On Saturday 12 January, an estimated 84,000 people joined “Act IX”, the latest round of Gilets Jaunes demonstrations around France. Down from 300,000 back in November, but up from 50,000 on 5 January.
The Gilets Jaunes demonstrators are calling for action against inequality and for renewal of democracy. The demands of the movement are vague but currently centre on restoring the recently¬scrapped “ISF” wealth tax on the richest. Many Gilets Jaunes also demand the introduction of referendums on the Swiss model — a system which socialists have long described as inadequate tinkering, and too easily manipulated by the rich.
French President Emmanuel Macron has tried a combination of concessions – a tricky 100 Euro boost to the minimum wage, funded by taxation to let employers off the hook – with repression. on 12 January, 80,000 police were deployed and tear gas was used in most major French cities; 6,000 have been arrested in all and 14 blinded and one killed by tear gas grenades.
Macron is also offering a “great national debate”, with “registers of grievances” opened in town halls, and an open letter to the nation signalling a consultation project running to 15 March. At the same time, he has been wining and dining global capitalists at Versailles in a drive to boost investment.
The growing strength of the Gilets Jaunes show that the movement is holding firm against the state. More vital is the political battle within the movement. The influence of the far right within the movement is alarming. Calls for the right¬wing general Pierre de Villiers to replace Macron are frequently made on Gilets Jaunes online forums.
In spite of police violence against them, pro¬police sentiment is widespread among the Gilets Jaunes, including the slogan “Police: with us!”. In the Paris demonstrations a “Service d’Ordre” or “security force” was assembled by the demonstrators: this corps of men in white armbands was dominated by a 50¬strong group of fascists led by ex-paratrooper Victor Lente, who fought as a mercenary for the far¬right “government” of the Donbass statelet in Eastern Ukraine and was suspected of involvement in a 2009 mosque¬burning. Lente and his henchmen didn’t protect the demonstrators from the police: they held back the crowd to prevent it from breaking police lines. But the involvement of the labour movement and the left in the movement is making headway.
Local assemblies of Gilets Jaunes in Lille in the north and Martigues in the south have issued declarations calling for unity with the workers’ movement and a general strike (Lille) or joint demands arrived at through discussion with trade unions (Martigues). The Gilets Jaunes movement is an expression of social crisis and the rage of the exploited in France. The labour movement must make up for lost time, and by asserting itself and its politics, seize an opportunity to move French politics far to the left.