On the Gilets Jaunes: Dispatches from France

by cominsitu

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The following is a collaborative effort of translated analyses from France focused on the Gilets Jaunes movement between Agitations, Carbure, Otto Mattick & Ediciones inéditos. More texts will be translated in the coming days.

In the last few days, the Left has struggled to politically apprehend a new phenomenon called the “Yellow Vests” [“Gillets Jaunes »], since it does not emerge directly from traditional forms of protest. Consequently, any critical analysis of the movement is forsaken in favour of a blissful support without questioning anything (who mobilizes itself? why? how?) or a blatant contempt for “beaufs” who do not demonstrate for “good causes”, as if class consciousness should magically impose itself on the proletarians. In the same time, we cannot summarize the events as a gross manipulation of the far right based on nothing but wind and creating a completely artificial social discontent by means of Facebook videos.

The craze for “yellow vests” is a symptom of the political sequence in which we find ourselves, a sequence bred by a capitalism in crisis and the dissolution of any recognizable and commonly shared workers’ identity. This loss of landmarks has been brutal, and some debates within the radical left (sometimes more attached to a fantasized past than to the understanding of the complex class composition of current social struggles) have consisted in questioning the proportion of proletarians using a car and are thus directly affected by the rise of the price of diesel. They very often return to the reactionary fantasy of a good old rural peasant France where the majority of the “poor” would live (the concept of the proletariat quickly slipping through the cracks). In our opinion, it is more relevant to focus on the political content of this movement and on what it practically translates.

The diversity of the yellow vests according to the points of mobilization allowed everyone to attach their petty ideological flag while retaining only what suits them. Thus the French Action [Action Française, a french monarchist group, founded in 1898, after the Dreyfus affair, by Charles Maurras], the Social Bastion (ex-GUD) [“Bastion Social”, a neo-fascist group, founded in 2017 by former members of the “Groupe union défense and inspired by the italian movement “CasaPound”] the National Rally [“Rassemblement National”, ex-National Front, Marine Le Pen’s party], the Republicans [“Les Républicains”, the mainstream right-wing party, from the former president Nicolas Sarkozy] but also the Insubordinate France [“La France Insoumise”, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist movement], various Trotskyist groups from the NPA [“Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste”, far-left, formerly trotskyist] to LO [“Lutte Ouvrière”, ortho-trotskyists], and even anarchists spreading the good word could all claim victory and galvanize themselves for the relative success of this day of actions on November 17 – let us recall that 250 000 demonstrators throughout France is considered a defeat during a mobilization called by the unions, and further here they did not even go on strike.

The Marcel Campion episode [1] should have served as a lesson to some who, carried away by the ardour of massification, are preventing themselves from thinking where the anger of those who are taking the streets on interclassist bases, going even to follow the liberal demands of the small bosses. Because yes, all surveys express the fact that “people are angry”. But we have to ask ourselves what we mean when we talk about “people” and what they are angry about.

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If cops, fash and part of the employers have been able to implant themselves onto the demands formulated by the “yellow vests”, it is not out of pure opportunistic and random recuperation in an unnatural convergence: it is because the dynamics of the movement coincide with their class interests. Or, at the very least, that the prevailing confusion does not directly threaten them, at least in metropolitan France. The situation is very different, for example, in Reunion Island (where unemployment among the working population is 22%), where the movement does not take place on an interclassist basis but precisely in the poorest and most racialized neighborhoods (riots, looting of department stores, police giving badges to shopkeepers to form militias, curfew, etc.).

Regardless of what some isolated demonstrators say, expressing their frustration in a disorganized way to cameras in search of shock statements, the movement has been built around a Poujadist discourse [2] of protest against “taxes” and “dues” that “suffocate the people”, which is far from being a class struggle (and contrary to what is claimed, nearly 70% of the price increase comes from oil price fluctuations and not from a deliberate state policy).

The decision to “block the country” on a Saturday without going after the production sites is far from trivial, and it is amusing to note that Martinez [3], the “social democrat,” has a better class analysis than most leftists by stating that “the CGT does not march with the far right or with the bosses”. A far right that feels more and more comfortable (Nazi salutes, denunciation of migrants to the police, invitations to anti-Semitic militants, racist and homophobic attacks, etc.), precisely because the mobilization of 17 November was not based on sectoral and proletarian but territorial and populist bases.

Wanting to deny the obvious and invent new allies to enlarge the ranks of the “revolting people”, leftists imagine that they share at least a common enemy with yellow vests: the capitalists or, failing that, “the rich”. But how can we claim that this movement is opposed to the bourgeoisie when it carefully avoids attacking the hotspots of the economy in order to organize empty marches towards the town halls where local elected officials are symbolically vilified?

The media coverage and the police management of this mobilization also says a lot about the degree of threat it inspires to the State and the economy: television news complacency about what would have been described as riots in any other context, relatively rare and non-violent police interventions for undeclared and therefore illegal rallies, Le Monde [French newspaper] talking about a “contrasted security outcome” because there has been no material damage, when there are reports of one dead and hundreds injured…

However, the day after November 17, there were signs of local initiatives that went beyond a fiscal struggle. In some places, the lack of strict coordination has allowed some “outbreaks” that have escaped the initial demand framework, either by taking a para-syndical orientation with, in particular, logistical blockades that have frightened employers, or by giving rise to racist, sexist and homophobic attacks emerging directly from the populist nature of these demonstrations. Indeed, “the people” implies belonging to a “national community” from which foreigners are necessarily excluded.

It remains to be seen whether the scattered fractions of dissident “yellow vests” can survive independently of a national dynamic, once the wave of movementist confusion has subsided. The movement has been based on widespread and real anger among various populations but, in the absence of stable and determined content, it is likely to explode because being “angry citizens” does not provide a common political basis, although everyone tries as best they can to hold on to it. It was this lack of a common political basis that led to the loss of the Forks Movement in 2013 in Italy, a populist movement that was partly anti-fiscal and just as much a “catch-all” as the “yellow vest” movement.

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tr. “We waited all day. We observed. A little all over the capital. Just observed. This is what we saw: that yellow can RADIATE. We were skeptical and we were stunned. In a few hours the Champs-Elysées grew yellow, barricades proliferated and the response organized itself. In every way. Night is about to fall and we call for a convergence on the Champs-Elysée from now until the evening. For a fluorescent bloc. Light up the real.”

On the leftist side, the ENS philosophers [from one of France’s most prestigious universites] are caught “experiencing” their little moment with “the People” (sorry, the “diffuse subjectivities”), the thrill of the citizens’ insurrection runs through their spine and they start dreaming of riots and barricades in the middle of a rally against the rise of oil prices. For it is indeed this claim addressed to the State that constitutes the spinal cord of mobilization, and not some unconscious anti-capitalism of any kind that would naturally be in the germ of the citizen actions of the “Indignés” [in the sense of the spanish “Indignados” or the movement “Nuit Debout”].

Génération Ingouvernable [4] calls for “lose ourselves in the confusion”, a most political call. But why blame the romantic revolutionaries, the same ones who called for zbeul [5] during the last World Cup? And here come more poets who reappear: Lundi Matin [6], stating that the yellow vest has a “symbolic use” of reversing security against security order [7]: “What was first imposed as a security device is transformed into a social sidestep (…). When they get out of their cars, the yellow vests recognize each other in the urgency caused by the sudden deterioration of their modes of existence.”

All these delirious leftist extrapolations are in a logical line with the anarchists who believed that the movement around Catalonia’s fiscal independence would lead to the outright abolition of capitalism or that the consolidation of the Kurdish state in Rojava had anything to do with the communist revolution. Everything that moves is red, any anger is revolutionary and you can make chocolate cakes with the leftovers of a zucchini gratin.

The comparison with the Italian autonomy of the 1970s was even more daring, in order to attribute the term “urban riot” to a citizen walk escorted by the CRS [8]. We even read a Trotskyist intellectual linking yellow vests to struggles against the circulation of capital (and claiming for that reason that yellow vests were workers leaving the factory’s reserve, while they worked in an overwhelming majority last Saturday). We have to dream when nothing happens, it occupies the days between two meetings and it allows us to bring out the ideological mumbo jumbo that we had to store in the closet at the end of the last social movement.


Adama Committee/Gilets Jauens: “If we want to change our fate, we must struggle in the streets”

The following interview was published on Mizane.info on Nov. 26th and has been translated into English by Ediciones inéditos. It serves as a provocation as to the racist aspects on the right and the left in France and how racialized people view the Gilets Jaunes mov’t. What follows is the translation.

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The Adama committee with, among others, Assa Traoré (center) and Youcef Brakni (right)

Youcef Brakni is one of the spokespersons for the Adama Committee [9] which will join the Giles Jaunes movement on December 1st in Paris. A position which entrenches, in its own way, the internal debate among banlieue militants [10], divided when it comes to the Gilets Jaunes movement. Mizane.info revisits this position with the Adama Committee with an interview conducted with Youcef Brakni.

Mizane.info [MI]: The Adama Committee has called for a convergence of struggles with the Gilets Jaunes?

Youcef Brakni [YB]: We’re not talking about a convergence of struggles but rather an alliance. The word convergence, as it is used here, signifies getting together at a place and rallying behind a thing which already exists. This is the way we use that word when we would call on the banlieue residents over the past few years to converge their struggles and join Left organizations or social movement organizations. Convergence then here is devoid of meaning and bears too much connotation. What the Adama Committee is saying is: “Let us be allies on an equal footing, because the issue of equality will be at the heart of this alliance and we will take social action together and let’s do it together above all else.”

MI: Is the Adama Committee in contact with members of Gilets Jaunes, or those responsible for the movement?

[YB] Some Gilets Jaunes support the Adama Committee. Benjamin Belaidi, at Compiègne, is one of those.

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Youcef Brakni in an interview speaking on behalf of the banlieues

[MI] The question of joining the Gilets Jaunes is divisive within the core of the banlieue militants. Do you think it would be a mistake for the banlieue residents to abandon this type of social mobilization? Do you understand those that think that this about two different parts of France that do not know each other?

[YB] What is important is to have a clear line and to not go back on it. To not betray our political ideals. As far as the social mobilization goes, we share a precarity and endemic unemployment which can hit 40% in some banlieues. We share a great deal of things when it comes to the social question which, very often, is worse for banlieue residents. Lacking access to the job market and living in completely unhealthy housing fit for the 19th c. makes of this social question a reality that is much more violent for us.

In addition, there is also the matter of racism and police brutality which is specific to us and which is important to put forward. We will head out onto the streets on December 1st with the Gilets Jaunes because we share the same enemy, though we do not deny our specificities.

[MI] Have you called on the Gilets Jaunes to broaden their stated goals?

[YB] We have not demanded anything, we are doing this ourselves. What does it mean to be a Gilet Jaune? It means you are against an expensive life, taxes and a rise in gas prices. This movement does not belong to anyone. It belongs to everyone who lives in misery, that can’t make it out, that must work hard to feed their families, who, sometimes, even with a job, ends up sleeping on the streets. We are also Gilets Jaunes. We demand nothing. We come with our own specificity and that must also be heard.

[MI] What do you mean of certain racist outbreaks which have already been seen?

[YB] We’re not thinking of letting the terrain be left open to the far-right. Let’s be serious. We also find racist outbreaks in Left-wing demonstrations. I’ve had Left-wing militants ask me during a Palestinian demonstration: “Why are you coming out with slogans written in Arabic?” We did not have to wait for the Gilet Jaunes to see this kind of racist behavior. When I see Left-wing militants get mad, I start to smile. You should see how Muslim workers are treated in factories by the Left as they stand accused of being communitarians.

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The Adama Committee at a Working-Class Neighorhood Union in Marseille, France.

I come from a city in Seine-Saint-Denis in which those who had always prevented me from becoming a militant were Left-wing. It was wasn’t the right stopping me but the [French] Communist Party, the Greens, etc. The construction of mosques was blocked in Left-wing cities. It’s a hypocrisy. There is some racist behavior within certain mobilizations of the Gilets Jaunes, but it is not unique to them: it’s a reflection of a whole society. We must ask ourselves who is responsible for all this. There is a problem when certain parts of the Left speak like the far-right.

[MI] This critique could also be extended to banlieue militants and not just Left-wing militants…

[YB] Yes because they sometimes reproduce and mimic this kind of talk and it’s a shame. You have to view these subjects from above. I didn’t hear these critiques when the same sort of aggressions took place during Left-wing demonstrations. We must not stay on the sidelines of these mobilizations. We must always stay active and take the initiative. It’s better to block this racist behavior from the get-go, from the beginning and thus avoid having this movement later become totally racist and then in that case we’ll end up having to fight against the Gilets Jaunes and against Macron! We must demonstrate our strategic intelligence. If we really want to change our fate here in France and better our living conditions, we must socially struggle in the streets. We all have our legitimate place in this mobilization. We must be in it, Macron is going too far. The impact of his policies on working-class banlieues will 10 times stronger.

[MI] Will this mobilization you’re calling for, on Dec. 1st, be a sort of political test when it comes to the engagement of the banlieues?

[YB] On October 13th the Adama Committee organized a demonstration in only 7 days concerning the lies told by the justice system when it comes to police brutality. Four thousand people showed up. We have then already proven our capacity for mobilization. We are confident. Those who follow us know that we fight for the common good. We will be likewise present on Dec. 1st at the start of the march procession of railway workers at 1PM at Saint-Lazare, heading towards the Champs-Elysées.


Gilets Jaunes: questions for those who seek alliances

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This text was originally published at Carbure blog, a personal French communization current blog on Nov. 27th 2018.

The Adama committee has made a call to join the Gilets Jaunes movement on Saturday, December 1st in Paris, joining the railway workers at the Saint-Lazare station before heading towards the Champs-Elysée.

We always would like to believe in the capacity for things to be something other than they are. Yes but…if it is evident that the banlieues have everything to do with a popular insurrection against misery, how could it be that they have been absent in this movement until now? Is there no difference between forming an alliance with a movement and simply considering that we – rightly – must also join in? Can one form an alliance with something which is as empty as shell? Can you ally yourself with something which you’re in the process of defining, which is to say its definition remains unknown? Can you ally yourself with something without refining what you are against with those you stand to ally with? Can you ally yourself without knowing if the other wants to ally with you? Does the Gilets Jaunes movement express nothing, whether by its words or acts? Is this movement really an empty shell waiting to be filled? Why are our ears open to the “social” but closed to “racism”, as though they were different things? As though these discourses came out of different mouths? Is the “social” a political discourse whereas racism is not? Can the far-right not have a “social” discourse that would imply racism? Is the “social” solely owned by the Left? Is racism just the reaction of weak Whites, or can racism guide policies? Is it that when you are Black or Arab in France your only source of problems is racism, or does it imply a particular social position? Do whites have a vested interest in the existence of racism, or does racism exist despite them? Is this a movement of temp workers, of the unemployed or of RSA [11] beneficiaries or is it a movement of small-business owners, entrepreneurs, traders or artisans? Or both? And if so, what link or alliance is there between the two? Would lower-class White France be legitimate if it were not composed of the unemployed, those on RSA, precarious workers, etc.? Do you have to work to be French? Is having the difficulty of filling your fridge to feed your kids the same thing as critiquing the tax hikes and the CSG [12]? Do you have a problem with the CSG when you are not the one being taxed? Does everyone have the means to pay for a car or motorcycle? Does lowering property taxes inevitably lead to lower rents? Can we both raise the SMIC [minimum wage] [13] & welfare benefits and lower their burden on employers? Does lower-class White France feel closer to small-business bosses angry over oil/gas prices or closer to banlieue residents? Why hasn’t this movement developed in city centers where people are wealthier or in the banlieues where people are poorer? Are the Gilets Jaunes not already an alliance between the poor and less poor? Are they an alliance between those who have trouble filling their fridges and those who would like to go on vacation more often? Are they an alliance between those who earn 2,000 euros a month and those earn the minimum wage [SMIC] or less? And who gains from this alliance? Is class struggle only between the “people” and the powers-that-be? Is interclassism not also a class struggle within these very alliances? Is the problem Macron? Do we have to “get rid of Macron” and redo the elections? And in this case, who would be elected in his place? Do working-class banlieues have anything to gain from this? Does lower-class White France have anything to gain from this? Do the poor stand to gain anything from this? Why is it that when the banlieues protests there are curfews and when lower-class White France does so it is welcomed within government ministries? Did we ever ask the 2005 rioters to pick representatives? Is the only thing that exists between the banlieues and lower-class White France misunderstandings and vague prejudices inherited from colonization? Why is the army sent to Réunion [14] and not for the roadblocks at Corrèze? Why did Fillon call to prohibit protests in 2016 but not now? Are we not expecting lower-class White France to say that they have a legitimate right, as far as they are TRUE French people, to be treated better than the France of the banlieues, the immigrants, etc.? Does the fact that Gilets Jaunes have threatened a boss because he hires foreigners have no political meaning? Is that racism or protectionism? Can it be both, and if so, what is the link? Isn’t there a discourse which sets those who work against those who profit from child benefits? Isn’t this discourse directly pointed at the banlieues, and those who are generally racialized? Do people who use this discourse view it as far-right? Don’t we also hear this discourse on the left, more and more so every day? Can we really look over all this in the name of a “popular” alliance? In so far as this discourse traverses the left and the right, is it not itself already an “alliance”? Do we have to open up a struggle around the qualification of “popular” to know who is entitled to it and what it exactly is? Are the banlieues “popular”? Do they legitimately represent the “French people”? Anyway, what is the “French people”? Are they the ones who will decide what is “popular” and what is not? Can the banlieues really gain this legitimacy which everyone refuses them and which the whole of society off-the-cuff offers to lower-class White France? What is then this “people” if the banlieues are not a part of it? Etc., etc.

Come to the Saint-Lazare station on Saturday, Dec. 1st to begin to pose these questions and perhaps catch a glimpse of some of the answers.


Notes

[1] Notes from Agitations : note from Agitations: The website Lundi Matin welcomed the call of Marcel Campion, “king of the fairgrounds” and incidentally a multimillionaire businessman supporting Marine Le Pen, to demonstrate alongside us against the reform of the labour code in 2017

[2] Note from the translator: Poujade was a french politician of the 4thRepublic who led a strong movement protesting taxes, composed of shopkeepers and small business managers and calling for an uprising of the common man against the elite. Jean-Marie Le Pen was first elected deputee, in 1956, while running for Poujade’s party.

[3] Martinez is the current head of the largest union in France, the CGT.

[4] Ungovernable Generation” a group born from the “Cortège de Tête” during the movement against the “Loi Travail”

[5] a slang coming from Arabic for “disorder

[6] a weekly online magazine mainly inspired by the texts from the Invisible Committee

[7] the yellow vest was first made mandatory for security reasons in France in 2008

[8] French anti-riot police

[9] This committee was formed after the death of young Black man, Adama Traoré, while in police custody. For further reading: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/17/adama-traore-death-in-police-custody-casts-long-shadow-over-french-society

[10] Throughout the translation the use of “banlieue” will be used instead of “neighborhood,” although the text uses the word “quartier” not “banlieue.” This is intentional since English-language readers may be thrown off if we made a division between city and neighborhood (since in English this distinction does not exist). It has the implied resonance of what we would call in American English, “the hood.” The “banlieues” are much less white and much more impoverished than the city-center of Paris.

[11] Revenue de solidarité active: a French form of in work welfare benefit aimed at reducing the barrier to return to work (source:Wikipedia).

[12] Contribution sociale généralisée : tax contributions made towards funding health care in France.

[13] The guaranteed minimum growth wage (SMIC) is the legal minimum hourly wage in Metropolitan France and in the overseas departments and in the territorial authority of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (source:insee.fr)

[14] An island French territory in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar.

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