Unions, Yellow Vests Join Feb. 5 General Strike in France

Photo by Pascal Maga, Published on Flikr, taken January 12, 2019

By Rémy Herrera posted on Workers World, March 2, 2019

Feb. 21 — In France, Feb. 5 was a day of general strike and demonstrations. The call was launched nationally by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and many other labor unions, such as Solidaires and Force Ouvrière, unions of high school students, as well as by Yellow Vest leaders.

Maxime Nicolle of the Yellow Vests said: “All those who support the Yellow Vest movement must go on strike because the only thing that will make the government give anything up without violence is to disrupt the economy.” Several leaders of political parties, from the New Anti-Capitalist Party, France Unbowed (France insoumise) and the French Communist Party also joined.

Workers in the private and public sectors carried out the strike. They demanded an increase in wages and social benefits, significant tax reform in the face of the “social emergency” and defense of civil liberties. This joint strike of unions and professional organizations was a success.

According to CGT estimates, nearly 300,000 demonstrators marched in 200 cities across the country. At last, for the first time, the unions and the Yellow Vests were “officially” united. But the dominant media did whatever they could to make this success go almost unnoticed by the general public.

The following Saturday, Feb. 9, “Act 13” of the Yellow Vests took place: 51,400 people participated, said police. Organizers said there were more than twice that number marching throughout France. While the vast majority of the participants in this new mobilization demonstrated peacefully — calling for the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron — some rallies fell apart, particularly at several points in Paris, the capital. There were clashes with police. Windows were broken at shops and banks, and street furniture and cars were burned.

Once again, governmental authorities did not give a political or social response to this crisis that evening. What was their “strategy” in dealing with it? It was the same one they had used since the Yellow Vests’ mobilization began in mid-November, the same rotten one: Brutally repress the Yellow Vests; let them wear themselves out; divide them as much as possible; discredit them; accuse them of all evils; insult them; and stir fear and hatred. Then wait for a turnaround in public opinion.

French society is untenable

But above all, government leaders have given nothing to the protesters and pretend not to understand that the established order of this society with its inequalities and injustices makes people sick. It is untenable.

The corporate media disseminate the message that the Yellow Vest mobilization is rotting from within. For the past three months, some 60 parliamentarians from the presidential majority have reported receiving anonymous threats of various kinds through different channels. They report there have been over 80 attacks on political offices or homes of elected government officials. For example, the entrances or garage doors of elected representatives’ houses were hastily walled up at night; insults were painted on the facades, etc.

In recent years, there have been many such acts targeting politicians from previous majority parties. Five years ago, during a farmers’ demonstration in Champagne, a farm machine spewed manure against the front of — and even inside — a government office building. This evoked a lot of laughs from outside. Rats were dropped in official buildings in Haute-Garonne. In the Loire region, tractors poured generous quantities of manure into the gardens around the residence of a (Socialist Party) minister of agriculture, among other acts of protest.

Now tensions seem to be ratcheting up. A few days ago, individuals tried to burn down a home belonging to Richard Ferrand, president of the National Assembly. He was in the Socialist Party’s left wing, before becoming secretary general of Macron’s party, La République en marche.

New repressive law targets protesters

Into this very tense situation, on the same day as the Feb. 5 general strike, the National Assembly adopted an “anti-breaker law.” [“Breakers” refers to people who have trashed stores and property during demonstrations.] For the first time during Macron’s 21-month government, 50 members of his party refused to vote for a bill that the government wanted. While this was not enough opposition to defeat the bill, it reveals unease among the presidential majority. This was all the more so because the Council of State had opposed the law because it infringed on public freedoms.

This new law — which will be discussed by the Senate on March 12 — is clearly one more step in the repressive spiral. From now on, in the “happy kingdom” of France, a person may be banned from demonstrating, not because of a conviction by the courts after committing a criminal offense, but in advance via an administrative ban decided by a prefect [a local representative of the political power]. This is based on simple suspicion, documented by the political police. As a result, “individual targeting” of supposedly dangerous demonstrators has been established!

Macron is crudely appealing to the most right-wing and reactionary fringes of his electorate, who seek the restoration of public order as soon as possible. As a result, France is going back to a time prior to 1968, when General Charles de Gaulle’s regime suspended the right to demonstrate during the Algerian war in 1958; the ban continued until May 1, 1968.

The anti-breakers law is not yet in force; it must await the Senate’s decision. But, for now, this bill, an extremely serious attack on civil liberties, has not generated a general outcry in Parliament, apart from a few criticisms from the left.

At the same time, increasingly loud voices express surprise on social media networks that individuals engaged in property destruction who were identified and monitored by the police throughout the day — including the person who set fire to several cars and a Vigipirate plan vehicle on Feb. 9 — were not immediately arrested. Observers point out something everyone has known for decades: Police officers occasionally infiltrate marches to “help” breakers do their job — in order to discredit social movements.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the massive student protests in France in 1968, knows about the damage done then. Given that and his collaboration with government authorities since that time, he has acknowledged police infiltration at protests.

TV shows state’s brutality

Police repression is increasing full speed ahead, as has been evident every Saturday for the last 14 weeks. An incident in which a police sting-ball grenade ripped up someone’s hand was broadcast live on continuous TV news channels on Feb. 9. While a group of Yellow Vests were visibly trying to break into gates in front of the National Assembly, a photographer was maimed by police in front of millions of stunned television viewers.

In a successful media scoop, television news showed a demonstrator climbing on the building’s gates and kick a senior officer on duty outside the Chamber of Deputies in the face. This shocked both advocates of change and advocates of order.

A few days later, the verdict fell for Christophe Dettinger, the boxer who had taken on the special security police, CRS. He was sentenced to a year in prison. [He can go to his job during the day.] On Feb. 15, Eric Drouet, a popular figure among the Yellow Vests, also went to court to answer the accusation of “organizing undeclared demonstrations.”

The problem is that most Yellow Vest leaders no longer want to hold these demonstrations in the prefecture of Paris because of the disturbances, either spontaneous or more often caused or provoked by police, that put them individually at legal risk. Jérôme Rodriguez, a Yellow Vest leader, announced that he lost an eye after police lobbed a flash-ball at his head. Meanwhile, leaders of France Unbowed (France insoumise), among others, were searched at their homes.

Violence in the streets is increasingly being shown on television news and discussed and denounced by security experts. In this, they are supported by a few bearded academics, who resemble protesters from the 1968 struggles. The media call on them to “enlighten” viewers, and they also bring on members of the state’s intelligence services to engage them in live denunciations of demonstrators. Their hostile remarks include: “Look, there is a flag with the hammer and sickle!” or “That’s the CGT. I saw their insignia earlier!’ or “They are Maoists, by their banners!”

‘Morality in Macronland’

It is starting to smell bad in the land of Macron. There is violence in the hate-filled words of Luc Ferry, philosophy professor and former minister of national education under Jacques Chirac. He ranted in a radio show on Radio Classique on Jan. 7 that police should be allowed to use lethal weapons against rebel protesters.

Ferry repeated this a few days later, without fear of rebuke, and on a program on LCI television on Feb. 3. Then, he also complained that in Paris’ fancy neighborhoods, including his own, “[I]t is appalling what is happening!” He also said, “To attack Macron is to attack France!” Journalists said nothing.

Violence is lurking in President Macron’s behavior. He repeatedly affirms that he will not back down, that he will “not move” and that he will “not change course” at the very moment when he launches his “Great Debate.” This is media overexposure of his “divine person” in order to engage — in a roundabout way and at taxpayers’ expense — in the campaign for the European elections next May. Violence is also evident among Macron’s encouraging supporters, who proclaim that “the president has not yet done anything” and that “the big reforms of his five-year term are still to come.

Violence also exists in the lawlessness at the state’s highest levels, as  revealed by the handling of the Alexandre Benalla affair. It is so named after Macron’s former bodyguard, who believed he was above the law because he was shielded by his powerful protector. He beat up two protesters on May Day, 2018.

The justice system took nearly 10 months to detain Benalla. The case has had multiple consequences: the resignation of Macron’s closest special adviser, Ismaël Emelien, subpoenaed in the same case for having possibly received illegal documents.

The head of the prime minister’s security group was transferred to protect his spouse, who was possibly involved in a contract between Benalla’s business relations and a Russian oligarch. A recent Senate report damned the dysfunctions of the president’s services. Other strange things happened: a safe mysteriously disappeared at Benalla’s home; diplomatic passports were not returned by Alexandre Benalla; and lucrative commissions were received for private protection contracts.

The two poor souls Benella beat up last May at the Place de la Contrescarpe in Paris were tried, sentenced and fined 500 euros for having thrown an ashtray and a jug at police officers. Violence is evident in this spectacle of two-speed justice, imposed by a power at bay and a regime in decline. When will there be true democracy in France?

Violence continues in the slow destruction of France: Parliament allows the acceleration of the privatization of the energy sectors. But protesters occupy power plants or re-open host agencies closed to the public. A minister of education, implementing a law, requires municipalities to finance more private education from nursery school onward. A bill increases university tuition fees for foreign students, while professors strike in response.

France’s arms sales remain. Unfortunately for French workers, the submarines that Australia has just bought from France will not be manufactured in France, but nearly 10,000 miles away in Adelaide, South Australia!

Australia’s military budget is integrated into the U.S.’s overall defense system. What is the use of French military equipment acquired by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates if not to crush Yemen’s populations? But of course they do this while “respecting human rights.” That’s called morality in ”Macronland!

Labor unionists join Yellow Vests

The Great Debate is in the street,” said a poster at the Feb. 16 demonstration. The convergence of labor union and Yellow Vest struggles is more necessary than ever. Since November, large sections of labor union members have been demonstrating alongside the Yellow Vests in their Saturday mobilizations, at weekday traffic circles or at companies.

Union leaders, who had waited a long time, finally joined in. They had to do so on Feb. 5 because of pressure from their militant rank and file.

This convergence effort is eminently commendable, but still insufficient. The CGT announced the next general, national strike would take place on March 19. It is an opportunity for a new joint union/Yellow Vest mobilization. It is far off at a time when so many comrades are fighting daily everywhere in France.

This must be said now — especially since purges are accelerating in the labor unions’ pyramids of power to drive out the most anti-establishment, rebellious elements who are motivated to broaden and deepen the struggles.

It will therefore be necessary to hasten the pace, to redouble our energy and to convince more and more comrades to join the battle. The logic of the need for the national general strike will have to be pushed to its conclusion. The arrogant right wing — which amuses itself by saying, “In France, the revolution is on Saturday, and it stops on Sunday morning” — must be pushed back. The Yellow Vests show the way. They are now also calling for demonstrations on Sundays!

At this singular historical moment, we must appreciate the importance of what is happening in France. An unprecedented, repressive arsenal is being deployed in an attempt to stop the rising popular revolt. The brutal repression is indeed the reflection — and less of a counteroffensive by the bourgeoisie — of the fear that seizes it and threatens to halt its destructive project under pressure by a people in struggle.


Herrera is a Marxist economist, a researcher at the Centre national de la Recherche scientifique (CNRS), who works at the Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris. Translated by Workers World staff.

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