Gilets Jaunes: the fight goes on

Gilets jaunes protest in France in solidarity with students persecuted by the police

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 268 February/March 2019

Since 17 November 2018, hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in anti-government protests across France. The movement of ‘gilets jaunes’, named after the hi-vis jackets that have become their uniform, began in response to planned rises in fuel duty (TICPE). Its roots, however, are much deeper and based in deteriorating living standards for the working and middle classes. As the movement has developed its demands have broadened to include reintroducing the ISF wealth tax (abolished in 2017) to developing systems of direct democracy. It has no clear leadership and its political character is being contested by different political forces (see ‘Gilets Jaunes: A contradictory movement’ on our website). However, the French state recognises it as a threat and is committed to breaking the movement using a three-pronged approach: the granting of token concessions; diversion into harmless official channels; and state repression.

Token concessions

Having initially responded with intransigence, it was not long before the government began to grant concessions. On 4 December, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced a moratorium on the TICPE rises. By then, however, the demands of the movement had significantly broadened, and the movement was growing in strength. As momentum continued to build, the government was forced into a series of further minor concessions. On 10 December, President Emmanuel Macron announced four measures: the cancellation of a planned 1.7% rise in CSG social security contributions for those earning less than €2,000 per month; elimination of tax and social security charges on overtime hours up to €5,000 per year; tax and social security exemptions on annual bonuses up to €1,000; and the rise of the SMIC (minimum wage) by €100 per month.

Much controversy has surrounded the supposed SMIC rise, which Macron planned to achieve by adding €80 to the prime d’activité benefit and deducting €20 from social security charges to avoid making employers bear the cost. Calculations by Libération (11 December 2018) show that for a single person without children, the ‘€100 rise in SMIC’ will only benefit them by €50. Additionally, a €30 rise in the prime d’activité had already been approved, and the government included this alongside the automatic annual rise of 1.8% in line with inflation in its calculations. Faced with a backlash, on 13 December 2018, Philippe announced that the entire €100 rise would in fact be drawn from reductions in social security contributions. According to the ministry for public action and accounts, this change will cost €500m-600m per year.

The exemption of overtime hours from tax and social security contributions is a former policy idea of right-wing ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. For the increasing numbers of French people forced to work in part-time and insecure contracts there will be no benefit. 

The Finance Ministry estimates the total cost of the concessions at €8-10bn per year and is projecting that it will cause the budget deficit to reach 3.2%. France has agreed with the European Union to decrease its budget deficit by 0.6% per year, but will this year see a rise of 0.3%. EU rules require a budget deficit of less than 3% and this rise presents a worry for France’s major European partner, Germany. Olaf Gerseman, the economics editor of Die Welt accused Macron on 11 December of turning France into ‘the new Italy’: ‘The reaction of the French President to the yellow-vested rabble is sounding alarm bells in Berlin. Emmanuel Macron is no longer a partner for saving the Eurozone, but a risk factor.’ Philippe promised on 16 December to find the necessary €1-1.5bn of ‘economies’ to keep the deficit below 3%.

Political diversions

On 31 December, Macron announced the beginning of a ‘great debate’ on four major areas: ecological transition; taxes; state organisation; and democracy and citizenship. Both immigration and ‘secularism’ (in this context a fig leaf for anti-Muslim racism) are to be included in the last category. Macron has declared that any reintroduction of the ISF wealth tax is not up for discussion. The ‘debate’ is widely viewed with the contempt it deserves. On 8 January, its leading organiser, ex-minister Chantal Jouano, stepped down after coming under fire when the press reported that she would be paid a salary of €14,666 per month. Despite not organising the ‘great debate’, she remains head of the National Commission for Public Debate and continues to draw her €176,400 salary.

State repression

Since the protests began 11 people have died including an 80-year-old woman who, on 3 December, was struck in the face by a teargas canister launched by police. Over 1,500 have been injured. On 11 January Libération published a list, which it says is ‘by no means exhaustive’, of 82 protesters that it could verify had been ‘seriously injured’. This includes people who have lost hands or eyes and one man who had to have a testicle surgically removed after being struck by a flashball, a ‘non-lethal’ riot control weapon. One man in Bordeaux, who was struck in the head with a flashball on 12 January, was in a coma for six days after surgery to treat a brain haemorrhage (Révolution Permanente, 12 January 2019). 60 of these 82 serious injuries were caused by flashballs or teargas. On 23 December, the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, called for bids to supply 1,280 new flashball launchers and their ammunition.

On 22 December at the Champs Elysées in Paris, a police officer was filmed brandishing his firearm at protestors, and on 12 January CRS officers carried HK G36 assault rifles for the first time at a gilets jaunes demo. The police are intent on employing naked violence and have been filmed pushing wheelchair users out of their chairs and ganging up on unarmed demonstrators with clubs. On 7 January, footage emerged on social media of CRS riot police throwing broken paving slabs at gilets jaunes in Montpelier.

On 16 December, Amnesty International published a report on the ‘excessive force’ used by the police against gilets jaunes. It revealed that across the country police are operating a policy of confiscating facemasks and respiratory devices used to protect against teargas. Possession of these items is used as a pretext for arrest. The report has had little impact: police prefectures continue to ban respiratory devices (Révolution Permanente, 5 January 2019). Journalists and photographers are intimidated, arrested and ordered to surrender their cameras. On 12 January, the entire contingent of street medics in Lille was arrested. The same tactic had already been used in Toulouse on 15 December. Hospitals, using what are known as SIVIC measures, have begun passing information about injured protestors to the police. SIVIC measures, like many being used against gilets jaunes, were introduced following the 2015 terror attacks in Paris (Médiapart, 11 January 2019).

On 21 November, at a rally at Angoulême, an effigy of President Emmanuel Macron was decapitated during a piece of street theatre. Three men were placed in custody and the three journalists present reporting on the events were questioned by police. On 3 January, a man was sentenced to four months in prison for shouting the word ‘guillotine’ during a meeting between around 30 gilets jaunes and Christophe Lejeune, a deputy of Macron’s party, La République En Marche (LREM). The prosecuting judge stated that the sentence was intended as a ‘strong message’.

Special targets are those who have defended themselves and others against police. The highest profile has been Christophe Dettinger, a champion boxer who appeared in a viral video punching a police officer on 5 January. He has explained that he reacted after witnessing gendarmes clubbing a young woman, who has since spoken out to confirm his story. ‘I saw repression. I saw police gassing people, the police injuring people with flashballs’ said Dettinger. On 8 January, crowdfunding website Leetchi shut down a legal support campaign for Dettinger, towards which 8,052 people had pledged $117,000, after French ministers complained it would encourage violence against police.

Another high-profile arrest, on 22 December, was Eric Drouet, one of the earliest leading voices in the movement. Originally accused of carrying a weapon, organising an undeclared demonstration and conspiracy to commit violence or criminal damage, most of these spurious charges were dropped and he was finally charged only with ‘organising an undeclared demonstration.’ Drouet will be tried on 15 February and faces six months in prison and a €7,500 fine. Over 5,000 people have so far been arrested. A number of local police prefectures have banned demonstrations outright.

On 7 January, Philippe announced a new law designed to ‘sanction’ protestors. Its two main measures will be to formally criminalise the wearing of facemasks, and the creation of a police database of ‘wreckers’ who will be banned from protesting. Thanks to an October 2018 law, police already have sweeping powers to ban those ‘guilty of violence or property destruction’, as well as anyone who is ‘part of a group or in regular contact with those who incite, facilitate or commit those same actions’: a very wide category. Philippe’s new law went to committee stage on 21 January with overwhelming support among LREM deputies.

Despite the clear evidence that the origin of the violence lies with the police, politicians and the bourgeois press continue to denounce the violence as if it were coming from the gilets jaunes. After protestors tried to gain access to the office of government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, Macron denounced this ‘extreme violence.’ In his ‘letter to the nation’ of 13 January, Macron attempted to impose ‘one condition’ for resolving the conflict: ‘refusing to accept any form of violence.’ Clearly, he does not include the violence of the state.

Where now?

Gilets jaunes on the ground continue to strive to determine the political character of their movement. The French opportunist left, on the other hand, joins hands with Macron in attempting to divert the movement into harmless channels. On 18 December, for example, La France Insoumise (LFI – ‘France unbowed’, the ‘radical’ left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon who came fourth in the 2017 presidential elections, with 19.8% of the vote), presented a constitutional bill to the National Assembly to launch citizens’ initiatives referenda: a more radical-sounding version of Macron’s ‘great debate’. Such a move is, in any case, a token gesture as LFI, the Socialist Party and the French Communist Party have only 62 out of 577 seats between them. On a number of occasions, Mélenchon has presented his view that there are three ‘ways out’ of the crisis for the French state: to fight the movement; to dissolve parliament and call elections; or to give the movement what it wants. He advocates the second.

The gilets jaunes movement has developed in response to deteriorating conditions for the working and middle class, and the attempts by the French state to shift the cost of its deficit reduction programme onto those classes. So far, attempts to divert it into harmless channels, whether from Macron or from the French left, and the attempt to destroy it through state repression, have failed.

Séamus Padraic



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