Though they wear high-vis, French protesters have been all but invisible in the so-called mainstream media, also provoking deafening silence from the labor and trade union movement, and even the so-called ‘left’ within it.
While a broken head or even a broken window in Hong Kong or Venezuela can and often does lead the news, more than a year of weekly upheaval, mass movements of working people met with extreme violence by the French state and its achingly liberal President Macron has been ignored by Western print and broadcast journalists with studied arrogance.
There can be no rational justification for this. Hong Kong is almost 6,000 miles (9,656km) from England, Caracas almost 5,000 (8,047km). France is 31 miles (50km) away. It’s not cheap to send and maintain news crews at the other ends of the earth. Cheap awaydays proliferate to Paris.
No news judgement could possibly justify the almost complete absence of coverage of widespread disorder amid massive crowds in our nearest European neighbor over an entire year. Indeed, such is the antipathy between the English elite and the French (and vice versa), to borrow a German word, one might have expected a sense of schadenfreude to drive British coverage, in top gear! But not a bit of it.
So much for the Yellow Vests. Of course, what has now happened is that the entire organized working class of France has taken to the battlefield. Great unions – like the moderate CFDT as well as the militant CGT – with millions of members are now physically confronting the power of the French state.
The proximate cause of this new development is Macron’s pension “reforms.” Nowadays, reforms are bad things, whereas in former times they were good things – essentially making French workers work longer for less pension upon retirement.
But as with the Yellow Vests – whose original casus belli was a tax on fuel – this is about far more than pensions now.
The French working class are sick and tired of austerity, sick of the corruption and excess of the peacock throne of President Macron, sick of the EU, sick of the whole political class. Precisely the formula which drove the Brexit victory on our side of La Manche.
Traditionally the French – predisposed over centuries to revolution – are far from sedate soft-shoe shufflers on protests. Conversely, the French “riot police” take no prisoners. An irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
But it is one thing the police battering students or even ordinary workers. It is another thing to see the police wading into firefighters in full gear – protective gear – as has been happening these last two weeks. No one has seen two uniformed disciplined services knock seven bells out of each other on the streets of Paris since, well, since forever.
The crisis appears to be spiraling out of the control of the French state; Christmas could literally have to be canceled. Tourism has been hit hard, I personally know three couples who have canceled romantic Christmas breaks in the French capital. Air, bus, and train travel threatens to grind to a halt. One would be less surprised to wake up to the news that the National Assembly had been sacked than Louis Bourbon was to learn of the storming of the Bastille.
Given the almost existential challenge being mounted against one of the EU’s twin pillars, one can begin to understand the near universal silence in Western capitals – not least their fear of the power of example.
But why the silence on the “left”?
Partly it is a sense of shame that the French workers are putting up the kind of fight they wouldn’t even dream of contemplating. But partly it is the absence of liberalism among the massed ranks of French workers. They have cast away with disdain the identity politics which so infests what passes for the left in most Western countries.
This not about gay rights, about black emancipation, about gender-neutral right-on fads. This is not about asylum seekers or against racism in defense of immigrants or about Bolivia or Venezuela or against France’s dismal colonial record or current French wars in Africa. This is about the French working-class confronting the capitalist system, head-on, and with real red blood in the streets. French workers black and (overwhelmingly) white, gay and (overwhelmingly) straight, men and women, self-identifying only as workers tired of being robbed. It’s all a little too… proletarian for what has become of the “left.”
And so like Nelson before them at the Battle of Copenhagen, they raise the telescope to the blind eye and declare “I see no ships.” The left sees not the French men o’ war, but the French workers can see them. And it is not a belle vue.
By George Galloway