A Balance Sheet of the ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement in France

In its second communiqué on the ‘yellow vests’ movement in France the IGCL  provides a balance sheet of its strengths, weaknesses and dilemma’s, together with an updated summary of the situation at the 11th Saturday of demonstrations and their prospects.

2nd Communiqué by the IGCL (January 27, 2019)

The eleventh Saturday of the ‘yellow vests’ movement in France, 26 January 2019, has seen the mobilization continue throughout France. According to the police, there were 69,000 demonstrators across the country. It is nevertheless obvious that this figure is largely underestimated: 2,500 demonstrators in Paris were announced, whereas there were in fact between 8,000 and 10,000 when the two main parades met at 4 pm at the Place de la Bastille. The clashes that subsequently broke out there allowed the police to disperse the crowd that would gather in the square. But the exact number doesn’t really matter. The fact is that this movement of ‘yellow vests’ expresses a rage and a willingness to oppose the growing misery imposed and promised by capitalism and to confront the state, that the bourgeoisie does not succeed to extinguish. Just like the strikes in Iran in 2018 or the mass strike of tens of thousands of workers in northern Mexico as we speak, to mention but a few, (1) the radicalism, combativeness, [and] obstinacy of the ‘yellow vests’ movement signals the degree attained by the class antagonisms, and the fact that we have entered in a new period of massive confrontations between the classes at the global level. This generalized climate of potential social revolt, already partly in action, is essentially the result of the effects of the 2008 crisis, which are still being felt, exacerbating capitalism’s current contradictions of all kinds, political, ecological, imperialist, migratory, social, etc. Today, these contradictions have accumulated and are exploding one after another. In this international climate of general social revolt in the making, the “slowdown of world growth” – to use the words of bourgeois economists – and the risks of a financial and stock market crash can only accentuate this atmosphere of “the end of the world”, the end of the capitalist world to be exact, and bring the current generations of proletarians to the necessity, to consciousness and willingness to oppose capitalism’s misery as well as the generalized war that it is preparing and, finally, to destroy it. The entire capitalist class, at least its most enlightened fractions, is so concerned with this situation that “the eminences gathered at the Davos summit believe that it is time to ‘re-moralize’ globalization (according to Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum) and to seek the paths to a ‘more inclusive’ world economy” (‘Liberation’, 23 January 2019), and that States are already preparing for it both politically and in terms of violent and massive repression.

But before going back to the situation in France at the end of January, it is necessary to give a brief summary of the events since our communiqué of 2 December for readers who do not live in France, (2) and who have not been able to follow the situation closely. The violent clashes of 2 December around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but in the provinces, including very small towns, as well, and the rage they expressed, surprised the fraction of Macron’s forty-years-olds in power, for whom, trained in business schools and management, the class struggle had disappeared; it even partly made them panic. It took the urgent support by other political fractions, Sarkozy’s in particular, and by big bosses, to impose on Macron the fact that he had to make “concessions”. (3) At that time, the media complained that the ‘yellow vests’ had no leaders “to negotiate with”, as well as that the unions were discredited and powerless. It was only on the eve of the demonstration on 8 December that a first real contact was made with the main spokespersons for the ‘yellow vests’, who were received by the Prime Minister and who, upon their leave, declared that they were waiting for Macron’s declaration they had been promised in the course of the following week. Thereby they let him take the initiative and the State’s counter-offensive could take place. The demonstrations on December 8th were as massive and violent as those on the previous Saturday. On Monday, December 10th, Macron announced a 100 euro increase in the minimum wage [the SMIC] – in fact a bonus, as we found out in the subsequent days – and some other measures. As such, they are only marginal concessions, even if they oblige the government to present a budget deficit beyond the 3% required by the European Union. (4) Politically, however, they represent the first real significant setback for the State in the face of any massive mobilization since…. 1968. But above all, on the occasion of January 1st, Macron announced the organisation of a major national debate, planned until March 15 (!), to respond to the ‘yellow vests’ demand for a direct democracy and, more particularly, for a “referendum on citizen’s initiative” (RIC).

Ever since, it is this typically petty-bourgeois demand that the entire state apparatus has taken up and imposed as a central issue of the situation, overshadowing, if not forgetting, the demands on wages and living conditions. At the same time, the management of the weekly demonstrations was limited to their violent repression which, in addition to the thousands of serious victims caused by flash-balls and sting-ball grenades (both are banned in most European countries), aimed at reducing the massive popularity of the movement in “public opinion”. On this occasion, official speeches by politicians, the media and editors  competed for the most brutal call for repression and haughtiness regarding this “stupid, hateful, factitious, even fascist people” : Sarkozy’s former Minister of… Education, a professional philosopher and a delicate and distinguished great bourgeois from the rich Paris neighbourhoods, even called the police to use “their weapons once and for all! (…) Enough, these henchmen of the extreme-right and the extreme-left, or from the suburbs, who come to beat up police officers. (…) We have the fourth largest army in the world, it is capable of putting an end to this crap!” (Luc Ferry, ‘Radio Classique’, January 8, 2019). The class hatred of the May 1871 Versaillais against the Parisian Communards is about to reappear. Albeit these provocative speeches calling for widespread repression, and even murder, probably have had the effect of helping to revive the mobilization of the ‘yellow vests’, the fact remains that since then, the political initiative has remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The entire State apparatus has hence mobilized to focus political life on the organization of this “great debate”: the president, ministers, deputies, prefects, mayors of towns and villages, the media, all political parties; up to the point of dividing the ‘yellow vests’ themselves on whether or not to participate. And, in absence of any other perspective of struggle, even those who advocated not to participate, rightly thinking that it was only a “trickery”, have locked themselves up in this dead-end, by arguing for the continuation of demonstrations in order to put pressure on the… great debate! The circle is complete. It suffices to tighten it little by little without breaking the rope by a clumsiness. (5)

That is where we are today. The terrain is marked out by the bourgeoisie, which holds the timing of the events… up to the call of the main trades-union, the CGT, for one day of action and strike on February 5, at which the most radical ‘yellow vests’, with the help of the Trotskyists, the NPA in particular, (6) are calling to join for an unlimited [general] strike. In case the fire resumes, the backfire is already in place. The trick is done and all terrains are now occupied by the entire bourgeois state apparatus. Only rage and anger can keep Saturday’s mobilizations going more or less for a long time.

The ‘yellow vests’ movement is now in a political impasse with no real prospect, while the Macron government and, behind it, the entire state apparatus have regained control of the events. What was the strength and dynamism of the ‘yellow vests’ movement at first, we can say until Macron’s statement on December 10, became its weakness and limitations once the government resumed its political initiative. Its “inter-class” character, identifying itself with the French people and not with the proletarian class, has fueled and maintained illusions about a people’s democracy, which is in fact bourgeois democracy, and has caused the class demands that tended to emerge to be drowned in and suppressed by a referendum on citizens’ initiative and, finally, by the organization of the “grand debate”on behalf of the government and the State on the terrain of bourgeois democracy itself. As far as we know, even the local ‘yellow vests’ committees most closely linked to the working class, like those of Commercy and Saint Nazaire, are dragged onto the terrain of this impasse, the “self-organization” and ideological mystification of democracy in the name of the people:

“Since Commercy, we are now calling for a major national meeting of the local People’s Committees. On the strength of the success of our first appeal, we propose to you that we organize it democratically, in January, here in Commercy, with delegates from all over France, to gather and share the list of demands. We also propose to you to discuss all together the follow-up of our movement. Finally, we propose to you to decide on a collective organization of the ‘yellow vests’, authentically democratic, based on the people and respecting the stages of delegation. Together, let us create the assembly of the assemblies, the Commune of the communes. This is the direction of history, this is our proposal. The establishment of self-organization structures such as General Assemblies today is a central issue for the Yellow Vests movement. Long live the power to the people, by the people, and for the people!” (Second Appeal of Commercy’s ‘yellow vests’, December 30, 2018. (7)

In the midst of the general confusion and the social heterogeneity that have prevailed and continue to prevail among the ‘yellow vests’, only the maintenance of the wage demands, an increase in the minimum wage and salaries, the “indexation” of the pensions, to name only the main ones, can establish their fight and reject the terrain of bourgeois democracy in which the “great debate” wants to lock them up and suffocate them. The increase in wages and “purchasing power” has been the only political demand by which the whole proletarian class can identify itself as a class, that can still allow a real immediate resistance to the counter-offensive of the government and the bourgeoisie.

Despite several local conflicts or strikes, sometimes directly or indirectly linked to the ‘yellow vests’, the working class as such, at its workplaces and as a class, did not directly enter into struggle. With the exception of a few, too few, examples such as the strike at Arc International in the city of Arques in the North, or those at the Geodis warehouse in Bonneuil in the Paris region, the occupation of Pole emploi offices in Vitry, Rennes and Lorient, (8) and the ‘yellow vests’ actions at hospitals (information taken from the Collectif Agitation et Gilets Jaunes IDF’). (9) This would have provided a different perspective to the social revolt, breaking the framework and timing of the “grand debate” by imposing class demands as a central issue. That was and is the only way [forward], even if it becomes more improbable by the day.

We were not alone in putting forward the slogan for the formation of struggle or workers’ committees to fight for this perspective, that could have displaced the political framework and terms of the confrontation imposed by the government and the bourgeoisie since December 10. It has to be acknowledged that, as far as we can say, this has not been realized. And that thereby no real political class alternative could be presented and, even less, constitute a material factor of the situation.

Nevertheless, the movement of the ‘yellow vests’, whether it still lasts for weeks or not, marks a before and an after in the very dynamics of the class conflict in France and constitutes a reference for the international proletariat. In particular, much to the dismay of the trade unions and their tactics of Days of action, it showed that an “uncontrolled” and unorganized movement – uncontrolled and unorganized from the point of view of the state and bourgeois ideology – could push the bourgeoisie back. (10) It has also shown that the refusal to undergo the menace and the violence of state repression, the will not to cede to the repression and to continue massive demonstrations in spite of the risks, could force the bourgeoisie to give in to the demands, under certain conditions and at certain times. Finally, this particular episode of the class struggle has brought layers and generations of proletarians into the struggle who hitherto had remained foreign to it, and whose expression and taking consciousness in future struggles we cannot prejudge. It is too early to deduce that a new generation of revolutionary militants can, directly or indirectly, emerge mechanically from it.

Yet it is also this task that revolutionaries must take up through propaganda and intervention. The weakness and the virtual absence of the communists as a material political force in the demonstrations and at roundabouts (including ourselves), as difficult as it was to intervene actively, given the political reticence of the ‘yellow vests’ and their displayed “inter-class” character, is an element of weakness, not of this movement in particular (which only highlights it), but of the current international and historical force relationship between the classes. We do not develop this point further in this communiqué, whose immediate purpose is limited to providing an immediate statement of position on the situation for those directly interested and for the whole of the international revolutionary camp.

The International Group of the Communist Left, January 27th, 2019.

Source: Communiqué sur le mouvement des gilets jaunes en France – 27 janvier 2019

Translator’s note: The IGCL’s translation has been verified and corrected at the hand of its French source on February 1, 2019. Emphasis and [insertions] are by the editor.


1 From the United States to China, via Africa and all continents, strikes and conflicts tend to increase in these recent months…

2 See AFRD’s blog: ‘On the movement of the “Yellow Vests” in FranceIGCL: Communiqué on the Social Revolt in France (2 December 2018)

3 Even if the government and Macron did not understand what was happening until December 10, the state apparatus as a whole, starting with its police, via the trade unions up till the other bourgeois political forces (including Sarkozy’s former party, but also the Socialist Party) has at no time lost control of the situation. Contrary to what the media have suggested, we were far from an insurrectionary, even revolutionary, situation, even at the height of the December 2nd clashes. Macron and the government have faltered, but not the state apparatus as a whole, far from it.

4 Macron had committed himself to respect it… especially to establish his international – imperialist – credit with the German bourgeoisie. From this point of view, the ‘yellow vests’ movement has weakened Macron’s credit and authority with its European allies, as he was supposed to give French imperialism a more central place, in particular to animate the strengthening of the German-French imperialist axis.

5 Yesterday, January 26, one of the very popular and “pacifist” spokespersons, Jérôme Rodrigues, received a “flashball” in the eye, as he was filming the scene – live on Facebook – calling on the ‘yellow vests’ to leave the Place de la Bastille. Albeit there was no confrontation or any kind of danger to the police at that moment. He risks losing eyesight permanently and has been put in an artificial coma according to this morning’s press releases. Such a blunder may very well cause a sudden upsurge of the mobilization, or even change its terms and timing, which the government has succeeded to set up so far.

6 NPA = ‘Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste’ (New Anti-capitalist Party).

7 See the quick report of the meeting for a national coordination of the ‘yellow vests’ at the appeal of Commercy by Matière et Révolution’: https://www.matierevolution.fr/spip.php?article5237.

8 ‘Employment offices’

9 The distribution of this leaflet at the Place de la République on 26 January, where the ‘yellow vests’ were to meet after the demonstration, was banned by some yellow vests: “no politics within the yellow vests!” This led to a difficult discussion in which few of us criticized this simplistic “apolitical attitude” and argued that it was necessary to take hold of the political class dimension in this struggle as in any struggle…

10 We underestimated the potential of this movement ourselves and dismissed too quickly any possibility of a “gain” for the proletarians in our communiqué of 2 December: “On this terrain, the workers who find themselves isolated and drowned as proletarians in a mass of “people” with heterogeneous and often contradictory interests, will win nothing.” (idem) This clear-cut statement, without doubt because we were trapped in a schema, has been contradicted by reality – at least in part. The fact that we were not the only ones who were wrong on this particular point does not detract from the need to understand the error and its dimension. In particular, we do not think that it calls into question [our] general analysis of this movement and its limits because of its “inter-class” character.