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The crisis in France - Part One

Station F and the fight Against Macron

26 April 2019


“Since the "yellow vest" anti-government protests began in November, more than 760 banks have suffered damage.” The Local (the French based web based news service) reported and added that the French banking federation was now calling for a halt to the attacks. "We must quickly put a stop to this unbridled and unjustified violence," the federation declared. Le Monde which reported the federation's demand had previously ran a deep back ground piece to inform its readership—to try to answer the question “who are the Yellow Vests ?”. The family, or rather the two heads of family they found and interviewed were unremarkable - in that as the New York Review of Books reported the couple and their two children were just near enough to the poverty line to be rightly concerned—enough that is to take action. The response of Le Monde's readership was unbridled hostility. But the paper had achieved its aim to demonstrate the danger: Mr and Mrs average were committed to protesting against their poverty and the indifference of Macron's government and its backers.

Station F

Macron's indifference had been on show at the inauguration of Station F—a former railway depot now a large tech hub and training facility. The brain child of French billionaire Xavier Niel. Microsoft, Google and Facebook had joined in to help incubate the next wave of company start-ups and technical innovations. To go to Station F and to sit at a desk or to take a course costs €195 a month. In June 2017 the initial intake of enthusiastic newbie's had crowded into the concourse to hear the President of France inaugurate the site.

One of the facilities interlocutors was on hand to act as Macron's warm-up act. Speaking in English—competency in which is a requirement of all applicants—Anne Hidalgo did not welcome the President who was standing right next to her. Instead, Ms Hidalgo thought the occasion was one that merited an extended and awkward celebration of those who had turned up and of the building itself, “take a look around you what do you think?” she asked. After some muted cheers and “wows” she continued, “there are two thousand people here tonight, I can't believe it—so I wanna know who's here, do we have any investors here..?” Only one or two people responded half half-heartedly.

These were people who liked the idea of investors rather than planning to invite the real thing to their event. But this appeared not to matter to the chief witness of this shambolic show for he, the President, was about to declare war. To him the rows of eager faces were not just his audience, these people were special. They were, to put it more directly, the President’s chosen people and they were about to hear the words that would seriously undermine his presidency. Reflecting on the original core of the new building, the President said, “A train station—it's a place where we encounter those who are succeeding and those who are nothing.” And as James McAuley later observed:

This was the moment when a large percentage of the French public learned that in the eyes of their president, they had no value. “Ceux quine sont rien” is a phrase that has lingered and festered. To don the yellow vest is thus to declare not only has one has value but also that one exists. (1)
Many of the demonstrators as McAuley reported, site Macron's language as his most galling feature; which is of course the language of a rapacious technocrat. And as the Yellow Vests had foresworn leadership and an ideological programme, it would be only a matter of time before they would become victims of their own supposedly “non-political” success. It may have attacked the symbols and the institutions of the state such as it banks, but without a cohesive strategy this distinctly white lower middle class movement gradually took up a position with others in the wide trough of post crisis national chauvinism.

McAuley in his special feature article then gives an account of the Yellow Vests descent into nativism. Resting his case on a key incident where one of the movement's first public supporters—a broadcaster who presides over France's weekend television culture show, was surrounded by Yellow Vests and attacked for being Jewish. (2)

The End of The Great Debate and The Beginning of Another

After the cities had faced months of weekend protests Macron had to be seen to be taking action, or rather talking out the protestors need to take action. This entailed several weeks of public meetings where the President worked hard to dispel his aura of autocracy. On the eve of Macron's national broadcast that would have marked the end of the process, Liberation ran a front cover photo montage of the president facing in opposite directions—over which they ran the title: 'The Great Dilemma'. Would the president face in the direction of repression or conciliation? Macron had now done both so which direction would he choose?

The question was put on hold as the nation witnessed and reacted to the Notre Dame fire. In vowing to rebuild Notre Dame, Macron unwittingly crystallized the crisis of what was wrong with his and the modern bourgeoisie’s view of reality. In that, soon after, a handful of billionaires responded to Macron's statement of intent to rebuild the cathedral, a firestorm then took hold of social media. This targeted the value system of the billionaire class making themselves visible to virtue signal that they were the best moralists in this situation—because they were the wealthiest.

Shortly after this the concern of Europe's school students—that the governmental classes were dragging their feet in the midst of the intensifying climate crisis—was marked across the continent with protests that also targeted the roads system.

The Fire This Time

Macron and the television pundits may have been able to explain the situation as the political impact of the clash of two interest groups and that the exercise of power in this situation would mean governmental amelioration. But in both cases the combination of repression and conciliation—a tried and tested response of the ruling class—is failing and as the summer approaches will be seen to have failed dramatically. For as one commentator put it, “Paris looked on in disbelief as Notre Dame burned. The fire was put out and Macron recast himself as the saviour of the now inert monument. But what should our thinking be when in the time that it will take to rebuild Notre Dame, the forests of France will have burned more intensely with each summer than the last?”

The Narrowing and Expanding of Horizons

Before the Yellow Vest protest's the French countryside and towns had been transformed by a combination of rising property prices and changes in production. Rural France was in recent memory a place of communal integration where the gaps in rural incomes could be bridged by Farmer's Markets and local producers. With the expansion of the world agri business the purchase of farms and the streamlining of production and chains of supply—not only spelt the death of this micro economy, it transformed the price of land and property which in turn caused a new cycle of development and migration of labour and management—labour to less expensive and more remote places and of owners and managers to town properties that were previously occupied by people much further down the income scale. Although the new Out of Town Shopping Centres were cheaper and accessible they were so only to the management class who now occupied the towns.

For the new class of worker-commuters this was an additional blow. Were once workers could make short journeys to schools to work and for the purchase of provisions. Now with the decline of local planning and unplanned and remote “brown site” industrial developments meant that many additional miles were added to the weekly fuel bill and this was before Macron raised fuel taxes. It was then inevitable that the rise in prices would hit those who could least afford it most—the growing class of regional worker-commuters. What Macron had done was to simply speed up their realization of the dynamics of power. While the President was quick to organize the neo-liberal life rafts of tax cuts and cuts in public spending, their acceptability as appropriate measures were rejected by those surveyed as a political solution to France’s fiscal and environmental crisis.

Is France Burning?

At the press conference that was previously delayed Macron announced that he was convening a national assembly on the climate crisis and would consider putting its recommendations to a referendum. This will buy him no rest-bite, nor will his Thatcherite manoeuvre to cull of top civil servants and tenured bureaucrats as an indication that he is implementing his “plan” to reduce the size and power of the state sector. Early indications that as a sop to the Yellow Vests it has failed and that the protests are set to resume. But in a very short period of time he may have to bring back the civil servants he has retired or made redundant as the country tries to cope with out of control climate change.

In part 2 I will evaluate the left response to Macron and what can be done to improve its prospects.


1. New York Review of Books cover article James McAuley “Who Are The Yellow Vests?” April 3rd p.60
2. ibid p.61

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