French unions see threat of yellow vest revival following Macron’s retirement campaign
French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to force through his deeply unpopular pension reform, without a vote in parliament, could reignite social unrest reminiscent of the yellow vests movement, union leaders and analysts have warned as protests continue to sweep the country .
Demonstrations against the government’s use of a special constitutional provision, known as Article 49.3, to sweep up parliamentary opposition to reform have been angrier than anything seen in the past two last months.
Unions, united to coordinate their protests, called for a ninth day of strike action next Thursday, but many expressed fears of losing control of the demonstrations as more radical protesters set the tone.
“Yes, we are worried,” Cyril Chabanier, the boss of the moderate union CFTC, told AFP.
Commentators have begun to wonder if hardening fronts could herald the return of the yellow vests, a grassroots movement that began in 2018 to protest rising fuel prices and has snowballed into the biggest social action against Macron in his first term.
>> A year of insurrection: how the yellow vests left an “indelible mark” on French politics
“It’s a social law of physics,” said Jean-Marie Pernot, a political scientist specializing in trade unions.
“If you don’t respect any of the channels for the expression of dissent, she will find a way to express herself directly,” he told AFP.
The first actions of the yellow vests were marked by strikes, weekly demonstrations, the blocking of roads and fuel depots and the worst clashes with riot police in decades.
It was only with the imposition of restrictions on movement caused by the Covid crisis that the actions of the movement came to a halt.
“Tougher Action Ahead”
“There may be tougher, more serious and larger-scale actions ahead,” warned Fabrice Coudour, a senior energy sector representative for the far-left CGT union.
“It may well escape our collective decision-making,” he said.
The Yellow Vests boasted of having no designated leader. They resisted attempts by leftist politicians and unions to harness the energy of the movement for their own ends.
One of their most prominent spokespersons was Jérôme Rodrigues, who lost his eye to a police rubber bullet during clashes at a protest.
In the hours after Macron’s decision on pensions on Thursday, Rodrigues told an angry and cheering crowd outside the National Assembly that the goal now was nothing less than “the defeat” of the president.
At the same time, protests erupted in many parts of France, with some protesters destroying street furniture, smashing windows and setting trash cans on fire.
In the city of Dijon, in central France, protesters burned effigies of Macron.
The CGT has announced it will force the closure of energy giant TotalEnergies’ refinery in Normandy in northwestern France from this weekend.
The pickets of the electricity utility Electricité de France would also be extended, the CGT said. And early Friday, CGT activists blocked Paris’ busy ring road, the Boulevard Périphérique.
“The fault of the government”
The unions have already put the blame for any future problems on the government’s doorstep.
“Obviously, when there is so much anger and so many French people in the street, the most radical elements speak up,” said Laurent Escure, head of the UNSA trade union federation.
“It’s not what we want, but it will happen. And it will be entirely the fault of the government,” he told AFP.
For weeks, Laurent Berger, leader of the moderate CFDT union, has been warning the government that there could be more problems if the protesters had the idea that the yellow vests have done more with violence than the established unions with their demonstrations of peaceful masses.
“What is the democratic perspective of a country that hasn’t responded to 1.5 or 2 million people on the streets three times, but has responded to a violent movement with a fifth of that number on the streets? ” he asked in an interview last month.
Macron has made a number of concessions to the yellow vest movement.
Among other measures, he scrapped a planned carbon tax and raised wages for workers to the minimum wage, at an estimated total cost to public finances of 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion).
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)