Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Report from France III

(Montpellier, France, November 1, 2010) For months working people all over Europe have been mobilizing – more or less successfully – to defend their livelihoods against austerity measures imposed by the central banks. On the pretext of a sudden and exaggerated panic over the debt, European capital is imposing a take-back of whatever social advances working people may previously have won in terms of salaries, job security, public services, health, retirement and unemployed benefits.

These austerity measures are embodied in directives from the European Union and IMF, and the required cuts are being imposed by governments of both Right and Left. (Greece’s Papandreou and Spain’s Zapatero are both Socialists).

Popular resistance has been strong: Greece was in turmoil for most of the Spring, and September 29 was marked by a one-day general strike in Spain as well as a mass international demonstration at European Union headquerters in Brussels. Nowhere has this conflict been sharper than here in France, where an undefeated, un-Thatcherized working class conscious of its long revolutionary traditions has for months been defying the rigid right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy with a series of nationwide general strikes and massive demonstrations of historic dimensions. (Please see my earlier reports, below).

Eerily Quiet Streets

However, as I write these lines, things are eerily quiet here in Montpellier, with stores closed, highways un-crowded and city streets near-empty. Alas, the reason for this vacuity has nothing (and everything) to do with the mass agitation and national strikes over pension cuts that have brought France to the brink of crisis over the past few weeks. Today is le Toussaint, an obscure Roman Catholic festival (think Tishibov) celebrated as a National Holiday by the officially secular French Republic with a three-day weekend and a two-week school vacation. The French, 90 percent of whom never see the inside of a (tax supported) Catholic church, are nonetheless a pious people, and Vacances (vacation) is the name of the god they worship.

This disappointing dénouement to the tension that has been building here for months was alas all too predicable, and the Sarkozy government was openly counting on the vacances-effect when it deliberately brought the crisis to a boil by rushing the final version of the pension-reform law through the Senate last week, creating a fait-accompli. The angry, determined, consciously anti-capitalist social movement that has been coming to a boil for months has now dispersed, and it is difficult to imagine it resuming with the same intensity ten days hence. On the other hand, Oliver Besancenot of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) is confident the movement will ‘rebound’ on Saturday, November 6, when the unions have programmed yet another one-day nationwide mobilization.

Be that as it may, last Thursday’s national strike/demonstration (Oct.28), much less well-attended then the previous six, already had something autumnal and valedictory about it. It was of course the seventh in the series of spaced one-day general strikes orchestrated by the leaderships of the various French union federations (CGT, FO, CFDT, CFTC, Sud-Solidaires). This stop-and-go strategy of ‘attrition’ has mainly served to ‘let off steam’ – rather than building up the pressure against the arrogant, intransigent Right-wing government of the much-hated Sarkozy; it may well have run out of steam, as I feared it would in my first report (October 15, below). Nonetheless, the level of anti-capitalist consciousness, self-organization, inter-professional and inter-generational solidarity attained by this mass movement has reached historic levels with over three million in the streets. This experience will not be forgotten…

What Kind of Society?

What I love about the French is that although more than two thirds have consistently voiced support for the demonstrators and strikers (despite real inconveniences like closed gas stations and cancelled commuter trains) only 43 percent actually agree with their goal – withdrawal of the ‘reforms’. Remember when U.S. liberals used to condemn our anti-war and Civil Rights protests with bullshit about ‘I agree with your goals, but object to your methods’ ? Here the public approves of the radical means, even when they don’t really believe in the goal!

What this not-so-silent French majority is saying to Sarkozy issimple: “Don’t play us for fools. We know you’re a bunch of corrupt politicians and super-rich profiteers, and we refuse to work until we die to pay off your gambling debts while you dine with bankers at Fouquet’s and go off on their yacht.”

This was precisely how the arrogant President-elect celebrated his2005 election victory (snubbing his own Party’s celebration), and Sarkozy’s open contempt of democracy has not been forgotten. “Take a good look at your Rolex: it’s time for revolt!” is a popular slogan.

The French – both Right and Left – are very conscious of their history, and this sense of history reinforces the very open class-consciousness – and class hostility – on both sides. Ancestral memories of civil wars between sans-culottes and aristos are part of French identity. Indeed, the word ‘guillotine’ has recently been bandied about (Sarkozy famously boasting it was out of style).

Obviously, these strikes have been about much more than pension cuts – which in any case are generally perceived as the first of many such ‘reforms’ all designed to definitively tear up the post-WWII ‘social contract’ between labor and capital.  ‘Dignity’ is the word on everyone’s lips. “If I can be tried as an adult at 13,” reads a sign held by a high school student “I’m old enough to demonstrate at 16.”

La Grogne (generalized popular grumbling) has been in the air for months, as the pleasure-loving French see their lives getting worse under this neo-liberal offensive. The economic slogan of the Sarkozy administration is ‘Work More, Earn More,’ but work has become hell for thousands of employees through the introduction of Kafka-esque management techniques designed to isolate each individual worker and make her personally responsible for constantly receding, arbitrary ‘goals.’ This management-imposed sense of failure, combined with arbitrary re-assignments designed to de-skill and de-professionalize employees, has lead to more and more frequent suicides in the Post Office and the Electric company, where my neighbor, a highly skilled line-man proud to work way up on high-tension transmission pylons, got transferred to a humiliating job behind a computer keyboard with a 70-minute daily commute from his home.  In Suffering at Work, a book and TV documentary, prominent psychiatrist Christophe Dejours revealed how French management uses psychological pressure to destabilize its employees and literally drives them crazy.

At stake ultimately for the French is the question of what kind of society they want to live in: a society based on social solidarity or one based on ‘greed-is-good’ individualism? The demonstrators’ answer to Sarko’s ‘Work More, Earn More’ is ‘Work Less, Live Better.’ Like Britain’s Thatcher in the ‘80s, the French President is aggressively provoking class war from the top down in order to break the resistance of the working classes and impose the neo-liberal agenda once and for all. With two or three million in the streets and 70 percent against him in the polls, the French people are telling Sarko: Fous le camp, pauvre con! (“Fuck off, Little Prick!”).

The Class-Conscious French

Another thing I love about France is the clarity with which class interests get articulated in the political arena (as opposed to the U.S. where bankers and bus drivers are all ‘middle class’). Since 1789 (and on through the revolutionary struggles of 1830, 1848, 1871, 1936 and 1968) France has been an ideal ‘Marxist laboratory’ for the study of class conflict. Today, France is basically still ruled by the legendary ‘200 Families’ – a restrictive caste of landed aristocrats intermarried with industrialists and bankers who live in exclusive neighborhoods, graduate from elite schools, belong to exclusive clubs etc. It expands slowly by marriage, merger and cooptation and is almost impossible to penetrate from the outside.

This financial and industrial oligarchy, today represented by Sarkozy and the MEDEF (Chamber of Commerce) has been tightly organized since the 19th Century, when it used its influence on the state not just to discipline labor but to grant French industrialists profitable arms contracts at higher than world-market prices. In June 1936, this tight little oligarchy had the shit scared out of them when a wave of sit-in strikes broke out all over France upon the election of a Popular Front government led by Socialist Leon Blum. Blum immediately negotiated a compromise including the forty hour week and France’s first paid vacations, and from then on, it was ‘Better Hitler the Blum’ as far as the ‘200 Families’ were concerned. This attitude (reinforced by traditional French Right-wing, anti-Semitic nationalism) goes a long way toward explaining France’s 1940 military debacle and the willing (and profitable) collaboration of French industrialists with the Nazi occupiers while thousands of French workers were being deported to slave labor in Germany. Yet today, Sarkosy’s party brazenly dares advertize itself as the ‘Shameless Right.’

The oligarchy had a lot to answer for in 1944-45 when France was liberated. The Resistance took power under the Gaullist-Communist coalition, and collaborators were being tried and sometimes executed.

Some big industries were nationalized, but there was no general expropriation of collaborators’ property. The Communists, under orders from Moscow, supported de Gaulle in saving France for capitalism, but at a price. The elite was forced to agree to the ‘social pact,’ and the French Constitution that emerged from the Liberation defined France as a ‘social republic’ under which workers have economic rights and where salaries are defined as including both cash and a ‘social salary’ of defined benefits – including retirement.

These benefits are considered constitutional rights, and since the return to power of the Right in 1995, working people all over France have been fighting a rear-guard action to preserve them. The issue is clear to all: Sarkozy and the MEDEF are out to replace the social republic with the dictatorship of the market, that is to say of the banks. At last Thursday’s demo here in Montpellier I saw a little boy carrying a sign that read La Bourse ou la Vie (‘Your Purse or Your Life’) with a play on the word Bourse (‘Purse’) which also means ‘The Stock Exchange.’ (He told me his father helped him).

Politics Rears Its Ugly Head

Rather than gloating over his apparent victory, Sarkozy has for once remained low key. With a view toward the 2012 election, the paternalistic President is now hinting he might make a few unilateral changes in the pension law (which cruelly punishes women, who typically are out of the labor force for several years of child-bearing and might not be eligible to retire until seventy.)

Meanwhile, with the angry French masses forced to wait until the 2012 election to dethrone their hated President, the Socialist Party seems to be emerging as the other ‘winner’ in this crisis. Sarkozy’s potential Socialist presidential rivals, Ségolène Royale and Martine Aubry, have recently promised to abrogate the pension cuts if elected in 2012 – forgetting that they had previously accepted the cuts as inevitable (with minor modifications). The other Socialist presidential contender, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has made no such promise. In 2007, on Sarkozy’s recommendation he was named President of the IMF responsible for imposing these and similar austerity cuts on the European level.

Thus the official Left plays party politics, using the strikers and demonstrators as pawns on the electoral checkerboard. The millions of angry workers and youth in the streets were not thinking about 2012 when they told the ‘Little Prick’ to ‘Fuck Off.’ On September 23, at the height of the movement in Paris, there was talk of coming back the next day, surrounding the National Assembly and bringing down the government. Didn’t strikers topple Juppé’s government in 1995 and Villepin’s in 2006? Didn’t their great-great-great grandmothers march with their kitchen-knives to the Palace at Versailles in 1789 and drag the King and Queen back to Paris? However, the CGT vetoed this move on the grounds that it would be too ‘political’ (!) Militants were advised to lobby their representatives back in their constituencies (although they were all in Paris, the Assembly being in session). I guess there’s ‘politics’ and politics.

Whom Do Union Leaders Represent?

Thus, the union leaders have once again, as in 2003 and 2007, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by tactics designed to disperse and dissipate, rather than unite the energies of three million militant working people and students backed by the huge majority of the population. How do they get away with these repeated sell-outs? If one were paranoid, one might even imagine the union leaders who imposed these defeatist tactics on the mass movement were actually ‘in the pay of the government!’

Technically speaking they are. In France full-time officers and staff of the various union federations (Communist, Socialist, Christian etc.) are entitled to government-funded salaries as well as professional expenses and something like civil servant status. French ‘pork-choppers’ are paid on the basis, not of their actual dues-paying union memberships (which on the average are down to U.S. levels), but of the number of votes their union gets in work-place elections. Union reps may thus be seen as functionaries serving as transmission-belts between groups of employees and government or management.

In case of conflict, these union bureaucrats represent their federations on the intersyndical (inter-union committee) where, through various compromises between more or less militant unions, they come to agreement on both the objectives and the tactics of national (or for that matter local) actions. It is this highly bureaucratized intersyndical that has called this series of one-day national strikes cum mass demonstrations, whose official goal was not the actual withdrawal of Sarkozy’s reforms (which is what the strikers want) but an official role for the union leaders in negotiating the cuts (accepted in as inevitable).

It costs the intersyndical nothing to call a symbolic one-day strike to pressure for inclusion. On the other hand, unlike unions in the U.S. and U.K., French unions don’t have strike funds, so employees who participate in these symbolic one-day national work-stoppages lose a much-needed day’s pay – which is why the mobilizations are more popular when called on a Saturday.

The problem for the union bureaucrats is to keep the pressure on while keeping it from getting out of hand. So strikes are limited to one day and widely spaced. Moreover, these mass mobilizations are organized in such a way as to maintain the division between public and private sector workers, between members of the various union federations, between different trades and professions, between different regions and between workers and students. They take the form of long parades led by blaring sound systems, with the demonstrators herded into successive separate ranks by category. Nobody gets to see the other groups or measure the strength of the whole demonstration, and when these marches reach their destination, they are dispersed before people can get together to discuss the day, exchange information – much less hold a rally or general assembly.

Another missing element in the unions’ dis-unity strategy is any visible move toward uniting European workers’ resistance to these cuts, which are imposed by the European Union and Central Bank. While the European bankers and capitalists are united in making the workers pay the bill for the Crash, the Left and the unions — whether in Greece, Spain, France or Britain — confine their struggles within narrow national limits. Their Leftist leaders sing “The Internationale” at rallies, but in practice the dis-unite the workers of Europe, who face a united European bankers’ Internationale.

The great frustration in this situation is that, assuming I am not totally misreading the ‘mood of the masses,’ there is a real potential here in Europe for militant, international popular struggles, including cross-border actions and mass strikes that aren’t just one-day symbolic affairs. (Even a one-day international general strike would scare the bejezus out of the ghoulish bankers attempting to suck the life substance out of European labor.) The stage is set for a showdown. On the one hand, ‘shameless’ Right does not deign to hide its objectives. On the other, the masses are angry and ready for a fight. It is the shameless Left, beginning with the Communist CGT, that disarms the masses, diverting the power of the militant millions into establishment channels like negotiations and elections, confining it within local and sectorial boundries, and disregarding its most potent weapon: the open-ended mass strike.

How do they get away with this scam? Many rank-and-file militants are aware of the situation, but remain frustrated by a union apparatus that holds most of the cards when it comes to controlling the movement. However, they remain isolated because no organization unites them. Neither Besancenot’s NPA, nor the Trotskyist Lutte ouvrière (LO) have taken any initiatives to expand and intensify the movement, for example by setting up rank-and-file coordinating committees or for calling general assemblies or mass meeting at the end of the official parades. On the contrary, rather than denouncing the defeatist tactics of the CGT and its shameful history of sell-outs, the ‘anti-capitalist’ far-Left organizations uncritically endorse the spaced, one-day symbolic strikes proposed by the unions, while abstractly calling for greater militancy.

Despite the sell-outs of 1995 and 2003 (never mind 1936 and 1968!) the CGT remains sacred cow, and no one on the Left dares criticize it much less unmask the Communists’ historic role as what the U.S. Socialist Daniel DeLeon used to call ‘labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie.’

This self-censorship – call it ‘anti’ anti-communism – is a form of political correctness left over from Cold War days, when the Communists were persecuted and still got 25 percent of the vote and when Sartre refrained from criticizing the gulag.

The cream of the jest is that the French CP, now down to 2 percent of the vote, long remained the most rigidly Stalinist CP in the West, ignoring Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech denouncing Stalin. The CPF defended the Russian tanks crushing of the Hungarian workers’ councils in 1956 and the invasion of reformist Czechoslovakia in 1968, remained aloof from the reformist Eurocommunist trends of the ‘80s, and never engaged in serious self-criticism. Yet the CGT remains a sacred cow, and even the ‘Trotskyist’ NPA and L.O continue to tail-end it ‘from the Left,’ concentrating their fire on the reformist Socialists (SP) while seeking alliances with the equally reformist CP.

Of course, the struggle is far from over, and the French (and

European) workers remain full of surprises. One can only share Olivier Besancenot’s hope that the mass movement will ‘rebound’ on November 6 and develop into a full-fledged, open-ended, Europe-wide general strike.

But if it does, it will not be thanks to any help from the official Left or its far-Left apologists.

Richard Greeman

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