The possibility of a new May 1968 in France

Published 10.12.2018 22:34
Updated 11.12.2018 08:00

The 'yellow vest' movement is not searching for a soul and definitely does not have any visible leftist tendencies. On the contrary, they are asking for the continuation of a 'golden age,' offered by a social welfare state

"Yellow vest" restlessness continues in France. It has turned into a deep, ongoing uprising filled with social turmoil. The demands of the first hour have changed into a catalogue of different and sometimes conflicting hopes; a little bit along the lines of old medieval "Cahiers de Doléance" ("Notebooks of Grief and Sorrow"), where the protests of humble people were collected to be presented to the French king.

What is essential is the fact that this is not a temporary outburst of anger and despair, as the outcry of the suburbs back in 2006, when Nicolas Sarkozy was interior minister. Youngsters, mostly of migrant origin, burnt hundreds of cars each night in different cities of France. The violence started without any preliminary sign and after a couple of months, disappeared without anybody understanding how and why.

This is different. The yellow vests, for their immense majority, are middle-age, middle-class people you would not encounter in conventional manifestations, like a May Day Parade or trade union protests. Once the movement started, radical elements infiltrated the popular protests and damage was done, especially in Paris.

The government, at first, did not really comprehend the magnitude of the discontent. It played down the protests. Police forces at first stayed passive. With the outburst of violence, everyone panicked. The government declared a moratorium of six months for the new taxes, which has gone totally unnoticed. Police trade unions have started to vehemently ask the government to get the help of the army because of the immense number of incidents that were happening all over France. The government did not want to introduce a deeper dimension to the crisis by involving the armed forces. The incidents thus got out of hand and everyone, including Turkey, has denounced the ensuing police brutality.

The government is now backtracking, with no notable effect. The problem is multidimensional and quite confusing. First, this yellow vest movement does not have any representative leadership. Any conventional and institutional political or professional force does not support it. There are opposition leaders or parliamentarians who support the yellow vests, but they do not have any guiding authority over the protesters. Second, this is obviously a middle-class, low-income insurrection, however, it does not have any ideology and is not about to find a new one.

That is the main difference between it and May 1968. Back then, the uprising started with totally irrelevant issues concerning the food and transportation for the newly established Nanterre University, and all of a sudden turned into a gigantic protest. Nevertheless, the workers who went to strike, around 10 million, were still organized and controlled by the trade unions, especially the General Confederation of Labour (CGT). The student leaders, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Alain Geismar, both left leaning, remained in touch with authorities to keep violence under control.

Briefly, May 68 searched for an ideology after it erupted and found its ideology in the Stone Age: A deep "initial" blunt Marxism, demanding a revolutionary government of students and workers.

The yellow vest movement is not searching for a soul and definitely does not have any visible leftist tendencies. On the contrary, they are asking for the continuation of a "golden age," offered by the social welfare state. This is the important aspect: European states are in no position to finance the public expenditures unless there is a more just and structured income distribution system. Austerity measures do not really influence the purchasing power of the higher echelons of society, but the lower income strata is put under duress. The fact that some demands are very logical does not hinder the fact that "more justice" is not being asked for.

This article will be published after the presidential address that will take place on Monday night, where French President Emmanuel Macron will go down in the arena. He will certainly ask for moderation and probably a national union to stop the violence. Will he be heard? Does he have enough support among the population? He may have some points if the violence continue, but what would be the solution? Will this movement spread to other countries, like May 1968? Too many questions await answers that we are not capable to give as of yet.

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