The Washington Socialist <> January 2019
By Caroline Debnam
The yellow vest (gilets jaunes) protests that began in France have emerged as an impressive display against the neoliberal centrist Macron administration and the austerity measures to which the people of France and Europe have been subjected.
The backlash against Macron’s so-called economic and modernization reforms has been so severe, and at times violent, that the French president was forced to address the nation and offer concessions — notably eliminating the grossly unfair and disproportionately burdensome diesel and VAT tax that would have made commuting and daily life almost impossible to afford for the working class. However, the protests are far too widespread to be solely blamed on the increased cost of transportation for those who commute to work in diesel-fueled vehicles. High school students are walking out of class, labor unions are taking to the streets, and even some reactionary far-right wing and anti-immigration voices have made a fuss. Although the group is diverse and the prescriptions are varied, what we are witnessing is a fierce backlash against the capitalist globalization the elites have been offering.
The diversity of ideas and grievances presented in the yellow vest movement begs for clarity. Because there is no formal organization or comprehensive platform, just a short list of demands, many in the international community are struggling to know how to react. Proceeding with caution is imperative, but offering solidarity to the working class struggle internationally is imperative as well. Alienation of such movements because they are misunderstood or divided will not create a robust space for socialism. Internationalism will have to contend with all kinds of voices and ideas; shying away from potential dissension will only allow for more reactionary, right-wing neo-fascist elements to capture power.
The left must capitalize (no pun intended) on this moment of mass mobilization and offer something different from the neoliberal capitalist globalization that elites like Macron and his friends pursue at the expense of the working class. Economic and political cooperation between countries and governments does not have to entail doing capital’s bidding. Free trade means nothing if capitalists continue to hoard profits and exploit workers to catastrophic ends. Climate change is not the proletariat’s responsibility but a corporate problem that governments should be aggressively pursuing.
We also must not allow the right to co-opt internationalism for neoliberal ends. They may try to integrate open immigration into a path for cheap labor and capital or impose carbon taxes on working class people to offer a veneer of climate change action while allowing capitalists to destroy the earth. To break the chains of the international working class, internationalists will have to listen to their various demands and work to unite across borders.
See “Good Reads” in this issue for a collateral perspective from France.