Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Report from France II

I ended my last week’s report with the hope the ‘the French people, who are always full of surprises, will find some way out of this impasse in which their “representatives” – the union leaders and the official Left parties – are apparently their worst enemies.’ A week later, biggest ‘surprise’ is the entrance en masse of French youth, considered ‘apolitical,’ into the arena of the social struggle. All over France, high schools are being blocked by their students, while the presence of beautiful young faces is overwhelming in the huge nation-wide street demonstrations that keep intensifying. A poll in yesterday’s Paris daily Libération indicated four out of five French people think the government should give in and negotiate, while 69% support the demonstrators, who are demanding the withdrawal of the bill putting full retirement off to age 67. (Curiously, only 43% actually favor outright withdrawal. I assume most of the other consider themselves ‘realists’ and hope for a favorable compromise with the inevitable, considering the move toward ‘austerity’ all across Europe).
 ‘Youth+Labor=People Power?”

Actually, this massive mobilization of French youth should not come as
a surprise. Last year there were weeks of strikes and protests among
high school and university students against education cutbacks, and in
November 2005 there was serious rioting among mostly French-Arab and French-African youth in the ghetto-like projects that surround Paris and other French cities (when Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, made a name for himself by call them Racaille [‘Scum’] and threatening to scrub them with a high-pressure hose.) In 2006 the French youth revolt went more political, when the right-wing government passed the CPE (First Job Contract) bill, a labor ‘reform’ (presumably aimed at
encouraging the hiring of youth) which deprived workers under 26 of
their legal rights as workers. All over France, students blockaded
schools, went down into the streets, attempted to block trains and
eventually dragged the reluctant unions to support their
demonstrations. In addition, the outpouring of us parents and
grandparents in support of the kids was massive, and after six weeks
of chaotic disruptions, the Villepin government was forced to throw in
the towel and withdraw the bill.

A recurrence of 2006 is Sarkozy’s worst nightmare, and he was recently quoted as saying in private: ‘As long as the young people don’t get involved, I can handle the movement against my pension reform.’ The government’s response to the youth involvement has been to try to drive a wedge between the generations by provoking violent incidents around the high schools and encouraging mysterious ‘casseurs’ to burn cars, presumably in the hope of alienating the adults with the specter of ‘violence.’ At the same time, Sarkozy’s spokesmen paternalistically maintain that teenagers shouldn’t be meddling with an adult issue they don’t understand, especially since the reform is actually designed to help young workers by lowering Social Security payments. On the Left, the head of the Force ouvrière union, equally paternalistic, was quoted rejecting the help of the youth as ‘the weapon of the weak (presumably like ‘women’s’ tears’)! On the other hand, generational solidarity is strong in France, as witness a hand-made sign reading: “(Son, 26): Mom, what’s work? (Mother, 57): You’ll find out when you’re 67!”

Elites versus Masses

The massive entrance of the youth into the arena has changed the
balance of forces in today’s stand-off between an intransigent
Right-wing administration and most of the population. The second
‘surprise’ since last week has been the mobilization of the truckers
(mostly independent) and the refinery workers, which has resulted in
gasoline shortages at service stations all over France and deliberate
slowdowns (‘snail actions’) by trucks on the highways. This is all the
more remarkable in that the French truckers, who can retire at 55
under a special dispensation, are striking purely out of solidarity.
More and more, the movement is in the hands of local committees and
worker assemblies, who vote to continue and expand the symbolic
one-day strikes called by the cautious national union leaderships. In
Marseille and elsewhere, there are ongoing tugs of war between
demonstrators, who block refineries and gas depots, and the police,
who disperse them only to find them back the next day.

The deepest fears of both the official Left (union leaders and
Socialist politicians) and the Right are that the movement will ‘get
out of hand.’ Editorialists wring their hands about a tragic descent
into chaos. In place of the traditional struggle between Left and
Right within the institutions, today’s struggles are between the
established elites and the rank-and-file, what in the U.S. we
prudishly call ‘the working middle class.’ The French, with typical
Gallic irony have adopted as their identity a government Minister’s
contemptuous slur by calling themselves ‘les Français d’en bas’ (‘the
Frenchmen at the bottom of the heap’).

Different Interests, Different Tactics

As I see it, these struggles — between establishment Leftist and
Rightist on the one hand and on the other between elites and ranks –
are being carried out in parallel, but they have different goals, and
thus need different tactics. The goal of the strikers and the masses
in the streets is clear. They want Sarkozy withdraw the ‘reforms.’
Period. Their tactic is equally simple: all-out unlimited mass strikes
until the government yields — as it did in 1995 (when the
union-initiated movement against an earlier pension ‘reform’ got out
of hand) and in 2006 (when the CPE went down in flames).

On the other hand, the goal of the official Left (Socialists,
Communists, and their affiliated unions) is to weaken Sarkozy, bring
the government to the negotiating table and re-legitimize themselves
as a viable alternative to the Right with a view toward the 2012
Presidential election. Their tactic: prolong the crisis by measured,
periodic shows of force. Of course, this delaying tactic resulted in
defeat for the workers in 2003, when the strikes predictably petered
out during summer vacation and the government raised the minimum
number of years you have to work to earn a pension from 37 to 42
(which particularly hurt women who have taken off years for
childbearing). Nonetheless, after the success of yesterday’s sixth
successive national mobilization of up to 3.5 million in the streets,
the union leaders are calling not one more but two more spaced
symbolic one-day national strikes: one in a week and the other in two

Meanwhile, the whole country is going wild, and no one knows what will happen between now and two weeks from now. On the government side Sarkozy, ever more intransigent, is pushing up the date of the final vote of his reform in the Senate, while among the youth and workers in transportation, petroleum, chemicals and other key industries the ongoing strikes and spontaneous, daily, local actions are intensifying all over France. One reformist union leader was quoted saying ‘by marginalizing us, Sarkozy turned the power over to the streets.’ So why did Sarkozy put his Presidency on the line by uniting the fractious French unions against him, freezing them out of the action and refusing to negotiate?

My Analysis

Short answer: ‘France has the stupidest Right in the world,’ well
represented by this little man with the big inferiority complex.
(Demonstrators slogan: ‘Carla, we’re like you: we both get fucked by
the head of state.’) Long answer: ever since 1995 when the Gaullists
got back into power after Mitterrand’s 14-year long ‘Plural Left’
(Socialist-Communist) administration, the Right has been looking for a
showdown with organized labor in an attempt to duplicate the
neo-liberal triumphs of the 1980’s when Thatcher, after stocking coal
for years, crushed the miners’ union in a prolonged strike and Reagan
fired all the Air Controllers. The Gaullists’ first attempt at cutting
benefits unilaterally under the Chirac administration was the
ill-fated  Juppé Plan of 1995, which provoked a runaway general strike
and had to be rescinded. Villepin’s 2006 attack on the labor rights of
youth (CPE) had the same fate. In both cases, the Premier took the
rap, and the President saved face. It took an egomaniac like President
Sarkozy to take personal responsibility for the cuts and thus paint
himself into a corner.

Today’s Right forgets that the official Left is their best ally.
During the May-June 1968 General Strike, the Communist Party its
affiliated CGT union leaders saved capitalist France by blocking the
striking students from making contact with the striking workers,
negotiating a modest wage-hike with the government on behalf of the
strikers, officially ‘ended’ the strike despite a mass vote to
continue it, and agreed to channel the movement into parliamentary
elections which the Right won. Indeed, going further back in French
labor history, in 1936 during the general strike and factory
occupations, the CP-CGT leader Maurice Thorez famously declared: ‘You have to know how to end a strike.’ Ditto in 1944-45 at the time of the Liberation when the workers were still armed and the French
capitalists, having collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, should have
been expropriated. The same Thorez joined de Gaulle’s government and told French workers to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and rebuild the country under capitalism. Despite these betrayals and sellouts, the French working class has not been seriously defeated by capitalism in the way that British and American labor has, and the French have learned the lessons that solidarity works, that resistance pays off and that mass strikes are their strongest weapons.

There is no predicting what may happen as this conflict moves toward a showdown – desired both by Sarkozy and by the vast majority of the rank and file French, who in polls favor an unlimited general strike
to bring the crisis to a head (even if half of them accept the
necessity of pension cuts). So stay tuned for future developments.

Richard Greeman

Montpelier, France October 21, 2010

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