The Yellow Vest and Occupy Wall Street

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Demands of the Yellow Vests, via Twitter

When both political sides in the United States look at what is going on in France, Brussels, Holland and the Basque Country, the analysis reflects our highly divided, but extremely narrow politics. This is part of the problem with the United States. We tend to look at all events though our naive, isolated, Republican vs Democrat lens. Americans do not conceive of politics outside this narrow scope.

Yes, the trigger for the yellow vest movement was taxes on gasoline and diesel. It is not because French people are opposed to the Paris climate change accord. Nor are they opposed to doing something about climate change. This interpretation emerged from the fevered imagination of the President of the United States, and his followers. It is so bad that he even cited a far right march in London that did ask for him to take over. When the videos emerged, it was easy to see that the events happened in London, NOT Paris. The English use double decker buses, the French don’t. The police wore London Metropolitan Police Uniforms, not French Gendarmerie kit.

This talking point has taken off, and there is a little truth to it. Like the demonstrations in Mexico over the Gasolinazo at the beginning of this year, people were angry at already high taxes were going to go higher. Why? These are extremely regressive taxes hitting the lower and middle classes directly. Also, Paris is a very expensive city. Many people who work in the city live in surrounding rural areas, where there is little access to public transport.

However, that was the trigger to a series of grievances that go well beyond these regressive taxes. It is hardly, as the American right is pretending, just a tax revolt or a revolt against climate change treaties and legislation.

France, and many other European nations, have followed the neoliberal economic model over the last 30 years. This is leading straight towards austerity policies that affect the middle and lower classes. Why? The market is put at the center of all. In France labor laws were weakened after President Emmanuel Macron took office. This is favorable policy for business. However, it has weakened the power of organized labor to negotiate work conditions, pay and benefits. These reforms were deeply desired by the business community, which wants to lessen their costs. Labor is the main cost for any business. In effect, firing people has also become much easier.

When this legislation became law, workers took to the streets. They feared, correctly, that hard won rights of organized labor will be greatly weakened, or even lost.

Macron also cut down the taxes of the upper tier of French society. According to the Financial Times:

France has slashed its contentious wealth tax and introduced a flat rate on capital gains as president Emmanuel Macron used his first budget to unleash business-friendly policies aimed at attracting investors and revitalising the eurozone’s second-largest economy.

The French parliament on Tuesday adopted a package of measures for 2018 that included scrapping the wealth levy on everything except property assets — in effect cutting the tax by 70 per cent. A 30 per cent flat tax rate will also be introduced on capital gains, dividends and interests — a longstanding demand from investors and entrepreneurs.

The tax cuts, which fulfil promises made on the campaign trail, were seized on by Mr Macron’s political opponents as further evidence that he was the “president of the rich”.

Macron is a technocrat, and in the mold of most modern neoliberal leaders, including the Clintons. His reforms are a roll back of the social democracy of the 20th century. French people are taking to the streets for the same exact reason Americans did with Occupy Wall Street.

The airing of grievances is very similar, because neoliberalism is the way government is conceived off these days. It is putting at risk old European democracies. People are taking to the streets not just in Paris, or the rest of France. This is happening in Brussels, Holland and the Basque Country. There were some yellow vests at Katowice Poland. Why? Economic justice and environmental security go hand in hand. Which puts a lie that people reject climate change agreements.

The United States saw its own explosion with a leaderless. movement. And if the yellow vests spread to the United States, it will be hardly surprising. It is not, however, about carbon taxes. These were a mere trigger, and this is why the Macron government fears that this revolt will spread to other sectors of French society, such as rural areas and education. The latter has been under attack for the last twenty years or so, with universities facing meager budgets and professors having issues making ends meet.

Some of the demands we also heard with Occupy Wall Street. Among the significant ones are banning monopolies, smaller banks, more open media and the end of GMOs. They also want to recover for the state money hidden in offshore accounts. Incidentally, this is one reason income inequality grows. And these are better known with both the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. Some are very specific to France. They include the withdrawal from the European Union.

These social movements are grassroots, and demand the attention of politicians that until now have ignored the middle and working classes. It could (and likely will) spread. OWS left American borders fairly fast as well. Time will tell, but like 1848, the Summer of OWS may be giving way to revolutions. At the root of this is the most severe income inequality since the 1920s.

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