Towards a Strategic Impasse Between Macron and the Yellow Vests?

After a catastrophic December, the “great debate” and its developments allowed the government, for a period of time, to regain control over its action and communication. For macronism [a word that encapsulates the essence of Macron’s policies – ed], exiting this period of the “grand debate” nevertheless reopens a series of contradictions, not only tactical but also strategic.

These contradictions call into question not only the capacity of the president to ensure and maintain order in relation to possible new elements of social protest. They also question his ability to resume the offensive without running the risk of permanently compromising a regime like that of the Fifth Republic, which is already in a very bad way. For its part, the mobilisation of the Yellow Vests has succeeded, in a rather surprising way, in structuring itself over time and, above all, retains the support of more than 50% of the population, according to most opinion polls, and this is despite the conjuncture, the systematic denigration of the mobilisation by the government, and the extremely high level of repression. Insofar as the characteristics of the Yellow Vests movement have prevented it from extending to other social sectors so as to make their main demand possible, namely the departure of Macron. This double strategic impasse, for both the authorities and the Yellow Vests, cannot be maintained over time.

The hesitations of the government: between a new immobilism and the risk of an even bigger crisis

Whether or not the “magic” of the “grand debate” has dissipated or, as some analysts say, that we have reached the “limits of group therapy”, is what the latest opinion polls show: after a slight rebound in recent weeks, the government is starting to decline again. This is partly the case for a fraction of the right-wing voters who the government is trying to seduce in order to make up for the dry losses on the left-wing of its own electorate. These right-wing sectors blame the government for its inability to maintain order after the repressive forces were again overwhelmed during Act 20. But if, in the sphere of security, the faults have a structural character, in the political sphere, the contradictions of macronism are not small.

Elysee could have prepared itself, according to some analysts, to make a number of decisions next week [commencing April 15th – ed]. Their procrastination, so far, is the result of the fact that Macron is aware that these measures, far from being unanimous, risk to disappoint. After the “democratic circus” of recent weeks, intended to mitigate the Yellow Vests crisis, these announcements could deepen the crisis of legitimacy of the current authorities. As was pointed out by some of the president’s relatives, taken up in Le Parisien at the end of March, “sometimes, the president procrastinates. To extinguish the revolt that shakes his mandate, he dreams about a ‘measure with a wow effect’ (…). By lengthening the suspense and stretching the endless debate, he ends up worrying his most dearest. ‘If he disappoints, he’s dead, and he will disappoint …’ shuddered one of them. ‘I do not see how we can get out of this,’ another one anguished. ‘Well, with the arrival of the warmer weather, the Yellow Vests will come back and install barbecues on the roundabouts’…”

The “neither right-wing nor left-wing” Macronian, mixed with “at the same time”, in reality is reaching its limits. For a while, the government benefited from a kind of state of grace conceded by a good part of the population in front of a government that seemed to come from the “new world”. If we add to this the void left by the destruction of the old coalitions at the political level and the solid support or the complicit or complacent silence of the trade union leaderships, we understand how, at first, the Macronian offensive made it possible to pass a series of counter-reforms: the XXL Labour Law, the Parcoursup and rail reforms, in particular, and all this without the government losing a lot of feathers. On the flip side, the Yellow Vest crisis put this “reformatory” cadence on hold and put a big question mark on the reforms to come.

Moreover, the Benalla case has, of course, seriously tainted Macron’s “president-Jupiter” aura. Concerning the opposition, even if the difficulties, on the right-wing and on the left-wing, are far from being over, as was highlighted by the discussions over the lists for the next European elections, the parties opposed to Macron have shown more dynamism during recent months. This is evidenced, on the one hand, by the active role of the Senate in the framework of the Benalla case and, on the other hand, by the sacred union of socialists, communists, and Gaullists, in order to trigger a Shared Initiative Referendum (RIP) on the privatisation of the Paris Airports wanted by Macron under the PACTE law. Both the tenacity of the Senate and this impromptu RIP have very much disoriented the largely accustomed government, in its bonapartist habitus – which is today quite a crisis – to govern without any political or social opposition.

The only thing that persists, as unusual and scandalous as it may seem, is the continuation of the treacherous social dialogue assured by the union leadership, and even if Elysee continues to pass over their heads. This is what is shown, in particular, by the recent crisis in the negotiations over the unemployment insurance reform or the continuity of dialogue concerning pension reform, the head of negotiations for the government being Jean-Paul Delevoye, who put his resignation in the balance if the government did not clarify its position on retirement age, which certain ministers want to defer in time. This open policy of class conciliation is the flip side of the politics of bureaucracy in relation to the uprising of the Yellow Vests – who, from the beginning, have defended the demand for increased purchasing power, including an increase in the minimum wage – as well as the deafening silence of the trade union leaderships regarding the issue of unprecedented police repression against the social movement, with hundreds of mutilated and convicted people, and at the same time the unions haven’t set as their objective the slightest substantial action to counter this state of affairs.

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In this context, absolutely distinct from the first sequence that characterised the beginning of his mandate, the decisions of Macron aimed at reviving his presidency are likely to be more and more controversial and questioned. If, following some advice from LREM‘s “left wing”, he tries to reduce tensions, the clenching, and social-territorial fractures – while seeking to recover part of the social democratic electorate that voted for him in the first and second round of the 2017 presidential election – through a semblance of a “social change of direction” of his five-year term, the ghost of immobilism and “Hollandisation” can pursue him for the next three years that are left for him as the head of the country. This, in particular, is what certain penholders of the bourgeoisie and Medef, like Jean-Francois Pécresse, editorialist at “Echos”, are afraid of most of all . In one of his latest papers entitled “Liberalism is the hostage of the Grand debate“, Pécresse wonders, in a deliberately outrageous tone, “but where has liberalism gone? It’s a safe bet, he continues, that he will exit from the grand debate via the back door, the one involving lowering taxes. Vow or decision, the Minister of Public Accounts, Gérald Darmanin, confirmed Sunday. But, for the rest, we should not expect, alas, that the restitution, this Monday [April 15th – ed], of the grievances of the French leads to an aspiration to have more freedom for employers, producers, or traders, or at least guarantees for employees, less social assistance, or less public services. This is not a small paradox. Because of what astonishing phenomenon, indeed, does a social movement born of a demand for liberalism end in a demand for socialism?”. And he continues, in a plaintive tone, that “the healthy anger of the beginnings has been so well diverted by the radical left that it will be difficult now for Emmanuel Macron to not leave in this grand debate a part of his liberal ambition”. Without giving any credit to the “socialist” obsessions of Pécresse, who sees the radical left-wing everywhere, which prevails and which is shared, it is indeed that the government abandons, in the end, its “liberal ambition” .

What is most likely is that Macron pursues and radicalises his counter-reforms. He will be pushed along on this path by the most right-wing fractions of the Philippe government, starting with the Prime Minister himself, and also by the two incumbents of Bercy, Darmanin, and Le Maire, and by the most concentrated sectors of big capital. In doing so, however, he runs the risk of transforming the current contestation into a historic crisis of the Fifth Republic. This is what is starting to show through and filter through some friction within the government, both with respect to tax issues and pension reform, which are much more sensitive and explosive. As Stéphane Dupont points out, still in the columns of Echos, “this new cacophony, after the one concerning taxes, initiated in the context of the great debate, has anxiogenic effects. The French are wondering more and more what will fall on them. During his campaign, Emmanuel Macron had promised not to touch the legal age of retirement – 62. And this commitment was officially reiterated last autumn by the High Commissioner for Pension Reform, Jean-Paul Delevoye. But it is being questioned today. And if it were to be confirmed again by the top brass, what credibility will it then have? Many French people are convinced that their rights will be cut in one way or another. A climate of mistrust that will inevitably put pressure on future pension reform.”

Nor can it be excluded that, in order to maintain what makes up his social base – and which is becoming ever narrower – Macron is not trying to keep his “at the same time”. . Not only is the formula worn out, when it is barely two years old, but it does not satisfy one or the other, it increases the centrifugal tendencies within the government, and fuels the risks of greater political and, fundamentally, social opposition.

The continuity of the Yellow Vests and the difficulties of their social extension

With its weekly protests, every Saturday, over the past five months, the uprising of the Yellow Vests has become the longest social movement in the country’s history, at least in recent decades. Ascertaining this also means that Macron’s bet – which was to combine some small concessions, like in December, which were a real humiliation for the ruling authorities, and a very hard line in terms of repression, so as to make the opponent bend – did not work at all. This does not mean that from the point of view of its massiveness and spontaneity the movement of the Yellow Vests did not retreat without blunting its capacity for resistance. Nevertheless, like being doomed to close in on itself, the movement has not managed to spread to other social categories, towards the youth or poor neighbourhoods and, basically, towards the proletariat of big business. At first, the discourses conveyed by the institutional left-wing and by the reformist trade union bureaucracy that the Yellow Vests embodied a mobilisation of the right-wing, potentially fascist, played an obvious role in avoiding contagion. The fact that the risk of contagion actually exists could be seen through Macron’s pressing demand to very large companies in the private sector to award their employees an exceptional end-of-year bonus. But this dynamic of potential contagion was completely halted by the criminal role of the trade union leaderships who turn their backs on the most impoverished sectors of the proletariat who find themselves at the forefront of the contestation.

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Nevertheless, it is also undeniable that the movement’s particular way of structuring itself as an expression of the “people” – which does not mean that it has not been able to integrate unionised workers or racialised workers and youth – also had an influence. These integrations of workers are realised on the basis of the dissolution of the social and political affiliations of individuals and groups within a vast inter-classist conglomerate called “people”. This does not create the conditions for the emergence of a potentially more hegemonic new articulation, whether through the expansion of already existing demands – such as the denunciation of state racism, for example – or through combat methods specific to the workers’ movement. This characteristic is one of the attraction forces of the movement but also represents one of the main limits to its extension. In this context, between the inherent difficulties of the movement to expand and the refusal of the government to consider serious negotiations so as to build a social pact with the most subaltern or marginal sectors – socially or politically – of the proletariat, after their absolutely sudden and astounding eruption, at the end of 2018, the Yellow Vests today find themselves in front of a strategic impasse, regardless of the ups and downs recorded by the mobilisation, Saturday after Saturday.

Despite this improbable stabilisation of the current form taken by the movement, certain elements, embryonic but very real, would nevertheless allow us to think about the opening of a perhaps different dynamic. Beyond the movement itself and on a large scale, for the first time since the beginning of the mobilisation, the “Yellow Vest spirit” has spread to a new social sector: teachers, especially in kindergarten and primary schools. As Stéphane Dupont points out in an “Echos” article entitledBlanquer and his Yellow Vests [referencing the Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer – ed], faced with a reform considered to be relatively secondary, the holder of the rue de Grenelle [the Parisian street where the Ministry of National Education is located – ed] must face, a bit like Emmanuel Macron” , his own Yellow Vests. He was, until then, a “bulldozer” minister who managed to put the unions on the defensive. Blanquer, therefore, “is confronted with a movement that is very difficult to apprehend, because it is partly spontaneous, protean, showered with rumours and false information, and instrumentalised by the radical left-wing. If unions are in the loop, they are not always on the accelerator. They have been hostile towards him since he took office, but the minister could count until now on the support of parental associations. This is not quite the case in recent weeks”. After the demagogic operation of seduction represented by “completed homework” or re-sitting classes, in primary schools, in sensitive areas – while frontally attacking the set of measures that was still in place for priority education – would there be, in the current mobilisation, not only an indicator of phase change, but also a moving entry index of all of the country’s approximately 800,000 teachers in the public sector, supported by students’ parents, in a generalised struggle, as well as the signal of a possible extension of this state of mind that is inscribed under the sign of rebellion to other sectors of the organised labor movement? For the moment, even if the teaching mobilisation continues to grow and worries the government enormously – with an advanced tip of the movement in the Great West, in particular – and even if the Ministry of Education does not slow down to combine threats and gestures of appeasement to extinguish the fire before it spreads, the fight has not yet been generalised.

Moreover, within the movement and with a step taken in comparison with the first meeting at Commercy, in mid-January, the Assembly of Assemblies, which took place between April 5th and 7th in Saint-Nazaire and which gathered more than 200 delegations from all over France, shows an evolution in the structuring of the movement and an alternative pole, openly opposed to the self-proclaimed leaders of the movement.

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These initiatives that combine “social confrontation, politicisation and democratisation” come up against, nevertheless, two pitfalls, which Isabelle Garo points out in the last chapter, entitled “For a strategy of mediations”, of the book that she just published called Communism and strategy“. Thus, she writes, “in some ways, the craze for direct democracy conveys the illusion of a potentially reunited people, capable of settling social questions by majority and referendum, bypassing the fundamental class struggle of capitalism. Yet, at the same time, it testifies to the search for contemporary forms of self-government that give the right to exercise collective decisions and debates, taking literally the principle of popular sovereignty, against measures imposed despite their majority rejection in the framework of electoral processes denatured by blackmail to ‘vote tactically’ and by massive abstention”.

The current mobilisations are directly confronted with the strategic necessity of “…re-exploring the problem of radical social transformation and renewing the revolutionary culture, avoiding both the fetishism of spontaneous insurrection and ‘parliamentary cretinism’ and republican idolatry, symmetrical versions of the refusal to consider the political and social construction of a political and social balance of class power as a condition of invention of an effective alternative to capitalism”.

The NPA should rise to the challenge of helping to resolve this strategic necessity that collides with its original project as a broad anti-capitalist party, i.e., a party project with an ambiguous character, both from a programmatic and strategic point of view. This theoretical-political weakness was expressed, vis-à-vis the current movement, through an orientation that oscillates between support for the Yellow Vests and a more or less repressed desire to return to the more institutionalised mobilisations of the left-wing or old anti-neoliberal social movements of past decades, minimising or undervaluing the subversive and revolutionary character of the current uprising, and this despite all its contradictions. The NPA should draw all the conclusions from the current movement that pose more sharply than ever the question of the construction of a party of revolutionary workers, an absolutely central tool to the fight for a workers’ hegemony vis-à-vis the necessary class alliance so as to carry, to the end, in a revolutionary way, what has animated, at first, the uprising of the Yellow Vests – in this case “Macron, resign!”.

The return of the social question

The current coordinates of the situation highlight, for the moment, the elements of a strategic impasse. In order to define the current situation of the confrontation between Macron and the Yellow Vests, one would be almost tempted to use the old definition of the Argentinian Gramscian Juan Carlos Portantiero, who, in the 1970s, used the term “drawn game [empate] hegemony” ¹. This would be a situation where, on the one hand, Macron’s weak Bonapartism shows great difficulties in imposing a social model based on growing structural inequalities, namely requiring sacrifices, even though they would not be correlated with any promise, which Margaret Thatcher, for example, in Britain might have allowed herself. On the other hand, the Yellow Vests, and even if they managed to put the social question at the center of the hexagonal situation and that they undoubtedly represent the opposition to Macron, are suddenly confronted today with important difficulties in representing an effective alternative to the neoliberal capitalism that the President embodies.

Nevertheless, given the tendencies towards the deepening of the organic crisis of French capitalism, which has worsened after 2008 and which Macron and the Yellow Vests are the two loudest expressions of – the former as the representative of the destruction of old political system, and the latter as an expression of the historic crisis of the trade union leadership in front of the current neoliberal offensive – all of this means that this situation cannot be prolonged indefinitely.

For the time being, unless the government decides to openly backtrack on its reforming ambitions, in order to seek social pacification, as is demanded from it by a frightened part of the ruling class, the most credible scenario remains the one of a continuation or even the radicalisation of the current offensive. From this point of view, it’s a safe bet that the Yellow Vests will never be more than one of the first expressions of increasing social opposition.

Juan Chingo, Revolution Permanente

¹ In a classic text published in 1973, “Dominant Classes and Political Crisis in Argentina Today” (“Clases dominantes y crisis política en la Argentina actual”), Juan Carlos Portantiero pointed out that there are moments in history in which there is a “predominance of compromise solutions in which ‘intermediate forces’, which do not represent the interests of any of the polar classes of the “structural conflict”, occupy the center stage as main alternatives”. Portantiero went on to point out how this situation may fit in with the Argentina of 1973, namely, “in the political and social sphere, a sort of ‘drawn game’ [empate]”. “Each group has enough energy to prevent the development of projects developed by others, but not enough to muster the necessary forces to lead the country as it wishes”. Portantiero nevertheless used this definition to define a conflict between different fractions of the bourgeoisie. Hence the limits of parallelism with the current situation. Despite all of Macron’s difficulties, the Fifth Republic and the bourgeois regime, as we have seen in recent weeks, keep bourgeois governability afloat.

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