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The Yellow Vests in France

People or Proletariat?

Gilets jaunes, acte XVIII

Gilets jaunes, acte XVIII, Montmartre, May 23, 2019. Credit Olivier Ortelpa, Flickr.

Jean-Claude Paye is a Belgian sociologist and the author of several books, most recently L’Emprise de l’Image (Éditions Yves Michel, 2012).

Translated from the French by James Membrez.

The Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes) movement first appeared in October 2018 and is active everywhere in France. As this article was written, the spontaneous mobilization was in its twenty-first week. The demonstrations are mainly organized around traffic circles, where protesters block transportation lines. In contrast to traditional demonstrations organized by trade unions, the Yellow Vests movement was initially launched and continues to operate through social networks on the Internet.

National demonstrations have taken place every Saturday in numerous cities since November 17, 2018. The Yellow Vests have won favor in peri-urban areas and, beyond that, in the large cities. Given the informal organization and different kinds of actions, it is difficult to give a precise count of participation. According to the police union, Policiers en Colère (Angry Police Officers), the number of demonstrators varies, depending on the week, from 90,000 to 1.3 million. These figures differ from those issued directly by the Ministry of the Interior, which estimates 30,000 to 280,000 protestors. However, it is clear that the latter range is a huge underestimation because otherwise the number of mobilized police would have sometimes been greater than the number of Yellow Vests.

A Refusal to Recognize the Movement

With such a discrepancy, it seems that the government is no longer playing the usual game of repressing and minimizing the demonstrations, but instead has resorted to the maneuver of absolutely refusing to recognize the movement as such. This refusal is, moreover, quite characteristic of government policy. The government denies not only the claims of, but also the very existence of the demonstrators and the possibility that government policy can be challenged.

Hence, the Other of the government is not a political subject, but a “Poujadist,” “fascist,” “rioter,” “conspiracist,” and, finally, “anti-Semite.”1 The only state institution that confronts the demonstrators is the police force, which treats them as delinquents. Dumbfounded by the government’s refusal to recognize them, the demonstrators have moved to the terrain of legitimacy and responded: we are the people. But, with this response, the movement ends up captured by the gaze of its opponent. As a result, the demonstrators partially hide their wage demands and become part of a dialectic of recognition. In this way, the demand for a citizens’ referendum becomes central.

The absence of organizational structure is another characteristic of the Yellow Vests movement. Importantly, this is not simply a consequence of their spontaneity and the way in which the movement was born and has developed. The Yellow Vests, in fact, demand this absence of mediation, whether it be by political parties, movements, or unions. They also reject any form of leadership. Yet, since they have not given themselves a structure, the state and its media have. Social media chooses who speaks in the name of the movement and determines who is invited to the television studios. Hence, the only mediation is the one provided by the media machine.

This refusal of recognition is characteristic of presidential policy. Over the course of the demonstrations, French President Emmanuel Macron organized a so-called great debate that lasted two months, in which the Other was absent. In a long monologue, the president chose the topics, posed the questions, and provided the answers himself.

A Territorial-Based Mobilization

The mobilization is not organized around sites of production; instead, it has developed outside of workplaces and working hours. Since there is no possibility of blocking production, even partially, the movement gathers at traffic circles, organizing blockades that filter and slow down the circulation of goods and people. The structure of the struggle has moved, then, from the site of production to that of circulation. This is a primary organizational characteristic of the Yellow Vests. A second characteristic is that the workers are not aiming their demands at employers, who can then remain in the background, but directly at the state. In fact, they submit their wage demands solely to the state. Therefore, these demands do not concern the direct wage paid by employers, but wages regulated by the state, such as the guaranteed minimum wage and the indirect wage managed by public authorities. In effect, this is a proletarian movement presenting demands around the reproduction of labor power and not a worker action with the aim of affecting the direct wage and the conditions for exploiting the labor force within the workplace.

The Yellow Vests are also characterized by the participation of peripheral strata of the proletariat. At this time, the driving forces and spearheads of the movement are mainly workers and employees from peri-urban and rural zones who work in small businesses, and not workers who are in a stronger position in relation to the balance of class forces.

Class War

The movement’s proletarian character, the fact that it involves social strata in a relatively weak position that organize on a territorial basis rather than in the workplace, means that the Yellow Vests are confronted with large police presences. Armored police vehicles are present during the demonstrations, an exceptional measure in metropolitan France. The repression is substantial. According to government figures reported on March 24, 2019, among all the demonstrators taken in for questioning, more than 8,700 were placed in custody, 1,400 await trial, and 390 have been imprisoned.2

Violence against demonstrators and journalists has reached a level unseen in fifty years. Weapons outlawed elsewhere in Europe—nonlethal bullet weapons, such as the Flash-Ball, and stinger grenades—have inflicted serious injuries. Journalist David Dufresne counted 483 cases of serious police violence from November 2018 to the beginning of March 2019. He counted 202 head wounds, 21 eyes put out, and 5 hands torn off. There was also one death from a teargas grenade and eleven other deaths from attacks by automobile drivers and truckers using their vehicles as weapons at road blockades.3

In February, the European Parliament and the United Nations denounced “restrictions on the freedom to demonstrate” and the use of excessive force. Three rapporteurs from the United Nations expressed their concern over police and judicial repression, calling on “France to rethink its policing policies.” Eurodeputies also passed a resolution condemning “the recourse to violent interventions and disproportionate force by public authorities.” What is more, on March 5, 2019, the Council of Europe called on France to “suspend the use” of nonlethal bullet weapons.4

Making the Proletariat Disappear into the People

The media deny the class composition of the demonstrators. In doing so, they rely on reports from intelligence services on the “massive presence” of small business owners, freelance workers, managerial staff, storekeepers, craft workers, and members of the liberal professions. This presence has been inflated in order to reject the proletarian character of the movement. These reports do however reflect a partial reality—the actual presence of independent workers who are in the process of being pauperized.

Since both the media and the demonstrators themselves reject the label of proletarian and prefer people, the site of political confrontation has been shifted. In this way, the struggle against the state as the collective capitalist can be transformed into a demand for the democratization of institutions, particularly through the adoption of a mechanism for holding popular referenda.

The possibility for taking over the movement is facilitated by the inability of the Yellow Vests themselves to grasp their distinction. The way in which the demonstrators define themselves is problematic. While the concrete demands are about wages, these demands are not presented by workers’ actions aimed at defending the value of labor power, but rather as part of a citizens’ movement, as referred to by the media and many of the Yellow Vests. The class character of the state, which is at the forefront of the reduction of wages and the transfer of income to corporations, is thereby denied.

Opposition to Lowering Real Wages

The movement is built on defending purchasing power. In September 2018, the government announced a new 11.5 percent increase in the tax on consumption of energy products. Opposition to this tax hike was the initial impetus for the demonstrations, particularly given that fuel costs are a significant part of peri-urban workers’ budgets.

Overall, the Yellow Vests are opposed to the reduction in their purchasing power—a reality produced by a combination of factors: stagnation in their direct wages, uncoupled from price movements, and a decrease in indirect wages, including a growing part that is no longer paid by companies, but directly by the state. The state’s policy, which began in 2001 with the employment allowance, consists of helping business owners by compensating for lower wages with an additional allocation from state agencies. The earned income supplement was established in 2009. Both of these mechanisms were replaced in 2016 by the employment bonus, an increase presented by Macron as a response to the demands of the Yellow Vests. During a televised address on December 10, 2018, he announced that wage workers earning the minimum wage would receive an extra one hundred euros per month, “without it costing employers another euro.” This increase will be paid by taxes—that is, mainly by other wage workers and not by employers.5

The bonus paid by the state makes it possible to maintain wages below the cost of reproducing labor power. A monetary transfer paid by other workers, hence a reduction in their social wage, is used to fill the gap. In 2017, this bonus already cost more than five billion euros of public finances—a sum that will probably rise to six billion in 2019.

Opposition to Transfers to Capitalists

Being fed up with taxes is about much more than the fuel tax. It concerns tax collection as a whole. The size of these mandatory levies (taxes, duties, and mandatory social contributions) has increased continuously, from 41 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009 to more than 45 percent in 2017. What is more, the state’s capture of income is accelerating. The government established eight additional taxes between the beginning of Macron’s presidency in May 2017 and the end of 2018.6 The levies imposed by the state have increased more than proportionally to the wealth produced. Even more significantly, this enlarged capture is increasingly unequal. Those in the largest income brackets have seen their taxes decreased or are simply untaxed, while the tax burden is being further transferred onto other taxpayers. The Yellow Vests notably demand the reestablishment of the solidarity tax on wealth, which brought in between four and five billion euros.

The movement is also opposed to the flat tax (Prélèvement Forfaitaire Unique), which went into effect on January 1, 2018, and reduced taxation on capital income from dividends and capital gains. The Macron presidency has also introduced a new schedule reducing employer contributions, thereby reducing the cost of labor by nearly 1 percent. Furthermore, the preceding tax-credit system will remain until 2022, allowing corporations to keep their accrued benefits amounting to 40 billion euros, on top of the new tax advantage.7

From the Struggle for Wages to the Demand for a Referendum

The question of representation has become central in the rhetoric of the Yellow Vests, whereas, at the beginning of the movement, only wage demands and defense of purchasing power (“being able to fill the refrigerator”) were raised by demonstrators. The Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC) has gradually come to the fore through the media. Thus, the government has succeeded in hiding the priorities of the demonstrators by making representation the condition for making their voices heard.

As a result, the shift toward replacing the wage struggle with a search for legitimacy has moved to center stage. The change in the nature of the demands makes it possible to turn them into something other than what was originally intended. A struggle over wages, a directly political struggle that attacks the new mechanisms of exploitation, is transformed into a demand for reform of the state that, paradoxically, opens the possibility for strengthening the government.

The RIC, a result of this two-part operation of moving and reversing, occupies the place of the fetish, a partial object substituting itself for the whole. This is an empty space that the government can fill depending on the necessities of the moment and changes in the balance of forces. The RIC becomes an operation to engineer a merger with institutions, which thereby prevents any separation from the latter and thus conflicts with any type of class struggle.

The RIC: An Embedded Demand

The demand for a RIC remained marginal until mid–December 2018. Then it was presented as the central axis of the Yellow Vests movement. In fact, the media showcased the RIC more than the demonstrators. The demonstrators often limited themselves to demanding this reform without giving it any substance, as if it was synonymous with democracy. For employers and the government, the RIC presents the advantage of relegating the initial demands for revaluation of minimum wages and lower fuel prices—that is, a revalorization of labor power—to the background.

At the same time, the media showered attention on Étienne Chouard, poster child of the RIC. The government immediately viewed this initiative favorably. Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, stated on December 17, 2018, in an interview with Echos, that he does not “see how one can be against this principle.” Then, a division of roles was established between the prime minister and the president, alternating between rejecting the initiative and openness to it.

In the end, after having restated his distrust of the RIC—a measure for direct democracy that “can encourage demagogy” and risks “killing representative democracy”—Macron might have been won over to the idea of a referendum, but his prime minister voiced more reservations.8

A discussion focused on the RIC has the advantage of causing a diversion. Not only is it much less costly than responding to wage demands, but it is also, above all, an embedded demand—that is, it is added onto the primary demands of defending purchasing power.

Persistence of the Initial Demands

The Saint Nazaire local assembly, held on April 5, 6, and 7, 2019, gathered together two hundred delegations and more than a thousand participants.9 This assembly revived the initial order of the movement’s demands, placing wage demands at the top. The question of the popular initiative referendum was no longer stated as such; the final text spoke only of a “form of direct democracy,” which no longer took first place. The RIC is thus no longer “the great all,” as presented by its promoter Chouard and sponsored by the media. Rather, it appears as part of the “great debate” on the topic of “democracy and citizenship,” organized over a two-month period by Macron.10 This elision expresses a rejection both of the conclusions and, more importantly, of the way this so-called debate was carried out, with the president asking the questions and giving the answers.

The possibility of organizing citizen referenda already exists in Switzerland and Italy, though it has not given those working classes the ability to have any substantial effect on government policy. In the case of France, we should remember the saga of the 2005 referendum on the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. The Constitution for Europe was rejected by more than 54 percent of voters, a decision that was effectively ignored when the Lisbon Treaty was signed, which included the bulk of the repudiated supranational characteristics.

Popular referenda, whether initiated by ruling powers or the people, have most often revealed their powerlessness. Yet, within the current political context in which legislative authority has been neutralized by the executive, the RIC could indeed have an influence on institutions, but in the opposite direction than the one expected by its promoters. It could instead end up reinforcing presidential power.

Strengthening Executive Power

On February 5, during the vote in the National Assembly at the first reading of the law “on the prevention of violence during demonstrations and sanction for perpetrators,” fifty deputies from the majority* abstained, thereby indicating their disagreement with the proposed law.11 Yet, interestingly enough, the government party, La République En Marche!, was entirely built by the president. The candidates of La République En Marche! for the legislative election were not chosen by local bases of the movement, but designated from above by a commission whose members were appointed by Macron.

A parliament, even one with a strictly supervised majority, can always pose problems for executive power. This is why the latter has continually introduced reforms aimed at neutralizing parliamentary work. Fast-track procedures have already considerably reduced any possibility for a challenge by stipulating that a proposed law can only be subject to a single reading in each chamber of the parliament.

The RIC, a reform that could establish a direct line between the president and the people, might facilitate an increased presidentialization of the political regime—an even more radical concentration of power in the hands of the executive. What the RIC will concretely become will depend on how it is applied and, above all, on the balance of forces between its promoters and the established authorities every time it is used.

It is not possible to maintain continually a high level of mobilization to push for reforms, even if the vote is initially a success for its initiators. As the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty demonstrates, the pressure must be constant for the popular will to be ultimately respected. This assumes a particularly favorable set of conditions linked to historically limited circumstances.

“A State of All the People”

The Yellow Vests represent a large part of the population, but they have their own interests, which are not the same as those of all of society. Therefore, evoking the people hides the distinctiveness of a social movement with particular demands that are opposed to employers’ interests.

However, the way in which the movement defines itself is problematic. While the expressed demands concern wages and purchasing power, the actions are identified as coming from a citizens’ movement. While the wage question is at the center of the demands, employers are completely removed from the equation. The state can then set itself up as the sole interlocutor of the demonstrators.

The idea of the people stands for a mishmash that includes almost the whole population, whose unity is presupposed because it does not include the 1 percent or even the 0.1 percent of the financial oligarchy. Hence, this is not a concept based on difference, but an inclusive category whose identity is deduced by a presupposed opposition to the ultrarich.

While social classes only exist in their relations of and to struggle, the idea of the people neutralizes all class opposition. This is a delusional idea (notion psychotique) that suppresses difference and rejects any separation from the constituted powers. It is also an idea that has often served as a reference for diverse ideologies, from social-democratic parties to authoritarian regimes.

In the historiography of the French Revolution, reference to the people obfuscates the real participants, such as the urban and rural proletariats.12 Thus, more than two centuries of social and political history and of proletarian struggles disappear in the name of an ahistorical reference to the people, conveyed by an anachronistic transposition of the official history of the French Revolution. This is currently having the same effect on the Yellow Vests movement of denying the class composition of the demonstrators.

The RIC: A Reform Compatible with Macron’s “Antisystem”

A change in the organization of the government based on the RIC could follow the path of earlier reforms, such as that of Macron’s so-called antisystem, which restructures from above the system of political representation. Its adoption could lead to a form of governing that sets aside the advantages of the party system and, in practice, rejects politics—that is, the recognition of opposing points of view and interests in favor of an intensely close relationship between the president and his people. The RIC could lead to a new stage in the already well-advanced change in the exercise of state power, specifically, the end of any mediation with civil society.

Macron’s election is itself an example of this process. He was elected by a small minority of French people, 16.5 percent of registered voters, allowing his party to obtain 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.13 It is not just his election, but also his candidacy that raises questions. His candidacy, for example, was already envisaged a year before the election, at a meeting of the Bilderberg group. His prime minister was also presented several months before his designation. In fact, this international influence explains why Macron is largely indifferent to demands coming from French citizens: he does not owe them his election.

The Police: Central Body of the National State

For a long time, the Yellow Vests have found themselves facing a power vacuum. This is not only a tactic aimed at carrying out a scorched-earth policy in the face of a social movement that is difficult to control, but also a distinctive element in the current form of exercising national power. The latter simply reacts in the only area still available to it—police response.

The repression suffered by the Yellow Vests has reached a level unseen in France for dozens of years. Yet, this is a nonviolent social movement that has neither the capability nor the desire to threaten the exercise of power. Police violence is, above all, proactive. Its aim is to create fear and preventively put an end to any process of social recomposition.

Thus, throughout their demonstrations, the Yellow Vests have been confronted with the police—the only effective structure of the national state. The member states of the European Union (EU), even large countries like France, are today political entities deprived of most of their sovereign privileges, whether political or economic. Most of the latter have been transferred to European and international authorities. Economic and social policies, such as the reform of the labor code, are simple applications of EU directives.

The police, then, become the central apparatus of the national state.14 The prerogative of maintaining order remains in its jurisdiction, as opposed to war, money, or economic policy. While the national state retains its autonomy at this level, it is relative given how tightly it is constrained by the U.S. imperial structure. For the last thirty years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has directly organized European police forces. Not only has it organized joint response teams, but, as a result of its initiatives, it has succeeded in strongly influencing European legislation at both the national and local levels in the areas of interception of communications, control of the Internet, and the institution of new crimes of terrorism. It has also exercised influence over reforms in police and judicial systems.15

The centrality of the police system at the national level was initially quite clear in countries that had long ago given up all national sovereignty, such as Belgium. It is now organic even in countries like France. This is a clear result of a policy of giving up all national independence and becoming increasingly integrated with the U.S. empire.

Primacy of Criminal Law

While the police has become the central body of the national state in France, it is primarily an apparatus subject to imperial structures. This articulation explains the difficulties encountered by proletarian struggles. Management of the labor force is international while labor struggles remain national. The enemy is, on the whole, elusive. Faced with the Yellow Vests, only the police remain as the representative of the state that confronts the demonstrators—a state that has lost its sovereign prerogatives, that rules but does not govern.

Police violence against the demonstrators and the massive use of the legal procedure of requiring an immediate court appearance reveal the current form of the state. The French state has no purviews other than police and judicial functions, with the latter reduced to mere auxiliaries of the repressive apparatus. It is thus criminal law that is now at the center of relations between the government and the population.

Currently, criminal law has acquired a constitutive character. Giving up the wage demands, failing to make the defense of fundamental freedoms a central focus of the struggle, and concentrating all efforts on the RIC will lead to the destruction of the movement. The capacity to transform a constitutional text that has no more than a residual place in the current political and legal order will then become the main, if not sole, objective.

Denial of the Political Character of the Wage Struggle

The dissolution of the Yellow Vests’ concrete demands into an abstract demand for democratization of the state can only weaken the movement. This demand can easily be transformed into its opposite—a reinforcement of executive power. The denial of the class composition of the movement, even by some of its own members, results in its being designated as the people—the imaginary basis of a state organization that fights against them. While the movement’s demands concern wages, they are presented not as the result of proletarian actions aimed at defending the value of labor power, but as emanating from a so-called citizens’ movement making demands on a state that is relentless in lowering wages.

In conclusion, it appears that the demand for the RIC is based on a twofold denial of political reality. It assumes that the national state still exercises sizable power and that the constitution is an essential vector. It is also a denial of the directly political character of the struggle over wages. In the current context, this struggle must confront an accumulation of capital based not primarily on increasing relative surplus value, but rather on new growth in absolute surplus value. In France and the West more generally, increasing the productivity of labor is no longer the main mechanism of increasing exploitation under conditions of very weak growth. Rather, it is dependent on lowering direct and indirect wages as well as increasing the duration and flexibility of labor.

The struggle over wages is directly political because any increase in the value of labor power directly calls into question a system of exploitation based essentially on lowering the absolute value of that labor power. The function of the state as a collective capitalist, as is evident in the various reforms that dismantle labor laws, is today central to the suppression of guarantees that would allow workers to defend their wages and their conditions of labor.

Footnotes

  1. * In the June 2017 legislative elections, Macron’s personally organized party, La République En Marche!, won 308 of the 577 seats.

Notes

  1. Translator’s note: Poujadist is a pejorative term in France. Generally, it means the referent is considered to be antiestablishment, but with a hint of anti-intellectualism and sometimes even anti-Semitism. The original Poujadists were followers of Pierre Poujade in the 1950s. Poujade founded a movement to oppose taxes and price controls, and more broadly represent the common person against the established elites.
  2. Gilets Jaunes: 2000 Condamnations Depuis Novembre, 40 % à de la Prison Ferme,” Le Parisien, March 24, 2019.
  3. Violences Policières: 483 Cas Recensés par le Journaliste David Dufresne,” L’Express, March 3, 2019.
  4. Gilets Jaunes: L’ONU Demande à la France d’Enquêter sur les Violences Policières,” L’Opinion, March 6, 2019.
  5. Aurélien Purière, “Au Nom du Pouvoir d’Achat. La Prime d’Activité, une Offensive Contre le Salaire,” L’Humanité, February 1, 2019.
  6. Cyril Brioulet, “Pourquoi Tous les Travailleurs au Smic ne Vont pas Toucher 100 € de Plus par Mois,” La Dépêche.fr, December 11, 2018.
  7. Le CICE Changera au 1ier Janvier 2019,” Batiacu, November 18, 2018.
  8. Louis Nadau, “Face au RIC, Macron Brandit le Brexit,” Marianne, January 16, 2019; David Revault d’Allonnes, “Comment Emmanuel Macron Prépare un Référendum en Secret,” Le Journal du Dimanche, February 2, 2019.
  9. Maison du Peuple de Saint-Nazaire, “Appel des Gilets Jaunes de Saint-Nazaire: Assemblée des Assemblées,” Mediapart, April 8, 2019.
  10. Michaela Wiegel, “Grand Débat: Un Premier Bilan Décevant pour Macron,” Courrier International, April 5, 2019.
  11. L’Assemblée Vote la Proposition de Loi ‘Anti-Casseurs’ par 387 Voix Contre 92,” Europe1, February 5, 2019.
  12. Henri Guillemins, “La Révolution Française (1789–1793),” Youtube video.
  13. Résultats des Élections Législatives 2017,” Ministère de l’Intérieur, June 11 and 18, 2017, available at http://interieur.gouv.fr.
  14. Jean-Claude Paye, “Vers un Etat Policier en Belgique?,” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 1999.
  15. Jean-Claude Paye, “Europe-Etats-Unis: Un Rapport Imperial,” Le Monde, February 23, 2004.
2019, Volume 71, Issue 2 (June 2019)
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