The “Yellow Vest” Rebellion – Interview with Daniela Cobet

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The popular rebellion that broke out in France in December 2018 has continued for over two months and is reshaping the political landscape across Europe.

Illustration by Ailin Rojas Bondarczuk

How would you briefly describe the situation that the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) rebellion has opened up?

First, it seems important to note that, even though the explosive emergence of this spontaneous movement and its organization over the internet surprised us all, it was not exactly a bolt from out of the blue, but the product of profound contradictions that had been slowly building up and simmering. To the increases in social inequality, unemployment and poverty in France; to the deterioration of public services, especially in the provinces; you add the presidency of Emmanuel Macron and its bourgeois cynicism, its explicit class contempt and a “Jupiterian” megalomania (a term used by a member of his own government). All this led to popular anger boiling over. Alongside all this, there is an already weakened government. This is in part because, although it did manage to get its reforms to the rail system adopted, it did not lead to the “Thatcherite” crushing of the unions that had been expected. Instead, after three months of a difficult struggle, a very militant and anti-bureaucratic vanguard has emerged from among the rail workers. But above all there is the political crisis that broke out over the summer around Macron’s private body guard, Alexandre Benalla, was identified as the person who beat demonstrators at a May Day rally.

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From all this, we have determined that the situation has changed, that it has passed from a non-revolutionary to a transitional one, and that this opens up an important breach for a counter-offensive from the workers’ movement that could push things towards a pre-revolutionary situation.1 What has happened is that this breach has not been taken advantage of by the organized labor movement, primarily because of the treacherous policy of the union bureaucracy, but instead by the “yellow vest” movement, which started in response to an increase in the fuel tax but quickly transformed into a movement with mass support against the high cost of living, tax inequality, the political caste and Macron in particular, as expressed by the movement’s singing of “La Marseillaise” and the chant “Macron, démission!” (Macron, resign!).

In this new scenario there is no longer even the shadow of Jupiter, for all the weaknesses of Macron’s Bonapartism that we noted when he was elected-that is, the project of governing France on the basis of only one socially limited bourgeois bloc against all other popular sectors-are now becoming apparent. This is different from Sarkozy, for instance, who at least had a certain popular base. It therefore seems to us that what the radicalization of the yellow vest movement expresses are the first episodes of a profound change in the situation, which sees important tendencies for different sectors to take action (in part we are already seeing this among young people) and in which it will be very difficult for the government to recompose itself to the point of reclaiming the initiative. That is what for us suggests that we are entering a pre-revolutionary situation.

It is interesting to see that the masses themselves sense this, as can be seen in the frequent allusions of the yellow vests to the idea that what they are making is a “revolution” and the many references to this country’s long revolutionary tradition, and in particular the revolution of 1789. We obviously do not think that this is a revolution, but it is clear that the specter of revolution, which the bourgeoisie thought it had buried forever, is back.

In the beginning of December, Macron announced a series of measures to try to curb the movement. How did these announcements influence the dynamics of the process?

This is Macron’s first setback, which has its own importance, since part of his Jupiterian myth was that, unlike his predecessors, he was never going to cede anything to those taking to the streets. The measures he announced did not have much impact on the yellow vests, who consider them insufficient. The aim of the government was to isolate the movement, but its success was only relative, since the opinion polls continue to reflect a high level of sympathy for the yellow vests, with a majority of respondents in favor of the continuation of the protests. In this context, more than ever, the entrance of the workers’ and youth movement would be decisive for preventing this government maneuver, and above all for moving toward the perspective of a general political strike that will decisively defeat Macron.

Given that trade union leaders have opted to negotiate with the government instead of calling a general strike and coming together with the yellow vests, have there been criticisms among the union ranks of the policies of these leaders, in particular those of the CGT?

Yes, we are beginning to hear this more and more. The yellow vest movement, which organizes thousands of workers, many whom are nonunion, were very critical of the unions from the beginning, which they see (in large part justifiably so with regard to the union leaderships) as having sold out and being corrupt. This movement has achieved precisely what the unions in France have not in over 20 years, and this objectively calls the trade union apparatus into question. Along with this there is the attitude of the union leaders, who have placed a cordon sanitaire around the yellow vests and described the movement as reactionary and linked to the far right, but then they return to negotiations with the government on the back of the movement. All this plays very badly among not only the yellow vests, whose tendency toward disaffection from the unions is only deepened by such moves, but also among the ranks of the unions, and the CGT in particular.

The CGT leadership signed an interunion communiqué on December 6 that denounced the violence of the yellow vests (and didn’t say a word about the repression, which has already seen the death of some and injuries to many others) and proposed the opening of negotiations with the government behind the back of the movement. Reacting to this, a series of trade union bodies have begun to demand a meeting of all union branches and regional sections. Others decided to call a strike for December 14, when the union leaders only called for demonstrations.

In December the Libération newspaper published a call by dozens of trade unionists demanding a total change in CGT policy, support for the yellow vest movement and the preparation of a general strike. Only now and under a lot of pressure from the rank and file, the CGT leadership is calling for a general strike on February 5 that is taken by some sectors of the yellow vests and could become a turning point for the movement.

There is an intense debate among the French intelligentsia and public opinion generally about the character of the movement and its historical analogies. Some compare it to reactionary events and processes while others compare it to revolutionary events such as May ’68. What do you think of these analogies? How useful are they for thinking about the process and its perspectives?

The unprecedented nature of this movement, which has been spontaneously initiated through social media, has given and continues to give rise to much debate, not only within the intelligentsia but across all political parties, both left- and right-wing, in the media, etc. At first, when the movement seemed to be only opposed to fuel tax hikes, the left was very distrustful of it, while the right, the far-right and the media encouraged it. This probably has something to do with the fact that French anti-tax movements in previous decades have had a rather right-wing, liberal character, have been opposed to the welfare state and labor rights and have acted as a corporative defense of a sector of the petty bourgeoisie. In that sense some have compared it to the Poujadisme of the 1950s.2 The yellow vest movement has also been compared with other right-wing populist movements that have emerged in recent years in Europe, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy. But when the movement took to the streets and its demands began to radicalize and shift to the left, the same editorialists and politicians who had earlier put on a yellow vest began to distance themselves.

From then on, talk of a jacquerie began—referring to the peasant revolts of the Middle Ages—and now people speak openly about the danger of revolution. More generally, many intellectuals and analysts today say that, what the yellow vest movement in a sense is expressing is a “return of the social question,” of “social classes,” which has been disregarded in recent years in favor of a greater focus on issues of identity.

The comparison with May ’68 makes sense in this general framework, a spontaneous mass uprising that fights to improve living conditions, but this comparison also has many limits. In one sense the “yellow vest” movement is almost a ’68 in reverse, since it did not emerge from the university youth and the industrial workers’ movement as such, but from La France profonde (Deep France—the provinces said to lie outside the hegemony of Paris), from where it is beginning to have an impact on young people (there is a very strong movement in the public schools) and to a lesser extent the workers’ movement. The ideological context is also very different: In ’68 there was a strong left radicalization among young people, and the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the French Communist Party (PCF) had a real presence in the workers’ movement. The current movement arises outside that tradition and is an expression of the masses as they are today, after years of defeats for the workers’ movement, of the bureaucratization of their organizations, and of ideological regression. This also explains why there are sectors of the movement that can be influenced by the ideas of the far right, even if the demands being put forward are heading in another direction.

Could this be defined as an anti-political movement, or is there a political tendency that has an increasing influence over it? What is the real weight of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) and Jean Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) within it?

The movement defines itself as nonpolitical, but the paradox is that in a sense it is an ultra-political movement, since it is increasingly raising problems that have nothing to do with taxes or even with the issue of purchasing power, but are instead directed at the president and how the regime functions (the resignation of Macron, abolition of the Senate, limits to politicians’ salaries). What we do find is a certain rejection of political parties and trade unions, and above all a whole lot of distrust of any and all alleged movement representatives and spokespersons.

Rassemblement National and La France Insoumise were the first to try to intervene in the movement and in that sense have, through some of their militants, an influence in certain sectors, but nothing very significant in relation to the extent of the phenomenon. At the same time, both Mélenchon and Le Pen have had to maintain a certain distance, since there was much rejection of any attempt at “reabsorption.” It is clear that a subsequent electoral capitalization cannot be ruled out, especially by Le Pen, but that will depend on the development of the movement itself, on the capacity of sectors of the labor movement and youth to join and influence the yellow vests, through which tens of thousands of workers and the impoverished are awakening to political life and taking action.

What is clear is that the movement’s main demands do not have a right-wing or xenophobic content, but are in fact extremely progressive, as they are already calling for a generalized wage rise and the wage being indexed to inflation, the restoration of the wealth tax, limits to politicians’ salaries, the abolition of the Senate, that is, the opposite of the pro-capitalist program of the regime and of Rassemblement National.

You were able to take the initiative and bring together cheminots (rail workers), university and secondary students and the Adama Committee3 to join together with the yellow vests. What perspectives do you see for the deepening of this political approach?

The pole that we helped establish between the Intergare (Inter-station) rail workers’ collective and the Adama Committee played an important role in breaking down the barrier that existed between the militants of different social movements and the yellow vests. This was especially the case in Paris, where the latter are not as strong. Throughout the month of December, we organized contingents that marched from the Saint-Lazare train station in sup- port of the movement. At one of these marches, there were more than 5,000 of us who marched through Paris, despite the strong police presence (the heaviest in all of Paris) that had been deployed for when we reached the Champs-Élysées.

We also tried to bring some democratic structure to this pole through the creation of a Committee of Action, which has met twice with several hundred participants to coordinate the intervention of workers, university and secondary students and youth from the neighborhoods in liaison with the yellow vests, and more recently, we’ve played a role in coordinating yellow vest assemblies for the Paris region.

Can the yellow vest rebellion become the first act in changing the direction of class struggle?

It seems to us that we are looking at the first events of a convulsive period. Macron still has three and a half years left to lead a nation in which the vast majority of the population is deeply hostile to him, and where the yellow vests have destroyed any myths of government invincibility. It has already been two months since the protests began, and there have been hundreds of injured, dozens of mutilated protesters, and the “yellow vests” are still going. We are committing ourselves to ensuring that the working class and the youth, with their own methods, take advantage of the breach opened by this movement, and that they are influenced by its determination and start getting rid of the leaders who have proved to be nothing but agents for preserving the regime.

In this framework, the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire of the NPA and our digital newspaper Révolution Permanente, which has been receiving many visits—over 2 million per month—are contributing to the construction of a party of revolutionary combat that is prepared to rise to the occasion. For even though the yellow vest movement has reminded the bourgeoisie that the specter of the revolution is still alive, and reminded many “revolutionaries” that rebellions and revolutions are in large part objective facts that are spontaneous and not made according to preconceived plans, the victory of a revolution in France will require a great work of strategy. This can be put forward only by a party that has previously taken up the task of organizing large vanguard sectors of workers and young people behind the program of socialism and a revolutionary strategy.

Notes

1. Daniela Cobet, “The Emerging Potentials of France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ Movement,” Left Voice, December 3, 2018.

2. Named after Pierre Poujade, Poujadisme is a French political and trade union movement that appeared in 1953 in the department of Lot in the southern Occitania region and disappeared in 1958. The movement was organized around the Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans. “Poujadisme” was antisocialist, anti-intellectual and anti-European, and its social base was primarily small merchants and the petty bourgeoisie who had been ruined by inflation in the last years of the Fourth Republic. The “poujadistes” gained parliamentary representation, winning 52 seats in the National Assembly in the 1956 elections. The return of Charles De Gaulle to active politics and the creation of the Fifth Republic saw poujadisme fall into decline. The term “poujadisme” later acquired a pejorative meaning, to refer to a typical middle-class, corporatist political movement with reactionary tendencies, and more broadly to the conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie.

3. The Adama Committee emerged after the July 19, 2016, death in police custody of 24-year-old Adama Traoré, a case that has become symbolic of the systemic racism that French police display toward the African and Arab populations in France.

This interview first appeared in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda on December 12, 2018.

Translation: Sean Robertson

Daniela Cobet, is a leader of the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (CCR–Revolutionary Communist Current), and Executive Committee member of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA—New Anticapitalist Party).

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.