allow them to demonstrate during work hours. Because the trade union bureaucracies did not call for a strike, much less build one, many workers were not able to participate. The bureaucracies’ goal was not to link the social power of the workers’ movement with the determination of the Yellow Vests. To the contrary, this “Day of Action” was designed to “let off steam” and prove that the union leaders were “doing something.”
In the last week, students have joined the struggle. At the Paris VIII University in St. Denis in the north of Paris, students held an assembly and resolved to strike this Friday. At 6:30 in the morning, about 100 students blockaded the entrances of their university. Their main demand is the cancellation of the government’s plan to increase tuition fees for non-EU citizens. While students currently pay 170 euros per year, this is set to be increased by a factor of 16 – 2,700 euros – for people without an EU passport. The students carried banners demanding a “university without borders.”
Around 1,000 high school and university students formed the vanguard of the demonstration, loudly chanting “A, Anti, Anticapitalista!” while calling for blockades and strikes. In the last weeks, the young people of France have learned a lot about the “democracy” of the bourgeoisie’s Fifth Republic, with hundreds of arrests and 150 high school students in Mantes-la-Jolie forced by riot police to kneel with their hands behind their heads.
A few organs of self-organization are emerging, including the “Intergare” coordination which links railway workers from different stations, as well as an attempt to form a city-wide committee of high school students in Paris. But for now, the trade union bureaucracies have been able to prevent a confluence of the workers’ movement and the Yellow Vests. They are the primary instrument maintaining the stability of the French bourgeoise.
Tomorrow, Act V of the Yellow Vest movement will take place in Paris. No one knows what will happen. The government is attempting to use the terrorist attack in Strasbourg to justify more repression, even compared to the horrible police violence of last Saturday. Self-organized workers’ groups, working outside the trade unions, are calling for a demonstration on Saturday at 10am at the St. Lazare train station.
Only when the Yellow Vests and the Red Vests unite – or more precisely, then the proletariat wins hegemony over the protest movement – will they be able to topple the president of capital. For this, they need Action Committees of the rank and file, organizing workers, Yellow Vests, and students, that fight for a general strike.