by Benoit Martin, Payday 17 march 2019

With President Macron’s ’Great Debate’ ending on 15 March, thousands of gilets jaunes protested last Saturday, many joined the Marches for climate which brought together 350,000 people across the country. 

Despite violent repression, the gilets jaunes have never ceased to demonstrate every Saturday since 17 November. They have invaded motorways and public spaces in large and small towns; some also protested on weekdays, including against multinationals’ tax evasions.

The gilets jaunes became more unified when 100+ local groups and assemblies met for the first ‘assembly of assemblies’ in the small provincial town of Commercy on 26 and 27 January. Their final statement called for ‘an immediate increase of wages, benefits and pensions, the unconditional right to housing and healthcare, and free public services for all.’ Critically, it also calls for a profound transformation of the political system - a new constitution and a referendum to oust corrupt politicians. ‘Macron resign’ remains their main slogan.

Most left wing organisations, parties and academia have supported the Commercy statement.

The gilets jaunes have been an unstoppable unifying force, opening the way for other sectors of society to express their own grievances. These include students opposing privatisation in education and demanding changes to the curriculum, people with disabilities opposing cuts, pensioners demanding a decent income, people of colour protesting police violence, organic farmers and ecologists fighting climate change. Even psychoanalysts have acknowledged, , while protesting, that ‘today people are speaking freely, that’s the gilets jaunes effect.

Women gilets jaunes have been the most visible sector to organise autonomous actions. In many towns and cities, they have marched weekly against police violence (often directed at their children), and have spoken out against being the hardest hit by austerity. On 9 March they led the weekly demonstrations in Paris and Toulouse. They also inspired women in London. At the protest for International Women’s Day (8 March) outside the Royal Court of Justice in London, the Global Women’s Strike’s wore gilets jaunes. Better than words.

The power and unity of the gilets jaunes comes from their collective self-mobilisation, their resilience, and their independence from political parties, trade-unions and other institutions. They have not allowed self proclaimed ‘spokespeople’ to negotiate with the government on their behalf.

However, their relationship with higher wage earners remains a challenge -- most gilets jaunes are low income workers, pensioners or self-employed.

On 5 February, a general strike was called by the unions CGT and Solidaires. Many gilets jaunes took part in the strike, like Carole from Commercy: ‘ We must blockade the economy. Uniting with unionised workers will make it possible for the movement to do this.’ Her colleague was more cautious: ‘We are not in touch with the unions apparatus but with the grassroots in the unions. We know these people are with us.’

Macron, already weakened by a scandal involving his former head of security, may be hoping the gilet jaunes movement will disappear through fatigue and repression. But a second ‘assembly of assemblies’ is planned for the 5, 6 and 7 April in Saint-Nazaire, and this Saturday demonstrations – publicised as an ultimatum to Macron - should remind him that the gilets jaunes are here to stay.

Benoit Martin is an activist with Payday men working with the Global Women's Strike