Giving France’s Yellow Vest Their Due

Gulf Shores     The Yellow Vests or Gilets Jaunes protest in France began in the middle of November of 2018.  In July in rural France in the Rhone/Alps region when ACORN International organizers met at an old farm house fifteen kilometers from St. Etienne, less than ten minutes from our meeting place, we could still see the signs of the Yellow Vests as we passed through our last traffic circle before hitting the farm.  Nearby, just outside of the circle, a tent and plywood headquarters for area Yellow Vests and their protest was still standing and active, even if not fully manned and at the top of their lungs as they had been months before.  Though they might be the scourge of Paris, they seemed accepted and supported here in the countryside.

What is the real story on the Yellow Vests?  Was this a rightwing, Le Pen movement of the angry and anti-Semites protesting modest steps towards climate change or something different?

Yoan Pinaud, head organizer of the Alliance Citoyenne’s local group in Aubervilliers, the lower income, working class suburb of Paris, affiliated with ACORN International, had argued in Social Policy  that the Yellow Vests were a movement erupting to oppose the government for the right reason, mainly its support of the rich and the increasing burden placed on the rest of the population.  Was our organizer just a lonely, hopeful voice in the spring speaking more from hope than reality or was he onto to something?

An article in Harper’s Magazine for August by Christopher Ketcham entitled “A Play With No End:  What the Gilets Jaunes really want,” puts the finger of Yoan’s scale and weighs heavily in the direction that we were making the correct call.  Ketcham found no indication in his discussions with many, both in Paris and outside, that indicated anything other than direct anger at the neoliberal program of current President Macron and his predecessors, even from the Socialist Party.  He finds, with us, that this was a movement based in righteous anger at policies that were excluding the masses and benefiting the rich, where the last straw was the unequal fuel tax on rural and depopulating villages in France.   He cites an Oxfam study from 2015 that found that “the wealthiest 10 percent of French citizens emit some seventeen metric tons of carbon per capita…while the poorest 50 percent emit less than five,” noting in the US that the ratio is 50 metric tons for the same rich percentage versus eight for the poorest 50 percent.

In fact, Ketcham argues that the French establishment “slandered” the Yellow Vests “in service of class interests.”  And, then the established Western media ate it up like candy and repeated the false analysis raw.  The French bourgeoisie reacting to the disruption was as afraid of the Vests as they were in the 1800s of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution and the subsequent terror.  He finds them to be progressives looking for a party and politicians to oppose neoliberalism that has hurt them terribly, especially outside Paris.

They have also won results from their actions that we should all applaud.  Macron made $5 billion euros worth of concessions.  Lower-income families received a tax cut. Pensions were indexed to inflation.  Public service cuts were forestalled, including shelving Macon’s plan to cashier 120,000 public service jobs.  The privatization of Paris Airports has now been stymied and may be defeated.  Of course, Macron also rescinded the fuel tax which had ignited the protests.

Furthermore, and this is perhaps most telling, just as our observation of the Yellow Vest still active outpost outside of St. Etienne, Ketcham writes, it’s not over and still goes on,

“They have refused to be mollified by what they perceive as crumbs tossed from the throne of power.  Their war against the rich, in the age of climate change, is one driven by an understanding unique among protests movements in France:  that the privilege to lord and privilege to pollute are one and the same, and that confronting the climate crisis means a confrontation with unregulated capitalism.  It is a call to arms that should resound across the world.”

They hear it clearly in France, and I swear, I can hear it in the United States and everywhere I go these days.

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Please enjoy “I Only Cry When I’m Alone” by Beth Bombara.

Thanks to KABF.

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Burkini Demonstrations

Geneva    The membership of ACORN’s affiliate in France, the Alliance Citoyenne, is largely based in public housing in Grenoble and the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers now as it expands to build broader community-based groups in Lyon and Marseille.  Typical of ACORN’s low-and-moderate income constituency, it is very diverse, though largely white, a significant percentage are Arabic-speaking and Muslim from the MENA, Middle Eastern North African area, and the Francophone countries of west Africa.  As a membership organization, we have to listen to their issues from all sides.

Where am I going with this, you might ask, as I meander towards the point?  Well, governmental and institutional France has a very deep political and cultural commitment to what they believe is the essence of being French in language, customs, and mores.  In my brief and abbreviated collegiate career, I had a political science professor named Robert Gaudino, who argued that American society was not necessarily fascist or even inherently racist, as much as it was monocultural and trying to boil everyone in the melting pot and have them come out in the same mold.  That was then, and I’m not sure what he would argue now, but when it comes to being monocultural, one way or the highway, France definitely rises to the top.

Solidarity protests at the French Embassy in London

For years they have been fighting the veil for Muslim women, and they abhor the burka.  They understand that it is part of religious practice for some families and some women practicing the Islamic faith, but the public policy in France has been to restrict the practice in public spaces like schools for example.  More recently the issue has flared up in other public facilities like swimming pools, and that’s where ACORN comes into the picture on this issue.  Some of our members wanted to be able to go into the public pools in Grenoble.  The leadership discussed the issue.  It was not unanimous, but it was democratic, and the decision was to support the women in public protests to force the issue of their ability to swim in the pool.

I spoke to our organizer in Grenoble, Lea Galloy, on Wade’s World with head organizer Adrien Roux’s help translating about what has now become known as the Burkini Actions.  These aren’t bikinis of course.  They are modest one-piece bathing suits with veils or head coverings as required.  Ten women, some Muslim and some not, entered a public pool in Grenoble, and Katie-bar-the-door, the government went crazy.  The gendarmes were called out to guard the pool against our Burkini demonstrators.  The government closed the pools for a while.  Remember, if you will, that this is all happening during what is universally being described this summer as the worst heat wave in the history of France – and Europe – with temperatures routinely over 100 degrees.

If the actions hadn’t stirred up enough, there was also a media storm that spread like wildfire not only in France, but throughout the world.  I knew about the campaign, but weeks ago even before I had seen any of the press or the Facebook postings, I had been alerted by mi companera that the Burkini actions had blown up Twitter everywhere.  Believe me the reaction wasn’t all love letters either.  Fierce positions were taken on all sides.  Threats issued.  Fists raised.

Lea told me the actions are likely to spread now to Lyon and other cities, where we have been approached.  Muslim women’s groups and other feminist groups are debating whether to join and support the actions.  Some of the Alliance leaders have doubled down in support and others wish it was over.  The government hasn’t budged yet.

This is turning out to be a long, hot summer, and it’s far from over.

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