The French Uprising

On Monday, 20 March, the homepages of the French national news sites were overcome with excitement as they reported on the vote of no-confidence in the government: tallying how deputies were likely to cast their ballots, assessing the motion’s chances, envisioning the wheeling and dealing, playing the insider – what a delight. Political journalism: a passport for political inanity.

Meanwhile, politics, with all its sudden force, has seized the country. Spontaneous events erupt on all sides: unannounced walkouts, road blockages, riotous outbursts and demonstrations, assemblies of student activists; youthful energy fills the Place de la Concorde, the streets. Everyone feels as if they are walking on hot coals, impatience coursing through their legs – but not on account of the trivialities which continue to occupy the Parisian goldfish bowl, its inhabitants each more ignorant than the next about what we’re now reaching: boiling point.

It’s beautiful what happens when the ruling order starts to unravel. Small but incredible things occur that shatter the resigned isolation and atomization on which the powerful rely. Here, farmers bring bags of vegetables to striking rail workers; there, a Lebanese restaurant owner hands out falafels to kettled protestors; students join pickets; soon, we’ll see individuals opening their doors to hide demonstrators from the police. The real movement has begun. We can already say that the situation is pre-revolutionary. What are its prospects? Might the ‘pre-’ be shaken off?

In France, the legitimacy of the power structure has collapsed; it is now nothing more than a coercive bloc. Having demolished all other mediations, the autocrat is separated from the people only by a police line. Nothing can be ruled out, for reason deserted him long ago.

Macron has never accepted otherness. He is in conversation only with himself; the outside world does not exist. That is why his speech – if we focus on the real meaning of his words – bears no trace of the collective validation that comes from rational discussion with others. On 3 June 2022, he could affirm, without batting an eyelid, that ‘the French are tired of reforms that come from above’; on 29 September that ‘the citizen is not someone on whom decisions will be imposed’. Isn’t it obvious that, confronted with a leader of this kind, there can be no possibility of dialogue? That nothing he says can ever be taken seriously? Such a person is incapable of owning up to any error save factitious ones, since you have to listen to the ‘outside’, to the non-self, to realize that you’ve made a mistake. This is why Macron’s promises of ‘reinvention’ – so enchanting to journalists – can be nothing other than pantomimes, produced in closed circuit.

For the despot, left to his own devices by political institutions that were always potentially – and are now actually – liberticidal, all forms of violence are foreseeable. Anything can happen; indeed, everything is happening. The footage of kettling on the rue Montorgueil this Sunday sends a clear signal that Macronian politics are in the process of dissolving. From now on, power governs by roundup. The police will cart off and arrest anyone, including passers-by with no connection to the protest, scared men and women, stupefied by what is happening to them. A single message: don’t go out in the street, stay home, watch TV, obey.

Here, the unconscious deal between the police and its recruits comes into view: an agreement between an institution dedicated to violence and individuals searching for legal sanction for their own violent impulses. A pre-revolutionary situation presents an unequalled opportunity, when power can cling on only by force, when acts of force acquire disproportionate significance – as well as a carte blanche. As we saw during the gilets jaunes, now is the time of sadists, of brutes in uniform.

In this context, the slogan ‘la police avec nous!’ is entirely obsolete, no longer has a chance: it rested on the illusion of objective social proximity, a vulgar materialism of ‘shared interests’, which is now overridden by the libidinal sway of authorized violence. This is how a structure produces its effects, and an order satisfies its needs: it travels by relay through the psyches of its chosen functionaries, from Macron at the top right down to the last police thug in the street.

Counterforces protect us, however, from descent into tyranny, or more plainly, from being crushed by the cops. It is possible that some remnant of morality, some notion of tipping points and limits, still lingers within the state apparatus – though certainly not in the Ministry of the Interior, which has been entirely overrun by pox, and where a quasi-fascist minister reigns supreme. But perhaps in the cabinets, in the ‘entourages’ where, at any moment, an awareness of political transgression, an anxiety about committing an irreparable act, might develop. Yet, as we know, it’s better not to count on hypotheses that require a leap of virtue (a secular form of miracle), all the more so given the corruption, moral as much as financial, that blights the ‘exemplary republic’.

The excessive actions of the police might yet produce a more material counterforce. Not in the heat of a few localised battles – without the development of specialist tactics, these are probably hopeless – but in the country as a whole. If, somewhere in the Ministry of the Interior, there is a ‘big board’ in the style of Dr Strangelove, it must be twinkling like a Christmas tree – covered only in red. The police could just about hold out during the gilets jaunes because these protests took place in a limited number of cities at a rate of once a week. Now they are all over France and every day. The marvellous power of numbers – they horrify the powerful everywhere. Fatigue is already visible behind the visors. But as yet the thugs haven’t finished racking up kilometres in their paddy wagons. What is needed are fireworks, so that the tree becomes nothing more than a huge garland and the big board blows a fuse. Exhaustion of the police: a nerve centre for the movement.

There is, finally, a resource of another order: hatred of the police – insofar as it is a driving force. When power lets loose its henchmen, two radically different results can follow: intimidation, or the tenfold multiplication of rage. Upheavals occur when the first mutates into the second. There are many reasons to believe we’ve reached this stage. Antipathy towards the police promises to attain hitherto unknown breadths and depths. Yet Macron sticks with them; ipso facto, hatred of the them is converted into hatred of him. At present, we don’t yet know how he will end up – the best-case scenario would doubtless be in a helicopter.

Is it increasingly apparent that by dint of wanting to occupy the throne, to hoard all the glory, Macron has tied himself to the retirement law and the police – such that, by metonymy, he has become the living synthesis of all these particular hatreds: ultimately their sole object. By another metonymic twist, as much as by structural necessity, he likewise clings to the ‘capitalist order’. So the question on the agenda is now: how to put an end to ‘Macron-the-capitalist-order’. That is to say, a revolutionary question.

The question posed can be revolutionary without the situation necessarily being so. History has shown that there are two possible tendencies here: waiting until such a situation forms ‘by itself’, or actively helping it into existence – not without difficulty, perhaps, but with possible assistance from rhythms which, in certain conjunctures, can undergo dazzling accelerations. In any case, we won’t move from the ‘pre-revolutionary’ present to the ‘revolutionary’ future simply through the negative force of refusal. An affirmation is also necessary, a galvanizing reason ‘for’ that unifies the opposition. What could it be? The answer must be equal to the country’s ongoing uprising, even if the form of that uprising remains undefined. For an insurrection to develop into a means, not an end, for it to become a truly revolutionary process, it must be able to formulate a positive political desire in which the majority can recognize itself. You don’t have to look for too long to find one. In reality it’s all we know: to take care of our own business, beginning with production. The positive political desire, opposed by capitalism and bourgeois political institutions on point of principle, is that of sovereignty.

Sovereignty of the producers over production – here is a slogan with appeal, and well beyond the working class, those most directly concerned. Because, increasingly, those we call ‘white-collar workers’ also suffer from managerial stultification, from the blind control of shareholders, from the idiocy if not toxicity of their bosses’ choices. They aspire – a tremendous aspiration – to have a say on all that which has been taken from them.

Legitimacy, and consequently sovereignty, belongs only to those who do the work. As for those who, despite their complete ignorance, nevertheless claim to organize the work of others – consultants and planners – they are nothing but parasites and must be driven out. The ultimate, irrefutable argument for the sovereignty of workers has been made by one trade unionist, Eric Lietchi of the Paris Energy branch of the CGT. The facts speak for themselves, as Lietchi observes: under the management of the parasite class, the country has been destroyed. The legal system is in ruins, education is in ruins, universities and research are in ruins, hospitals are in ruins as is the pharmaceutical supply – apothecaries are enjoined to cook up amoxycillin in the back of their shops. Last autumn, wrote Borne, the country could only hope that ‘by the grace of God’ it wouldn’t get so cold that the electricity grid, in ruins like everything else, might collapse over the winter. Teachers were hired in thirty-minute ‘flash recruitment’ drives. Civil servants were seconded as bus drivers – will stints as train drivers be next? And, amid all this, people are going hungry. One wouldn’t have thought it possible to write such a thing today but, here we are: a quarter of French people don’t get enough to eat. Young people are hungry. There are endless queues at foodbanks. Between this deprivation and the actions of police, if France 2 were to produce a programme on the ‘big picture’, without revealing the country in which it was filmed, a solidarity something-or-other would be organized in an instant – Binoche would cut off a lock of hair and Glücksmann pen a column – for these unfortunates on the other side of the world.

In the space of a few decades, and especially since 2017, an entire social model has been brought to its knees. They have brought the country to its knees. Not the CGT, not the Intersyndicale (if only) – they and they alone have done this. The country has been ruined by the competent. It is in a state of total disorganization. As we know, to oust the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie promoted university degrees and meritocratic symbols as replacements for blood and lineage. Hence a paradox (of which there are many) within late capitalism: the incompetence of the bourgeoisie has itself become a historical force, one which a minimal amendment to Schumpeter allows us to identify: destructive destruction. Or, to give it its proper name: McKinsey.

Here is where Lietchi’s argument acquires its fullest significance. Because the idea of workers’ sovereignty, usually dismissed as belonging to a dreamworld, now emerges as the logical consequence of an irrefutable analysis, whose conclusion is equally trenchant: we must get rid of these imbecilic pests and take back the totality of production. They didn’t know how to run it? The workers will – they already know. We could ask ourselves, what is the real meaning given to the phrase ‘general strike’? Not a general stoppage of work, but an initial act of the general reappropriation of tools – the beginning of workers’ sovereignty.

It is at this moment that the event signals its unprecedented power, even if, for the time being, that power resides only in the imagination. Incredible to imagine the effect on the physiognomy of companies when they are returned to the hands of their employees. Incredible to imagine the reorganization of public services when they are directed by those who know how to maintain and control the railway tracks, how to teach others to do so safely, how to drive the trains, how to signal, how to deliver the post while having time to talk to people. Incredible to imagine universities open to the public, the emancipation of art from the bourgeois artist and its capitalist sponsors. Incredible to imagine the collapse of the bourgeoisie, the historic condemnation of its characteristic mixture of arrogance and stupidity: unable to do anything itself, it only ever had things done for it.  

We can agree, of course, that we’ll need to be armed with more than just imagination – so much the better. But such imaginative scenarios do, at least, focus the mind. They give it a common direction, one derived from the political question that must be applied in all situations: who decides? The question is itself derived from a specific principle: all those concerned have a right to decide. This principle itself marks a watershed. The bourgeoisie believe that only they are competent enough to make decisions. CNews, which acts as their mouthpiece, is fully aware of the current peril: ‘Should we fear a return to communism?’ asks an anguished chyron. They are wise, no doubt unintentionally, to wonder – since ‘communism’ is correctly understood as the opposing party, the party of all, the party of general sovereignty, the party of equality.

The extraordinary uprising of the gilets jaunes never, to its disfavour, addressed the question of wages. As for the official voices tasked with posing this question, cogs installed in the warm centre of the system, they have never ceased to depoliticize it, transforming it into a mere matter of collective agreements. With and under such enlightened leadership we subscribed to defeat.

But now, in the space of two months, everything has changed. The forms of struggle diversify and complement each other: we can no longer separate the Thursday protests, massive but in vain, from the undeclared protests that keep the police on the run until the end of the night. The substance of class struggle is flowing into the mould of the gilets jaunes. It is an unprecedented combination, so long awaited; this time, astounding.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Read on: Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘The French Insurgency’, NLR 116/117.