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#France: Autonomy and mass movement

The movement against the French government’s plans to “reform” the pension system continues over the Christmas holidays. On Christmas Eve, for example, there was only one train from Berlin to Paris due to the work stoppages. Within the antagonistic and radical parts of the movement, starting from the experiences of the social protests and movements of the last few years and taking into account the changes that the Gilets Jaunes movement has introduced into the forms of social conflictuality, the character and the way forward in the current phase of the struggle is being discussed. The text ‘Autonomy and Mass Movement’ is a product of these discussions.

Originally published by ACTA Zone. Translated by Enough 14 from German translation by Sebastian Lotzer for Non Copy Riot.

There are a number of elements that need to be taken into account in the current situation and certain proposals may be made on the basis of this finding.

First, the structural reforms carried out by the Macron government are absolutely essential for the hegemonic faction of the French and international bourgeoisie. It is not just a matter of smashing the bastions of the proletariat one after the other – like those in the SNCF (1) in 2018 – but of fundamentally changing the relationship between capital and labour in France. Gradual dismantling of social rights, massive attacks on the public service, dismantling of unemployment insurance, profound change in the education system. The next steps include social security, privatisation of the national roads and opening up the infrastructure of buses and trains to competition. These various measures must be seen as a coherent whole which directly serves the interests of financial capital. Black Rock, for example, has made no secret of its desire for the current financing of pensions. If, since the 1970s, financial capital has tried to assert itself in the densification of class relations, that is, the state itself, the workers managed to thwart this with some success until the end of the 1990s. Among other things, the strikes of 1995 (2) remind us of this.

In this context of global attack, certain parts – which are not marginalized groups – have already been caught in the crossfire: women and non-whites. Last summer’s “anti-Muslim” attack, which continues today in a strike on the pretext that there are too many Arab Muslims in the RATP (3), was not intended to “distract from the “real problems”. On the contrary, it has made it possible to target the “Muslims of appearance” – i.e. Arabs and blacks – as such, both as internal enemies and as social categories who, as colonized people, should remain at the bottom of the social ladder. Incidentally, women are also directly affected when they accumulate precarious contracts, especially in care work.

The appearance of the ‘yellow vests’ changed the situation. If we can assume that a new cycle has begun in 2016 with the movement against the new labour law, we must also take into account that there have been no social victories. Neither this movement, nor the student movement in 2017, nor the railway workers’ movement, nor last year’s teachers’ strike have managed to successfully fight the reforms and prevent their implementation. But the ‘yellow west’ has changed things. It’s not a question of agreeing on whether they have succeeded in getting Macron to really give in, or whether they have only managed to get him to seem to give in and make a few concessions, just as it’s not a question of confirming or not the Benjaminian hypothesis of the “emergency brake” proposed by Jérôme Bashet.

Rather, we want to affirm that the ‘yellow vests’ have shown the political and antagonistic power of the masses when they enter the political terrain. From there, the whole classical sphere of organisation – parties and trade unions – is affected, and of course the state, the bourgeoisie and the government. Frightened by this profound antagonism, the government reacted with a massive repressive change of course, welding together the police, judicial and political apparatus around Macron, especially in view of “Act II” of his mandate, in which he plays for his survival: Either he succeeds in passing it with all his might and thus has a free hand for the rest of his five-year term of office, or we deprive him of it through our practice and from then on new opportunities open up. Here the “retreat battle” is the “mother of all battles”.

In this context we can understand both the (trade union) silence surrounding the ‘yellow west’ uprising and the 18-month consultations on pension reform – consultations that continue to this day, after two weeks of strike. But underestimating the weight and role of the union confederations would be to ignore their real political strength. The strike at RATP on 16 September is a textbook case: the company has not experienced any strikes for more than 10 years, but thanks to solid preparatory work, more than 90% of the workforce went on strike on that day ( December 5th), putting itself at the forefront of the current movement by calling an indefinite strike from December 5th. The trade union movement is still an important instrument to intervene in the mass and class struggle, although it is necessary to carry out political confrontation work against the different bureaucracies.

In this general context, the time we are currently in is full of potentials that must be used for what they are: the possibility of defeating a government and thus gaining the upper hand in class conflict. But there are many difficulties, especially the policy of the trade union leaderships, which, as I have just said, involve us in a struggle without prospects, consisting of scattered days of action and doomed to failure in the long term. What role can or should political autonomy, which has developed great strength in recent years or is even in the process of hegemonising certain sectors, play in this situation? We want to refer here to the Paris case, which certainly cannot sum up the entire non-parliamentary left. But it is precisely in Paris and its suburbs that we are intervening in a targeted manner and we will therefore speak from there.

The creation of the cortège de tête in 2016 has redesigned the traditional marches. Through its form of spontaneity, but also through an assumed radicality and conflictuality, the cortège de tête has become a political space in its own right in response to the union routine, but also to a general apathy during the five-year period of the Hollande presidency. Of course, certain practices find their inspiration in particular in the forms developed around the ZAD’s and in the confrontations following the cop attacks in the suburbs. From there, the cortège de tête imposed itself on all those who did not want to bow to tradition, to the point that the cortège de tête provided almost a third of the demonstration of May 1, 2018. The uprising of the ‘yellow west’ was able to confirm certain hypotheses of autonomy: the strategic importance of circulation and logistics in the production system, the crushing and social decline of large sections of the proletariat, the central recourse to the blockade as a practice and, of course, the direct confrontation with the police. This also seems to confirm a form of recomposition within autonomy itself, a necessary recomposition if one takes the necessity of political struggle seriously.

One of the most striking features of this phase is the transformation of the police force, which began in 2016 and was strongly promoted by Macron. The protests against the new labour law allowed the state to gradually use the BAC (5) for police work on demos and to use it systematically for this task. Macron developed this orientation by putting the voltigeurs (6) back in the saddle, but also by using armoured vehicles and creating the special units, the BRAV’s (see 6). We are therefore witnessing a profound change in police work.

In addition, two elements should be highlighted: in 2016, the BAC was deployed under the pretext of combating “rioters”, and from 2018 to 2019, under the pretext of the “rebellious nature” of the ‘yellow west’, new units were created or reactivated to counter the threat. Today the situation is different: we are in a context of a “traditional” but social mass movement, which the movement against the new labour law was not. The three Parisian demonstrations on December 5, 10 and 17 made two things clear: firstly, in the face of this traditional form of demonstrations, the government preferred to partially opt for an equally “traditional” form of policing, while keeping an extremely threatening potential. Secondly, the cortège de tête, which is always large, did not seem to be the scene of radical antagonism. Rather, these demos seemed to have been essentially “pacified” – which doesn’t mean to deny the political determination of the majority of the participants.

In order to explain this, several elements must obviously be taken into account. It is not necessarily the most important element, but the police repression against the ‘yellow vests’ has inevitably influenced the subjective experience of participating in such demonstrations, and the fear of a demonstration – and therefore even more so the fear of confrontation – should not be underestimated, especially when the devastatingly violent potential of the police force is constantly becoming apparent. Secondly, the mass character of demonstrations necessarily reconfigures the possibilities of the few groups capable of exercising certain forms of radicalism – a lesson that must necessarily be drawn from the various attempts of the “festive blocks” in the cortège de tête.

Finally, the absence of a minimum level of structure and of an embodied political project (on the side of the antagonists, i.e., etc.) reduces the possibilities to a form of activism that depends on the general state of affairs, which logically leads to inability to take initiative or practical intervention. Therefore, the question of the role of autonomy in a mass movement with a long-term perspective must be asked. The phase that we are going through, if we take into account the above-mentioned elements of analysis, raises the political question of the relationship with the government, and thus the direct role of the neoliberal state in the liquidation of social achievements. Furthermore, this policy of accumulation through expropriation also applies outside the borders of the French state, particularly in the imperialist wars.

We believe that the role of autonomy in this situation is a dual one, internal and external:

  • The proposal of an organizational framework that can create a place for people who no longer find themselves in the traditional practice of political mediation or have a critical relationship with it, including in demonstrations, by guaranteeing a minimum level of protection and offensive action to impose a balance of power – even if only symbolically – on the streets.
  • To deepen our alliances with the militant trade union bases, some cores of the ‘yellow vests’, the anti-capitalist tendencies of the ecology movement, the “organisations of the suburbs” and, in a broader sense, with the other edges of the revolutionary camp. And it is possible to create these connections not only in phases of movement, in order to initiate a process of political recomposition according to the challenges of the time.

We are on the side of those who organize this process, and this orientation must be fully adopted both within the “space of autonomy” itself and outside it.


(1 ) State railway company with a high degree of unionisation. In the course of “restructuring”, the composition of the workforce as well as its hard-won rights are attacked

(2) The plan to “restructure the social security system” is defeated with nationwide strikes and demonstrations after several weeks of struggle.
(3) Paris public transport companies

(4) Independent left-wing trade union federation

(5) Brigades Anti- Criminalité, actually intended to “fight crime”, were then used under Sarkozy against the youth in the suburbs and now practically at every demonstration in France, see also:

(6) Motorcycle cops in teams of 2 cops, as they are for example also known in Greece or Chile. Were disbanded in the mid 80s after beating a young man to death after a demonstration in Paris. Now back in action again.

(7) About this ‘festive block’ see

Note by Sebastian Lotzer:

The original text was published on ACTA – Partisanes dans la metropole, the translation was free and analogous. For one or the other bumpy passage I ask for your understanding.

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