France: presidential smoke and mirrors

On Monday evening, Macron gave a televised speech in an attempt to placate the yellow vest movement that now threatens his government. The following day, its contents were scrutinised and debated among all who have mobilised in recent weeks. The verdict: "smoke and mirrors". In particular, "the increase of the minimum wage by 100 euros" includes the automatic revaluation of the minimum wage scheduled for January 2019, in addition to an increase in the "activity premium" supplement, which will not cost employers one cent – and will not be taken into account when calculating pension entitlements.

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"Without costing the employer one more euro": this was the key formula of Macron's speech. Big Capital was offered assurances that its profits would not be affected by the "new contract for the Nation" announced by the head of state. In fact, the big bosses would even come out as winners: on the one hand, thanks to Macron’s generous suggestion that workers be provided overtime "without taxes or charge" (to the employer); and, on the other hand, his proposal of tax exemption for end-of-year bonuses, knowing that a certain number of companies had already planned to pay them – and in any event, they are under no obligation to pay them.

Spare the bosses: make the workers pay!

If Big Capital is not made to contribute, if it profits even from new tax rebates, who will pay the bill for Macron’s ‘concessions’? The answer is obvious: if it is not capital, then labour will pay, as well as the middle classes. In what form? Macron was careful not to give away any details. But it is well known that the mass of the population will pick up the tab in the form of cuts to public spending and various tax increases. In other words, the little that was given with the left-hand last night will be taken back with the right hand tomorrow. And of course, the right hand will take much more than the left hand has given, in line with the agenda of drastic counter-reforms planned in the coming years to pensions, unemployment benefits, the civil service, etc.

Therefore, it is not surprising that most yellow vests are dissatisfied – and therefore determined to continue their mobilisation. As for the high school and university student youth, they have even less reason to demobilise, because Macron did not even mention them – as if they did not exist and have not made any demands. In general, the mass movement that has developed in the country cannot be satisfied with a few crumbs here and there. Macron himself said it: "40 years of hardship have re-emerged." Precisely. But he will not be able to dispel 40 years of hardship, suffering and humiliation by distributing a few tens of euros per month to such and such a layer of the population. For example, many retirees might pay lower pension contributions in 2019, but will not stop being poor or very poor after a lifetime of hard work. And what about the civil servants, workers paid above the minimum wage, the unemployed, part-time workers, craftsmen, small traders, small farmers, etc.? For them, Macron did not announce anything. However, they will be used to pay the bill.

Tiny carrot, big stick

The mobilisation of the yellow vests will continue in the days to come. But as Macron made clear at the beginning of his speech, they will be subjected to brutal repression, as will the youth. Before shaking a few small carrots, Macron brandished the big stick, or rather the big club of the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité: the notorious French general reserve police). In addition, the movement of the yellow vests is certainly powerful, deep and extremely combative, but if it does not quickly develop into a campaign of rolling strikes, the government will yield nothing substantial. After weeks of mobilisation, fatigue is likely taking its toll on the movement. This fatigue has entered into the calculations of the government, which awaits a Christmas truce with feverish impatience.

police beating student Image fair useIn his speech, Macron offered a handful of non-concessions and threatened further repression / Image: fair use

We have said it time and again: either a powerful movement of strikes will begin quickly, or the movement of the yellow vests could temporarily fall back in the weeks to come. But even if this were to happen, Macron would not resolve " 40 years of hardship [that] have re-emerged". His government would be in an even more fragile position than that of Chirac’s in the aftermath of the big strike of December 1995. A point of no return has been crossed. Each new attack by the government is likely to trigger a new and powerful mass mobilisation, at an even higher level than in recent weeks. Regardless of its immediate prospects, the yellow vests movement has already managed to bring the Macron government to the brink of collapse. And it is hard to see how it could not fall in the days, weeks, or (at best) months.