French Labor Leaders Size up Yellow Vests

Union executives and scholars in France talk to Léa Bouchoucha about the unprecedented wave of social protests.

By Léa Bouchoucha
in Paris 
Special to Consortium News

Several weeks ago Emmanuelle Cheron, 43, was out on the Place de La République in Paris, along with other members of a new collective of professional child minders. They wore pink vests, held balloons and had set up a large pink-and-white banner that said “Maternal assistants are angry. No to the unemployment reform.” 

Later that Saturday, on March 30, the Yellow Vest protesters were going to be on the streets as usual. But Cheron and her allies wanted to stage their own, single-issue demonstration. Today, when a privately employed childcare worker loses a contract with a French family, government insurance will provide between 60 percent and 75 percent of the lost income. But the government is contemplating a reduction in that allowance that Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud may decree this summer. 

The trade union Force Ouvrière, or FO, has launched an online petition protesting the change that will be delivered to Pénicaud. So far 65,000 people have signed.

The “pink vests” are just one example of the many ways French people have been tapping into the protest spirit generated by the Yellow Vests, who have reached another of their closely watched moments of possible pivot.

The loose-knit movement has avoided getting pinned down in any formal political way, but now three lists of independent Yellow Vest candidates are running in the May 26 election for France’s representatives to the European Union parliament. That balloting event may also, in itself, reignite protests that have ebbed after a big May Day demonstration and amid more intense policing — including clouds of tear gassing and water cannons on May 11 — and concessions from the government.  

In an April 25 speech postponed from April 15 because of the fire that engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron promised to lower taxes by about $5.5 billion, stop the unpopular closure of rural schools and hospitals, peg pensions of less than $2,200 per month to inflation, and abolish one of the dominating institutions in French public life, ENA, or the National School for Administration, from which he and much of the government hierarchy have graduated.

The question is whether those concessions are enough to satisfy a movement that has spread a sense of expectant solidarity. A strong majority of French— 82 percent of those polled in an April 15 survey by the independent survey group IFOP — say they are looking for changes in economic and social policies.

“I’m both Yellow Vest and Pink Vest,” Cheron told Consortium News. “I’m here today to support my job. It’s by standing up and being all unified that we will work something out.” (This interview, like all the rest, was conducted in French and translated.)

Guy Groux, a director at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the country’s largest public research organization, says “pink vests” such as Cheron fit naturally inside the Yellow Vest movement, which has been giving voice to workers who are, for the most part, not unionized.

“Unions work in companies, where they represent the workers, while Yellow Vests represent extremely different categories; such as artisans, entrepreneurs, liberal workers, homeless and retired,” said Groux, a specialist in the history of French trade unions, in a recent phone interview. “They don’t have the same parameters. It’s not the same population and they don’t have the same vocations. The operational scope of Yellow Vest well exceeds the regular perimeter of unions.”

Union leaders have, nonetheless, been keeping a close eye on the Yellow Vest movement. Here’s what three of those representing the largest unions had to say. 

Laurent Berger/CFDT

Laurent Berger is general secretary, the top position, at CFDT, France’s largest union, with 860,200 members according to 2012 data.

Of the three leading unions in the country, the CFDT keeps the greatest distance from the Yellow Vests.

“Of course, what happened with the Yellow Vests appealed us,” Berger said in a recent phone interview, while on a train headed to Brussels. 

Berger said aligning with the Yellow Vests is a complicated because of what he described as so many unreasonable actors. 

“I continue to think that the Yellow Vests who mobilized right away, at the start, have legitimate claims because they face inequalities,” he said, adding that they expressed a legitimate anger and a need to search for real answers to inequalities. But on the other hand, he said the movement had been exploited by people with a “totalitarian logic.”

Berger added: “This means that while I’m worried about the outcry of people contending with serious inequalities, it does not mean however that I legitimate the xenophobic, homophobic and anti-democratic practices done by some.”

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On March 5, Berger and Nicolas Hulot — the former minister for the ecological and a just transition, who resigned last August at the government’s slow going on actions to curb global warming — took advantage of the pressure that the Yellow Vests were putting on the government to outline 66 proposals for a social and ecology pact in  Le Monde. 

From housing and intergenerational solidarity to fighting inequalities to education, the pact was presented in the framework of a national conversation that President Emmanuel Macron instigated in response to the Yellow Vests and called the “Great Debate.”

In the pact Berger and Hulot said a society that generates so much inequality and injustice and endangers the lives of our children and grandchildren, and millions of human beings around the world, is “nonsense.”

Yves Veyrier/FO

Yves Veyrier is general secretary at FO, which is the third French major union behind the General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, and the CFDT.

In a recent phone interview, Veyrier said the Yellow Vests have been expressing the criticism that his union has been making for a long time, about the redistribution of wealth in favor of capital and away from wages.

On Oct. 9, 2018, more than a month before the Yellow Vests’ first demonstration on Nov. 17, FO, along with CGT and other unions, called a one-day general strike.  

Veyrier told Consortium News that he has been warning people in government away from austerity policies that have led to the closure of numerous local public services that have sparked the Yellow Vest unrest.

FO supports the Yellow Vest demands involving purchasing power, wages, transport, housing, the accessibility of public services. On the other hand, although some Yellow Vest leaders continue to call on Macron to resign, union leaders have never gone that far.

Veyrier says the Yellow Vests have highlighted the difficulties of people in precarious situations such as under short-term contracts, unemployed or in isolated work settings.  “We need to work on how we can better develop union culture with all this population,” he said. 

Fabrice Angéï/CGT

Fabrice Angéï is confederal secretary, an executive position with the General Confederation of Labor. He says the Yellow Vests are providing unions with a chance to play a role in shaping French society.

“For over 10 years now, unions have had no social policy victories, ” Angéï said in a recent phone interview. For instance, he said, there had been no progress on reducing work hours or raising wages. “At best, we have only managed to prevent a decline. Our failure on pension reform in 2010 and before has deeply affected the decisions of employees and can maybe explain the decrease of unionized employees.” 

The 2010 pension legislation signed by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has postponed the minimum retirement age by two years from 60 to 62. The reform sparked weeks of street demonstrations and nationwide strikes.

Angéï hopes the Yellow Vest demonstrations will reinvigorate the unions.

“In many cities, we have seen, from the beginning, CGT militants or activists, including those who were not participated anymore in union meetings, going to the roundabouts and joining Yellow Vest protests,” Angéï said. “We’re not in two hermetic worlds but in the same world and this ongoing [Yellow Vest] movement, with its exchanges and meetings and interest in collective actions, might contribute to a revival of unionization.”

But unions such as CGT, on the other hand, have no way to work formally with the Yellow Vests, which, like the Occupy Movement in the U.S. a few years ago, rejects any formal leadership.

Nonetheless, the CGT, which formed in 1895 and represents a wide variety of workers, has found ways to coordinate with Yellow Vests and allied protests. It helped Cherron and other “pink vests” organize for their March 30 demonstration. Before that, on Feb. 5, it joined the Yellow Vests in a day of nationwide protests calling for a higher minimum wage, increased pensions and improved public services. And on April 27 it called a daylong strike on the theme of a convergence among social struggles within the Yellow Vest movement.

Question of Convergence

Whether such a convergence is truly possible remains to be seen, said the National Center for Scientific Research’s Groux, a sociologist who specializes in the history of French trade unions. “Pink vests” and other worker in highly unstable jobs may represent an opportunity for union organizers, but Groux doesn’t see many other examples. 

“These phenomena are intra-community, very local and small in numbers,” he said. “The CGT is capable of bringing out, by itself 10,000 or 20,000 protesters,” but he said those numbers did not turn out for the Yellow Vest protests. “When we will have such numbers, we will be able to speak about such a convergence but so far that hasn’t happened. ” 

Groux notes that unions are weak throughout Europe and many are concentrated in the public sector.

Union membership in France has slid from 20 percent of all workers in 1960, to less than 8 percent today, earning it one of the lowest scores in this international OECD ranking.  That compares with 17.6 percent in Germany, 24.2 percent in United Kingdom and 35.7 percent in Italy. Scandinavian countries have union membership above 60 percent

However, a comparison is difficult to make with other European countries where membership determines acces to social benefits or collective agreements.

In France, on the other hand, negotiations conducted by unions can extend to other workers in the same industry, unionized or not. This explains why the vast majority of workers have collective agreements: 93 percent in 2008 compared with 56 percent on average in countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

And, French unions still have considerable power in collective bargaining and have demonstrated their ability to paralyze the country with massive strikes, making regularly international headlines.

Dominique Andolfatto, a political science professor at the University of Burgundy in Dijon who specializes in syndicalism, says it’s hard to calculate the changes that the Yellow Vest movement may have brought, or are still capable of bringing,  because it is unprecedented in the French social history.

“I don’t see any similar movements because the Yellow Vests connect workers and employees, unemployed persons and small employers,” Andolfato said. “Eventually, we may be able to compare it to the Red Cap movement known as ‘Bonnets Rouges’ in Britany in October 2013 against an eco tax.”  The Red Caps included employers, farmers, fishermen and political activists who became notorious for their violent protests against an environmental tax, which the government wound up suspending.

Léa Bouchoucha is a multimedia journalist currently based in Paris. Her work has appeared in Vogue U.S, the Huffington Post, NPR, CNN International, Women’s eNews, Euronews, Elle, Le Figaro. She has reported from Turkey on Syrian refugees and LGBT rights and from Israel, where she was working as a news editor and reporter at the international news channel I24 News.

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Yellow-Vest Women Stake Their Claim to the Movement

Women gathered in Paris to confirm their commitment to the populist movement and women’s place in the country’s revolutionary history, reports Léa Bouchoucha from Paris for Consortium News. 

By Léa Bouchoucha
in Paris

Special to Consortium News

I‘m your wife.” “I’m your mother.” “I’m your colleague.” “My child matters.” “Stop violence.” “I am your Grandma.”

Those were some of the signs carried Jan. 6 in Paris by women in the first all-female demonstration of the Yellow Vest movement. 

Following some outbreaks of violence in larger-scale demonstrations on Saturday, the women’s protest was cast in some social media posts, as well as this AP accountas a bid to restore peace to the movement. However, the all-female protest was not responding to Saturday’s events.  It had been planned in advance, since Dec. 20, via a Facebook page that registered 15,000 people expressing interest and 2,000 committing to protest. The Paris demonstration on Sunday attracted several hundred, according to press accounts.

However, some women carried signs that said “stop violence,” reflecting on the violence that has marked many demonstrations and by some estimates hurt the movement’s popularity.  

Although the festive mood contrasted with the often-angry demonstrations on Saturday, women at the Paris protest reiterated the same basic frustrations about everyday life becoming more of a struggle.  

Framboise Clausse, a mother of five who demonstrates every weekend with her daughters at their home in the northwestern Bretagne region, made a trip of 437 kilometers, about four hours by car, to join the Yellow Vest women in Paris.

No Real Revolution Without Women  

“Mirabeau used to say that as long as women are not involved, there is no real revolution,” said the mother of five, referring to Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the count of Mirabeau, an  early leader of the French Revolution.

Clausse said she came to Paris to protest things she hears about during her work as a consultant in a job-placement center.

“People are broken because of their working environment,” she said. “The world is very difficult and violent and what we need is to have a sharing, a true sharing.”

Clauss earns 1,500 euros, or about $1700 a month and her husband is currently drawing unemployment benefits of about $900. She said she is anxious about her dwindling purchasing power.

“As the years go by, I noticed how we are eating less meat because we cannot afford it,” she said “Basic products are more expensive. Let’s not even speak about the high cost of rents, which are expensive, even in the rural area where I live. Getting to the end of the month is very, very difficult. One of my daughters, who is doing professional training, had to come back to live with us because she can’t afford living by her own.”

As with all those quoted, Clausse spoke in French and the interview was translated.

Clausse said she left her ballot blank during the second round of the 2017 presidential election that delivered President Emmanuel Macron to office.  “Today, we need a revolution. Not a revolution from war and violence but a revolution from heart and love and it is why we are here,” she said.

For many detractors, Macron symbolizes the European Union and a capital-markets approach to transforming an economy that has long provided generous social services that are undergoing cutbacks and austerities.

Anaë Piat, 45, spoke with Consortium News during the protests. “We organized as women because women are the one who give births, hoping that the future of our children would be the best as it could possibly be.”

Wearing a conical Phrygian, or liberty, cap with the tricolor, Piat said she was not protesting as a feminist, but as a Yellow Vest. “I’m here for all the Yellow Vests: men, women, children, retired. For all the people who are currently struggling.” 

The protests began in November and just completed their eighth week.

An AP story described the movement as “losing wind with repeated violence at weekly demonstrations.” By contrast, The Wall Street Journal cast the large-scale demonstration on Jan. 5 as a sign of “staying power.”

Last week, a 33-year-old truck driver who was one of the first to call for nationwide protests was arrested, sparking outrage from leaders on different ends of the political spectrum about an abuse of power.  The French daily Le Figaro says the arrest may have reactivated the movement.

Agence France Presse reports that an online poll conducted Jan. 2-3 by Odoxa Dentsu consulting found 55 percent of those surveyed wanted the protest movement to continue.

Poverty in Female Heads of Household 

As has been noted since the start of the demonstrations, households headed by single women are among those having the hardest time meeting their living costs. Young people under 30 and single-parent families are the most affected by poverty, finds a 2018 report by L’observatoire des inegalités, an independent monitor of social conditions in France. About 35 percent of one-parent families live under the poverty line and 80 percent of that group are single mothers with children.

“Life is becoming more and more difficult, we can’t take children on a vacation and products covering basic needs are already too expensive,” said Piat, who is married and has three children.

The female protesters of all ages sang the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” and chanted anti-Macron slogans. They gathered Sunday morning on the steps of the Opera Bastille, which overlooks the symbolic Place de la Bastille, site of the Batille prison that was stormed by revolutionaries between 1789 and 1790. 

In a phone interview before the demonstration, Magali Della Sudda, a political science researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the largest governmental research organization in France, reflected on French women’s role in the country’s revolutionary history. “During the French revolution, women were here among the revolutionaries. They have been there throughout the 19thCentury, such as the Commune of Paris in 1871 and later on in the different social struggles of the inter-war period.”

Sudda said the women are more visible today in the Yellow Vest movement. “Because of the strong social dimension of the conflict and because the movement is outside all political structures and union organizations, people are forced to turn their attention to the ‘ordinary’ participants, including women.”

Sudda said women in the Yellow Vest movement span the social and economic strata. “We find nurses, care givers, women who work in schools with children,” she said.

Sudda points to the symbolic significance of the songs and chants heard during the women’s Yellow Vests protest on Sunday. “Women have always sung and vocalized with spirit in the demonstrations,” she said. “Their chants insist on solidarity, fraternity and what is done in common.”

Léa Bouchoucha is a multimedia journalist currently based in Paris. Her work has appeared in Vogue U.S, the Huffington Post, NPR, CNN International, Women’s eNews, Euronews, Elle, Le Figaro. She has reported from Turkey on Syrian refugees and LGBT rights and from Israel, where she was working as a news editor and reporter at the international news channel I24 News.

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