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Order does not Reign in Europe. On the Yellow Vest Insurrection and the Transnational Challenge

A text from the TSS Platform, followed by «End of the month and end of the world», the yellow vest movement: a brief account

Order does not reign in Europe. The political scene that was occupied by quarrels between national governments is now suddenly shaken by signs of revolt from East to West. The risk of a disintegration of the EU, trumpeted by the continental establishments since the Greek crisis to hold back any attempt of refusal of austerity policies, has now turned into the governments’ concrete fear of a widespread insubordination. The uprising in Hungary against Orban’s ‘slave law’, the demonstrations in Serbia and Albania against government violence, the women’s insurgency against the patriarchal order of society, the strikes that twist through every sector of labour, from logistics hubs to hospitals, from post offices to factories, the unruly movements of migrants and the daily confrontation with borders and institutional racism. All these are different expressions of a growing, albeit often unconnected, revolt against the present state of things. The sign of refusal of a system that, in different ways and through different political actors, aims to obtain obedient and exploitable women and men through impoverishment and precarisation. If in Eastern Europe the attempt to discipline social discontent by means of the nationalist rhetoric is trembling, in the West the idea that neoliberal institutions can preserve social order is falling apart. Whether through authoritarian rule or the appeal to the promises of the market, political systems seem unable to answer to the demands of workers and social movements. With the next EU elections approaching and pushing political leaders to find ways to get noticed, uncertainty grows, and the transnational emerges once again as the key field of struggle. It is within this context that since November, France (and its overseas departments and regions) is crossed by ungovernable waves of protests and strikes spread and carried out by demonstrators in yellow vests (Gilets Jaunes).

Distancing themselves from traditional forms of organization, including trade unions, and using forms of aggregation that partially resonate experiences of a recent past, such as nuit début, the GJ are using social networks and physical spaces such as roundabouts as points of connection, communication and visibility. They have set up local assemblies and found in all major cities gathering points which often escape every attempt of control. The insurrection of the GJ supersedes  the different waves of struggle that have shaken the country in recent years without amounting to victories over their declared targets: the fight against the loi travail ‘and its world’, the opposition to President Macron’s ordonnances and the resistance against the plan to privatize public railways are among the main ones. Most importantly, it comes after decades of neoliberal policies which have created a detachment between reality and the national discourse that proudly celebrates the promise of the Rèpublique as morally superior to other countries. What we call logistical command has hit hard in France: impoverishment, precarisation and the deepening of social inequalities, together with the seeming absence of a way out of  the present condition, have increased disaffection and rage. The movement of the GJ is politicizing parts of society that have been affected not just by Macron’s latest laws, but by years of policies and transformations that rendered their lives and employment more precarious while increasing wage disparities between bosses and workers. The GJ have been confronted by an unprecedented (in recent times) violent reaction by the state, going far beyond the magnitude of street clashes, riots and plunders that have characterized many demonstrations promoted in many French cities. This partially explains the widespread support from vast sectors of the French population. On the contrary, the attempt to rally a mass opposition to GJ through the so called ‘red scarves’ turned out to be a media move lacking a real popular basis. This whole situation calls for a supplement to the discussions concerning the challenges, limits and potentialities of the GJ.

Unlike other struggles, such as the one against the loi travail, which was ignited by strikes inside the workplaces and subsequently spread to public squares and metropolitan and social strikes, GJ’s protests are growing outside the workplaces and outside the trade unions’ organizations. More than simply implementing the idea of blockades, the focus on roundabouts and blocks of circulation has created spaces of encounter and communication for the fragmented labor force – whether employed or self-employed – of France’s dispersed production networks, which notwithstanding increased connectivity (let’s remember France had fast trains, like the TGV, well before other countries) is being forced to rely on individual cars with the related expenses to carry on their work. Also thanks to smart-phones and social media, used as tools of discussion and coordination, a whole population made up of precarious workers, self-employed, women working in home care, retired with small pensions, and young job seekers have gathered to make their voice heard. Even if most international and mediatic attention is on what happens in Paris, the peculiarity of the GJ is their capillary presence all across France, from small villages to medium and big cities. The movement is large, strong and widely spread. In this scenario, trade unions members have  often been part of the GJ gatherings, or crossed their ways within the GJ in demonstrations, but many trade unions have been suspicious from the very beginning since the movement directly undermines the will of control of unions bureaucracies. Besides, among the GJ the disaffection towards unions, considered to be far from people’s needs, is high.

(Ostensibly) Begun as a revolt against the increase in gasoline prices, the GJ movement has the declared aim of toppling president Macron. At the same time, they call for a citizen’s referendum (RIC, référendum d’initiative citoyenne) and to delegitimize representative institutions, government and parliament, addressed as being  structurally on the side of the wealthy and powerful. Not without contradictions, GJ are radicalizing their claims as the mobilization continues, with demands pointing at raising minimum wages, challenging fiscal inequality, terminating the CSG tax (that finances social security funds) on retirement pensions, freezing  the closure of public services,  continued maintenance of post offices, small stations and hospitals, and for the reintroduction of the property tax on the wealthiest which was cancelled by Macron immediately after his election. Also, women’s protagonism among the GJ, be it at roundabouts meeting points, local gatherings and major demonstrations, is a sign of a creeping but more and more widespread dissatisfaction with the relentless precarization and dismantling of welfare system that, as always, increases the workload of women, as those who still carry the principal  responsibility of paid and unpaid reproductive labor. The women’s march in Paris, framed in national-republican terms as the protest of the ‘mothers of the Republic’, does not seem to be representative of the way in which women are politicizing their public presence through the GJ. But there are plenty of unvoiced issues that show how social hierarchies, fragmentation and differences produced by logistical command also trouble the GJ in the shadow of the opposition to the elites and the wealthiest. One major example is the issue of migration and the role of migrant labor in the domain of post austerity Europe a This issue seems nearly impossible to discuss without creating tensions.

What is clear is that the movement exposes the impossibility of a simple return to business as usual, for at least three reasons. The first one concerns the scale and intensity of the insurrection: this is a wave of politicization that shows no signs of fading and marks a fundamental disaffection with the political system, and the national debate promoted by Macron to distract the GJ will produce nothing but minor effects. The second reason is that Macron’s government simply is not going to change: the president is the quintessential expression of a neoliberal (European and global) political class that believes in the supremacy of the market and equates public welfare and business interests. The portrait of Macron as the puppet of big finance is superficial, because Macron’s government is not alone in this regard, and follows the line traced by neoliberal reforms imposed all over Europe with great force after the crisis of 2008, which include labor market reforms that normalized precarity, fiscal reforms to the benefit of the wealthiest, companies and employers, cuts on wages, further dismantlement of public services, attacks to the right to strike. We have seen traces of these policies in Germany with Hartz IV, in Italy with Jobs Act, in Sweden with the law proposal which intends to make most forms of strike illegal, in Hungary with the so called ‘slave law’. The third element, which goes too often overlooked, is that these policies are linked to global transformations that have changed the boundaries of what states can or cannot do, increasing interdependencies in labor mobility, finance, production networks, infrastructures. The complex logistics of exploitation which results from these transformations includes material connections and policies that have produced both the fragmentation the GJ are confronting, and the interdependencies they need to face in the continuation of the movement. These connections and interdependencies are not the product of an untouchable power that oppresses us, but the field of tension where present limits can be confronted, and new possibilities can be found.

All these dimensions open questions about the perspectives of the GJ. As we said, order does not reign in Europe. Placing this movement solely within a national context may thus prevent us not just from seeing that the very local conditions that ignite the movement are the product of wider transformations, but also the political possibilities available by way of a truly transnational scope: the GJ are not alone in their revolt. By placing what is happening in France within this transnational dimension, the challenges and limits of the GJ emerge as significant for all of us. While Macron desperately attempts to avoid some key subjects vis a vis the ‘national debate’ – such as income, salaries, the social protection system – what is at stake is the possibility of really hitting the political conditions against which the GJ are revolting, rejecting the idea that the solution can come either from a national pact which leaves aside troubling questions, such as institutional racism or patriarchal relations, or from a general insurrection against ‘the elites’ where workers and their employers can jointly change the rules of the game. What is at stake is also the possibility to recognize in each local mobilization, in France and elsewhere, this transnational dimension as the field of struggle where the confrontation is happening and can express its full potentiality. Adopting this transnational perspective is also the only durable strategy to subtract the movement from the control attempts of the right-wing and nationalist militants.

What  seems clear after more than two months of ongoing mobilizations is that the GJ are by now confronted with different options. This is reflected in the divergent directions that the movement is taking, that  challenge the false representation of the GJ as an insurrection of a generic ‘French people’ and the attempt to immure the movement within a patriotic schema (which is pursued in different ways both by Macron and by far right groups). The first direction suggests that widespread interruption of social peace is necessarily drawn into accord with workplace strikes  to overcome divisions with trade unions. The second one is the institutionalization of the movement of GJ, which includes the option of forming an electoral alliance (which some polls position at more than 10%) and run at the upcoming European elections. The third one consists of the continuation of the movement through citizens’ assemblies and public discussions, partially dialoguing with the great national debate promoted by Macron. It is clear that the last two options will represent a substantial defeat for the movement, which would imply a normalization without any foreseeable gains, while the first one resurrects the premise of long-term build-up and offers an element of interest relevant to the issues motioned by the GJ from the onset. While some trade unions (i.e. Solidaires) declared since the beginning their support for the autonomous development of the movement, others (i.e. the CGT) were at long last forced to act after months of hesitancy and attempts to distance themselves from a movement as it  was depicted as ‘violent’. The general strike called by the CGT on the 5th of February is thus a tactical move of the union, forced to act to keep its rank and file under control. But it is also a strategic opportunity for those among the GJ who wish to extend the insurrections to the workplaces and expand the dynamic of the strike. If until now the practices of the GJ have included forms of metropolitan and social strike, involving workplaces can point at subverting the imaginary of a general opposition to the government and the elites. However, the CGT general strike is not a decisive moment, as there will not be single ‘decisive’ moments but might be a moment of accumulation of strength and of further circulation of the strike as a practice of mass insubordination. The issue at stake is not an alliance or even a convergence with trade unions per se, but the possibility to specify the character of the struggle beyond the simple opposition to the government. Instead of sectorizing their practices and claims, mirroring the limits of trade unions, the GJ can force a politicization of union practices and claims and advance a different use of the strike.

It is within this process of accumulation of strength that the GJ need to challenge the limits of their radical opposition to Macron. Let’s be clear: Macron must fall. But with this demand it is the whole system symbolized by Macron, built over the years and part of a global condition, that must be attacked. In order to do so, the radicalization of the opposition against Macron’s government represents only one antagonism. What must not be done, is offer Macron and his gang the opportunity to find allies across the borders, for the world is ours, not theirs. What must be added, therefore, is the capacity to push the different dimensions of the strike, inside and outside workplaces, as a political weapon to enlarge the revolt against impoverishment and privileges into a general insubordination against the logistical command that impose themselves upon millions of women and men, in France and elsewhere; to connect the protagonism of women refusing of the patriarchal order of society, as expressed by the global women’s strike; to overcome the taboo of migrant labor, taking up joint arms  against the institutional racism that hits migrants and forces all to accept social hierarchies and the rule of precarity. A difficult challenge confronts the GJ movement today: the troubles, differences and fractures within the movement need to be faced and transformed into a source of power, to contrast the attempts to put an end to the movement and continue collecting force to overturn the present state of things, finding allies in the daily insubordinations of our present. This same challenge concerns all the unruly movements that are striking against the attempt to make Europe a factory of docile men and women handed over to exploitation and the power games of its rulers.

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«End of the month and end of the world», the yellow vest movement, an expression of social and political crisis: a brief account

 At the beginning a movement against the fuel tax….

On November 17th, following a call on various websites and social media nearly 250,000 people blocked the roads on more than 2,000 towns requesting the repeal of the fuel tax increase scheduled for early January by the national government, the abolition of the road speed limit, the limitation of VAT on food, and if necessary, the dissolution of the National Assembly and the end of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. The movement is called Gilet Jaunes (yellow vests), from the wearing of safety yellow vests.

It is the first time that a movement of such magnitude, that seems to have come out of nowhere, manages to coordinate itself through Internet to carry out blocking actions. After the first acts the government and Macron decided to stick to «ecological» explanation of the fuel tax as a way to discourage the use of private cars and lower CO2 emissions, and the «ecological transition» in the aftermath of COP21, which is meant to tax «what pollutes» in order to finance future needs.

 …Which becomes a movement of social demands and a political crisis

The government decided to wait, hoping in a fast dissolution of the movement, but the more time passes, the more the GJ’s claims turned to wider social issues: against the rising cost of living, for an increase in the minimum wage, the end of the CSG tax (tax that finances social security funds) on retirement pensions, against the closure of public services and for the maintenance of post offices, small stations and hospitals. And the more the movement grows. At roundabouts and roadblocks there are precarious, self-employed workers, part-time women working in the care sector, pensioners with small pensions, young job seekers, and among them many people are often experiencing their first mobilization, outside the unions and «classic» social movements. It’s also important to underline the use of «blocking» practice in order to paralyze flows, and especially the movement of goods. This practice is conceived by many as a tool to gain visibility. The movement borrowed elements of structure and organization from different experiences and places: in Saint Nazaire (Loire Atlantique), a city with a strong workers’ struggles history where unions are in contact with the GJ, numerous assemblies were held in the Maison du Peuple, and in Commercy (Meuse) the GJ launched a call at the end of November for the movement to be equipped in the localities «with a cabin like in Commercy, or a people’s house like in Saint-Nazaire…. in short, a place for the organization», while on Reunion Island, the movement completely paralysed the territory through self-organizing. In other cities the feminist demonstrations on November 24th were joined by the GJ, as happened in Montpellier where a huge mobilization took place.

 On November 27th, the day before the third national mobilization of the GJ, President Macron declared that «the end of the world and the end of the month will be treated both and we must treat both» announcing at the same time the government intentions to maintain its «reforms» and to open «a major social and ecological consultation in the next three months».

The government’s announcements have been completely ignored by the movement, and the calls to turn the mobilization of December 1st into a major day of struggle multiplied. The demonstrations turned into a real confrontation with the police in Toulouse, Avignon, Bordeaux and Paris, where there was also a demonstration against unemployment and precarity, with another one of the Rosa Parks collective against institutional racism. In Marseille the rage of people struggling against the gentrification of Cours Julien and the state of social housing (following the collapse of several buildings in Marseille) exploded, while in Le Puy en Velay (Haute Loire) a group of demonstrators burned down the prefecture. After this day of mobilizations, the government finally understood to be in a deadlock and to be confronted with a real political and social crisis.

Young people and school students did not remain quiet either. Government measures are also targeting high schools with the objective to reduce the number of hours of study in subjects such as History-Geography or Philosophy. Among the targets of the protest there are is Parcoursup, a highly unequal university admissions system, while in the universities the political decision to increase the enrolment fees for foreign students from 170 to 2,770 euros in bachelor’s degree, and from 243 or 380 euros in master’s or doctorate to 3,770 euros, is causing anger and indignation in support of foreign students. During the whole first fortnight of December young people took to the streets and were confronted with a strong repression, gas and explosives thrown into demonstrations and violent and humiliating arrests. In Mantes la Jolie, a city in the popular suburbs of the Yvelines, more than a hundred teenagers arrested by the police were forced to stay several hours kneeling with their hands behind their heads like prisoners of war, causing public outrage.

On December 11th, also the retirees took the streets with an historical mobilization. For the trade union organisations, the situation was much more complicated. After the first inter-union meeting since the beginning of the movement, on December 6 all main trade unions, with the exception of Solidaires (CFDT, CGT, FO, CFE-CGC, CFTC, Unsa and FSU) prepared a declaration denouncing «the violence» of the GJ. But they had to face discontent from their members, many of whom took part to the blockades and demonstrations, and the Union Syndical Solidaires, which refused to be included among the signatories, published its own call «in solidarity with the claims of the GJ» in order to unite forces with the GJ. We can say that the movement in yellow is being built «against and within» trade union organisations.

On December 8th and 15th, demonstrations took place in Paris and outside of the city, joined by the social movement of yellow vests with the CGT union, the Union syndicale Solidaires and the collective of railway workers, as well as with those who took part in Nuit Debout, the Invisible Band, the Antifascist Action, the Adama Committee. The aim was to support and give more voice to the political and social claims of the yellow movement. Also in the provinces, CGT and Solidaires unions’ workers were involved in the mobilisations. But the call by CGT for a huge mobilization during December 13th mobilized a small number of persons, showing the distance between the movement and the unions’ structures.

Weakened and isolated, the government first announced the abandonment of the gas tax project and decided to freeze the increase of electricity and gas fees. Then the government chose to abolish the CSG tax for pensioners, and it increased of 100 euros the public bonus paid to non-taxable households and re-established the exemption from any taxation of the extra-time hours worked inside the companies, while a hypothetical tax-free bonus for workers of one thousand euros was mentioned. Even after the government took a small step back, also because of the failed attempt to portray the movement as violent, the mobilization continued. It is during this period that the space of mobilization opened by the GJ started to increase the connection with the strikes that hit the production sites.

The challenges of gaining ground and deepening the movement

On December 7th, during a meeting on the struggles and the movement, at the initiative of the Adama Committee (named after Adama Traore, a young man murdered by gendarmes during his arrest), Antifascist Action, Platform of Militant Investigation… a yellow vest said that the issue of migrants «divides the movement». It is indeed one of the «black spots» of the movement, migrants are currently outside the issues raised by GJ movement and only in a few cases they joined demonstrations. Apparently, the movement of the GJ seems to be the image of a homogeneous French society, which recognizes itself in the Republique. However, this homogeneous society does not exist and the French society itself is crossed by dividing lines that must be brought to the centre of political discussion. The demonstration organized by migrant collectives and their supporters in Paris on December 18th reflects this concern and shows the potentiality of a similar enlargement and the strength of a mobilization that is accessible to migrants and refugees who are fighting against institutional racism and exploitation. The issue of women, who work, in particular precarious work conditions, also returned to the centre of the debate. In order to counteract the representation of the women GJ as the «mothers of the nation», some women of the GJ movement have organized public presentations and discussions trying to bring their national claims into the frame of a global call for a women’s strike on 8 March.

And to finance all social needs, the GJ movement is calling for the reinstatement of the Solidarity Tax on Wealth, a tax for the rich that the Macron government has abolished. It is therefore a real debate on the central issue of the distribution of wealth, wages, including the amount of the minimum wage and how to organize its distribution in order to finance all the social needs.

As announced in the speech of December 10th, Macron’s government has now organised its «national consultation», «consultations» which are supposed to set up «complaint books».  But January’s demonstrations showed that the movement does not intend to give up, both on the streets and with attempts to build lasting structures built on the autonomy from institutional power and the refusal of representation, such as the ‘assembly of assemblies’ of Commercy.

Now, the GJ movement is still evolving and is taking different directions. On February 5th a general strike called by the CGT and joined by Solidaires became a general strike, with the convergence of many GJ in blockades and demonstrations. This was the first attempt to create an open convergence between parts of trade unions and parts of the GJ, circulating the idea of strike as a political framework that can be used also outside of the workplace. At the same time, another part of the movement is trying to transform the GJ movement in a political party looking to the next European election, a decision that for many is a paradox, reintroducing a representative perspective, and a risk, because it can weaken the movement.