Canada's "yellow vest" movement needs more gilets jaunes

March 1, 2019

Since late last year, tens of thousands of French have hit the streets in protest of the country’s rising cost of living and shrinking opportunities. Many of these gilets jaunes protesters, named after the yellow safety jackets they wear in public, rely on their vehicles to get to work, or to do their work. President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed carbon tax, which would have added painfully to the cost of working in France, was the final straw.

But the gilets jaunes are also sick of the French president’s neoliberal austerity measures: cuts to public services, higher taxes on ordinary citizens, lower taxes for the rich and for corporations. These injustices, combined with Macron’s arrogance, pushed workers to don their vests and hit the streets en masse

The movement was quickly appropriated by right-wing groups in other parts of Europe and even Canada. However, these groups have focused their anger on different issues from the gilets jaunes. In Canada people are protesting everything from immigration to the lack of action on building the Trans Mountain pipeline. These grievances are very different in spirit from those of the gilets jaunes. 

As reported by Richard Greeman in The Bullet, the French movement’s demands include that no one be left homeless; the end of austerity; no taxation on the poor; a better integration policy for immigrants; a minimum salary of 1,500 euros/month (about $2,250); and more progressive income taxes that would force big corporations and the rich to pay their fair share.   

Yellow jackets in Canada also want the Liberal government to reverse the carbon tax, but their complaint is based on kneejerk anti-tax sentiment and not increases to the cost of living, which will be mitigated and in most cases fully rebated under the federal plan. In contrast, the French gilets jaunes are demanding fair taxation and decent wages for ordinary workers. And they have had a modest degree of success. 

Macron has agreed to rescind some of the new taxes and raise wages for some workers. Even if Greeman is right that these claims are mainly “smoke and mirrors,” Macron’s public acknowledgment that many French are suffering is an accomplishment in itself. Especially considering that the movement has been misrepresented by mainstream media as fuelled by “typical black block anarchists.” In fact, as Sylvain Cypel wrote in the New York Review of Books late last year, most of the 2,000 gilets jaune arrested to that point were older than your typical anarchist or far-right provocateur and had come out to protest for the first time in their lives.

The French have a long history of shaking up the status quo by literally taking control of the streets. The inspiring Quebec student protests of 2012 probably provide the closest contemporary Canadian parallel, but there was a time when our mass protests made international news as well.

In a Canadian Dimension article in October, H.C. Pentland referred to the Winnipeg General Strike as “among the great class-confrontations of capitalist history.” It inspired similar strikes in other Canadian cities, and the eventual defeat of the strikers spurred the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Although the 35,000 strikers were overpowered by Winnipeg’s capitalist class, the action left an important legacy for Manitoba’s labour movement.

As with the gilets jaunes, 1919 strikers were characterized as dangerous and radical. They were referred to (even by the New York Times) as Bolshevik revolutionaries who were hell bent on bringing a soviet-style economy to Canada. Pentland writes that there “was much calculated deceit in this image.” Nonetheless, 35,000 strikers—a huge part of Winnipeg’s working population—continued fighting for their rights.

The atmosphere in 1919 was much more volatile than today. The Bolsheviks’ success in overturning the despotic Russian tsar inspired Canadian workers who had returned from the horrors of the First World War only to face high unemployment, falling wages and a highly precarious labour market. There were no employment standards in Canada at that time; no labour legislation; no public health care; no Canada Pension Plan.

Many of the worker protections and social services we take for granted today exist because workers took to the streets in Winnipeg and elsewhere to demand fair wages and better working conditions. Unfortunately, in a case of history repeating itself, a lot of the 1919 grievances have arisen a century later under the cloak of an intensified, mature capitalism. Western societies are more unequal today than they were 100 years ago. Productivity continues to increase while wages stagnate. Employment is precarious. How do we respond?

French protesters have peered under the cloak; they see where to focus their anger. Most wear their gilets jaunes in the spirit of worker solidarity, decent wages, immigrant rights and fair taxation. Likewise, Winnipeg strikers 100 years ago responded by banding together, locally and in league with workers around the world, against an unfair system.

If Canada’s “yellow vests” can’t see the value in that kind of solidarity, they shouldn’t be appropriating the symbol of the French movement. Hopefully Canadians can distinguish between their message and that of the gilets jaunes.

Lynne Fernandez is the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues with the CCPA-Manitoba. Her column, Work Life, appears regularly in the Monitor.