France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ Movement Rolls On

On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron was forced to make an awkward acknowledgement: France’s “yellow vest” movement—diffuse protests that began two weeks ago over fuel taxes and have come to encompass a much deeper discontent with the cost of living—had a point.

“We must listen to these protests of social alarm,” the president said in a speech in Paris, billed as an update to the government’s environmental agenda but also as a response to the nationwide demonstrations. “I have seen, like many French people, the difficulties for people who drive a lot and have problems making ends meet at the end of the month.”

It was a rare expression of humility for a president who prides himself on staying above the fray—on not letting the noisy French street influence his policies. The speech also showed far more compassion than the president has granted to previous protest movements. Trade unionists critical of business-friendly labor law reforms and rail workers opposed to a law they viewed as the first step toward a full-scale privatization of the public rail system must be shaking their heads in frustration. If anything, the change in tone reveals just how afraid the government is…

In any case, Macron did roll out some key environmental measures: the shuttering of four to six nuclear reactors by 2028, the closure of France’s remaining coal-fired power plants by 2022 and a €2 to €3 billion boost in wind energy subsidies per year. But he also made some direct concessions to protesters: a nationwide “consultation on the environmental and social transition” over the next three months, an invitation for a delegation of gilets jaunes to meet with environmental minister François de Rugy and finally, a highly technical measure designed to keep gas prices in check: a new “floating” tax system that the government can decide to kick into effect in the event of rapid fuel price increases. As it stands, fuel taxes automatically track the price of gasoline.

This doesn’t look to be enough to dissuade the decentralized protest movement, though. Organizers have maintained calls for an “Act 3” this Saturday. They’re hoping to avoid a repeat of last weekend’s violent clashes with riot police on the Champs Elysées in Paris.

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The movement has also taken modest steps to introduce some structure. On Monday, yellow vesters sent out a press release naming eight official spokespeople, ostensibly chosen through Facebook. The group includes the respective creators of the now infamous Change.org petition against tax hikes and a Facebook event calling for the original protest: freelance cosmetician Priscilla Ludosky and truck driver Eric Drouet. Ranging in age from 22 to 33, the others include a small-business owner, a communications specialist, a student, a bartender and a part-time worker in the transport sector. In the same press release, the group announced two central demands: “a decrease in all taxes” and the creation of a “citizens’ assembly” to discuss the transition away from fossil fuels, focusing on subjects like purchasing power and employment precarity.

The group’s desire to meet with the government was quickly realized. On Tuesday—shortly after Macron’s speech—Drouet and Ludosky sat down with environmental minister François de Rugy. While focusing on taxes and a citizens’ assembly, the two protesters passed along a broader list of demands, according to French TV outlet BFM, which was based on a poll circulated on Facebook. Part of the platform reads like a business lobby wish-list: a reduction in the carbon tax, a decrease in employer payroll taxes and more state aid for bosses to hire workers. Other demands are more befitting of a union pamphlet: an increase in the minimum wage, equal pay for women, a hike in retirement benefits. Other points of the platform seek to remake France’s political institutions: an end to the Senate, more frequent use of referenda and the ability of citizens to “pass laws themselves.”

Apparently, the two spokespeople were left unsatisfied by their meeting with de Rugy and calledfor another meeting with a representative of the government—singling out either the chief spokesperson or the prime minister himself. In a radio interview on Wednesday, the latter said he’d be open to such a meeting. In the meantime, the gilets jaunes are still gearing up for Saturday.

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The movement remains as messy as ever. Last weekend’s protests coincided with another set of nationwide marches and rallies against sexual violence. It was a clear opportunity for solidarity, but one that went largely missed. In the southern city of Montpellier, a group of gilets jaunes cleared off the street and cheered on feminist demonstrators passing by. And yet, in Paris, the two marches went on separately—with more people actually attending the anti-violence one, 12,000 compared to 8,000, according to police. Meanwhile, other gilets jaunes, in Toulouse and in Béziers, took to physically attacking the press, raising the ire of one of the country’s top journalist unions. The movement’s messaging, too, remains regrettably wedded to the question of tax relief—even if clearly extends beyond that. Still, despite many calls from supporters and sympathizers, the movement’s spokespeople have not prioritized the demand that Macron’s parliamentary majority reinstitute the wealth tax that it repealed last fall.

At the same time, progressive forces are trying to make inroads. Despite reluctance from the leadership of their respective confederations, local unions have supported the movement across the country. Dozens of trade unionists have also signed a letter backing the yellow vests, calling on the labor movement to focus on fighting the rising cost of living as well as support tax justice and public services. The gilets jaunes have also won the support from the Adama Committee, an anti-racist organization formed after 24-year-old Adama Traoré died in police custody in the suburbs of Paris. In addition to seeking “justice for Adama” in the courts, the group has backed protests against police violence. They’ve called to demonstrate alongside the yellow vests Saturday.

As one of the group’s spokespeople Youcef Brakni put it, “The gilets jaunes and those living in low-income neighborhoods share problems. The neighborhoods are closed off enclaves, even if they’re right next to big urban areas—like the northern parts of Marseille—and they also have transport problems. We also understand the significant amount of time it takes to get to work, to fulfill the most thankless tasks of capitalism, earning miserable pay that gets spent mostly on gas.”

U.S. Youth & Working Class Prefer Unions to Corporations

Pew Research Center has just released its annual survey on public opinion and unions in the United States. As in the last few years, the general public views the decline of organized labor negatively. 51 percent of respondents agreed the “reduction in union representation over the past 20 years has been mostly bad for working people” while just 35 percent said it was “mostly good.” As one might expect, the poll found African-Americans and low-income people are more likely to sympathize with the plight of organized labor.

But a couple things stuck out to me, in particular.

Pew also asks respondents to share their views of unions and of “business corporations.” Opinions are just about even. Fifty-five percent said they have favorable opinions of the former; 53 percent said they do of the latter. On the other hand, the union favorability margin increases among both young people and low-income people: Sixty-eight percent of people aged 18-29 said they have positive views of unions, while just 46 percent of young people said the same of corporations. By the same token, 59 percent of those earning less than $30,000 in family income have positive views of unions, while just 47 percent of that same category feels similarly about business corporations.

For the burgeoning American Left, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, these data points can only be heartwarming. Especially since class conflit—not to mention, class itself—is discouraged by the nation’s intellectual and media establishment as a worthwhile means of analyzing politics. The poll is a reminder these forces exist in spite of the way most Americans talk about political life. At the same time, though, it’s important to note the figures don’t dramatically differ from last year’s Pew study. In fact, union favorability actually declined by a few percentage points, across the board. So too, though, did positive views of corporations, dropping below 50 percent for both young people and low-income people.

I can’t resist the urge to compare with France. Unions here have also lost a huge chunk of membership over the last few decades—density has declined from about a quarter of the workforce in 1976 to less than 10 percent today—but unlike in the U.S., they retain substantial institutional power. French unions negotiate industry-wide employment agreements, benefit from mandatory representation, and sit on critical government commissions. Their image is also much more negative than in the United States. In a May 2016 BVA poll, just 35 percent of respondents said they had a “good opinion” of labor unions. That was four percentage points higher than the main employers’ association, France’s rough equivalent to the Chamber of Commerce.

For what it’s worth, in the U.K., where labor unions have also suffered from full frontal American-style attacks on their rights, favorability tends to be higher. In a 2017 IPSOS poll, 77 percent of respondents said unions are “essential to protecting workers’ interests”. Meanwhile, just 36 percent said unions had “too much power.”