The French are sick of austerity prog

Donald Donato

According to the narrative repeated by most news sources, the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) uprising began ‘spontaneously’ on Saturday, November 17, when approximately 300,000 activists, incensed by a heavy regressive tax on fuel, began a series of roadblocks and protests which snowballed across France.
Weekend demonstrations continued Saturday, November 24, and by the following weekend, glass was broken, cars and some buildings were set ablaze. Although the hundreds of thousands of protesters were overwhelmingly peaceful, Molotov cocktails and police brutality have taken the headlines.
As a bold gesture of political punctuation, graffiti calling for French President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation was spray-painted around the enormous base of the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris. But the real story of growing social inequality, government austerity, and lowering taxes on the super-rich, began many years ago—in 1983 to be exact.
After former Socialist President François Mitterrand was elected in 1981, he attempted to jerry-rig a Keynesian economic policy. Facing mounting pressure from international financial institutions and large capital interests, the franc was devalued three times between 1981 and March 1983.
Mitterrand’s introduction of austerity measures, which were then termed “tournant de la rigueur,” catered to these powerful interests and kept the franc in the European Monetary System (EMS). This piece of economic and social history is key to understanding that it was then, in 1983, that wages were no longer indexed to prices, taxes were increased, and subsidies to state-owned companies were slashed. Both directly and indirectly, these policies underpin some of the most important grievances held by the November 17 movement.
Ironically, it was a “Socialist” president who introduced the neoliberal model of state finance and economic policy which has bled French workers and small businesses dry to this day. Mitterrand, for all his dirigiste grandeur, introduced deeper neoliberal “reforms” than even center-right presidents like Giscard d’Estaing had ever dared. It was thus 35 years ago that the seeds of the current Yellow Vest rebellion were sown.
Politically, working-class support also shifted in those years. Through the 1970s, it was the French Communist Party (PCF) which largely represented working-class French. After the Mitterrand presidency, the PCF had been marginalized, leaving workers to their own devices—some gravitating to the far left, others to the right.
This social and political tectonic shift began as a direct result of the Socialist Party’s economic policies of the 1980s, which failed to understand, let alone address, the so-called “new poor,” whose numbers were unmistakably growing. It was then that the infamous banlieues, poor suburban areas of large French cities, began to be neglected and lose touch with the rest of society. Immigrant communities became more and more socially and economically isolated. Workers were left pointing their fingers at one another.
It has been a very long and painful march for French workers, students, and pensioners. Decades of sustained right-wing attacks on everything from social services to dwindling support for students has taken a heavy toll on the average working family.
Within this context, November 17 was anything but spontaneous. It was the logical next scene in the theater of the absurd which has played out in French politics for a generation. Had it not been for the leadership of one of the nation’s largest trade union confederations, the CGT, neoliberal “reforms” would likely have moved quicker than they did. Over the years, large (and very large) walkouts, strikes, and work stoppages have fought the right-wing economic agenda with everything they had. But it took a regressive tax for a large swath of the fabric of French society to put the pieces of the economic conspiracy against them together. The result has been nothing less than explosive.
Beginning last May, with an online petition against the proposed fuel tax, the November 17 movement began to take root in social media, culminating in the planned blockages which set off a rapid and multi-organizational collaboration resulting in the largest public protests in France since 1968.
If the fuel tax protests were the ignition for the Yellow Vests to explode in popularity across the country, low wages, regressive consumer taxes, and President Macron’s devotion to shelving the progressive income tax on the wealthy, all combined to create a mass movement of outrage and outright rebellion against the government’s neoliberal policies—and the capital which stands behind them.
To put on a Yellow Vest today in France is to give a middle finger to the deteriorating social and economic establishment begun in large part by Mitterrand’s Socialist Party and intensified by subsequent right-wing governments.
As Macron, his ministers, and financiers wring their hands in the gilded palaces of the French Republic and squeeze the Yellow Vests ever more violently in the grip of paramilitary police forces, the lines of this decades-long battle harden. When all is said and done, however, Macron is not the enemy or the cause—he is merely the agent of capital whose cost can no longer be borne by French society.
According to a recent CGT communiqué, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe did not want to see or hear warnings issued by the trade union confederations months ago related to injustices the Yellow Vests now seek to be resolved. After the first three weeks of social anger, in a bid to calm what is quickly becoming an all-out rebellion, the government announced measures to get out of the conflict and try to calm the situation.
One measure offered by Macron himself is to suspend the fuel tax altogether. Too little, too late. The mass movement of workers, students, and pensioners realize the government’s proposed measures are not likely to allow a majority of the population to make ends meet, and so the protests have grown.
The future of France will likely be played out in the streets over the coming weeks and months. (IPA)

Thursday, 27 December, 2018