Reflections on the French Strikes

There was a spell last December when news bulletins contained almost daily reports of strikes in France. Nowadays when the media allow us to hear about such a thing as a strike before it is over and done with you know there must be something fairly substantial going on. In this case there was such a widespread outburst of class struggle that capitalism's propaganda merchants couldn't afford to keep quiet about it without serious loss of credibility. Not only was there a real possibility that the Prime Minister, Alain Juppéé, would have to “stand down” but even the insular British working class were beginning to get wind of something going on across the Channel - especially when EuroStar train drivers were confronted with their French counterparts lying on the track in front of them!

Inevitably there were comparisons with '68. However, even the most enthusiastic supporters of the movement could not claim that December '95 was of the same dimension as May '68. In one important respect though it was similar. As our statement here says, December '95 was a timely reminder that the working class is still a force to be reckoned with. (Indeed it remains the only force capable of posing an alternative to the present system.) In the wake of the biggest display of working class strength for years the French media are busy trying to deny this essential aspect of the struggle. Instead it is being presented as a general “social movement” of the citizenry against the Maastricht conditions for a united Europe. La France united in popular outrage to demand social justice for all. This is rubbish. Whatever the political limitations of the movement the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in Paris and beyond were well aware that this was a class battle which had to be fought as such. One of the most widespread slogans was “Tout Ensemble” (All Together). Not by any stretch of the imagination a nationalist or populist slogan, but a recognition of the basic proletarian weapon of class solidarity. It's true that for the government there was the added urgency of European Monetary Union pushing it to find means of reducing the budget deficit. For the working class the means adopted were taken exactly for what they were: a direct attack on their livelihoods, health and welfare services and the general quality of life. This is what was most healthy about the movement.

Workers Under Attack

The workers under attack didn't worry about the state of the economy or the need to balance the budget. They ignored the government's arguments about economic realism and acted from the standpoint of their own economic reality. And, just like everywhere else, reality for the working class in the so-called economically advanced states is becoming increasingly harsh. After well over twenty years of global economic crisis there is not a single state in the Western world that is living within its means. Wholesale restructuring of economies has brought no solution. On the contrary, the introduction of new technology and the weeding out of unprofitable sectors means the permanent loss of millions of jobs and a burgeoning social security budget. Meanwhile the remaining workforce is subjected to higher levels of exploitation, de-skilling and casualisation. So, now it is the turn of those other pillars of the post-War settlement - health, security in old age and even universal education - to be pared and trimmed down to nothing with a few strokes of this or that Finance (or Prime) Minister's pen. Throughout the whole of the “advanced” capitalist world the imperative of global competition is making itself felt. State welfare systems which had been introduced to buy off class struggle at the end of the 2nd World War are now deemed too expensive to run by bankrupt governments. Whether it be at the hands of a Lilley and a Major, a Dini and a Berlusconi or a Chirac and a Juppé the effect is all too similar for the working class. We are the ones who are sacrificed for the sake of the few who benefit from “greater profitability” and “increased competitiveness”. At the beginning of capitalism's crisis it would have been unthinkable for governments to have launched such massive attacks on living conditions as they are doing today without evoking an equally massive response from the working class. Twenty-five years or so down the line the balance of class forces has changed. Many of the traditional industries with large workforces have been virtually wiped out whilst a huge reservoir of unemployed and the legacy of a series of bitter defeats on the economic front (not least the British miners' strike of 1984-5) is being used to cow a currently much more dispersed and fragmented working class. On top of this there is all the propaganda the ruling class can muster about the “end of communism” and the supposed disappearance of the working class. Moreover workers themselves are for the most part still locked in the fetters of trade unionism and mentally shackled to the illusion that capitalism can be reformed. In short, the general level of class consciousness is no higher today than twenty-five years ago. This is reflected in the weakness of proletarian political organisations who are struggling to revive the communist programme and to present a revolutionary way out of the present situation whenever the class shows a willingness to resist capital's attacks, but who are in no position to alter the general course of the class struggle.

All this is well understood by the capitalist class and its government representatives. Basically they have been riding roughshod over the working class for the past few years. A sectional struggle here, a token day of action there, our rulers have learned that these are a small price to pay for instilling wage slaves with another lesson in capitalist economic realism. The Chirac government, elected last summer on a mandate to heal the growing divisions in French society, had no compunction about reneging on this vapid promise (a bit like Major's “promise” of a classless Britain). By the autumn a two year wage freeze for 5 million public sector workers had already been announced. Despite the well-supported “day of action” called by the three main unions for 10th October the government was confident it could go on to impose much more swingeing cuts. Even though there was a further day of action' on 14th November in protest at health service cuts and increased hospital charges this did not stop Juppé announcing his notorious plan to “reform” the social security system. This scheme to balance the budget (which is now in force) includes a new tax for everyone, even the lowest paid, a benefit freeze and increased National Health contributions. In addition Juppé proposed a revision of the income tax system so that top rates are cut whilst everybody else pays 20% more. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it!) On top of this across the board attack on the whole working class an arbitrary 3 year extension of the annual contributions to state pension funds was also announced for public sector workers. This in turn was accompanied by the declaration of further “plans” for various services run by the state. Again, the picture is familiar: job cuts, lower wages for new employees, contracting out (i.e. lower wages), more “flexible” job specifications etc. were in the offing for the Post Office, France-Telecom, electricity, gas and, of course, SNCF. the French railway network. All this was greeted with a standing ovation by MPs in parliament. (The Socialists, who have spent the last decade implementing cuts, complained about Juppé having stolen their ideas.)

This shows how confident the government was but it is not to say it was without a strategy for keeping the working class divided. Basically Juppé and Co. calculated that state sector employees would get little sympathy for the changes to their pension entitlements from private sector workers who had already seen their pension rights undermined two years previously. (In 1993 the Balladur government, with the cooperation of the unions, had extended pre-retirement pension contributions from 37.5 to 40 years and the period for calculating pensions from the last 5 years of work to the last 10.) By contrast with the private sector, public sector workers now appeared better off. Essentially the strategy worked. Despite having miscalculated the extent of the anger amongst the working class as a whole - which made the Juppé Plan the focus of the fight back and meant the public sector workers had a lot of sympathy from the rest of their class - strike action was in the main limited to the state sector.

However, if the government thought that singling out the railways as the first state sector in line for “reform” meant that railworkers would be fighting alone it was mistaken. Workers in the Post Office and other services knew very well (since Juppé had told them) that the 6,000 job cuts a year, temporary employment contracts and so on proposed for the rail service were the kind of “measures” they could also expect. This, combined with the blanket attack of the Juppé Plan, was enough to inspire a generalised protest from public sector workers (24th November) and ensure that the railworkers had more than passive support when they embarked on an indefinite strike the next day. (Starting with tube and bus drivers in Paris who came out on sympathy strike a few days later, quickly followed by their workmates in the provinces.) Gradually the strike spread to other state-run sectors: the Post Office, electricity and gas (including two-thirds of power stations and half of nuclear power stations), ordnance factories, naval shipyards, coal miners,teachers, bank workers. At some point just about all the state sector was affected by some form of strike, sometimes partial, sometimes all-out, indefinite or one-day. At the same time students occupied universities, demonstrated for their own demands and sometimes actively solidarised with the working class.

Faced with this growing movement the government was obliged to go on the retreat. In a television interview on 5th December Juppé withdrew the 20% rise in income tax. Clearly the aim was to forestall any extensive solidarity from private sector workers. However, this did not stop the movement expanding. The next day saw water workers and refuse collectors join the strike and on 7th over a million workers demonstrated throughout France. Further concessions had to be made. By the following weekend Juppé announced that the railway plan had been shelved as well as the proposed pension changes for rail and other public transport drivers. At the same time he continued to ward off a more general class movement with vacuous talk about the need for a “social summit” of representatives from government, bosses and unions to discuss how to solve youth unemployment and reduce the working day. Even from a distance it was obvious that now the Juppé plan was to divide the movement. However the biggest “demonstration day” of all, Tuesday 12th December, with Juppéover 2 million workers on the streets, didn't lead to Juppé's resignation but did result in a government statement that pension changes were to be shelved for the whole of the public sector.

By the time of the next national demonstration day (16th December) there were fewer of the original strikers - transport, postal workers and so on. (Indeed, the night before the CGT leadership sent round instructions to branches to halt the strike.) Even though another 2 million or so took part this marked the beginning of the end of the movement.

The Role of the Unions

So far we have not mentioned the unions. Normally in a situation like this we would expect to see them acting to limit the movement, stopping it from “getting out of hand” and confining it to the proverbial “safe ground for capital”. Now they were apparently doing the reverse. In particular the CGT (General Workers' Confederation, still largely CP-based) and FO (Force Ouvrière or Workers' Strength, predominantly sympathetic to the Socialist Party) pulled out all the stops to get more and more workers involved in the strikes. They pressed their militants to seek ways of linking up with others - in the same company, between companies, employed and unemployed, private and public. By and large it was the unions who initiated the holding of daily strike meetings and encouraged workers to decide for themselves how to run the strike.

The reason for this sudden burst of radicalism from union machineries that for years have been cheerfully negotiating away jobs and helping to manage the capitalist crisis is straightforward enough. Although fewer workers in France are union members (about 8%) the unions themselves are more closely integrated into the state than in most other European countries. In fact their major strength is in the public sector where they (especially FO) jointly manage the health and pension schemes with the bosses. When it came to the Juppé plan the unions were not really worried about the effect of reduced pension rights or the increased health contributions on “their” rank and file members. What the likes of Marc Blondel, leader of Force Ouvrière really feared was the loss of power and influence for themselves and the whole union machinery if, for example, the government's plans for a privatised and restructured health insurance system came into being - i.e. if it was taken out of union hands. (They stood to lose out on managing £300bn from the health insurance system alone.) As always, therefore, the unions were playing their own game. This time it was to secure their stake in the management of the economy which the right-wing government want to undo. By fanning the flames of the class struggle they ensured that when they came to the negotiating table they would be negotiating from a position of strength - to maintain their role in the running of the system.

So where does this leave the working class? Were they simply used as pawns by the union confederations? The answer here is “NO”. The fact that the union leaderships cynically encouraged the struggle for their own ends does not deny that the workers were fighting an essential battle of their own. True, the outcome cannot be described as a victory. The main aspects of the Juppéé plan are now in force. Although the plans for the SNCF and the public sector in general have been put on hold this can only be a temporary retreat by the government. One way or another the French bourgeoisie will be obliged to try again to force its “privileged” public sector workers to accept worse “conditions of service”. This is a necessary step, not only so that French capital can balance its budget, but as a basis for further attacks on the whole of the working class as French capital strives to remain competitive in a global economy.

As we said at the beginning, the most significant aspect of the French strikes was the fact that they happened. When we say in our statement that they have not broken any new ground we mean that they did not pose any political problems for the bourgeoisie. The movement was a defensive one, limited to pushing back the bourgeois offensive. For the balance of class forces to have tipped in favour of the working class the movement would have had to be more all-encompassing and taken up a revolutionary political aim. In the present circumstances this is dreamland. There will have to be a few more movements like the one we have just witnessed (and not just in France) before the working class in general is prepared to fight for a new society rather than demanding change within the old system. And that consciousness is not going to emerge directly from the struggle on the ground. It cannot because the revolutionary programme is a distillation of the lessons from the revolutionary history of our class. However, such struggles tend to lead individual militants and groups of activists to question the outcome and make them generally more open to revolutionary ideas. It is from these kind of experiences that proletarian political organisations have to be able to build and turn workplace militants with a healthy class instinct into revolutionaries fighting for a clear communist programme. In other words, the only real victory the working class can achieve today is the strengthening of its long-term ability to fight for communism. And the only way that can be done is by strengthening its revolutionary political organisations, ultimately to the point where an international communist party can be formed. Before that can happen, however, the working class everywhere will have to fight back. This is what the French working class tried to do in '95.

E. Rayner

Debate Within the Proletarian Camp - Note on the ICC's View of the Strikes

At the present time the International Bureau is receiving more than the usual number of enquiries from correspondents interested in knowing what our main differences are with the International Communist Current (ICC).

One of the principle differences between us is over the question of political organisation and class consciousness and a few comments from us on the ICC's analysis of the recent strike wave in France may serve to illustrate this.

Whilst our view is that the most positive aspect of the French strikes is that they happened, i.e. they showed the working class still has the capacity to fight, for the ICC there is nothing positive. According to the ICC's analysis the working class was deliberately pushed into a premature struggle by a “masterful manoeuvre” of the bourgeoisie (government, bosses, unions, leftists, amongst whom there is no distinction) whereby everything that happened was planned from beginning to end. The aim was to weaken the working class so that it would be in no position to put up much resistance in the next round of attacks. The existence of divisions within the bourgeoisie - in this case between a rampant free-market right wing government, intent on farming out health insurance and pension schemes to international finance capital, and the unions - goes ignored. It is one thing to understand that in relation to the working class the bourgeoisie as a whole shares a common interest in maintaining the wage labour system. It is another to assume that this is the bourgeoisie's single interest. In other respects there are divisions between the various interest groups of the ruling class.

This in itself is a small point of difference but behind it there lies the more significant issue of class consciousness. For the ICC the working class is an intrinsically, one might say “naturally” revolutionary class whose revolutionary instincts are continually thwarted by cunning plots of the bourgeoisie to keep it divided. This latest strike wave is a case in point. For Revolution Internationale (RI, the ICC's biggest and founding section in France) the unions did not only act just as much against the working class, as Juppé, they (along with the Trotksyists and leftists in general) shared the same overall plan and worked jointly to implement it. Indeed, by the time we get to February Revolution Internationale states quite categorically that the bourgeoisie consciously worked out how to make the unions more credible in the eyes of the working class and thus enable Juppé's plan to get through. Moreover, they have a quotation from Chirac (from November, “before the strike outbreak”) which proves it! It's an interesting quote. This is what he said: “The unions, each in their turn, have helped us to legitimise the idea of reform. They are even more indispenable for putting it into practice.” Yes, this shows the role the unions play for capital. But, as RI states, this is before the strike outbreak, when the unions were working very well to contain the working class by holding the occasional “day of action”. The ICC is fooling itself when it ascribes the sudden radical switch of the unions to part of a deep-seated and conscious plan to “imprint a new, positive image on the unions (and) at the same time push workers into their confidence”. (From the lead article in the February edition of Revolution Internationale.) At a simple factual level this beggars belief, but more than this it shows - and RI's propaganda during the strikes confirms this - a simplistic view of the development of class consciousness. According to the ICC all the working class needs to do is see through the tricks and manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie - especially the unions - for its true revolutionary nature to come into being. For them the main role of the revolutionary political organisation is to unmask the role of the unions so that the working class will not be duped next time round.

This may seem strange to anyone who has been reading the ICC press lately with all its concern about the question of organisation. In particular they are preoccupied with how to instil the “party spirit” into their membership and have drawn a somewhat dubious parallel with the struggle of the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks at the turn of the century. Given such a preoccupation the same reader may be a little perplexed to find that there is not a single mention of the international party of the proletariat (nor, for that matter, the communist programme) in any of the articles or leaflets addressed to the French working class on the lessons of the recent strikes. No, nothing. Only the repeated message that the unions have led the working class to “defeat”. (Implying the unspoken one of don't be so stupid as to be duped by the unions again.) Nothing at all on the importance of the political organisation in which it is so important there is a “party spirit”; nothing on the link between the growth of the communist organisation and the rise in class consciousness.

However, there is nothing strange or paradoxical about this. It is perfectly in keeping with the ICC's idealist view of the working class as intrinsically revolutionary. This turns the question of developing the communist movement into an organisational rather than a programmatic, i.e. political question. For RI what's needed are mass assemblies outside of the control of the unions, where workers:

... can really control their struggle, foil the sabotaging manoeuvres of the unions, impose their own decisions in the widest possible discussion. If they are to be genuine decision-making places where the real life of the working class is expressed, these general asemblies must be open to all workers, whether employed or unemployed. (Supplement to Revolution Internationale, December 1995.)

They fail to see that the widest, most democratic and “sovereign” workers' assemblies in the world will not in themselves produce a qualitatively different struggle unless the working class is conscious of a wider purpose. They cannot see that workers from different workplaces solidarising with each other is a positive thing even though it might be the result of a union “manoeuvre”. The ICC doesn't understand that it will be much the same militants who yesterday acted as part of the union who tomorrow will be acting outside of it. How far they will be acting with a clear revolutionary purpose will depend on how far they have been politically won over to the communist programme. This is the key. The revolution is not a question of organisational forms (that is councilism) but of political clarity and consciousness. The international party will be the product and expression of this. For all its talk of the “party spirit” the ICC in practice still sees no role for the party beyond that of oracle and cheerleader of the class struggle. If the ICC was ever going to establish itself as a real pole of regroupment for the working class it would have to throroughly revise its conception about the party and class consciousness. This would mean a re-examination of their whole political foundation. That would be an injection of some real party spirit.