by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
The most important thing to understand about France’s Yellow Vest movement is that the Mainstream Media wants you to view it as an isolated incident which exists in a vacuum, when we are much better served to look at in a continuum.
When the Yellow Vests started I was not foolish to say: “So what?”
After all, the Yellow Vest movement is dwarfed by France’s first major anti-austerity protests in the fall of 2010. When Nicolas Sarkozy backtracked on a promise to raise the retirement age France saw 7 marches in 8 weeks with (conservatively) 1.5 million marchers each time. Over just one week there were three different marches with perhaps 3 million people! The three Yellow Vest marches – and all are on Saturdays, to make it easier for people to attend – only reached 300,000 demonstrators one time. So we’re talking 10 times smaller than in 2010 per protest, and something like 30 times smaller if we compare the two movements overall.
Unsurprisingly, I have yet to read of this “ancient history” in any of the Anglophone Mainstream Media coverage of the Yellow Vests. It’s “vacuum versus continuum” in terms of journalistic approach.
I summarise the “continuum” approach in an original saying about journalism (at least I think it’s original): “A journalist without experience is just somebody with a notepad and a pen.”
Some Mainstream journalist who doesn’t know about 2010 – do they really grasp what the Yellow Vests are about? Because the Yellow Vests were definitely there back in 2010…but they remained in the car (Reflective yellow vests in your car are required by French law: in case you get a flat tire or something, you have the vest to put on for safety from oncoming traffic.).
So, if we believe the living-in-a-vacuum Mainstream Media then the Yellow Vest protests are finished: President Emmanuel Macron just canceled the diesel tax hikes. The protests are no longer necessary, right?
There is no reason why AFP, AP, Reuters and everybody else spent all that time saying “diesel tax, diesel tax, diesel tax” other than: they are either purposely misleading people by viewing the diesel tax in total isolation from previous policies, or they are a bunch of inexperienced newbies, or they just want to be proven right for repeatedly making this absurd diesel tax claim. My point: it’s all bad journalism.
Second-most important thing to realize about austerity: it has accumulated
I hear and read stories about the French in 2018 similar to what I used to read about Greece in 2012 – because austerity is cumulative.
It is not just one tax / measure / policy / reform: it is all of them combined. And we are talking about 8 years’ worth.
“Ramin, you are usually awfully long-winded. Do you get paid by the word? Even in your funny columns, you could use an editor. Just explain what you mean about this in real-world terms!”
Fine – hear ya go:
French inflation, according to my calculations, has increased by 14% since 2008: therefore, people have effectively taken a 14% wage cut in 10 years. This helps explain why “decreased purchasing power” has been the number one concern of the French year after year after year.
Salaries in France are already low to start with:1,700 euros is the median net salary, which is far lower than Anglo-US-Germanic countries.
Ok, so you have a lousy salary to start with, which has lost 14% of its value in the last decade. But inflation is not caused by the policy of neoliberal / trickle-down / austerity economics, of course.
But France does have austerity, so 14% is not the only reduction: we must account for the impact on salaries of 8 years of cuts to social services, because a key plank of austerity is reducing the size of the government. This means YOU foot the bill for many services the government used to totally provide or subsidise.
So let’s say, conservatively, because it really depends on the size of your family and what their needs are, that this has effectively lowered your yearly salary 5% overall during the Age of Austerity. Your salary is now actually worth about 20% less than in 2008.
Now let’s add in the new taxes imposed by austerity, because austerity means that the French state taxes workers and not capital, and more than ever. Did you expect that high finance would pay for their failed bets? Ha ha, you are funny – you probably say things like “France is socialist”, too. For example: two years ago they increased my council tax (the annual tax I pay for renting an apartment, so that I avoid things like getting rained on and assault-while-sleeping) by 60%. I don’t know how that’s legal or morally defensible, and I was enraged, but how could I stop them? It went from to €1,285 in 2016 to €2,134 in 2017.
So let’s say, conservatively, that the increased taxes imposed by austerity have taken just 5% of your salary over the last 10 years: your salary is now down 25% from 2008.
Of course, losing 25% of your wages in 10 years is no problem IF your wages have increased 25%.
In 2008 the government claimed the median salary was €1,580 per month for a full-time worker. In 2015, which is this year’s data from the government (why are they so behind schedule, probably because austerity means firing/not replacing government workers), the median salary was €1,692. This means that the median salary has only increased 7%.
So we can conservatively estimate that the median citizen has lost 18% of their salary in real terms since 2008, all thanks to following austerity economics.
For people making €1,700 per month in 2018…losing €306 per month is a huge, huge problem. For childless, former Rothschild bankers who married elderly chocolate heiresses/statutory rapists…€306 only means skimping on the wine tonight.
But wait, it’s worse!
Not only has austerity taken this huge cut out of your already-meagre salary, they have made it significantly more likely that you will lose your poorly-paying job due to long-standing, near-record unemployment levels in France.
This pressure exists because another plank of austerity is the reduction of and/or the refusal to spend government money on job-creating infrastructure PLUS the insistence on giving tax breaks to corporations and businessmen WITH zero strings attached (such as the promise of jobs).
And, the coup de grace, austerity means reduced safety conditions, making firing easier and loosening oversight rules – as a way to encourage hiring – so your poor-paying job is even more disagreeable.
And who has arrived on the scene immune to these pressures, and thus just oozing life, but “old Mackie” Emmanuel Macron. Well, when the shark bites with his teeth, babe, and the scarlet billows start to spread – Mackie’s got them fancy gloves, so there’s never a trace of red. Never a trace of policy-sweat, either: he controls his brand-new political party, which has an absolute majority in Parliament. France is Macron’s little austerity laboratory, and he doesn’t care about public opinion and nor does he have to.
So the “real-world terms” in France are: major cuts in take home pay, combined with job insecurity, combined with a mad neoliberal scientist who doesn’t believe he was elected to reflect the popular will but to rule as he technocratically thinks best.
Can you hear the Mainstream Media shouting to drown me out: “The problem is just the diesel tax, just the diesel tax I tell ya!”
Let’s be real journalists and do the math, and give the context, and recount the history
Want me to quickly debunk Macron’s rationale for the diesel tax, which is dutifully placed at the top of every Mainstream Media report?
France’s auto industry made a failed bet on diesel in the 1980s. Result: a whopping 80% of French passenger cars now run on diesel. Pretty clear why the diesel tax is so widely unpopular, no?
Diesel is dirtier than regular gas, but has always been cheaper – until old Mackie came along. But Macron’s “this tax is needed to pay for a necessary ecological transition” is pure bull: Instead of taxing stockholders, corporations and car dealership owners for this failed bet (i.e., the ones who profited) Macron is capitalistically taxing labor (workers, households). There are myriad other ways to make the necessary auto-ecological transition than taxing the average person…but not in capitalism.
People think France is “socialist” because they have a great social safety net, but it remains a capitalist country because they tax labor and not the 1% / management to pay for this safety net. That is the reason the median salary is so low compared with other Western nations. The diesel tax is not the only example of this – ALL French taxes are: It’s so bad that in 2018 all the wages of the average French worker from January 1 until July 27 went to the taxman, to give some real-world context. (In Iran, being so heavily socialist-inspired, 50% of the population pays zero taxes, including every farmer – the money comes from oil revenue (socialistically state-owned) and businesses.)
That’s some context for the latest austerity measure – the diesel tax -which is no different from a banker bailout because Macron wanted to capitalistically make the average person pay for the failures of high finance / alleged technocrats / the rich bosses once again.
But what about the many austerity measures which preceded this one? That laundry list is long and stinking, but I’ll make it brief because I think it matters:
The first austerity cuts were rushed through in 2011, with 2012 serving as France’s first official austerity budget. The reason: the “confidence fairy” and France’s AAA bond rating. Did the People want them? Sarkozy became the first French president not to be re-elected in 30 years.
I remember when Francois “The Ultimate Patsy” Hollande came along in 2012. He was a formerly-fat, witty, jovial, (alleged) Everyman from rural France. Surely HE would understand the popular will and do what he promised: break with the Austerity Party line enforced by Brussels, as his campaign was built around a promise to renegotiate the Orwellian-named EU Stability and Growth Pact. I really can’t express how high optimism was in May 2012 – evil Sarkozyites were traitors, and France was truly going to lead a Latin Bloc La Résistance against the arrogant Germans, Dutch and usurious Northern bankers.
Instead, Hollande broke the Socialist Party.
He backtracked on ending austerity on November 6, 2012, by announcing another round of it, and which contained basically all the neoliberal, economically-regressive measures proposed by Sarkozy during the presidential campaign. It was Obama turning into Dubya Bush à la française. The very next day Hollande announced the approval of a draft law to legalise gay marriage and adoption. Funny how I never read about this connection in the Mainstream Media, ever, even though it was a simply atrocious act of societal and political manipulation of the media agenda. That alone was enough to turn many French off of politics for years.
Yellow Vests were thus diverted to enormous anti-gay rights marches, instead of being at anti-austerity marches, but the vests still remained in the car.
How much time do you have to discuss incredibly repressive anti-government protests during the Hollande era? How about after the State of Emergency was imposed? How about the “France has free speech except for pro-Palestinians, whose marches we ban”? What about the 2014 months of protests, led by the rail workers – I dutifully filled up my car with gas (it’s such a fancy car that I was able to buy it entirely with €1 and €2 coins, LOL) in order to help provoke fuel shortages, which have only just barely begun in the current, far-weaker iteration of fuel depot blockades. What about the 2016 Labor Code reforms, when it was all-out war on Hollande?
I never did discover a Western presidential incumbent who was so unpopular that he couldn’t even run for re-election. Feel free to finally provide me with an answer to that trivia question, because for now Hollande is that punchline to that joke.
But Hollande sure did punch – protesters, that is. I don’t know what NGOs are doing but it’s not compiling this data, so off the top of my head – and after asking other journalists – I would estimate that at least 15-20,000 citizens were arrested at anti-government protests during the Hollande era, with 20-30,000 hurt (and truly countless tear-gassed and harassed by cops). Hey, you had 4,000 protesters taken to court by the government during the 2016 protests alone – how many got arrested but were not given court cases? And how many more would have been arrested had not over 600 demonstrations been banned by “liberté-loving” France during the 2-year State of Emergency, with countless others strangled in the cradle? The anal rape of a young Black man by cops with their truncheon in 2017 isn’t necessarily economic austerity-related, but it is evidence of emboldened state repression: my headline sums up the Hollande era when it comes to “Frnce’s love for freedom of assembly”: Cop violence at Paris demo against cop violence.
And how much time do you have to discuss incredibly repressive anti-government protests during 18 months of Macron? The labor code part 2 reform, the rail reform, the education reform, hospital reform, normalization of the state of emergency reform – all have been met with majority-opposition from the People and the same state violence.
So when 400 people got arrested and over 130 anti-government protesters were hurt at the Arc de Triomphe protests last week – this is not seriously different from many other violent protests over the past 8 years!
I admit, I have never seen the Arc de Triomphe tagged with graffiti, but that’s the only real novelty – the violence is totally de rigeur in French political life and anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or a liar.
Or they are hypocrites, because violence against anti-government protesters is apparently ok…in Western countries. Since 2011 I have been saying on PressTV: “If this was Iran, Cuba, China or Venezuela the West would be calling for a humanitarian intervention to save the people from such anti-democratic aggression.”
I eventually stopped saying it – I just got tired of it, ya know? Rather, the West’s hypocrisy just got acceptable. Terrible journalism on my part.
I guess I also stopped being upset over people getting hurt at demonstrations for the same reason – it became mundane, normal. More bad journalism – and bad humanity, and bad citizenship – on my part.
However, I didn’t do what the Anglophone media simply loves to do: I never blamed French protesters for the violence. My God, the Anglophones and their “Keep calm and carry on” worship of law and order at all they costs…what a bunch of sheep, eh? They wouldn’t revolt under any circumstances, I’d say.
Of course, unlike those idiot commentators I have been at innumerable violent protests and choked down litres of tear gas. Fact one: if the cops fail to stop violence it is the fault of the cops, as that is their primary job. Fact two: if the government provokes violent protests, it is the fault of the government, as it is their job to promote policies which do not inspire citizen rebellion. Fact three: France’s armed-to-the-teeth riot police are inherently provoking to the increasingly-poor and increasingly-repressed Frenchmen who come to protest the government and not to get intimidated by it, so their whole plan is designed to fail…and purposely – we talk about the violence and not the reasons nor the past. More “politics in a vacuum and not a continuum”.
Future of Yellow Vests – going on vacation, I’m betting
Of course the Yellow Vesters are going on vacation shortly – it’s December 6. The past 10 years of French history ALWAYS shows that the protesters – no matter how hot, blue and righteous – prefer taking a vacation to sustaining their political momentum. Nothing must stand in the way of several weeks off in December-January and August!
This is, of course, is why they keep losing.
So here’s a real easy test for you to see if the Yellow Vests are different: If the French are seriously protesting on the couple days on either side of Christmas or New Year’s Eve – that would be a revolution in political norms.
But I’ve seen it year after year, so I predict the protests will stop after December 16, and then re-start in January but necessarily weakened. The French sure do make it easy for the politicians they truly despise.
But maybe not so weakened upon restarting….
Beyond the Arc de Triomphe graffiti, I am seeing things I’ve never seen before – like a motorcyclist in rush hour wearing a Yellow Vest with “General Strike – Let’s Stop It All”. Anybody who knows anything knows that a general strike – the only demonstration which actually hurts the pockets of the 1% – is the only way to get any true political change anywhere in the world and at any time (barring outright revolution and rebellion).
Maybe this is the year Santa Claus is not the priority?
People outside of France ask me: will there be a revolution? Here is my stock answer:
No: a huge percentage of French are just as insanely committed and prideful about their outdated, 19th-century based system as the Americans. This is the true legacy of imperialism – unmerited arrogance about your system. Iranians use “arrogance” and “imperialism” interchangeably for very logical and obvious reasons.
But, once again, maybe not so arrogant after 8 years of austerity….
The far-left (true left) and far-right are making unprecedented calls for new elections, for referendums, for things which are rather radical. Let’s not forget that in the 2017 presidential first round vote 19.5% of the electorate voted for Jean-Luc Melenchon (just 2 points less than Marine Le Pen), whose platform included abolishing the 5th Republic. So in France you have an inordinate amount of arrogant jingoists whose parents grew up in French Algeria, but there definitely is a sizeable part of the population which knows things are fundamentally wrong about France’s Liberal-and-not-Socialist Democracy-influenced structure.
And the problem is definitely structural – it is not just the price of diesel.
Any true “Yellow Vest Revolution” would have to include a drastic rewriting of the rules of the European Union and especially the Eurozone, or else a Frexit. Both of those institutions were constructed in the heyday of the fall of the USSR , and thus at a time where socialism was at its absolute nadir. Their birth chart is significant because the two are designed with 1%-safety hatches to escape anything close to true popular democracy. The structure of these two institutions are truly the triumph of “Americanism”, and their neoliberal, self-cannibalizing socio-political thought. Indeed, the US runs on a system inspired by the English, French and Europe, but Continental Europe runs on a system inspired by the US…ironic. And unfortunate.
If the Yellow Vest movement proves to be different it will be largely because of this: they have, and they allow, no leaders or spokespeople. The Prime Minister admitted that he cannot meet with any Yellow Vests, because the ones he arranges to meet with keep getting death threats from fellow Yellow Vesters.
The reason this is so important is: the government cannot co-opt or buy off the movement.
Take French unions for example – there are nine big ones. There was a span lasting from 2010 to 2018 when they didn’t march together once, even though their members all hate austerity. Obviously, they are not united at all. What I have seen year after year in France is: there are anti-austerity strikes and hopes are high…but then the government buys off one or two of the unions with targeted concessions. Those unions say, “We’ve satisfied our members, as is our duty,” and they pull out. Thus, the strikes are now less impactful on the pockets of the 1%, and they are emboldened. Those still striking feel betrayed and see the lack of solidarity, and the strike soon collapses because too many people went back to work. It’s all as easy as pie for the ruling technocrats and 1%, whereas all an increasingly-poor average worker can say each year is: “This time it will be different.” It likely won’t be – French unions have signed off on every major austerity measure, after all.
All of that should go a long way in explaining why socialist countries like Iran, Cuba and China ban independent trade unions – for them the state IS the union.
You can be sure the Yellow Vests are certainly aware of the failure of the philosophy underpinning Western unionism, and thus they are trying to prevent being similarly co-opted or sold out. The death threats and opposition to any leadership are now given context: radicalization and the demand for new methods has accumulated, due to the accumulation of austerity; it is not merely the presence of (politically over-idealistic and step-skipping) French anarchism.
The Yellow Vest Movement also doesn’t even have a program or a list of clear demands which could be satisfied…and I say “right on”.
Their list of demands should be SO long and SO varied that it would take months just to compile it…because their demands are the combined demands of 8 years of anti-austerity protests.
Who are the Yellow Vests, after all? They are all those workers, students, pensioners, teachers, hospital staff, etc. who have been protesting and gotten only tear gas and failure for their efforts. They all have ignored demands which must be addressed, no?
So they don’t need a short & clear program which creates a quite fix because France’s problem is – just like the EU and the Eurozone – structural, cultural and endemic.
Is this a Yellow Vest Cultural Revolution, or just another failed anti-austerity protest?
People will mock me, but something like a Chinese or Iranian Cultural Revolution is clearly needed: several years of shutting down institutions and having major public political discussions in order to have both a huge rethink on societal structures and to get “Rebel Red Guards/Yellow Vests” into local positions of power.
Disagree? Ok, then answer this: How long can this go on?
I don’t mean the Yellow Vest protests – I mean citizen acceptance of anti-democratic austerity. Anything is possible, after all – give me a real figure, please: The Eurozone has had a Lost Decade (which the Mainstream Media never openly admits): will Eurozone citizens tolerate a Lost Score, like the Japanese did?
I say no: Japan is an island, ethnically and culturally homogenous, and they own their debt and cannot be foreclosed on. The Eurozone has none of these advantages.
Here’s another issue I’d like an actual answer on: How long can France have a president and a government which believes public opinion only matters once every five years? One more presidential election? Maybe you believe three more? I admit, anything is possible.
Again, I say no. The Socialist Party is smashed, the mainstream conservative party was routed almost as badly, and Macron’s party – at this rate – will be just a blip in France’s political history books, because they are even less popular than Hollande was at the same point in his term. So who is the party which will be running in 2027? We have no idea in France, much less in 2022.
So when I say that new people in local positions in power are not just needed, that is an understatement: they appear absolutely inevitable.
Another question requiring an actual answer: Where is the political party or grassroots movement which can tangibly implement the Yellow Vests’ will, once that will is known? I am not being obtuse – what is the political pathway for them?
The only alternatives which are not smashed (or soon to be discredited) and still within the realm of possibility are Le Pen and the far-left (real left).
But I don’t think such a Red-Brown alliance can happen in France, however: hatred for the National Front cannot be overestimated, and Le Pen permanently lost many by clowning against Macron in their 2017 debate instead of realising she had a chance to win. Uber-intense anti-Le Pen / Rassemblement National sentiment is the only explanation that France chose a 40-year old Rothschild banker 6 years into austerity. And we can’t overestimate the anti-leftist feeling in France: France neo-imperialist, France capitalist, France Islamophobic, etc. Melenchon came so very close in 2017, but he has the entire media landscape against him, and for many his past as a Socialist Party member until as late as 2008.
Therefore, a real political option – but only by default – is that the Yellow Vests turn into Italy’s Five-Star movement, because they lack any other route to translating their political will, when declared (or if declared, given French anarchism).
But Five-Star took 8 years to coalesce and win power – the Yellow Vests are still in month #1.
However, as my headline notes, this has essentially been the same protest for 8 years, going on 9, so maybe France as a whole is “there”? Maybe the timeline is speeded up in the digital age, too? That’s a significant psychological consideration, but Italy does not give us much hope for 4G political speed in France.
Given the 90,000 cops to be deployed on December 8, it appears that the Yellow Vests are still in “smash” mode, as they should be. Austerity has accumulated after the Great Recession, so there is much to demolish: namely, received wisdoms such as France is democratic, functioning well, rather-socialist, sovereign, etc; there’s also the pan-European ideas (beloved by the French elite) that these new institutions have been beneficial, successful, are the only thing preventing European War III, etc. Lotta nonsense to bring down to earth.
They say we can never predict a revolution, but we do know what precedes successful revolutions: years (if not decades) of nationwide, constant, family-splitting political discussion and involvement combined with drastic measures of self-sacrifice. That was the case in Russia in 1917 and in Iran in 1979 – thus their Revolutions were more aptly-termed bloodless “Celebrations”.
France is a long way from celebrating anything but Christmas, but I can report that all anybody is talking about is the Gilet Jaunes. However, we are truly only on the 6th day of this nationwide ferment, though, so…some perspective.
But, as far as my 2 centimes, I predict they will take Christmas and New Year’s off. And when they come back the same problems will be there. This is a very cynical and depressing point of view – maybe after 10 years here I have become French? – but those are the facts and the historical pattern.
What is also a fact is that the Yellow Vests may or may not change things, but that things in France and the Eurozone simply must change. And they will – someday. See, I’m not that French – I’m optimistic!
And for damn sure I am a Yellow Vest. So is everyone else I’ve talked to, and that means something big…at least for now.
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.