Freedom Rider: Yellow vests show the way

The yellow vests ought to be inspirations for the 99% on this side of the Atlantic ocean.

French law requires drivers to keep gilets jaunes, yellow vests, in their vehicles. The vests are a safety measure ensuring visibility for anyone who may find themselves in a roadside emergency. In an act of supreme irony thousands of French men and women use the yellow vest symbolism to tell president Emmanuel Macron that they will not be run over any longer.

France has long been known for its generous safety net and for its strong worker movements. The willingness of the French to hit the streets when their livelihoods are in danger is legendary. But even they could not stave off the predations of worldwide neoliberalism.

Macron was the choice of France’s 1%. The oligarchs wanted and got another Obama, a young and charismatic figure who would do their bidding under the guise of hoping and changing. Macron didn’t disappoint his patrons as he cut taxes for the wealthy and enacted gasoline “carbon taxes” allegedly used to fight climate change. Even the cherished national health care system is slowly being privatized and people accustomed to this generous government benefit are seeing the beginnings of an American style system.

It is always a good thing when people rise up against neoliberalism and austerity. Just as in the U.S. the French banks were bailed out, but the people got nothing but cuts in services and benefits. A dose of popular push back was much needed.

That is not to say that this movement is entirely left wing. The racism that has long permeated French society hasn’t disappeared. When the presence of black and brown people reached a tipping point right-wing parties which never polled higher than single digits suddenly became contenders for power. When French police kill, they kill people of color who fought back in uprisings in 2005 and as recently as July of this year. France is no paragon of leftist virtue.

Likewise, French foreign policy remains abysmal, a vestige of the imperialism that oppressed people all over the world. If Macron isn’t lecturing Africans who are still under France’s economic and military thumb, he is joining in attacks on Syria. One of his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy, took millions of dollars from Muammar Gaddafi and then helped to assassinate him. That duplicity can only be described as gangster and that mentality hasn’t left the French state.

Despite the serious shortcomings of French politics, the people are speaking out quite clearly. They will not accept neoliberal plunder without a fight. Not only are they fighting back against Macron’s domestic policies but they are speaking out against other issues, such as European Union membership. The EU is a means for the capitalists to move their capital with greater ease, who then demand austerity for member nations. Poor countries like Greece were victims of the EU confidence game and the 2008 financial bubble that burst all over the world. Richer nations like Germany and France showed Greece no mercy and forced it to sell public assets and eviscerate its own social support system.

The emergence of the yellow vest protesters is not surprising. Other Europeans used elections to try and win change but without success. The Greek Syriza party talked loudly but said nothing, so did the Spanish Podemos party. The faux leftists in Europe had no stomach for a fight. That is why non-electoral formations are so important. When the system doesn’t respond the people must speak up.

But no one knows where this particular movement is headed. Hopefully the left will see that they must be true to the beliefs they claim to hold and help give the people what they need. France once had strong left parties. But the last socialist president, Francois Hollande, laid the ground work for Macron with his own austerity measures and resulting increases in poverty and homelessness.

What began as anger over inequality has given way to larger complaints about pensions and university admissions. The anger is real. No one should believe the corporate media or neoliberals here in the U.S. who fall back on tropes about evil Russians and accuse Vladimir Putin of stirring up the protestors. Those same lies were used to put Macron in office and they must be dismissed out of hand. If Americans are going to chime in about protests in France, it should be to gain some knowledge of how to replicate the process here.

Even in its state of degradation the French welfare state is far superior to the American model. The yellow vests ought to be inspirations for the 99% on this side of the Atlantic ocean. The U.S. has a history of crushing protest and a violent police force that kills 1,000 people every year. It won’t be possible to respond exactly as the French are doing, but protest is sorely needed. Americas are experiencing their own emergency and would do well to learn from the masses in other nations.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

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