No longer invisible

In hi-vis vests France’s semi-rural towns get stroppy

Over the last few years French sociology textbooks have been preoccupied with the fraught situation of a new class of worker; workers whose discrete presence in the workplace, low participation in trade union activity and variable hours render them largely invisible to the society they live in. They are, for this reason, very expendable and easily exploitable. Another, much older, type of working class invisibility devolves from the very organisation of the great cities of capitalism: spatial segregations being a tried-and-tested method to organise political marginality. Many ‘sink estates’ in Britain, for example, are located on the periphery of the big cities and are largely inaccessible given the scanty coverage of transport networks dominated by the privately owned car. Small rural towns with declining industries are also increasingly isolated by the scaling back of public transport and so on. Invisibility is, in itself, an important political issue in modern capitalism.

France, of course, is distinctive in having massive council estates surrounding the larger cities; estates where major social problems can be concentrated and accumulated with little risk to the everyday lives of the more prosperous populations living in the prestigious centres. The largely immigrant population of the suburbs in France gained a massive upsurge in visibility during the violent riots of the early years of this century. For their part, the small towns seemed until recently to have managed to retain a surprising level of political tranquillity despite the gradual accumulation of distinctive social problems. Their material situation seems to have declined in the years following the crisis of 2008 and some of the more perspicacious sociologists have taken to contrasting the lively economic situation of the suburbs around Paris to the continual economic decline of the smaller rural towns, even those not too far from Paris. Poor access to medical care or to legal redress, distant social service provision, haphazard retail outlets and so on are problems that can be found in most rural areas across Europe, of course – in Scotland, for example (which shares a similarly low population density with rural France). The problem then is not why have workers in provincial France suddenly donned fluorescent yellow jackets, interrupted the flow of traffic and orchestrated noisy demonstrations in the distant towns? The real question is not what took them so long but how did they manage to do it. What and who is behind this yellow jacquerie?

The emergence of this movement into high visibility started suddenly in November when President Macron’s government rolled out its plan to increase the tax on diesel fuel for cars, motorbikes and scooters under the (questionable) pretext that this would eventually limit carbon dioxide emissions. In line with this thinking, motorists were supposed to oblige by selling their existing bangers and buying hybrid or electrical cars, cost being no excuse. The tax was also to be laid on the heavy fuels used to heat houses and out-houses in the smaller rural areas, presumably an invitation to install solar panels. But this was a tax hike which hit a population far more dependent on the private car than their contemporaries in the large cities. These are people who can rarely rely on the kind of cheap and efficient public transport commonplace in the large metropolitan centres. Financial capitalism, in other words, had finally caught up with those workers who had sought to avoid the off-putting compromises of life in the big cities by resorting to long-distance commuting to work from one provincial town to another. It was a tax bullet they felt they couldn’t dodge. To make things worse, it came on top of the disastrous emptying out of rural life which has accelerated over the course of the last two decades: Rural railway services are being run down for lack of profitability. Doctors are leaving for the bigger towns, hospitals are few and far-between, post offices and banks are closing, cafés, bars and restaurants are being boarded up. Those who remain are often the elderly, seniors or those who have — as we have seen – constructed an increasingly absurd life of long-distant commuting. For the elderly, in particular, the current rural set-up promises little more. Pensions were de-indexed a few years ago (thank you François Holland) and not revised upwards by Macron. Indeed, Macron’s hike in the Contribution Générale de Solidarité (CSG) took even more money from the poorer pensioners. Even if rural transport was available in the rural areas, many of the elderly would be in no position to afford it.

The revolt of these provincial workers owed a lot to the possibilities opened up by social media, of course. The internet allowed the distances between the smaller towns to be shrunk down. The militants used social media to co-ordinate road blocks disrupting the smooth flow of supply across the various départements, playing cat and mouse with the police. The result was chaos. Surprisingly, these roadblocks encountered massive support from motorists and from a majority of lorry drivers despite the inconvenience. Most of the ‘militants’ seem to be middle-aged with a sprinkling of young people including many single mothers. Many ‘activists’ are drawing a pension. There are many wage-earners though some are currently unemployed. There are also many self-employed craftsmen and small businessmen. To begin with exchanges with motorists and lorry drivers were good-natured although there were some violent scenes. This seems to have remained the pattern: that of a friendly movement of people who know each other and who, for the vast majority, are undertaking unconventional political activity for the first time. Here it should be mentioned that small town rural France is generally conservative. It votes for moderate candidates in elections and is rarely impressed by the noisy extremist leftism one finds in the bigger cities. No wonder everyone is surprised.

In response Macron announced a rise in payments to those on the minimum wage and in the income level above which pensioners have to pay the CSG and promised to increase taxes on the ‘digital giants’ Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Nothing fundamental will change except perhaps the people themselves; ordinary people on barricades or on road blocks. Or those who have (amazingly) found themselves on television arguing for a fairer taxation regime which pursues the wealthy and counters tax evasion. Then there will be those who have discovered the power they have to co-ordinate political activity via social media. Perhaps that’s one reason why Macron wants to increase the tax on Facebook.

M.M. Paris.