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For more than a month now, since 17 November, France has seen an apparently unstoppable revolt from below. A massive tide of very visible protest has swept the country, initially against a rise in the tax on diesel, but rapidly becoming a revolt of the oppressed against ‘the president of the rich’, Emmanuel Macron.
On the evening of 10 December, after a day of talks between business and union leaders with the government, this most unpopular of presidents broke his silence to address the nation and accepted he had “upset” people. Confirming the reversal of the fuel tax rise, he outlined a €10 billion package which included a €100 rise in the minimum wage, a revision of levies on pensions, a decrease in taxation on overtime pay and encouragement for better-off bosses to pay a little Christmas bonus to their workers if they could afford it!
The top crocodile, Macron, shed some tears, but there was no talk of reversing the massive tax breaks given to the super-rich from the earliest days of his still short ‘reign’. A gilets jaunes representative, Laetitia Dewalle, invited for comment by the main state TV channel France2, exclaimed: “Of course it’s not enough!” She added, “If he’s been absent from view for ten days, it was obviously to take acting lessons.” “Why should I listen to him?” said someone watching the broadcast. “He doesn’t listen to us!”
The next day, Tuesday 11 December, has seen a new wave of protests, including fierce battles between police and protesters, with large numbers of students mobilised. A number of scenarios could open up.
Together with his La Republique en Marche party, Macron has only been in power for 18 months. Variously styling himself as Jupiter or Napoleon, it is his resignation that every demonstration has been demanding. Some protesters are veterans of the month of revolution in 1968, when the fate of General de Gaulle hung in the balance. Others refer, light-heartedly, to the way Louis XVl met his end in the revolution of 1789!
This is not yet a revolution, but a very determined uprising of the neglected and deprived sections of the population, especially in the countryside. But more and more, it has found an echo amongst layers of France’s heroic working class.
The ‘invisible’ have become visible with the yellow ‘Hi Viz’ jackets – the uniform of the movement. Their good-natured blockades of the roads and toll booths across the country have become a novel, now well-established, feature of this revolt.
The diesel tax rise – a cheap way for this government to raise money and look as if it cares for the environment – was the last straw for so many in French society, who have seen their living standards pushed down to poverty levels. As the protests, which include people of all political persuasions and none, have grown, so have the demands. By the fourth week they were reported to have a charter of “suggestions to end this crisis”.
Under ‘Economy/work’, it speaks of a 40% increase in the minimum wage, pensions and benefits, of “mass hirings” in the state sector, of 5 million new homes.
Under the heading ‘Politics’, France should leave the EU, reverse all privatisations, remove all ‘useless’ speed cameras (!), reform education. Under ‘Health/Environment’ it demands a 10 year guarantee to end planned obsolence, ban GM foods, carcinogenic pesticides, monoculture and reindustrialise France to reduce pollution.
Under ‘Geopolitics’ they want to pull France out of NATO and foreign wars and stop plundering Francophone Africa…generally have laws and access to the law that covers everyone and everything!
Who is involved?
The protests have been joined by workers on the blockades and on the demonstrations in Paris and around the country. It has inspired workers and young people across the border in Belgium and elsewhere, who have had enough of austerity and pro-rich governments. The movement, especially if it gains a major victory, could well spread across Europe and beyond. Many workers and young people are envious of the French people’s penchant for protesting with great determination. The Egyptian dictator, General Sisi, has banned the sale of yellow, hi-viz jackets and even Mosul in Iraq is reported to have its own small gilets jaunes protest.
Youth enter the fray
On 10 December, a new impetus was given to the ‘uprising’ when students at 100 schools set up blockades and joined the struggle. Students are angry at the so-called ‘reforms, which deny them unfettered access to university. Their entry onto the scene was undoubtedly a weighty factor behind the concessions made by Prime Minister, Phillippe, announced on Tuesday 11 December.
Then the shocking scenes went viral of school students on their knees, with their hands on their heads or tied behind them, and with fully armed police towering over them. This aroused a wave of anger beyond the borders of France. On many of the demonstrations, last Saturday, a theatrical re-enactment of armed police versus children was played out in the squares of the country’s towns and cities.
At first, the gilets jaunes were mostly impoverished middle and poor layers of the population, far from and alienated by what they saw as the pampered bourgeois of the capital city. When the Saturday demonstrations in Paris ended with violent battles and the torching of some symbols of luxurious living, demonstrators commented to the media: “We wouldn’t take this kind of action ourselves but we like the results!”
The plebeian nature of the original layers involved in this movement finds expression in their hostility to the complacently rich – the ‘BoBo’s or ‘bourgeois bohemians’ of Paris, and elsewhere – that they are alienated from. The president, who is seen as representing these people rather than those of the majority of the population, has sunk lower in the opinion polls than any previous president. He has less support than the 24% of the electorate which supported him in the first round of the 2017 presidential election.
His party is fractured, his government has already ‘lost’ seven ministers. He may sacrifice his prime minister, as other presidents have done in the face of revolt against their rule. Macron is desperate that it is not his own head that rolls.
Features of a revolution
The brutal use of the forces of the state against demonstrators, in many places, has only increased the determination of the protesters for a fight to the finish. The ruling layer in society is at sixes and sevens on how to proceed. The middle layers are already involved. The forces of the state have been overstretched and are ripe for defection.
What is missing is a mass mobilisation of the most powerful force in society for change – the working class in the factories, the depots, the stations, the offices, the schools and the hospitals. All these workers have already expressed grievances against their bosses or the government or both. Many have been involved in determined but scattered strikes and struggles.
The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) bases itself on the tenet that the only force that can lead to a decisive and lasting victory over the capitalist system is the working class, on the move and with a clear, revolutionary leadership. As yet these factors are missing.
The largest trade union federation in France – the CGT – belatedly called for a build-up of strikes and demonstrations from this Friday coming, and a general strike could develop, even without a call from the top, as it did in 1968. Alternatively it could be limited action but successful, like the mobilisation of two million public sector strikers on the streets in 1995, which defeated the pension ‘reforms’ of Jacques Chirac (and saw the resignation of his prime minister, Alain Juppe). The strategy (on either side) could be to allow a breathing space over the Christmas period before another round of battles in the New Year.
Whatever happens, it is clear that this battle with Macron and his rich backers is not over.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of France Insoumise (France Unbowed), and the left candidate who got over 7 million votes in the first round of the last presidential election, called for protesters to converge in Paris and other cities for ‘Act 5’ of the Saturday demonstrations. He speaks of a continuation of the Citizens’ Revolution but makes no concrete proposals for organising a movement to carry it through.
Programme and leadership
The forces of the CWI in France – Gauche Revolutionnaire – and supporters from other countries, are active participants in the movement – on the blockades, in the lycees and on the mass protests. They have a special issue of their paper – ‘Egalite’ – which calls for a one-day general strike, as the next step to mobilise to bring down the hated government.
The appetite has undoubtedly increased with the eating in an inspiring movement. It is diffuse, but the nature of the demands clearly reflect the anger that exists in society at searing levels of inequality – vastly increased wealth for the tops and ever-increasing sacrifices for the working class and poor.
A feature of this movement has been widespread comments of previously comfortable layers of the middle class now forced into the ranks of the working class. Marx and Engels explained exactly this process that takes place during crises of capitalism in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ first published 170 years ago. Similar moods and sentiments lie behind much of the growth of populism of both the right and left variety in other countries, along with the still surviving post-Stalinist hostility towards organising parties, the concerns of top-down policy-making. It means the movement is diffuse. Being leaderless is an advantage, in some respects, but a hindrance to democratic decision-making and development of cadres and leadership.
The far right figure, Marine le Pen, blamed globalisation and immigration for the crisis in French society. Some of the protests originally smacked of these sentiments but such views were crowded out by mood of common struggle against the government.
Now the gilets jaunes is truly a movement of ‘tous ensemble’ (‘everyone together’). The crucial element which can turn this massive cry of rage into a force for transforming society, on socialist lines, is a party that has this as its clear aim – not just in its name, devoid of all meaning, like that of the discredited Socialist Party in France. The Communist Party in France does not have the support of the past, when it was a mass party of the working class. But that also means it cannot play the role it did in 1968 of an enormous brake on the workers’ movement just as it was on the brink of taking power.
One of the features of the present movement is that it appears to have no leaders and so no-one that the government can persuade to call off the action. It has spokespeople, like Benjamin Cauchy, who declares the movement will not be satisfied with crumbs – it wants the baguette.
As socialists, we would say, why not the bakery? Macron may ‘sacrifice’ his prime minister. He may even be forced to resign himself. New elections may be called. But any government which stays in charge of an economy where the commanding heights are largely in the hands of private owners will return, again and again, to make the workers and poor pay for their recurrent crises.
‘Now that you feel your power’, we would say, ‘Why not link up representative elected committees on a local, regional and national level and make a bid to get rid of the government?’ Jean-Luc Melenchon has called for a Constituent Assembly. Why not make it an assembly of revolt, with democratically elected representatives, at all levels, including from assemblies in the workplaces , offices, schools, local neighbourhoods, and factories?
Such mass committees of struggle could grow into a government of workers and poor people. It can have as its programme all the demands of the movement and the taking into public ownership of the big banks and top companies – the ‘CAC 40’ – which form the basis of French capitalism (and where the friends of Macron get their easy wealth from). The watchwords of the revolution of 1789 – ‘Equality, Liberty and Fraternity’ – can only be secured on the basis of socialism!
As the special edition of Gauche Revolutionnaire’s newspaper puts it, the French movement needs to link the immediate struggle for a minimum wage, the re-instatement of the taxes on the super-rich, an injection of billions into education, health and the environment with the struggle for socialism. This entails striving for a society that is “planned democratically and ecologically to satisfy the needs of all and not the profits of the handful of super-rich…a truly democratic, fraternal and tolerant society, free of wars, poverty, racism and sexism”.
by Weizmann Hamilton Executive Committee
This article appears in the new issue of Izwi Labasebenzi (Issue No. 2 of 2018).
The EFF has turned five, but it finds itself at sixes and sevens. The VBS corruption revelations may be shocking, but they are no aberration. This is but the latest example of the EFF’s mounting contradictions. The timing could not have been more embarrassing. Having played a major role in determining Zuma’s fate, the EFF was still celebrating their latest victory – the resignation of Nhanhla Nene.
The EFF has vigorously denied wrongdoing, threatening legal action against the SA Reserve Bank. But it is possible that second-in-command, deputy president Floyd Shivambu, could be prosecuted. Claims have since followed that Julius Malema, (through his cousin) and the EFF itself may have benefited. The EFF refused to form coalitions with the ANC because it is corrupt. Yet it entered coalitions for self-enrichment with ANC leaders, turning VBS into an institution for theft from the poor.
The EFF leadership has, unsurprisingly proclaimed its 16 October VBS press conference a success. With the investigations still ongoing and prosecutions still awaited – the evidence is not yet in the public domain. The EFF is thus able to claim it is innocent till proven guilty. But this is a fig leaf to hide its naked embarrassment.
The evidence of looting is so overwhelming that the EFF leadership had no alternative but to echo public sentiment, pretending to share in the revulsion, condemning corruption and calling for prosecutions. Malema even gave an undertaking to act against Shivambu if he were found guilty.
To make matters worse for the EFF, it is suspected that behind its so-far unsuccessful no-confidence motions against Tshwane Mayor, Solly Msimang, are attempts to cover-up corruption amounting to R12 million involving a Tshwane City Manager – an alleged EFF member.
Attempting to rescue its “radical economic transformation” credentials, the EFF has called for VBS to be saved, because it is a “black bank.” This serves merely to expose the EFF’s real class ambitions – self-enrichment. It stands firmly beside the ANC, DA, and the radical transformation rabble – Black First Land First, Transform SA, Mazibuye African Congress etc. – to get rich quickly.
The EFF is approaching a cross-road in its political fortunes. Severe damage to its dishonestly constructed anti-corruption image faces it. Simultaneously cracks are widening in the party itself. Chaos erupted at two of its provincial assemblies. In at least one, Malema’s bodyguards fired live rounds of ammunition at EFF members storming the fleeing commander-in-chief’s car. They had rebelled against the imposition of his preferred provincial structure candidates. Malema’s North West EFF allies are desperately fending off sexual harassment and victimization allegations. All this has severely dented many EFF members’ confidence.
How did the EFF get here?
The EFF’s political and ideological degeneration is surprising not because it has occurred at all – that was always a given. It is the speed with which it is undressing itself that is striking. The leadership’s fears are for both their personal fate at the hands of the law, as well as its electoral credibility. It is turning up the volume of its racist noise – condemning all whites as thieves, smearing Indians and coloureds as racists – in a desperate attempt to boost its electoral appeal, stalling since 2014. In the 37 by-elections in 2018, it has not increased its 2014 votes, and regressed in most provinces. Its Gauteng growth is small. Only in Limpopo has it increased support more significantly.
The EFF boasted ahead of the 2016 local elections that it expected to control at least one metro and some municipalities. As the capitalist Business Day observed, “Malema predicted 18% (from the 6% in 2014) at the local elections in 2016. It got to 8%, less than 100,000 new votes…. Now he’s projecting 12% in 2019. That’s still well over 1-million new voters he needs. Where will they come from? Not from the DA. And with Zuma gone, not from the ANC. Malema will have to register a whole generation of new voters” (Business Day 29/03/18).
The EFF’s exaggerated expectations were built on a misreading of the 2014 results. Its spectacular 1.3m votes for a party of only 12 months, only matched those of the Congress of the Peoples’ in 2009. This despite the far more favourable conditions in 2014 than those under which Cope contested. The EFF failed to capitalise to its full potential the deep post-Marikana anger of the masses against a deeply divided corruption tainted ANC. This pointed to the limits of its electoral appeal particularly amongst organised workers who have a healthy class suspicion towards a party led by a millionaire who has never worked a day in his life.
In 2016, the EFF could have called for fresh elections after 90 days if an administration was not formed. Instead it installed DA mayors. This rescued the DA, enabling it to claim electoral momentum. It became the DA’s useful idiots – the cheerleaders of its hypocritical propaganda that it runs corruption-free administrations.
The DA/EFF coalitions confirm that the EFF does not take its own anti-capitalist rhetoric seriously. They are a local government dress rehearsal for a national coalition with the ANC in 2019 – an engagement with the monkey in preparation for marriage with the organ grinder.
The EFF since 2016 – a catalogue of betrayals
The EFF’s post-2016 election strategy is driven by two considerations. First, ambition to enter national office in 2019; second, self-preservation to avoid exposure for corruption.
Since 2016 the EFF has:
- Entered into coalitions with DA – a party it denounces as racist agents of “white monopoly capital”.
- Defended Zulu King Zwelithini’s rejection of Expropriation of Land Without Compensation (EWC).The King has subsequently roped-in AfriForum pulling the EFF into an anti-EWC alliance with racists claiming white farmer genocide
- Allied with the House of Traditional Leaders colluding with multinationals exploiting mineral resources at mining communities’ expense
- Through spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s flattering congratulatory birthday tweet to Gatsha Buthelezi, praised the historical role of the IFP leader despite his leading role in the apartheid regime-orchestrated “black-on-black” violence in the 1980s and 1990s
What lies behind the EFF’s anti-Indian racism?
Malema insists that SA’s main problem in SA today is not class but race. But it is the racism in the Indian community that the EFF leadership has singled out. Racism undoubtedly exists in the Indian community. But racism is found in all communities, including Africans, to different degrees. Racist prejudices are rooted in the poverty and social deprivation that continues today beyond apartheid, preserved by the same capitalist system white minority rule served.
For Marxists, it is not only what is said in politics, but by whom and why. The EFF is targeting Treasury Deputy Director Ishmael Monmoniat because he is implementing legislation threatening to expose looting. Accusing him of “undermining African leadership” insults the black director general and his other deputies.
Pravin Gordhan is similarly race-baited for pursuing corruption in state-owned enterprises. The SA Revenue Service “rogue unit” hysteria deflects attention from the investigation into the illicit activities of tobacco outfit, Carnilex, whose director, Adriano Mazzotti, has confessed to corruption, paid the EFF’s IEC registration fee and Malema’s R16 million tax arrears.
EFF attempts to undermine the State Capture Commission members are similarly motivated – the fear of exposure of its links to corruption. Under a new NPA leadership Malema could have his corruption charges reinstated.
How do we answer the EFF’s racist populism?
The first duty of genuine socialists is to promote working class unity of all races around a common platform and programme of action to dismantle the foundations of all prejudice – racial, ethnic, religious, nationalist and gender – the capitalist system.
Such a programme must:
- Lay bare the class divisions within every racial / ethnic / national / religious group showing how the working class in each have more in common with their class brothers and sisters across these boundaries than with the capitalist elite within them
- Explain that these prejudices are fed by working class poverty in each community
- Explain that economic freedom is unattainable under capitalism and requires the socialist transformation of society
- Explain the negotiated settlement aimed to preserve capitalism and open the road for the black bourgeoisie
The EFF does the exact opposite. Having in reality embraced the preservation of capitalism, the EFF is obliged to promote the racial divisions that capitalism has historically relied on with the aim of stopping the working class from uniting and overthrowing it.
The EFF is unlikely to survive action against Shivambu intact. Equally if Malema fails to act, it will damage it even further. Malema is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Those followers hoping against hope the EFF is fundamentally different from the ANC will be more disappointed as it continues taking steps along the path back to the party it came from.
But the EFF’s radical rhetoric does not fool the strategists of capital. Former Business Day editor Peter Bruce warmly welcomed Shivambu’s planned private member’s bill to establish a sovereign wealth fund as marking “an important shift in the EFF’s approach to, and its attitude to, capitalism and the market”. (Business Live 21/05/2018).
The bourgeois is worried Ramaphosa is not up to the job of saving capitalism. Peter Bruce lamented: “Capitalism is our only viable future. But it needs to be bent and shaped to our purposes and I’m not sure he (Ramaphosa) knows how to do it.” (Sunday Times 28/10/18). The ANC may not pass the 50% barrier in 2019. A pro-capitalist alliance of some combination is thus possible. The EFF will be a willing partner in exchange for cabinet positions.
Even if the EFF achieves the 11%-12% of the vote that the latest polls suggest, it is no alternative for the working class. The resolutions of the historic Working Class Summit convened by Saftu in July to form a mass workers party on a socialist programme must be implemented urgently.