[This article originally appeared in the French web newspaper Mediapart.fr on December 29th. It has been translated by Hard Crackers].
Yesterday I did not participate in any of the demonstrations having arrived too late in Paris; I was thinking of going to a festive gathering in the evening, organized by the unions to raise strike funds, but I had to give up that plan. However the time in Paris was still rich in encounters and quite enlightening on what is actually happening.
Midnight on the Saturday between the two end-of-year celebrations: after walking all afternoon, it was too difficult to try to walk the remaining five kilometers to get my car (parked in a nearby suburb); I decided to try to take a bus.
After letting five crowded buses go by and more than half an hour of waiting (which is nothing if we compare with the situation in the suburbs!), I finally managed to get on to a “96” bus to Richard Lenoir, which would make it easier for me to reach the city gate of Lilas.
This bus is packed of course, but a good mood prevails among the passengers; the atmosphere is conducive to discussion, especially about the current social conflict. I do notice, as we were trying to get on the bus, friction between the usual users who are returning home after a day of work and the “selfish tourists and commuters who had just come to shop” and who do not do enough, in the eyes of the former, to make room for everyone on the bus. These will be the only exchanges that were a little tense, because I then heard a lot of this beautiful word of “solidarity”, which seemed to have deserted the usual vocabulary in recent years …
I have not heard anyone moaning against the principle of the strike, several people have even told me that “now, we have to go all the way, we have had too much, it would be silly to stop the strike and let the government continue to crush us.” Majority support therefore …
I met a young Parisian man, who explained to me that even if he supports the movement, it’s hard for him, – who, moreover, does not even imagine that there will still be a pension when he is old enough to collect it; he does “extras” in catering, with very hard hours, a lot of precariousness, he has a Navigo Pass which he paid in full – since the bosses are not obliged to reimburse 50% as for the other employees he explained – and that he could not use regularly since the start of the movement; he is a bit scared, because the Navigo Pass weighs heavily on his meager pay. He lives with his mother in a small Parisian apartment.
His mother is a cleaning lady, employed by a personal assistance association; she is paid by the hour, has had to refuse assignments because she did not have the possibility to get there at the moment, especially when they send her to the suburbs; she spends many hours in transport and In the end, she will not have a full salary … He says to me: “We, the precarious workers and those of the small companies, we are very far from the world of the trade unions; it is inaccessible for us, nobody is defending us, no strike fund, so we’re going to pay the real price for this movement. I have nothing against those who are at RATP or SNCF and who are on strike, I’m not saying that it has to stop now without having won anything, but I’m just saying that whatever the government, we get lost every time. And everyone forgets us, the government and the unions. For us there are no strike funds, but I still support those who fight for the interest of all.”
I admit that I took this testimony as a slap: I am part of the politicized population; I have campaigned in the past in leftist parties (or that I thought such), I was unionized. I joined the Yellow Vests for a year, because I finally felt that something new was emerging, inclusive, citizen, multiple in its approaches, its composition, its purposes. But today when the movement seems a little in retreat, while still managing to accomplish a beginning convergence with the unions, are we not missing out on are the essentials that we were supposed to represent: the people in their diversity, who finally became visible and audible?
Because once again on the front of the stage we only see the major unions, mainly represented by the powerful power stations Energie, RATP and SNCF. Certainly the services they provide are central to the functioning of our society, but these employees are not the only ones to resist or suffer from inequality and precarious employment.
Of course it is necessary to massively add to the strike funds to support the strikers, but can we not find a system of solidarity which extends to the precarious workers who have paid a high price for too long of this neoliberal economy which tramples them?
If we have to fight, isn’t it for them first?
At the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement, I met many of these modest, precarious workers, who work hard not to get by or barely … They are the ones who made me rejoin the movement because we could finally fight for everyone and not only the unionized minority; we made visible the invisible people who make this system go crazy … But over time I see them less present … Lassitude? Fear of the systematic repression organized by Castaner and Lallement? A bit of all this? In any case–at least in Paris, because perhaps the situation is different in the provinces–I no longer find in current rallies the fervor of the first demonstrations, in spite of already being very repressed. And popular support also seems to me to be in retreat …
On the bus, I also got to know Mariama, a Brazilian, a jewelry saleswoman who came home after her day at work.
After having traveled four stops on foot, tired, she also came to wait for the bus at Richard Lenoir. She lives in Romainville, she will work tomorrow, Sunday. We get to know each other; she tells me that she supports the social movement, even if it’s very hard for her right now. She tells me about Brazil and her region of origin, larger than France; she has been worried about her country since Bolsonaro, who is like “Trump’s little brother”, came to power. She tells me about the repression against homosexuals, minorities, huge social inequalities, exploited poor workers, the lack of access of this population to education, which makes them very easy to manipulate. She said to me: “The strikers must hold their ground. When I came to France I imagined arriving in the country of the Rights of Man. And now I see that it is not that at all! So it is necessary that the French continue to fight, because the moment is very grave here and everywhere in the world.
She tells me that she lived in the 19th in Paris a few months ago in a room at the top of an old building. € 630 per month for a tiny room, once all of its expenses had been paid, she didn’t have much left. But hey, living near the Buttes Chaumont (a large park in Paris) is a chance!
Then one evening when she got home from work she discovered that she had been robbed; all her stuff turned upside down. She was afraid, she didn’t want to stay there anymore. So her friend offered to come and join her in his little apartment in Romainville. Two would be less hard. But she depends much more on public transport now …
Arrived at the Porte de Lilas, I ask her how she will get back to Romainville. She replied that she might find a bus … she takes a look at the RATP AP, there would be a bus that leaves here in 40 minutes to Montreuil, it will bring her closer already.
I offer to take her home by car to spare her this new round-about journey. She hesitates, she doesn’t dare, then she admits that she would be tempted because she is already so tired, and then she works tomorrow.
I therefore accompany her to outside her house. She offers to give me something to compensate me for the petrol I used. I refuse. I explain to her that I think about what I did as a militant gesture of solidarity, participation in the movement. She smiles at me, kisses me, and when she leaves tells me “I will remember it, and during the next strike, even if I cannot be there, I will support you even more, with all my heart!”
For me, it was the Yellow Vests that made possible what we are currently experiencing: this popular start, this renewed solidarity, sharing, the desire to do together, something else, otherwise.
Of course this voluntarily disorganized and plural movement is far from the majority and I see every day the damage of frenzied individualism, turned into a veritable state religion for too long; indifference, selfishness, absolute belief in formatted information from mainstream media, excessive consumerism … disillusioned people who have renounced any principle of struggle, even symbolic.
But the little seed of resistance planted and then maintained by the Nuits Debout, the Yellow Vests, the XR Rebellion (Extinction Rebellion) and many others, continues to gain strength and grow. The old world can start to worry: we will not give up!