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Red and Yellow Vests in joint strike, but can they become joint force?

media Member of CGT on Paris demo 5 February 2019. GERARD JULIEN / AFP

Tens of thousands of people across France downed tools on Tuesday and marched against President Macron’s policies. The day of strike action was called by the hard left CGT trade union. And for the first time Yellow Vests were among their ranks. Some want more convergence but it won't be easy.

Several thousand people marched in each of Marseille, Strasbourg, Saint-Nazaire, Montelimar, Toulouse, Rouen and Le Havre, many sporting the red vests of the communist-backed CGT and some wearing the high-vis jackets of the popular Yellow Vests grassroots movement.

In the capital young people carried banners and chanted anti-Capitalist slogans like "prices are rocketing, salaries are stuck in the ground" and “social justice and liberties crushed underfoot”.

There was little disruption to transport services but staff at the emblematic Eiffel Tower, many of whom are on low wages, heeded the call to strike.

Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT union, saw this as proof the day was going well.

“Today is a success, and will spawn others,” he said.

The CGT had invited the Yellow Vests to join in the day of action.

Eric Drouet, one of the movement's key figures, called on supporters to make the action “a day of total shutdown”, but didn't refer to the CGT demo.

They do have some common ground such as concerns over purchasing power and what they see as unfair taxation. They share hostility to President Emmanuel Macron's Grand Débat:  a series of nationwide consultations to answer some of the Yellow Vests’ grievances.

The CGT has pointedly refused to take part, preferring strike action to discussion in town halls.

“There are many Yellow Vests here and it’s a good thing,” Martinez said. “We have common grievances. Apart from the colour of the vests, I can’t see that many differences [between us].”

French CGT labour union leader Philippe Martinez attends a demonstration with French unions and yellow vests leaders as part of a national day of strike and protests in Paris, France, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Deep-seated differences

The CGT had been trying to get Yellow Vests to join forces with labour unions for a while, to launch strikes and create disruption at companies.

“The best way to protest is to go on strike,” Martinez told BFM TV in mid-December. “We must multiply actions at companies. We must strike everywhere.”

But the two sides remain wary of one another.

“Since the movement of Yellow Vests broke out in November, it has really destabilised the political and social landscape in France," says Donna Kesselman, professor of labour studies at Paris Creteil University.

The Yellow Vests have been “a weathervane for discontent but the unions have had trouble positioning themselves in relation to them,” she continues.

Sociologist Michel Wieviorka has pointed out that this heterogenous Yellow Vest movement has "many artisans, shop keepers and pensioners who are not connected to the unions".

And as political scientist Guy Groux told La Croix, "the rejection of institutions, including trade unions, is one of the rare points that unites all Yellow Vests".

“The Yellow Vests have been somewhat anti-union themselves,” says Kesselman, “and the unions perceived their anti-strike revolt as being targeted against public services and public workers and sort of recuperated by the far right National Rally movement.”

The support of some Yellow Vests' for far-right ideology has indeed put off trade unionists.

There's also divergence on taxation. While the Yellow Vests have railed against taxes (the movement was sparked by tax hikes on diesel) the CGT, along with the vast majority of other unions, defend the French social model with a strong public sector at its heart.

Despite the differences, CGT secretary Fabrice Angeï says his union has always been constant in its approach to the Yellow Vests.

"It’s always said wherever possible we have to come together. Even if the lack of homogeneity means there can't be convergence at a nationwide level, there are many pensioners, single mothers, low-paid workers, people who are financially vulnerable [among the Yellow Vests]. That’s our field so it’s good this movement is discovering collective action within the CGT.”

A figure with a yellow vest is seen during a demonstration with French unions and yellow vests leaders as part of a national day of strike and protests in Paris, France, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

United against the anti-rioting bill

It was no accident the CGT and Yellow Vests came together on the day parliament voted in a new controversial law to curb violence during demonstrations. And which was a response to violence during Yellow Vest protests.

“Demonstrators interpret it as limiting the right to demonstrate and to authorise a police crackdown,” says Kesselman. “It’s one of the things that is bringing the two movements together."

"The trade unions quote the crackdown against the Yellow Vests as a blow against the right to demonstrate for all.”

An example of rapprochement

Some rapprochement between unions and Yellow Vests has already begun.

On Sunday members of the FO union (supportive of today’s strike but which didn’t officially call for it) protested in Normandy against the closing of a local maternity hospital. They were joined by Yellow Vests.

“Part of our struggle is maintaining local public services,” Yellow Vest Christian Morin told RFI. “There are fewer and fewer doctors here, fewer medical services, if we lose this structure, we’ll find ourselves in a medical wasteland.”

Christian Grolier, Secretary General of the FO public sector section, said they’re fighting the same battle.

The Yellow Vest movement "is the expression of a section of the population who’s fed up with not having enough spending power, fed up with no longer having local public services. So it’s good they realise that you can federate around the unions. If the yellow vests want to join our journey, they’re welcome.”

The road is long

So is there likely to be greater rapprochement between Yellow Vests and unions?

“I don’t think so,” says Guillaume Larrivé of the mainstream right Republicans party. “I’m more struck of late by the how very weak the CGT is.”

An unsurprising reaction given his political affiliation, but there's little doubt the unions in France are losing ground. And the Yellow Vest movement is partly the reflection of that.

The CGT, like the other main CFDT union, has around 600,000 members.

According to Cevipof, only 12% of employees across France are affiliated to a union and nearly a quarter of employees have no union representation in their workplace at all.

Donna Kesselman recognises it’s “difficult to be optimistic” about what can be achieved with this "red and yellow" protest. The only real thing protesters have in common is anger towards President Emmanuel Macron.

“Firstly it’s a divided movement and secondly there is no widespread call or clear demand against the government.

“The CGT has called for a new day of struggle in March but we saw in the past couple of years with the labour reforms under the Socialist government or the labour reforms under the current Macron government, these divided days of struggle didn’t succeed in mobilising vast numbers of people. At least not strong enough to push the government into retreat. For the moment it’s not a unified movement around clear demands.”


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