Five days ago, the 2nd of January, French strikers set a new record for consecutive days on strike: 29. This beats the 28 days registered in 1968.
No one is calling this a revolution, but it is.
Since November the revolt against Macron and the French state has entered a higher, more intense phase. Along with the vast union strikes go freeway and rail closure, petrol shortages, the selected allocation of electricity supplies to poor areas; the denial of power to Amazon, the marches of the Gilet Jaune, the intensifying battles with the police, the involvement of more and more of the French citizenry and institutions, including, last week, the National Ballet; all of it is evidence of how the struggle to remove Macron is intensifying.
After a year of weekend battles in every major French city and the official entry of the trade unions into the fight, big changes are in the wind and the yearlong power struggle in France is moving inexorably towards a climax.
This poster is a good place to start if we want to understand these developments.
It recalls the popular history of France. It does so to indict the usurper Macron. It is a calling out of Macron for not understanding, for not belonging and ultimately for being a traitor to the common history.
The woman in this poster is clearly a WW2 resistance fighter. The photo was taken during the liberation; a period in which the resistance dispensed popular justice to collaborators and Vichy officials. It’s all there in the big print: ‘Macron betrays the heritage of the resistance’.
This history held in common is the glue that binds France together as a people and a nation. This is the real France Profonde: more than simply a geographical location; it is a subjectivity, an almost unspoken sense of what it means to live in France and to be French.
Perhaps the most crucial heritage of the resistance is the constitution of the 1947 French Fourth Republic. It is the Fourth Republic, a republic grounded in the popular action of resistance, which inaugurates state social security as a constitutional right. The social security safety net is a prize won by the French through their own actions of resistance.
It is a product of their common history, of the entire notion of what being French means.
This is the system Macron is attacking; one long targeted by neo-liberals. This much is well known. What is less understood is the role social security plays in the reality of French lives.
The tax burden which funds the overall social net is heavy. As a result, even in the best of times French middle and working classes have little free cash This is tolerated precisely because each generation pays with their own taxes for previous generations and in turn receive their allocation when they retire, paid for by the following generation.
This cycle of common social responsibility is the living social compact Macron seeks to destroy. In doing so he continues his recent policy of uniting all France against him. And it’s all there in the poster – French history condemns Macron.
But something else has changed as well over the last two months, something just as ominous for the president.
The End Of The Fifth Republic?
For the last twelve months all over France, the Gilets have been discussing a new constitution to replace the existing Fifth Republic model.
In marches, in conventions, in the watch parties endemic on Facebook, on little stickers pasted on bins and walls and in doorways, they have raised this issue constantly till it fills bars and squares all over France.
For today the French people are not just tired of rising diesel prices, or changes to the Notre Dame design or even, pension attacks. Most of all, they are tired of powerful presidents ordering and destroying their lives apparently at whim. Presidents who have overwhelming power, who don’t listen, who undermine their own sense of France and of themselves.
The Fifth Republic was inaugurated in a military coup by De Gaulle in 1958. The constitution he wrote sought to bypass the Left’s domination of the previous parliamentary assembly, the described ‘instability’, through the granting of enormous and unprecedented power to the president.
When the president was De Gaulle or Mitterrand, both of whom extended the social security framework, this situation was tolerated.
However the last three presidents, Sarkozy, Hollande and particularly Macron, have proudly used presidential powers to favour the rich and advance their Neoliberal agenda. Macron has done so without even the rhetoric of compromise; uttering constant televised declarations asserting that he’d never give in to street protest.
All this has starkly exposed the democratic deficiencies in the entire constitutional structure. The French have seen the dictator inside the constitutional robe.
The exclusive and vast power vested by the Fifth Republic in the president, also means that any struggle against him and his policies automatically becomes a struggle concerning democracy. By constitutionally rendering parliamentary opposition ineffective, the Fifth republic forces serious opposition onto the street.
And it is there that this intensifying battle is increasingly being joined. The extremely limited roles played all year by Le Pen and Melenchon point to the same conclusion.
It is the Gilet who have led the way and they have done so in the street. Not by being a twentieth century political ‘party’, but by being a self-announced movement, one open to all people and all strands of thought.
From the first the Gilet have been an inclusive movement of action, toleration, invention, local control, energy and consistency. They have invited all sides and all opinions. Through endless debating and sheer persistence they have prodded the population into a unity around the common goal of overturning Macron.
They have propelled the people of France into a more active role, a more critical perspective and ultimately, into the creation of a new French political world.
As for Macron, his current situation is best summed up in a Gala magazine headline: ‘Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron worried about their safety: how they will change their habits?’
Macron has been largely absent from Paris for the past year. While he still struts the world stage, a recent headline in the Atlantic “Macron speaks but is anyone listening?’ puts this into context.
He’s unable to travel at home without an enormous police presence and he ceased any sort of meet-the-people event months ago. When he is seen, it’s on television, at formal conferences, meeting other heads of state, EU events and so on.
Whatever image the media presents of him, in truth, events are currently bypassing Macron. Increasingly he appears like a man on a grand castle of sand, watching it shrink as the tide flaps his feet.
Moreover, his staggering political ineptitude remains the best recruiting tool the Gilet Jaune have. Great times can also breed great idiots.
The raising of pension reform, an issue impacting everyone, including the police and the military, is a political master stroke. More so if you can do it at a time when your only firm defenders, the police, are demoralised by the weekly pitched battles they’ve fought all year, in every major French city and particularly over the summer in Toulouse. Why at this point, raise the question of pensions?
Why render problematic the personal pension of everyone in France including the police? When you depend upon them so heavily? When people are already outside calling for your head!
Such is the man’s political savvy.
What will happen next?
The extreme possibility that Macron, his despised wife and his hated police minister will end up hanging from a lamp-post, cannot be discounted. The violence and brutality administered by the police and their para-militaries over the last 14 months has cut deep and left wounds, physical and mental. The cops are hated.
What seems less likely is an immediate civil war. Macron is utterly beholden to the police and military. He has barely any popular support. Polls show him at twenty to thirty percent, a figure which is almost certainly soft and conditional. Open support for Macron outside the media, is almost impossible to find.
On the other hand given the struggle is still personified in Macron himself, his removal in some form, remains the most likely outcome. Certainly Macron will at some stage be thrown to the wolves. Probably, in the immediate term to be replaced by someone equally as banal.
From the perspective of the Gilet they remain currently the most radical, most long-standing and most advanced of all the current anti-neoliberal, anti-state struggles worldwide.
In Chile, Ecuador, Spain, Greece, Iraq, Hong Kong, rioters know who they are against – the government and neo-liberal state.
The Gilet have the same enemy, but only they exhibit a unique sense of their own identity, one currently only rivalled by the Catalans. They also possess wide popular support and a developed understanding of what they want.
These traits have been present since their inception; in everything they’ve done. Exemplified in the defining symbol of the physical yellow vest itself; a symbol of unity and inclusion. Everyone can be a Gilet, everyone who owns a compulsory yellow vest already is; everyone is included and debate local action and invention have raged.
What the Gilets have done is create an arena for the creation of new political meanings and ultimately outcomes.
They have defined the struggle. And they have done so from their very first march.
Their notions of diversity and tolerance has allowed all France to participate in the thinking and political action. It has unleashed grumbles and melancholy and returned politics to the street. And it has galvanised solid majority sympathy and prolonged support. All of which is an act of liberation.
This struggle now is for the meaning of the state, the meaning of France itself.
The Gilet movement has the moral authority; it has the people’s support. It has a proposed constitution endorsed by a majority of the population, certainly more than voted for Macron.
Currently all French dissent flows into the France of the Gilet. What they will do with it once Macron is gone, well… your guess is as good as mine.
Whatever they do is up to them, all the same one thing is now clear, where they go, France will follow.
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