France: “The Gilets Jaunes have blown up the old political categories”

Source: Roar Magazine

As I write these words, a veritable earthquake is rippling through French politics and society. Four weeks into its most serious social unrest since the banlieue riots of 2005, large parts of the country continue to be shaken by a groundswell of popular protests, roadblocks and occupations. This past Saturday, the so-called gilets jaunes — a loosely structured movement of angry citizens named after the yellow high-visibility vests all French drivers are required to keep in their cars in case of distress — defied an unprecedented security crackdown to return to the streets of Paris and other French cities in their hundreds of thousands. The protests can only be described as a resounding repudiation of the widely-despised president, Emmanuel Macron, and his neoliberal assault on working-class living standards.

Confronted with a change of tactics by riot police, who now found themselves backed by dozens of armored vehicles and water cannon, the gilets jaunes did not manage to overwhelm security forces as they had during the previous two weekends, when some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of the capital were smashed up in scenes of generalized disorder not witnessed in central Paris since May ’68. Nevertheless, even the mobilization of 89,000 riot police and the arrest of over 1,700 protesters across the nation could not withhold the yellow vests from once again descending upon the main avenues leading up to the Champs Élysées for “Act IV” of their mass rebellion. A police spokesperson noted that, due to the more dispersed nature of the riots, the overall damage from property destruction was much greater and much more widespread than in previous weeks. A number of other French cities also witnessed violent clashes, including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon, Dijon, Nantes and Marseille.

What began four weeks ago as a nationwide response to a widely-disseminated Facebook call by two angry truck drivers to block local roads and highway toll stations in protest against a new “ecological” fuel tax introduced by Macron’s government has now spiraled out into a full-blown popular revolt against the banker president and the wealthy corporate elite he so openly represents. While the yellow vest movement — if it can even be properly defined as such — remains inchoate and contradictory in terms of its social composition and ideological orientation, there is little doubt that it has opened up a major fissure in French politics. The neoliberal center finds itself under siege, and the political establishment appears to be at a loss on how to respond. “We are in a state of insurrection,” Jeanne d’Hauteserre, Mayor of the 8th District of Paris, lamented last week. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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