Professor Richard D. Wolff on the Historical Significance of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) Movement

O Phil des Contrastes

O Phil des Contrastes

We spoke with professor Richard D. Wolff on the historical significance of the Gilets Jaunes movement in France and how it parallels the growing civil unrest and labor strikes in the US. Wolff is the host of the weekly radio program Economic Update and the co-founder of Democracy at Work, a non-profit organization advocating for the democratization of workspaces.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

MFU: Mainstream media initially portrayed the Gilets Jaunes movement as backwards, painting them as disbelievers in climate change or apprehensive to embrace climate action policies, because it was a fuel tax that initially sparked the uprising. But despite alternative coverage which has told a different story, this still seems to be the picture that many Americans have of the movement. Can you talk about who the Gilets Jaunes are, why they opposed a fuel tax, and what they’re fighting for?

RW: Absolutely. And I agree 100% with your depiction of how the media have handled it. It is correct that the initial stimulus of roughly 12 to 13 weeks ago for these demonstrations to begin was opposition to a newly-imposed fuel tax. President Macron decided the government would impose a new tax on people and then thought (in my own judgement—this is how it looks to me) it would be clever to get the mass of people to accept another tax on themselves by saying that it would be used in large part to deal with ecological issues. The people who put on the yellow vests specifically said they supported dealing with the environment; a huge number of the people who took the initiative were in fact people who have been active around ecological and environmental issues for quite a while in France. But they were not in favor of taxing the mass of people who depend on fuel for their heat, for moving their vehicles, for their daily life—that was not the proper way to pay the costs. This is in a country notorious for the tax evasion of its richest citizens, and for the tax evasion of its corporate enterprises. There have been major struggles around those issues. This was a perfectly consistent, logical, outgrowth of the realities of French politics, which is one of the reasons why the Yellow Vests have been so popular, and why the public opinion polls have been so solidly behind it. So portraying this as in some way anti-environmentalist is not a mistake; that is a deliberate misrepresentation of everything about this event.

MFU: Over the past decade there were just 13 major strikes a year on average, which is less than one-sixth the yearly average in the 1980s, and less than one-twentieth the yearly average in the 1970s. But in the last year we have seen a surge in strikes, a surge in civil disobedience, and in less than six hours after the closure of a few airports caused by the absence of airport workers, the longest government shutdown in history was ended. Are Americans rediscovering the power of labor and civil disobedience?

Absolutely. And before I comment on it I would like it to be clear that this is a symptom of a system in serious trouble. It can’t solve its problems and its failure to solve its problems is becoming so extreme, lasting so long, and hurting so many people, that you’re beginning to get exactly what your question poses—namely a resurgence of an awareness of what labor unified can do, what its powers always were.

Let me give you some examples that prove this. Last year, in six states of the United States, public school teachers used their unions, or went around their unions in other cases, to demand proper funding for public schools, including reversing the long decline in their pay. In every one of these six states Trump won the election, usually by big margins, and yet these strikes, these demands, were popular. The majority of people in each of the six states thought the teachers were justified, thought that improving the public schools was a worthy thing to do, even if it cost some extra taxes. I think you’re beginning to see the change. This year—which is barely a month old—has seen an extraordinary victory of the Los Angeles teachers’ union in a strike they had earlier in the month of January. And in Denver there’s a strike being planned by the school teachers. It’s becoming a real movement of these public employees and in the history of this sort of thing these things spread.

And I think the teachers are a model. I think they’re being emulated. They have a lot of respect anyway for what they do in the community. They have a lot of contact with people in the community. Obviously the children and the parents of the children are watching what the teachers are going through, and the children are learning from it.

That’s inevitable in the nature of these things. This is a system that is producing—as an old critic of capitalism once said—its own grave-diggers. It’s producing the anger, the bitterness, the recognition, the understanding, that are key ingredients for the kinds of movements like Occupy, like the Gilets Jaunes, that we see growing around us. And this is not a phenomena limited to the United States, but perhaps it’s more important for me to say, given the history of so-called American exceptionalism, this is a process from which the United States is not exempt.

I have been asked a dozen times in the last month to talk about the Yellow Vests in France. Despite the misrepresentation in the press there is an understanding that something extraordinary is going on. In hundreds of French towns, and cities, and villages, people put on the yellow vests, even if it lasted for an hour, and it took place on the local town green, or community center. There was a sense that this is for us, this is about our lives, this is our chance to participate really—not once a year, going into a voting booth and picking between two people you barely know and don’t trust. This is real engagement, discussion, debate, collective action, making a difference, and that is very powerful in any time, but at a time when the system seems to be falling apart, it takes on a special power.

MFU: The economic system in which we live can keep us isolated from one another and the corporate control of the media can confuse and exacerbate divisions. Would an American Yellow Vest movement present a unique opportunity to overcome some of these issues? Could this movement alone be a place of connection and ideological struggle?

RW: Absolutely. And let me try to turn that a little bit around. I think it is not unfair to say that one of many influences that produced this absolutely remarkable Gilets Jaunes movement was the awareness of people in France about the Occupy Wall Street movement here in the United States. So it would really be a case of cross fertilization, if you like, in both directions. There was something that happened years ago, in 2011, here in the United States, that had its echoes in France, and when the French people thought about how to go about expressing their anger at a government that behaves this way, I think that the remembrance of Occupy, the fact that there were Occupy events in Paris and other French cities, played its role. So given that history, yes I think nothing would make more sense than to see Occupy as a first installment, to see the Bernie Sanders campaign as in a way an outgrowth of that, to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others like her coming along, taking the next step, that in France this process is going on also and the Gilets Jaunes movement is a major milestone along the same path in that country.

MFU: Can you talk about the contrast between the revolutionary past and class consciousness of the French and American societies? And given the hyper militarization of the American police force and the character of the current administration, do you think a Yellow Vest movement in the US presents dangers that the French movement does not?

RW: Well you know each country has its own conditions and there will of course be differences in how Americans go about it, or the French, or the Germans, or the Nigerians, or anybody else. But I do think that there are parallels, or similarities, if you like. One of the things that created the Gilets Jaunes movement in France was an immense frustration and disappointment by the mass of people in all the political parties. By the way, president Macron is himself a symptom of that. He had no political party. He had been a member of the socialist party, and part of the François Hollande socialist government that was in power before Macron came in. He quit that party when it lost popularity. He was not a member of the conservative party. He ran for president by saying: vote for me because you’re disappointed with the parties, so am I—the parties are dead, the parties are ineffective, the parties don’t challenge or solve any problems. And the French people, disgusted by conventional politics, did exactly that. And notice again the parallel. It’s like the British voting for Brexit—not because they want to be in or out of the European Union, but out of anger and bitterness at a political system that doesn’t listen to them, doesn’t take care of them. And it’s also again reminiscent of this country, in which all kinds of people who never did this before voted for someone like Donald Trump. Again, less in favor of whatever he stands for, which was and is a mystery, but more out of a disgust with conventional politics. That’s how he beat the old republicans in that party, and that’s basically how he defeated Hillary Clinton, by painting her as the same old thing. So I think Macron is already a step.

And the Gilets Jaunes, disgusted with conventional politics, did not use their political parties. They didn’t go to the political parties and say: you get rid of this tax. They decided to do it themselves. Again, it’s a little like the people who were into the Occupy movement. Those were people who didn’t expect the Democratic party to be a vehicle for their concerns, so they decided to do it themselves. That is a very powerful sign of the collapse, if you like, or the dysfunctionality, of conventional political parties. And the Occupy movement here, and now this much more developed, much more national, much more enduring movement, are signs that this is an international phenomena, and the French are for sure, given their history, gonna participate.

Now on the last point—the police. It’s very important that you raised it. I think the clue to what will eventually happen in the United States is what has already happened with the Gilets Jaunes. First the government tried to dismiss this as of no importance. When that didn’t work and the demonstrations got bigger and bigger, they made a concession or two. They got rid of that fuel tax. They changed the pension arrangements to do what the workers had demanded. They raised the minimum wage. In other words, one of the remarkable things that differentiates the French Gilets Jaunes from Occupy was they really got concrete immediate concessions, and the lesson was not lost on the French people, and shouldn’t be lost in America either. Direct action by the mass of people in the streets got more concessions than the socialist party, communist party, anti-capitalist party, the whole left of France, which is at least half of it, were able to achieve in all party politics. So it’s very clear to the French what works and what doesn’t.

The biggest central demand of the Gilets Jaunes movement now is the resignation of President Macron. He is an ineffective leader. He did things he should never have done. The concessions he made were too little and too late. And now his use of the effort of the police to repress this demonstration was the last straw. So you can see things are escalating.

Four weeks ago the head of the police union made a public statement saying he did not want his members, the police, to be placed between this president and the mass of people. That’s an extraordinary thing for the police to say. They’re basically saying we will not be used by an ineffective president against the mass of the people. Keep in mind that polls keep indicating that the majority of the French public supports the Yellow Vests, believes in them, and does not support the president.

In the last two weeks the specialized state police have been using pellets—small objects that actually come out of a gun. They’re not a bullet but they’re pellets and they have blinded now roughly six people with these things. And now the demand is that that stop, that the police not have weapons that can do that kind of damage. The overwhelming majority of Yellow Vest demonstrations have been peaceful from beginning to end. There were a few incidents of violence. It is now not known whether they were instigated by the police, or instigated by some elements within the folks. You know, it’s an open demonstration. All you have to do to participate is to go and get one of the yellow vests that French law mandates be in the trunk of every vehicle in France. But can there be some people who have another agenda? Yes there can. And can they exist among the Yellow Vests? Yes they can. And can they exist among the government agents? Yes. All of that is going on. But we have to be smart enough to know all of that and understand what the main thrusts here are. And those are mass political engagement.

These people are now for twelve to thirteen weeks engaged in politics, reading the newspaper, thinking through the issues, and having meetings. Everything that we have ever thought about in the way of democratic participation is being done in France in a way that has never before been achieved. This is a historic change. It’s as important in the long run as the French Revolution was in the 18th century, because it is the mass of people moving, and that’s why it deserves everybody’s attention. Not just for the successes it achieves, but for the mistakes inevitably that it will make, and all such movements do, but it should be understood for the historic event that it is.

MFU: With the current situation in Venezuela, we see the ruthlessness of neoliberalism’s tentacles in full force. Can you talk about the wider global context of opposing imperialist regimes?

RW: Well I think that with Venezuela we see what the ‘Make America Great Again’ boils down to, as a slogan. In this case, it’s make American colonialism great again. It’s had a rough time in recent years, with many regimes. But I think what you’re seeing there is a kind of desperation. You can’t get rid of these governments in the way that you used to. You used to be able to buy a few opposition politicians, buy a few military leaders, and with the protection of the United States military, if needed, you could then shuffle these governments and then buy them out with ‘foreign aid’. It was repeated in literally every country of Latin America for 200 years. We’re coming up to the 200th anniversary of what was publically announced as the doctrine of manifest destiny, back in the 1820s and 1830s, and here we are, 200 years of endless colonial manipulation, as if it were God’s will for the United States to play this role.

Colonialism everywhere in the world is hated and opposed by the vast majority of people. That has to be understood. And you can see it in the most sharp contradiction in the last couple of days. The European Union to its shame has endorsed the new government that declared itself against Mr. Maduro, the elected president of the country. But in the same day that the European Union sided with the United States (the Europeans being the archetypical example of colonialism), the African Union, which is the union of all the African countries, voted overwhelmingly to endorse and support the Maduro government, and to oppose any external interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela, as in the colonialism that the last half century has been devoted to dismantling, from India and China, and so on.

To not see that context, to blather on about the internal problems of Venezuela…which by the way are serious, and which the government there has some responsibility for. This is not an argument that there’s all beauty on one side and all ugly on the other, that would be childish, that would be the way that mainstream media likes to portray this. The United States has never systematically helped the poor of Venezuela. Chavez and Maduro have made some efforts, alongside of mistakes. That’s the truth of it. This is not about humanitarian anything. This is about taking advantage of the problems of a government you don’t like to make those problems get much worse by applying sanctions, legally and illegally, by conniving with politicians with their own agendas in the society, and trying thereby to get rid of a government.

Why? Number one: Venezuela is one of the oil rich countries of the world. It’s either the biggest, or number two, or number three. And if it’s an independent government, if it’s a government not to the liking of the United States, it can and will make deals with China, with Spain, with other countries, to make the best use for itself of the oil that exists under its soil. What the United States is doing and what the politicians here in this country have already said is they want to control that oil. That is a major reason for this kind of behavior, as it has been for 200 years. Number two: the Venezuelan governments under Chavez and Maduro have been allied with those in Cuba, have been very friendly with the leftist regime in Bolivia, and have been a source of support—inspirational and material—to other independent movements, other socialist movements, all over Latin America. If you get rid of this government not only can you snatch their oil, but you remove one of the supports for progressive social change inside Latin America. These two reasons are more than enough.

But the nakedness of this, the decision that a man who didn’t even run in the last presidential election, didn’t stand for election…if the election had some problems, and let’s remember that President Jimmy Carter certified that it was a good election, as these elections go, if there was a question, he’s not the relevant person to be given a new government. He declares himself a government knowing that he’s going to get support from the people who are the enemies of Venezuela. It’s an extraordinary intervention violating all the international understandings, laws, and agreements that say the way for a peaceful world requires that we let countries work out their own internal problems, without the intervention of foreign powers with extraordinarily ulterior motives.