The Yellow Vests’ movement in France

50 years after the May 1968 events, “It is hot in France”
The ‘Yellow Vests’ movement and the popular revolt against the rising cost of living

By Marcio Torres, December 2018-January 2019

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By late November and early December 2018, the “Yellow Vests” (Les Gilets Jaunes) in France took the headlines of most international media outlets. Protests have happened all Saturdays since November 17, along with smaller protests in some towns in week days. It was initiated by a rise in the gas prices, amid a context of general rise in the cost of living.

The bright yellow vests are a mandatory safety item in all vehicles. Its use by protesters shows how socially and politically heterogeneous the demonstrations are. The beliefs of those participating go from revolutionary socialism to the “sovereigntist” right (in favor of leaving the European Union). There is such a broad popular support that no bourgeois party has dared to condemn the street rallies. Even President Emmanuel Macron (aptly characterized by protesters the “president of the rich”) said he “understands the anger” of the population. This cautious statement is due to the fact that Macron had less than 23% of popular approval in early December.

Who are the “Yellow Vests” and what they want

The rise in the gas prices was a result of a climate agreement signed by the previous government of François Hollande. It was intended as a way of directing tax revenues (which have continued to increase) to investments in clean energy and of reducing the use of fossil fuel. While the largest cities usually count with well elaborated public transportation networks, the measure caused a severe impact to people in small and medium towns, who depend on car rides to go to work, to school or to the supermarket. That was why the yellow vests first appeared in smaller urban areas.

But it quickly became clear that the movement of the Yellow Vests was not only about the gas price and its impact on the pauperized “middle class” (composed of liberal professionals, small business owners, public sector employees and higher ranks of the proletariat). The revolt soon expanded to include the demands of the unemployed, the more precarious sections of the working class and the youth who have few perspectives for their future. [1]

Beyond demanding Macron’s fall, slogans for a raise in the minimum wage and higher pension payments became the core of the movement. Other demands are less clear, such as for the “distribution of the wealth” and also for implementing a project of “citizen initiative referendums” in the political system of the country. The protests have had broad popular support despite the “trouble” caused to people’s routines, since the main tactic has been to block streets and roads commonly used by cars and buses, but mainly the ones used by vehicles which transport goods. Surveys conducted in the first weeks of protests showed that over 70% of the population supported them. This number remained stable despite the drop of the number of demonstrators during December. [2]

The demonstrations themselves are not as big as their repercussion and impact. The largest protest so far was the first (November 17th) with almost 300 thousand people throughout the country (France has 67 million inhabitants). The numbers had dropped to 125 thousand in the fourth day of protests (December 8th) and 12 thousand in the seventh (December 29th). [3] Despite this, 2019 began with another breath of energy. The first protest this year (January 5th) gathered 50 thousand people. [4] Independently of the fluctuation in the number of protesters, the huge popular support and the impact in the circulation of goods gave the Yellow Vests considerable strength. Fifty years after the events of May 1968, when France went through its largest general strike to date, “it is hot in France” (“ça chauffe en France”) as protesters are saying.

The initial response by the government was to play hardball and refuse all demands, escalating the repression instead. There were 73 people arrested in the first rally and a shocking number of 1,200 in the fourth. [5] But Macron started backing down after the third protest and announced, on December 4th, through his Prime Minister, the suspension of the rise in the gas price for 6 months, as well as the cancellation of the expected raise in the electricity and the household gas until the end of winter (May 2019). [6] Against Macron’s expectations, the fourth protest was maintained for the following weekend and new layers of society joined, such as high school students and, to a lesser degree, university students. On December 6th, between the third and fourth protests, three hundred high schools (licées) were picketed by students. There was severe repression, and over 700 students were arrested. Images of violence circulated broadly during the day. [7] Student action continued during that week. Some university campuses declared student strikes. [8] Different sectors gathered to protest on December 8th, including the “Rally for Climate” protesters and slogans such as “Toutes ensemble” (“All Together”) and “so-so-solidarité” (“Solidarity”) started appearing in the demonstrations.

Under intense pressure, Macron announced new concessions after the fourth day of protests: mainly the suspension of the fuel rise and a 100 Euros raise in the minimum wage (which amounts to a little more than 1,500 Euros). He also exempted from taxes the payment of extra hours, suspended or reduced several other taxes on the working people which had been reducing the income of the poorer sections of French society. [9] Still a fifth (December 15th) and sixth (December 22nd) demonstrations were organized, with a decreasing number of participants. That was certainly caused by the partial concessions but also because of the fact that on the same day of Macron’s announcement, there was a terrorist attack claimed by Daesh in the city of Strasbourg which led the government to declare a “state of emergency” in the country and divided opinions about maintaining or not maintaining the protests. [10]

In early 2019, the new maneuver of the government was to announce a grand “national debate” in the form of open assemblies organized in several cities by the local governments or civil associations, around four subjects: “taxes, organization of the state, ecological transition and democracy”. The idea of such assemblies is to propose bills to Congress. [11] While it is a response to the demand for more popular participation in the political system, it is also a clear attempt to direct popular and proletarian anger into bourgeois institutions, which could nullify its revolutionary potential.

Where are the unions?

Despite the atmosphere of revolt against the government and the deterioration of the living conditions, the French unions are still inert. All the largest trade-union federations have not openly participated in the protests and have not moved a finger to organize strikes in solidarity. On the contrary, after insistent calls made by Macron for institutions of civil society to act as facilitators of a truce between government and protesters, the union federations apparently accepted this role in a joint statement released on December 6th. They also condemned “all forms of violence” (including apparently the protesters’ acts of self-defense against the police). [12] As if this was not enough, after the attacks in Strasbourg the leader of the largest union federation (CFDT — Confédération française démocratique du travail) spoke on a radio interview that it would be advisable to cancel the fifth demonstration not to “overwhelm” the cops, who were supposedly “tired” after searching for the terrorists. [13] Fortunately, these bureaucrats are heads without a body: the CFDT has less than a million members.

The complete inaction of the bureaucrats who parasite the working class unions has costed a high price: the Yellow Vests’ revolt continues being extremely heterogeneous in terms of social basis and political orientation. It could have gained many more concessions from such an unpopular and hated government if working class methods had been used. Also, this lack of leadership opens room for the emergence of the reactionary right, since the working people and the “middle class” do not see the left and in the proletarian organizations an alternative to the capitalist system. Not only right-wing groups have participated in the demonstrations in some towns [14], but electoral polls show that the Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National, Marine Le Pen’s party) is the favorite for the 2022 presidential elections, with 21% of the voters’ support. Macron’s party is surprisingly the second, with 19% of support. [15]

But it must be made clear that, despite what is being broadcast by the French and international media, the Yellow Vests’ protests are not “strengthening the right”. This is an argument used by the bourgeoisie in an attempt to break the popular support given to the protesters and discourage people to go to the streets. But it is also being reproduced by sections of the left. Many are even mentioning Brazil as a supposed example, as if there was a straight line connecting the 2013 protests against the rise in the bus fare, the impeachment against the Workers’ Party president Dilma Roussef and Bolsonaro’s election.

There is a real risk of this demagogic right benefiting from the popular anger with its false speech “against the system”, especially given the absence of the revolutionary left as a sizable force. But even this possibility is not becoming any closer to reality right now. As seen, vote intentions for Le Pen are around 21%. In the previous presidential elections, she achieved 21.3% in the first round and 33.9% in the second. How then is the Yellow Vests’ revolt for a higher minimum wage, higher pensions, income distribution and more popular participation in the political process “strengthening” the right if it still has 12% less vote intentions then they got in the last elections?

The way to deal with the rightist risk is not boycotting popular protests until there is one which is “born ready” with a clear program for socialist revolution. Instead, if workers entered the stage as an organized class, using their methods of struggle (strikes, picket lines, company occupations), not only could they elevate the current upheaval to a new level of organization, but it would also make the right-wing elements leave or be driven out of protests. These elements are incompatible with an agenda that confronts profits and private property.

But the reason for the bureaucrats ahead of the CFDT, CGT, FO and other union federations not to mobilize the workers is not a genuine belief that the protests are “helping the right”, as the French government tried to initially imply and part of the international left has been repeating. For them, arousing workers into action would risk helping the creation of a new, combative leadership for the struggles, which could quickly overcome their own bureaucratic moderation and routine.

The bureaucrats have interests that are opposed to those of the working class: their privileges and their own survival as a parasitic caste ahead of the unions depends both on the moderations and tolerance of workers on one hand, and tolerance from the bourgeois state on the other. There must be a fine balance between demonstrating some intention of defending workers’ rights and at the same time maintaining such struggles as innocuous as possible to sustain a perspective of collaboration with the ruling class. The bureaucrats ahead of the unions exist to serve two masters, maneuvering between two fundamental social classes. As in the present social order the capitalists are the ruling class and workers are unorganized and to a large extent unconscious of their interests as a class, the result of such dependence on conciliation with the bourgeoisie is that the union bureaucracy ends up serving as lieutenants of the bosses within the workers’ movement and a permanent obstacle blocking independent working class action. (For a more in depth discussion on this: [16]). That is why it is important to put forward a perspective to overcome the bureaucracy through developing revolutionary caucuses in the unions and creating grassroots bodies to organize the struggling sections of the workers, to break the barriers imposed by the bureaucrats and channel the wishes of the rank and file for deeper and more powerful struggles.

What about the socialist left?

Facing this situation, most of the ostensibly socialist left in France is proposing that the working class enter the struggle with its own methods. Some do it with the slogan for a general strike to assure a significant improvement of the minimum wage and to end the current Fifth French Republic – founded by a coup d’état in 1958 that put De Gaulle back in office in an attempt to maintain Algiers as a French colony. That is the case with the long-lived Lutte Ouvrière / Union Communiste [17]; the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA – created after the dissolution of the former section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in a “broad party”) [18]; the Lambertist Parti Ouvrier Indépendent (POI) [19] and its recent split, the Parti Ouvrier Independent Democratique (led by former Lambertist leader Daniel Gluckstein) [20]; the Gauche Revolutionaire (associated with the Committee for a Workers’ International) [21]; the small Groupe Marxiste Internationalist (GMI) which leads the international grouping COREP (Collectif Révolution Permanente) [22]; and Révolution Permanente (associated with the Trotskyist Fraction – Fourth International, ahead of the Left Voice network / Red Izquierda Diario) [23].

Some of these groups correctly denounce the inaction of the treacherous union bureaucracy as an obstacle to the working class movement and propose concrete ways of overcoming it, such as action committees organized in each workplace, school and neighborhood. But each of them also carries centrist contradictions. Revolution Pérmanente, for instance, follows the TF-FI “recipe” of defending a bourgeois Constituent Assembly / Single Assembly as a supposed solution to the crisis, and which would possibly defend workers’ interests. This organ would, in their words, allow the proletariat to make its “experience” with bourgeois democracy “to the end” (see our critique of this position at [24]). The GMI, on the other hand, has for years supported bourgeois candidates defendant of class collaboration in the Socialist Party, as was the case with former president François Hollande (see the critique of the Argentinian group which split from the COREP because of this position [25]).

A general characteristic of the centrist groups is their lack of a consistent attitude towards the need of the destruction of the bourgeois state as an objective of the class struggles. They usually look after short cuts to avoid confronting this crucial element for the revolutionary overcoming of capitalism. The crisis of the French bourgeois democratic system inevitably raises the demands of the oppressed masses, specially the working class, to a clearly political level, putting the question of the political power in front of everyone. If socialists do not regroup under a clear and consistent revolutionary program to fight for socialism as an alternative, eventually the reactionary right will channel the anger against the existing regime. This will disorganize workers and open the path for the destruction of democracy and, with it, the trade unions and working class parties and organizations.

In the present moment, it is also essential for socialists to help organize united fronts in each city, which could provide a more stable character and a pole of representation to the proletarian section of the masses and the left. The objective would be to organize concrete struggles for working class demands and isolate the reactionaries from the masses.


What is going on in France is yet another prove that capitalism, either in its center or its periphery, is unable to guarantee decent living conditions for the working people and other oppressed sectors of the masses – especially after the 2008 economic crisis, the largest since the 1929 “crash”. It is no surprise that the “Yellow Vests” are already spreading to other European countries, building the basis for a potentially international movement against the deterioration of living conditions and against neoliberalism. [26]

The anger and spontaneous mobilizations are ignored or even merciless discouraged by the union bureaucrats, and many organizations on the left suffer from electoral cretinism or centrist zigzags which do not allow them to present a clear socialist perspective. In the meanwhile, the core ideas of the Communist International remain absolutely timely one hundred years after its foundation: we live at a time of imperialist decay filled with wars, crises and potentially revolutionary situations; but the proletariat does not yet have the staff it needs to bring down all capitalist rottenness – a revolutionary socialist party (that is, a Marxist party). The most important task of our time is precisely to build such party as an active part of the proletarian movement and of an international organization. Only with a socialist revolution to “expropriate the expropriators” will we be able to put an end to the miserable cycle of impoverishment, mild improvement and new impoverishment in which capitalism has maintained us.