Revolutionaries and the Yellow Vests movement

Dieser Artikel entstand auf der Grundlage von Redebeiträgen auf dem Forum unserer Gruppe L’Etincelle zu den „Gelben Westen“ auf dem jährlichen politischen Festival von Lutte Ouvrière im Juni 2019 in Presles (Frankreich).

Helping their organization and coordination

The Gilets Jaunes (GJ) movement, which has very much retreated start of september 2019 but isn’t dead, is an unprecedented revolt of the working class, out of the working places, at a national scale. One has to admit the revolutionaries experienced difficulties in playing a role. So, what should be done to help it get organized, win, and follow it’s own democratic way? Those are the questions we ask ourselves in any struggle of our class.

From the beginning, Macron and his friends kept hammering in the media that the Yellow Vests were just a confused, disorganized mass with inaudible claims. The union leaders also thought so, as they considered that they were the only qualified representatives labour movement; they alone were supposedly familiar with the direction of struggles and above all capable of reasonable negotiations with the employer or government authorities. On the far left, some also thought that this movement was too diffuse, too politically confused to organize itself… or to deserve that the revolutionaries raise the problem of its organization. As a result, many revolutionary militants and organizations in the end remained outside or on the periphery of the movement, without attempting to propose a policy to it. In other words, without wishing to influence its demands and forms of organization.

A disorganized movement? Not exactly….

In fact, the explosion of 17 November, which occurred suddenly with everyone together on the same day, showed from the beginning that the movement was indeed organised, in its own way, via the social networks that led to occupying roundabouts and holding meetings.

The first days of national demonstrations, starting on 17 November 2018, were called for from above, but not without echoes with the will of the base, by the group France en Colère and then passed on regionally by (unelected) representatives of the roundabouts. Social networks, especially those related to France en Colère, have played a very important role. But this did not prevent us from acting in this movement through meetings and coordination.

Let us take the example of Strasbourg and the east of France. The opportunities to push forward the forms of organisation appeared with the demonstration on 1 December, when a demonstration of yellow vests and the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail, a left wing worker’s union) was announced. Naturally the two demonstrations where not in the same place! 600 GJs came from several roundabouts in Alsace, the Vosges or Lorraine at the call of „organizers“ (linked with France en Colère). At the arrival point declared in the prefecture, the so-called “organizers” asked to disperse. But some GJs wanted to continue and join the CGT demonstration (a leaflet calling for such a union, written by activists close to us, had circulated on the social networks).We managed to get 400 GJs to organize a meeting at Place de la République. The question of joining with the CGT demonstration was put to the vote. The idea was accepted so we did it! From there, we decided to call for a General Assembly on Saturday, at the same Place de la Republique in Strasbourg. Our aim was to lay the foundations of a democratic form of decision so that the Gilets Jaunes would take control of the direction of their own movement, see each other physically, discuss and exchange experiences. On the following Saturday, December 8, 350 GJs from different roundabouts in Alsace responded to the call. And in the end it became a habit to hold a meeting every Saturday, gathering 80 to 350 people over the duration of the movement.

The second step followed quite naturally from this: the Gilets Jaunes most involved in the success of this General Assembly wanted to meet to prepare it. Hence the birth of a smaller and – one could say – „executive“ structure called “QG République”. It was a weekly meeting bringing together between 40 and 60 Gjs and was held until early summer, also maintaining a permanent presence during the summer break. This is where yellow vests from Strasbourg and the region took decisions, analysed the situation, developed their tactics for demonstrations, actions, interventions aimed at company workers. They then considered coordination with yellow vests from other cities or even regions.

As part of the weekly preparatory meeting for the General Assembly, we set up a „work place“ committee which addressed workers through leaflets and discussions (Usocom, GM, Punch… a company currently in struggle). Links were made with yellow vests working in those firms, and also with some union members.

The Saturday General Assembly became a real forum for political discussion, for the elaboration of our political demands. Union activists, but also activists from environmental movements, joined in too, in order to be part of GJs actions or to propose them to converge with union and climate demonstrations.

From the Assembly of the Place de la République to the Coordination of the GJs of the East

The Strasbourg Assembly and the core of its headquarters then became a base from which links were forged with other headquarters, roundabouts in Alsace but also in Lorraine. The functioning of these other HQs was certainly quite different, rather around unelected leaders – which does not mean that they were not recognized. Our Strasbourg HQ was invited to participate in meetings of „representatives“ of roundabouts. These were opportunities to get to know each other, to work to a certain extent together but also to realize that the mode of democratic discussion that we were building on Strasbourg remained an exception in the region. There was no shortage of roundabout discussions, or discussions on social networks, but there was a lack of coordination to make democratic decisions based on these discussions.

Into this landscape already rich in multiple forms of coordination came the initiative of the GJs of Commercy (in Lorraine), an Assembly of Assemblies. On 26 and 27 January, it brought together more than 350 GJs, 75 delegations from all over France. Experience proved – if necessary – that it was possible to discuss in a General Assembly in a democratic way at the national level. However, it is a pity that the organizers of this meeting did not schedule the next one until two months later, in Saint-Nazaire.

The example of Commercy, and the contacts we were able to make from one city to another, between Gjs who had gotten used to moving from one town to the other for the Saturday demonstrations, encouraged us to try to coordinate the Yellow Vests of the East. More than a hundred phone calls were made to invite people. Multiple hardships to find a place where to hold the meeting. That was at the same time Macron had launched his „grand débat”, so none of the mayors or local political and associative bosses we contacted wanted to get involved in offering us a room! But a right is not begged for, it is taken, and this coordination of the GJ of the East of France took place on February 24. More than 250 GJs were present. After exchanges and rich discussions, a platform of common demands was adopted by a vote, a regional organization team was elected, and a Facebook page of the Coordination was set up. A giant banner „Coordination des Gilets Jaunes de l’Est“ was also made, which was later often seen on the Champs-Elysées.. This Coordination of the East was the starting point for new forms of discussions between Gjs in the region. The Upper Rhine GJs used the experience to launch a „General Assembly of the Upper Rhine“ (150 GJs at the first meeting, then 80 at the second).

And why not try creating a National Coordination?

As the government announced the end of its so-called “Grand débat”, the GJs of the Eastern coordination and those of other regions with which contact had been established, attempted to hold a national coordination on March 16. It took place at the Paris Labour Exchange, and brought together 450 Yellow Vests from 71 cities who voted for a call to coordinate on a national scale and thus prepare the next Assemblée des Assemblées (Assembly of Assemblies, or AdA) of St-Nazaire.

This coordination did not have the power to decide for the whole of France. The obstacles, of various kinds, remained numerous. But the success of the meeting proved that there was no impossibility in organizing at the highest level, that it was certainly right to try it and that the counter-power that the Gjs represented against Macron would have been all the stronger for it. The aim was to call for more workers to join in the GJ movement.

The AdA that met in Saint-Nazaire could have gone in this direction. It brought together 800 GJs, thus being the most numerous coordination; which proved that the GJs did aspire to coordinate. But its initiators, by „municipalist“ political choice, confined themselves to „horizontalism“, preventing any emergence of a national leadership.

These attempts did not go ant further, but they confirmed our conviction that it is indeed the task of revolutionaries to help the struggling proletarians, in this case the Yellow Jackets, to give themselves their own direction and coordinate democratically.

Hostile trade union confederations

Some amongst the early yellow vests were recruited from a community of small bosses hoping for a reduction in business taxes. But the movement is far from being just about them! The bulk of the Yellow Vests brought together a majority of employees from companies of various sizes, service providers, unemployed people and pensioners. Almost half of the Yellow Vests were women with a difficult life. This mobilization has brought to light a fringe of the proletariat unknown to the trade union leaders as – it must be said – to the extreme left.

The spectrum of political allegiances is wide, but people are reluctant to express openly their political ideas, affiliations and electoral choices. Partly because of the feeling that common anger must unite and that the spirit of collective resistance must prevail. Some yellow vests voted for Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon… or Olivier Besancenot . The Yellow Vests are far from being apolitical, but the general tone is certainly to put politics – which have

so often been disappointing – on hold. Thus people are cautious of any recuperation by political leaders. That results in a clear defiance of traditional labour movement organizations whose leaders reacted with the greatest mistrust and even outright hostility. Hence the first observation: if people in the workplaces talked about the Gj movement until December (in the form of a multitude of favourable reflections like: „GJs are right“, …), it never truly penetrated the workplace. This has remained its main limitation. A limitation for many inspired by trade union attitudes but which workers have not been able to overcome. They did not turn to the yellow vests, except for individual attitudes.

The blockade of so-called „organised workers‘ movement“ organisations

The analysis of trade union leaders at the beginnings of the Yellow Vests movement, after the first major meeting on 17 November, were in substance: this movement is an employer’s movement and it is manipulated by the extreme right. Martinez, Secretary General of the CGT, quickly announced to his troops that the colour of the day would not be yellow: „It is impossible to imagine the CGT marching alongside the National Front“. The unions were unanimous. They looked down at the yellow vests and refused to join a movement that was therefore organizing and developing without them and was beginning to impose itself in the social landscape. The trade union leaders complained and the far left questioned itself, even to the point of division. The composition of the Yellow Vests movement and its organizational methods, which are new and unfamiliar to our militant environment are perplexing. It is a certain disarray in the far left and the most combative trade union circles. Disarray leading to caution, which itself leads to abstention.

And yet the demands of the Yellow Vests are met with interest in the workplaces…

While the demands and methods of action chosen by the Yellow Vests are clearly outside the traditional framework, the request for „tax justice and social justice“ found an echo in the workplaces. The numerous yellow vests on the dashboards of cars in car parks in front of factories bears witness to this. Behind the demand for Macron’s resignation, is the denunciation of a president of the rich, scorning the poor, which is understood. Behind the „tax cut“ demand, it is a wider anger that is expressed against a life too expensive for workers.

On December 1st, at Act III of the GJs, the CGT management called for a meeting in the streets for its annual demonstration against unemployment and precariousness, but carefully keeping its distance with the Yellow Vests. The two rallies were not in the same place! The CGT’s rally was, it has to be said, lousy. The determination of the Yellow Vests, on the other hand, was spectacular: this was the day the Arc-de-Triomphe was tagged. Millions of proletarians rejoiced the next day at work, while Macron and his friends shouted blasphemy! So to warn the government, on the walls was written: „The yellow vests will triumph“. This Act III was described as an insurrection. The media’s adjective is certainly exaggerated , but the situation was indeed explosive. The images were seen all over the world and in France, in all companies, employees are making comments such as: the GJs are fighting the police, when and how shall we fight our bosses? A window of opportunity opened. The next ten days could well have shaken our little world.

Divisional union strategy

At the very beginning of December 2018, the general atmosphere was such that the CGT was obliged to react. It called, on it’s own, for a „Great Day of Action“ for wages, pensions and social protection…. But not right away: Friday, December 14. That day and not the next, Saturday, December 15, which is the day of Act V of the Yellow Vests! The CGT continued following a separatist policy that would soon be encouraged by the government. On December 4, Édouard Philippe announced a tax suspension and the opening of a debate on taxes and public spending. The yellow vests felt insulted and prepared to continue their mobilization. But on December 6, the Trade Unions met to „discuss the situation“ and the Prime Minister’s proposal.

Together, they wrote a statement to remind people of their responsibility and their role as social mediators. „Dialogue and listening must find their place in our country. This is why our organizations denounce all forms of violence in the expression of claims„… It is the violence of the yellow vests that is being pointed out. When reading the press release, many trade unionists, sometimes already yellow vests, did not hide their disappointment and some even denounced a betrayal. Some threatened to tear up their union cards while others, following the example of Lafarge’s CGT or the Fédération Nationale des Industries Chimiques, called to join the next GJ rally (on December 8). The Yellow Vests were doing politics by attacking the government in their own way. The union leaders on the contrary were determined not to do political work at all, thus helping save the day for Macron. The message was received and on December 8, Édouard Philippe thanked the social partners.

Martinez continued to call his base activists to calm and social dialogue. Act IV on December 8 was similar to December 1. The yellow vests, having no problem in distinguishing the local trade union activists from their leaders, welcomed the red vests without any hostility. The trade unions’ help to Macron wasn’t enough to kill the spark of revolt. So Macron, on December 10, withdrew the increase in the carbon tax, thinking that would get rid of the yellow vests, and proposed to bosses to buy peace in companies thanks to bonus given to workers – and naturally the state would help! The exceptional bonus was renamed „Prime macron“ when it was granted, and „prime Gilets jaunes“ when it was demanded by the union teams in the companies.

The trade union bureaucracy persists to ward off any contagion

On December 13, CGT local activists sent a petition signed by Xavier Mathieu (ex-Continental), Michael Wamen (ex-Goodyear) and others. In it, they denounced the union’s refusal to allow the spread of the revolt and implementation of a collective spirit. „It’s our colleagues who were the Yellow Vests (…) The movement has begun, we should broaden it and bring our methods, those of the strike, and our demands to it“. The petition was useless. Thus the CGT and the Yellow Vests hold rallies on two different days, the first on Friday 14th and the second the day after. When asked by BFM TV about the yellow vests, Martinez replied: „It’s their decision to demonstrate tomorrow, we demonstrate today“. In less than 10 days, the window is almost closed. Especially as the Christmas holiday season was approaching.

For the Yellow Vests fighting since November 17, 2018, Macron’s slight retreat came in too late. He’ll be forced to retreat again. As Act V was being prepared, the list of claims was growing. Electric heating was installed in the HQ to prepare for winter. People spent the holidays in yellow vests waiting for the next window of opportunity to appear. A window into a possible convergence with the wider working class reopened on February 5, the day of a trade union rally to which figures appreciated by the Yellow Vests called too, even evoking the idea of a general strike. But yet again the trade union leaders didn’t support the Act XII of the GJs of the following Saturday.

The movement of the yellow vests did not stop at the end of the winter. It continued all through spring and summer. It constantly tried to turn towards other sectors of the working class. It obviously no longer has the same strength it used to, but no one would bet on its extinction in September, when so many attacks are scheduled against the working class, especially the pensioners, the hospital workers, the unemployed, among whom there are so many yellow vests…. No one would bet on that, especially not us!

Saturday, August 17th 2019

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