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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/15/19

Yellow Vest Movement Struggles to Reinvent Democracy as Macron Cranks Up Propaganda and Repression

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Breaking Parliament Square shut down by yellow vests
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Reprinted from by Richard Greeman

After five months of constant presence at traffic circles, toll-booths and hazardous Saturday marches, the massive, self-organized social movement known as the Yellow Vests has just held its second nationwide "Assembly of Assemblies." Hundreds of autonomous Yellow Vest activist groups from all over France each chose two delegates (one woman, one man) to gather in the port city of St. Nazaire for weekend of deliberation (April 5-7).

After weeks of skirmishing with the municipal authorities, the local Yellow Vests were able to host 700 delegates at the St. Nazaire "House of the People," and the three-day series of general meetings and working groups went off without a hitch in an atmosphere of good-fellowship. A sign on the wall proclaimed: "No one has the solution, but everybody has a piece of it."

Their project: mobilize their "collective intelligence" to reorganize, strategize, and prolong their struggle. Their aim: achieve the immediate goals of livable wages and retirements, restoration of social benefits and public services like schools, transportation, post offices, hospitals, taxing the rich and ending fiscal fraud to pay for preserving the environment, and, most ambitious of all, reinventing democracy in the process. Their Declaration ends with the phrase "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." I often wonder if they know who coined it.

Yellow and Green Unite and Fight

Particular attention was paid to the issue of the environment, reaffirming the popular slogan: "End of the week. End of the world. Same logic, same struggle." (It rhymes in French.) The Assembly went further and called on "All persons who wish to put an end to the expropriation of the living to take up a conflictual stance against the present system in order to create, together, a new ecological, popular social movement."

This shows growth from the original Yellow Vest uprising which began as a protest against a hike in taxes on Diesel fuel imposed in the name of the "saving environment." (Less well known is that only 17% of that tax was actually earmarked for the environment. In any case, Macron rescinded it in an early attempt to pacify the movement). Since then, the Yellow Vests have tentatively converged with the environmental groups, whom many poor and working-class Yellow Vests can't help seeing as bourgeois on bicycles wanting to be nice but unwilling to struggle directly against the establishment.

So their call for unity is also in part a challenge to the environmental movement: "join us in the struggle for social equality and be ready to fight the whole system." Brilliant! Who said an unstructured autonomous movement of ordinary, not well-educated people, could not come up with strategies and tactics? Psychologists explain that this "wisdom of crowds" emerges whenever people are on an equal footing and free of constraint. It grows through experience. And discussion. A dialectical process leading to its emergence. "No one has the solution, but everybody has a piece of it." This was the basis of direct democracy in Athens, from which the Yellow Vests have also borrowed the idea of choosing representatives by lot.


The Assembly of Assemblies reaffirmed the Yellow Vest founding principle of keeping clear of political parties. Also of leaders. To my mind this is a genius stroke. Every popular mass movement I have participated in over the past 60 years has been co-opted by the establishment (or crushed). Leaders set up an office, they try to raise money and gain access to power, end up compromising; they treat the rank and file activists like a mailing list and the power and dynamic of the mass movement melts away,- like the Nuclear Freeze which once mobilized millions. Eventually, Democratic Party lures them. Here, the Socialist Party swallowed SOS Racism, the embryo of a much-needed Civil Rights movement here in France.

Instinctively, from the beginning, the Yellow Vests seem to have assimilated and put into practice the profound criticism of representative democracy that goes back to the 18th century and was applied during the Paris Commune in 1871. There delegates were given limited mandates, subject to instant recall, regularly rotated, and paid at workmen's wages. The Communards also called on other cities to rise and link up as a federation. This is precisely the Yellow Vests modus operandi.


This critique of representation explains the Assembly's attitude toward the upcoming elections for the European Parliament, which will play out as a rehearsal for the next legislative elections when parties will be competing seriously for votes. The fear of being manipulated for political purposes as strong. Last month Yellow Vests at a Paris demonstration recognized a Yellow Vest who had just declared her candidacy to great media fanfare, apparently in the name of the Yellow Vests. They were furious and yelled at her until she withdrew, shaken. Ugly, but a necessary example to anyone else who would rather be a politician than a Yellow Vest (without resigning first).

As far as Europe is concerned, the Assembly, far from calling for a Frexit, reached out to social movements in the other countries of the European Union in a call to come together and struggle against its neo-liberal policies. The Assembly saw no point in voting in this sham election. As everyone knows, the European Parliament has no power or even visibility. It's not even in Brussels, where the important decisions are made by representatives of the German banks and multi-national corporations. Moreover, it limits the deficit spending of its member countries, thus making it illegal for France to finance the social services and environmental reconstruction the people are demanding.

Restructuring and Reflection

Last weekend's Assembly of Assemblies coincided with Act 21 of the Yellow Vests' long struggle to occupy public spaces and freely proclaim their hopes and angers, and it brought out only 23,400 people (government count) across France, the lowest number so far. Small wonder after five straight months of bloody repression. The police were as usual out in force, and they stopped and frisked 14, 919 people according to the Paris Prefecture. After twenty-one weekly battles, many of us are too tired, too scared and/or too old to continue "running with the bulls" through the streets dodging gas canisters.

"We thought we were off for a sprint. In fact we were involved in a marathon and we need to prepare ourselves," admitted one speaker." We realize we need to vary our tactics, refine our goals, organize our democratic structures better for the movement to last, and last weekend's Assembly attempted to face this challenge, starting with three weeks of discussion and a number new approaches.

Among the new tactics was a call for a huge nationwide protest against the increasing repression being imposed by the Macron government, the liberation of all those in jail, whether Yellow Vests or in other "criminalized" struggles and refers directly to the oppressed North African and immigrant communities in France, whose 2005 youth rising was brutally put down. "[The violent repression] we are experiencing today now has been for decades the daily experience in the popular quarters [ghetto-like "suburbs" -Ed.]" and concludes: "Now authoritarianism is being generalized to the whole society."

Macron's Response: Propaganda and Violent Repression

In contrast to these deliberations, last weekend the Macron government delivered the results of its official "Great Debate," a publicity stunt organized by his government at a cost of 12 million Euros to showcase the President articulately answering questions from selected audiences of mayors and local notables in towns and villages across the country. In all, Macron logged 92 hours of speaking.

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