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December 7, 2018

Power of protest

Opinion

December 7, 2018

The power of the people of France has forced the French government to retreat on fuel tax, and suspend planned increases in fuel taxes for six months in a bid to calm fierce protests that have ballooned into the deepest crisis of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

This retreat came after street battles took place over the weekend between thousands of protesters and the police, leaving over 200 injured in Paris alone and resulting in at least one fatality.

The French prime minister made a televised address to nation and announced the decision to withdraw the tax. “This anger; you would have to be deaf and blind not to see it or hear it....no tax merits putting the unity of the nation in danger.” This sums up the mood among the French capitalist class and the government after more than two weeks of protests across France.

The spread of the protest movement to students and wider layers of workers terrified the ruling class. The movement had started with the demand of withdrawal of fuel tax but it soon became radicalised and other demands like the resignation of French President Macron started to become popular.

The French government tried everything to stop the protests, but failed. Paris saw tens of thousands of protesters face water cannons, police batons and tear gas. Barricades were built, stones were thrown at riot police, and rich shops were attacked. The protests spread like a wild fire in a forest.

Pressure started mounting after the protests turned into the worst street clashes in central Paris in decades, leading to scores of injuries and arrests. This eruption of anger was described by Sky News as the worst rioting in France in five decades.

The government was hoping that the protest movement would fizzle out after a couple of weeks but it instead started to grow and spread. The French government finally realised the gravity of the situation and decided to concede to public demands.

The years of austerity and neoliberal onslaught inflicted terrible sufferings on the French people. The yellow vests are the inevitable manifestation of all of the frustration and pain that the French masses have been storing up. They have finally reached breaking point.

French President Macron won the presidential elections in 2017 on the promises of fixing the economy and cleaning up politics. He also promised to reform labour laws and reduce unemployment. He was widely popular among the urban middle class and especially young layers of the middle class. Sections of the capitalist class also supported him regarding reforms in labour laws and the economy.

Macron started successfully and reformed the labour laws to make it easier for companies and businesses to hire and fire workers. The new laws hand companies more flexibility in negotiating wages and conditions directly with employees, rather than being bound by industry-wide collective deals negotiated by trade unions. The unions termed the new laws anti-workers that gave “full powers to employers”.

French trade unions opposed the amendments in the labour laws and organised big protests. But these protests and opposition failed to stop the government from implementing the new laws. This was a victory for French capitalist class and businesses. Macron did something that Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande had failed to achieve as presidents.

However, he never thought that his policies would make him so unpopular within 17 months in the government. He had continued with rightwing neoliberal policies of austerity, cuts and attacks on rights without realising that people were tired of austerity and neo-liberal economic policies. He now faces a serious political crisis.

Eight out of ten French people have said they support the present protests, in which the slogan ‘Macron resign!’ has come to dominate. In the last month, the president’s ratings have dropped three points and are at an all-time low, worse than former president Francois Hollande at a similar stage of his presidency.

Macron has already ‘lost’ seven ministers since coming to power in 2017; these ministers were either embroiled in some form of corruption, violence, or were, at best, disillusioned. At least half the members of his party – the LREM – have stopped going to meetings and the party itself is said to be splintering.

It was a big blow for former investment banker and now President Macron who has styled himself as a determined economic reformer. Mass street protests have repeatedly forced previous French presidents into U-turns, something that Macron had vowed to avoid in his quest to “transform” the French economy and state. But Macron faced the same fate.

The yellow vest movement initially started in peripheral towns, cities and rural areas across France (residents of which rely on personal vehicles to get to work, and thus will be hit severely by a higher fuel tax) and included many women. The people who are most affected by rising costs and wage stagnation – including workers, small businessmen and shopkeepers – started the movement. But the movement later spread to cities across France.

These working class and poor middle-class layers are resentful of years of being squeezed through austerity and increasing living costs, and are now expressing a deep anger against these policies, the super rich ruling elite and the Macron government that represents them.

Even school and university students joined the protests to show their anger and discontent. The entry of students in the protests changed the situation and pressure increased on the government. Finally, the streets and the people won.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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