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Towards an Anti-Bourgeois Bloc?

Emmanuel Macron's regime is in tatters, with plummeting approval ratings and the growing wave of "gilets jaunes" protests. But could this growing discontent be the start of an anti-bourgeois bloc to challenge the neoliberal consensus?

Bruno Amable 7 December 2018

Towards an Anti-Bourgeois Bloc?

Things are not going very well in Macronia at the moment.[1] Emmanuel Macron, always ready to take on challenges, has just accomplished what we thought was impossible: becoming more unpopular than François Hollande (26 per cent positive opinions against 29 per cent for Holland at the same stage of his mandate, according to a BVA poll). And if the head of state is still not convinced of the extreme exasperation of a large part of the population towards his policies, the gilets jaunes movement has arisen to make him face reality.

A central element in Emmanuel Macron’s election and the victory of La République en Marche in 2017 is that, despite seemingly impressive scores, the social base of the new regime is very narrow. Brought to power with the support of the ‘bourgeois bloc’,[2] Macron was able, thanks to the institutions of the Fifth Republic, to avoid seeking political alliances beyond LREM, which could have broadened the support of the new administration beyond its hard core. The bourgeois bloc – in simple terms, the upper and upper-middle classes – is numerically small: 10 per cent of the electorate (social groups in favour of a radical neoliberal transformation of the French socio-economic model), or up to 25 per cent if we include those social groups that are a little less fanatical about ‘reform’.

But if the bourgeois bloc does not have a majority, neither do the social groups excluded from it form a potential majority bloc. There is (as yet?) no political strategy capable of bringing together groups with divergent or even contradictory expectations. One need only consider the split of the opposition to LREM between political forces of the left, right and far right. It is impossible to envisage a political project common to these different parties. In terms of those social groups excluded from the bourgeois bloc, there is from the start such a heterogeneity of demands in terms of economic policy that the formation of an anti-bourgeois bloc would seem very difficult.

And yet, might the gilets jaunes movement represent the first step in the creation of such a bloc? Subject to further investigation, it does indeed seem that the composition of the movement, working-class and ‘lower’ middle-class, is sufficient. But the constitution of a social bloc requires a political strategy, particularly in its economic dimension. It is the answer to this question that will determine the true nature of the gilets jaunes: a reactionary expression, like the Tea Party in the United States and Pegida in Germany, or the beginning of a convergence of struggles so long awaited since the Nuit debout[3] movement.

The issue of resistance to taxation (on diesel, among other things) is more complex than it seems. Challenging taxes is a classic right-wing theme; and some members of the government have been trying to use the demand for ‘lower taxes’ as a confirmation of the validity of Macron’s economic agenda. Certain related themes (‘they do nothing for us but they spend too much on migrants, cassos [welfare scroungers], the unemployed...’) also attest to the existence of right-wing trends within certain parts of the working class.

But such a development is not inevitable. The issue of the purchasing power of low-income households, which underlies all the demands of the gilets jaunes, is a left issue. Challenging taxes is also inseparable from the observation of a deterioration in public services (the impression of paying for nothing). Defence of these services is a left-wing theme par excellence. The increase in certain taxes that weigh on the purchasing power of the working and middle classes, the cuts in housing allowances and other transfers, cannot be dissociated from the abolition of the wealth tax or the replacement of the CICE[4] by a reduction in employers’ social security contributions.

Moreover, given the importance of social benefits in working-class incomes, we can envisage the anger of the gilets jaunes being channelled into challenging the radical neoliberal transformation of the French socio-economic model undertaken by the Macron presidency and the pursuit of an economic policy conducted for the benefit of the wealthiest part of the bourgeois bloc.

Translated by David Fernbach

[1] Professor at the University of Geneva.

[2] Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, L’Illusion du bloc bourgeois. Alliances sociales et avenier du modèle français, Raisons d’agir, 2018. 

[3] The Nuit debout (= Arise at night) was a social movement against the new labour legislation, with regular demonstrations for several weeks in spring 2016.

[4] [The CICE was a reduction in taxes on business introduced in 2013. As from 1 January 2019, it will be abolished in favour of lower employers’ social security contributions.]

Filed under: france, gilets-jaunes