Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Report from France

Dear Friends,

People ask me what it’s like living in France during these massive
one-day strikes and popular mobilizations against the conservative
Sarkozy government’s pension ‘reforms.’ These cuts would push the
minimum retirement age forward from age 60 to 62 and the minimum age
for receiving full benefits from 65 to 67.

On the one hand, it is thrilling to see millions of citizens taking to
the streets as well as hundreds of thousands of workers striking in
defense of their hard-won social rights defying an increasingly
reactionary government. Indeed, what is most heartening is that the
‘troops’ seem to be more radical than their official leaders, the
union chiefs and Socialist Party politicians. Recent polls showed the
French public not only supports the one-day strikes (which make life
Hell for commuters and parents of schoolchildren); nearly half are in
favor of an open-ended general strike to make the government yield —
a strategy advocated by the far-Left parties like the NPA as well as
by militant rank-and-file workers and local unions who are chomping at
the bit.

Once again I am reminded of what I love about France: a
still-living revolutionary tradition of popular mass mobilization and
struggle that goes back to the sans-culottes of 1789, the revolutions
of 1830, 1848, and 1871 (the Paris Commune), the sit-down strikes of
1936, and in my own lifetime, the nationwide student-worker uprising
of May-June 1968 and the1995 nationwide strike of public employees
that went ‘wildcat,’ paralyzed France for two months (during which
Parisians cheerfully commuted by bike and event boat) and forced an
earlier conservative government to withdrawn its unpopular welfare
‘reforms.’ It’s also a great pleasure to see a nasty right-wing s.o.b.
like Sarkozy humiliated by millions of angry, jeering citizens
blocking the trains and taking over the streets.

On the other hand, I also have a disheartening feeling of déjà vu.
Why? Because the unions used the same dilatory tactics of spaced
one-day work public sector stoppages in 2009, and the government
simply bided its time until summer, when the French go on vacation,
and rammed the cuts through parliament late one August night. And this
wasn’t the first time these tactics failed.

Indeed, ever since the runaway general strike of 1995, every time the
French have massively demonstrated and gone on national strikes in
opposition to government attacks on their labor and welfare rights (as
in 2009, 2008 and 2003), the official leaders of the unions have
imposed the delaying tactic of spaced one-day national work-stoppages
and demonstrations—marches and counter-marches designed quite
precisely to ‘demonstrate’ to the government their ability to call out
their troops (and thus presumably to reign them in). These
demonstrations are great for letting off steam, but inevitably they
run out of steam. Time is always on the side of the government and the
capitalists in the class struggle. The masses’ only strength is in
numbers and resoluteness, and their most effective tactic, once they
are mobilized, is to stay mobilized, spread the movement to all
sectors of the economy, go for broke and paralyze the country until
the bosses give in. As they did in 1936, 1968 and 1995.

The apparent purpose of the leadership’s military-style maneuvers is
to make a show of force and induce the government to invite the union
leaders to a round table—thus recognizing their legitimacy as the
official representatives of labor. This plays out in the media through
competition over how many demonstrators went into the streets in each
successive demonstration. Social struggle reduced to sports
statistics. The unions count 3.5 million people; the police count less
than half. The union leaders go on TV and call it a success; the
government says it is not impressed and won’t budge. Then the
politicians get into the act. With presidential elections looming and
Sarkozy’s popularity at an all-time low, the Socialists, who in power
also imposed neo-liberal cuts, grandstand their support for the
movement. They, too, have an interest in prolonging the struggle
against Sarkozy as they hope to reap the results of his
unpopularity at the polls. Former Socialist presidential candidate
Segolène Royale encourages the youth, specifically high schoolers, to
join the demonstrations. The Right (which has been cutting back
teachers like mad) cries ‘scandal.’ Another political horserace.

The goal of the mass movement is quite different. The strikers and
demonstrators sincerely want to use their mass power to force the
government to rescind the cuts, as the Chirac-Juppé government was
forced to do in 1995, when rank-and-file assemblies ignored the
unions’ cautious tactics and took matters into their own hands. Those
1995 strikes got out of hand and continued for two weeks until they
achieved complete victory and the cuts were rescinded. Paradoxically,
this victory was a stinging defeat not just for the government but
also for the unions, who were de-legitimized as responsible ‘social
partners’ unable to control of their troops.

This is worrisome for the brass at the CGT, CDFT and other
federations, since only about 23% of French workers belong to unions,
which are supported not by dues but by government allocations. Since
1995, the unions have tightened their control over the movement to
prevent another wildcat breakaway. And you can’t cynically turn mass
enthusiasm and anger on and off like a water tap without exhausting
it, so such tactics inevitably spell defeat for working people whose
dream of retiring keeps receding into the future while they remain on
the treadmill.

Similar mass struggles are happening all over Europe, where the same
neo-liberal cutbacks are being imposed in the name of paying ‘the
debt’ (created by bailing out the banks). Yet here again, the Left
politicians and union leaders, far from seeking strength through
international solidarity, remain staunchly isolated within their
national boundaries, despite the obvious fact that the European Union
has created a common economic zone! But the unions and left parties
depend for their ‘franchise’ on the national state, which subsidizes
them directly.

One hopes 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.

Best Wishes to All,
Richard Greeman

Montpellier, France
Oct. 15, 2010

[Richard Greeman can be reached directly at [email protected]. Knowing his work, I presume his references to “citizens” is not meant to imply acceptance of the legitimacy of that category; the IWW used the term to mean those with a stake, real or imagined, in the system, and uttered it with a sneer. I hope Richard will write again, with more detail about how the ordinary people of France are displaying initiative in pointing the way beyond the unions and political parties.–NI]


Richard Greeman offers an interesting, seductive, valuable analysis, but he gets a couple of important facts wrong.

– The percentage of the labor force that is unionized is closer to 8% than the 23% figure he cites (8 is the figure I saw in a recent article). Furthermore, the unionized are mostly in large, government organizations like schools (teachers) and transportation (which have been partially privatized), post office.
– Also, the extent of the strikes is much less than he mentions.  Here in Paris, the metro was running at around 66% and trains at around 40%. I gather that those figures are much higher in the south, especially Marseille.
– And then it might be useful to point out that, according to the polls, a majority of public opinion recognized the need for social security reform before the government proposed and pushed and rammed through its law. Now, majority opinion is against it.  One explanation is the process used by government. Another, of course, is that the losers are those who started working at the earliest ages and, most likely, are doing the most difficult and dangerous jobs and whose life expectancy is the shortest.

– Not only are the unions supported by government handouts, but, according to a recent revelation, they received direct, under-the-table handouts from industry.

The analysis is mostly right on the point of the tensions between union leadership and their “base.” In 1995 that was clear: the strike that sunk the reforms proposed then started as a wildcat (and spread like wildfire). This time the unions are doing their best to avoid that and have been organizing demonstrations that have been rather successful. Part of the issue is the competition between 3-4 unions. Competition for legitimacy, “responsibility,” membership. However, this time, at the demonstrations hey have been displaying unity between them.  For them, it appears, given their small membership, appealing to public opinion is high on their agenda.

Actually, it seems to me that the biggest “mass struggle” going on these days across Europe is that against the “Islamist invasions” (Turkey, North Africa, West Africa). In any case, that is what is attracting an increasing minority of “the masses” at the polls (France, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria++). I’m beginning to think that the Muslims immigrants — whose presence in Europe is necessary for many reasons, including to ensure the viability of social security — are beginning to play the same role played by Jews in the 1930s — the deflection of discontent on to a bogus issue personified by the “other.”

Richard Sack

Paris, France

[The role of Muslims in the economy is in no way parallel to that of Jews in the 1930s. (1) The Jews were a privileged group, in general better off socially than their non-Jewish neighbors; that is not so for the Muslims today, who make up the most oppressed layer of the proletariat and the marginalized; (2) Judeophobia in the 1930s was generally directed against  those in charge of official society (The French Prime Minister was Leon Blum); today, anti-Muslim sentiment is wielded by ruling parties throughout Europe, or at least part of the governing consensus. In brief, anti-Semitism was the “socialism of fools” with something of a “radical” content; anti-Muslim sentiment today is the effort of some workers to protect their privileges, resembling white attitudes toward blacks in the U.S. and South Africa or Jewish attitudes toward Arabs in Palestine.–NI]

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