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‘Gilets jaunes’: a rather unusual coalition

With strong support from employees, manual workers and the self-employed, the gilets jaunes movement has brought together a wide range of different interests. In this interview with Lionel Venturini, Stefano Palombari discusses the 'French crisis' and the difficulty of turning this heterogeneous movement into a new dominant bloc. 

Stefano Palombari, Lionel Venturini17 December 2018

‘Gilets jaunes’: a rather unusual coalition

The crisis is now political, and the emergence of the ‘gilets jaunes’ raises questions as to how long it can last. For Stefano Palombarini, co-author with Bruno Amable of L’Illusion du bloc bourgeois, [1]  the French political crisis is not a matter of quarrels between parties or personnel, but rather the difficulty of forming a new dominant bloc. Macron, elected by grouping the middle classes around the bourgeoisie, has seen his social base increasingly shrink.

Lionel Venturini: The ‘gilets jaunes’ are a heterogeneous movement. How do you explain why this hasn’t broken up?

Stefano Palombari: The IFOP survey on the backing for the ‘gilets jaunes’ shows three categories that are most supportive of the movement: employees (63%), manual workers (59%) and self-employed (62%, including small businesspeople, shopkeepers and tradespeople). This social coalition is quite new in France. What is striking about the list of demands given to the media is that all are addressed to the government, not to employers. The only wage demand is for the minimum wage, which is set by the government, to be increased to 1,300 euros – 150 euros more than today, which is very reasonable. When it comes to purchasing power, the key demand is for taxes to be cut. It is precisely the absence of traditional wage demands that has permitted a unified movement, combining categories that would otherwise not agree among themselves.

LV: This recalls the beginnings of the Five Star Movement in Italy, which is now in power in coalition with the far right.

SP: The Five Star Movement had a base that included self-employed and employees: the price paid to build this social alliance was that the wage relationship was no longer questioned. In their demands, the ‘gilets jaunes’ also do not call for Macron’s labour laws and decrees to be repealed: is this a sign? It is too early to be certain, but there is a risk that the neoliberal nature of the wage relationship will no longer be challenged. In Italy, the League/Five Star Government has not challenged Matteo Renzi’s Jobs Act, which is very similar to the El Khomri law in France.

LV: Can this alliance last?

SP: The governing bloc is a minority, and the social opposition is very strong but at the same time fragmented. It is not itself a bloc, i.e. a set of heterogeneous interests that can recognize themselves in a political programme. The ‘gilets jaunes’ are just the start of a perspective that still is in its infancy. The issue is one of political platform: a real break with neoliberal policies would probably be supported by a majority of the ‘gilets jaunes’, but not by the movement as a whole.

LV: Is the left able to embody this break?

SP: The institutions of the Fifth Republic are a major obstacle to the possibilities of new alliances, but the break-up of the left-wing bloc has also opened up a political space for those proposing to represent the working class. This is an ideological work that has long been abandoned by the left. In our book, we show how Rocard’s ‘second left’ in the 1970s already sacrificed the interests of the working classes – manual workers and employees in the private sector. It is time to turn this page.

[1] Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, L’Illusion du bloc bourgeois, Raisons d’agir, 2018.

This article was originally published on l'Humanité. It has been translated from French by David Fernbach.