Dragging it out with Talk in France

New Orleans        The “Yellow Vest” protests have gone on for months now in France.  The protests began to spread throughout the country as people protested the government’s increase in the taxes on gas.   On successive weekends, especially in Paris, where marchers went right down the picturesque and usually tourist-filled Champ de Elysee to the Arch of Triumph, but also joined by tens of thousands throughout the rest of the country in cities and towns, large and small, the demands morphed into a more generalized protest against the policies of the president, Emmanuel Macron.  These policies were seen as sweepingly pro-business and favoring the wealthy.  Macron was something of an upstart candidate with an newly formed amalgamated political party with pieces from his former Socialist membership and other parties and politicians that sensed a winner.  Even before the gas hike, Macron’s program had become deeply unpopular, and his own poll ratings at 39% approval are about equal to President Donald Trump’s standing in the United States.

The protests are named after the yellow vests that are required to be kept in all vehicles licensed in the country, so that when a motorist has problems they can more easily be seen on the highways, thereby preventing accidents and fatalities.  That’s a great idea and a great symbol for the protests and protestors.

An idea that that seems less great and almost an obfuscating, delay tactic is Macron’s recent effort to respond to the protest and the anger underlying them with a national talk-a-thon.  He announced this at a meeting of 600 mayors from around the country that he pulled together to explain the dialogue, claiming it would be responsive to the protests.

On the face of it, this is an interesting and novel tactic, though of course not easy to pull off.  There are 67 million people in France.  In US terms, this would be a coffee klatch that would include everyone in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and the Dakotas to reach a similarly sized population, even though the geography is much different.  Early polling is not promising to Macron.  70% of respondents indicated that they doubt that this gabfest would do any good or make a difference.

Of course, the government has their fingers of the scale as well.  Though Macron claimed that nothing was “off the table” for the discussion, he also focused on four hey areas and posed several questions.  One question for example tried to tie the Yellow Vest protests to controlling climate change, diluting the fact the protests seem to be largely fueled as much by a reaction to tax breaks for corporations and the rich, and gas tax hikes for the rest of the country.  Protest leaders for the Yellow Vests have responded with their demands for national plebiscites on new government policies through an initiative process as well as lowing taxes and reducing officials’ salaries, quickly gaining 140,000 on-line signatures.  The input process, both online and direct, is supposed to cap off by mid-March, and Macron promises to respond by the end of April.

There are also risks for the government.  It’s hard not to see this as a smoke-and-mirrors process to sap the energy from the continued protests, already weakened after the gas tax was withdrawn and other concessions offered, and redirect that energy into a lot of talk over months of time.   While attempting to co-opt the movement with this tactic, Macron also may find himself in a situation where anything less that a full and comprehensive response backed up by real programs and potentially constitutional changes would make this process look like nothing other than a charade, putting his government in even worse peril.

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ACORN Tenants Taking Charge, Running for Seats on the Board in France

Grenoble         Every four years social housing tenants in France have the opportunity to run for seats on the board of their city’s housing authority.  Admittedly, the seats allotted for tenant representation are a minority of the board positions, because in France, as elsewhere, a voice for tenants is preferable to allowing real power for tenants.  From conversations with organizers, leaders, and members of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, in Grenoble and the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, that may be about to change.  Members of the Alliance have put forth slates of candidates in three different housing districts, two in Grenoble and one in Paris and have begun to campaign in earnest.

In various meetings throughout the week the plan has shaped up.  In Grenoble where the voting pool is 17000 families, we have been wrestling with the mechanics of the election.  There is a voting period of roughly two weeks in which tenants have to return mail ballots to be counted in the election.  A list of tenants is available as well as a map of all buildings in the system, but the exact time of their availability is still uncertain, making it difficult to make a comprehensive week-by-week plan.  Nonetheless, Alliance candidates have an advantage simply because they are running as a team, backed by the organization, and in some cases partnered with a local union as well, but that advantage only works if we are all able to come to consensus on a plan and then do the hard work of campaigning for the almost eight weeks until the voting closes in December.

After conference calls throughout the week, I attended a meeting of the candidates, organizers, and key organizing committee members in a common space meeting room in one of the housing projects of Grenoble Habitat, where over potato chips and apple juice the plans were being hashed out.  Like all campaigns and organizing the focus was first on lists and building an organizing committee.  Regardless of when – or if – a list is supplied by the housing authority, the key first topic on the agenda of the meeting was how to use the list we have and how to build it larger in advance of the election.  In the smaller election, we have 800 names and in the larger one we have closer to 1500.  There was agreement that the committee would divide up the list, report on daily progress, and commit individually to spending 10 hours on the phones to contact all 2300 names in order to reach 800 to 1000.  The objective was to use the calls to identify building representatives as organizing committee members in as many buildings as possible.  Those campaign representatives would commit to circulating the literature, building a list of building tenants, joining the candidates in doorknocking in their building, and organizing a building wide meeting to meet the candidates between now and the election.

The literature drop would be in the following week, and staff and the planning committee committed to developing a week-by-week plan until the election to be discussed and decided on at the regular weekly meeting.  There was agreement that the concentration would first be on identifying and turning out our base to vote before trying to expand to buildings in the suburbs and elsewhere that we had not previously organized.  These elections are decided by only one or two thousand votes, so the GOTV and multiple “touches” to make sure the ballots are filled our correctly and mailed is central to victory.

This is the first time the organization has embarked on an election campaign of any kind, so it’s exciting and heady stuff.  The one thing that is certain is that the leadership and organization will be stronger once the votes are counted, win, lose or draw.  The other thing that is clear will be that if the Alliance/ACORN members are elected, change is coming to housing authorities in Grenoble and Aubervilliers as tenants join their voices together to create power on the boards that will not be denied.

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Please enjoy Southern State of Mine by Sugarcane Jane.

Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles’ Get as Gone Can Get.

Thanks to KABF.

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