The South African Federation of Trade Unions salutes the workers of France who have been protesting in their hundreds of thousands against President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘government of the rich’.
There have been anti-government protests at more than 2,000 different locations since the movement broke out in early December. Protesters have faced water cannon, police batons and tear gas. In response they have erected barricades, hurled paving stones at the notorious riot police, and demonstrated on the steps of the Paris stock exchange.
SAFTU congratulates the protesters on having already forced the government to make important concessions. Having already agreed to postpone the implementation of an increase in the tax on diesel fuel – the issue which sparked off the protest – Macron has now announced an increase in the national minimum wage of around R1 635 per month, to take it up to around R24 491per month.
But the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow jackets) are still determined to keep up the fight for more fundamental changes in the distribution of wealth. And the leadership of the main trade union federation – the CGT – has announced a national day of action on 14 December to demonstrate against austerity and unemployment.
South African workers will notice the similarities with the issues which have sparked similar anger here – the fuel levy increase and the poverty minimum wage. (Note however that the French NMW is seven times bigger than Ramaphosa’s pitiful figure!).
In both countries it is not just these specific issues that has made people so angry but a more general protest against high taxes, the rising cost of living, unemployment, poverty and a feeling that the country’s leaders are elitist, arrogant and out of touch.
100 schools were blockaded by students protesting against Macron’s education ‘reforms’. Paramedics blocked the approaches to the National Assembly with at least 100 ambulances, in protest against changes in their working conditions. Facebook has shown firefighters protesting outside municipal headquarters.
Both governments have cut social spending and presided over a big increase in unemployment (with ten million unemployed or under-employed in France), while big business has been given massive tax breaks. France’s central bank halved its fourth-quarter growth forecast to just 0.2% from 0.4%, just as low as South Africa’s.
Very significantly, the protests have spread beyond France, to Belgium and the Netherlands. Thousands gathered in Brussels and The Hague where there were burning barricades and street fighting, despite their governments not having made any similar proposals like Macron’s diesel tax.
The ‘gilets jaunes’ are articulating the pent-up frustrations of all layers in society. Even Macron has had to admit that “the protests by mostly low-income people in small town or rural France are the result of long-term problems. Their distress doesn’t date from yesterday. We have ended up getting used to it. These are forty years of malaise that have come to the surface.”
“It is clear that we underestimated people’s need to make themselves heard,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio.
These events recall the social explosion of 1968, the revolutionary upsurge that came very close to ousting President Charles de Gaulle, which could have opened the way to socialism not only in France but Europe and the world. The slogan on one of the current protesters’ yellow jacket read: “I was here in 1968 and I am still here fighting!”
In 1968, the protests began with the students and was only later joined by the trade unions which led to a march of a million in Paris. In today’s protests however neither students nor organised workers were at the forefront in the beginning.
Most of the first demonstrators were people from rural areas, protesting at the drastic cuts in their living standards. It is a movement expressing accumulated anger, uniting many who have voted very different ways in recent elections – right, left and centre, or not at all.
The movement is very diverse. The leader of the left-wing France Insoumise (France Unbowed), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who got more than seven million votes in the first round of the last elections, has called the current movement the “citizens’ revolution”.
Yet the far-right, racist Rassemblement National (formerly the National Front) has also supported the protests.. Even the leader of the main party of French capitalism – Les Republicains – called for a referendum on the government’s diesel tax.
The involvement of such right-wing elements threatens to undermine the movement, unless the organized working class provides leadership. But only very belatedly did the leadership of the CGT issue its call for mass action on 14 December.
This is despite the fact polls show that eight out of ten people support the protests and its main slogan ‘Macron resign!’ In the last month his personal opinion poll ratings have dropped to an all-time low.
He has already ‘lost’ seven ministers since coming to power in 2017, either embroiled in some form of corruption, violence, or, at best, disillusionment and at least half the members of his party – the LREM – have stopped going to meetings and the party itself is said to be splintering. There is a crisis opening at the top of society.
More and more Mélenchon voters, along with disappointed one-time Macron supporters, and workers and young people who have not voted at all in recent elections, have been on the streets.
The situation raises urgently the need for a strong union movement and left party to adopt a programme that channels the dissatisfactions of every layer of society behind socialist demands – the impoverished middle class, the workers whose jobs and wages are threatened and the young people who now leave school with no guarantee of higher education or jobs.
There must be no repeat of the trade union leaders’ capitulation in 1968, when they signed an agreement which contained a few concessions to the workers but left the capitalist status quo intact.
In South Africa we can see the basis for a very similar uprising in the growing number of workers’ strikes and community protests, many of which have led to violent confrontations with employers and the state, reflecting the polarisation of class forces in this most unequal society in the world.
This is why the Working-Class Summit in July was so important, bringing together 147 organisations of workers and communities who agreed on a plan of action to coordinate and unite these protests.
Just as in France, there is a swelling wave of popular protest against landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, poverty wages, outsourcing, labour brokering, dysfunctional education and healthcare, poverty, evictions, inequality, environmental destruction, electricity load-shedding, poor service delivery, crime, a dysfunctional justice system and water cut-offs!
SAFTU is about to announce its 2019 programme of action on all these issues, which will include a total shut-down for three days, which will draw into its ranks the majority of South Africans, who, just like their counterparts in France, have been excluded from power and driven into poverty.
Be prepared for a movement on the same scale as that now unfolding in France!
Workers of the world unite!