France... The State Attacks Workers

Strike action has continued in France over the government’s proposals to make significant cuts to its welfare and benefits system. On October 10th workers from all from all five major union confederations and two other unions staged a one-day strike. On November 24th this was repeated, this time including students and many other sectors affected by these and other proposals. Transport workers however went on indefinite strike and brought the country to a halt for weeks. Others such as health workers have struck on a variety of days, even the riot police some action (halting the handing out of parking tickets - their other job!) on grounds of overwork. It has not been all fraternité. Miners in Lorraine fought running battles with riot police as the stoppages went into their third week. Banking, telephones, power and air transport have all been affected by workers’ actions. These are the first major strikes since 1986 when similar plans, also under Chirac, were announced. Five million public sector workers are affected by the announced pay-freeze which will remain until 1997 (apart from the rises to come in November). These actions, despite their limitations (of which, see below) demonstrate once again that the capacity of the working class to act collectively has not vanished forever under the twin blows of crisis and capitalist offensive against workers.

Taxing the Patience of the Workers

Juppé, the French Prime Minister is hoping to reduce the burden placed on government finances by the public sector wage bill. This comes to FFr 82 billion, or 40% of the total budget. He is currently hoping to reduce the budget deficit from FFr 322 billion to 290 billion by 1996 (from 5% to 3% of GDP, £43-39 billion). Beyond this Chirac and Juppé are planning a radical reorganisation of government finances as a whole. Businesses will then have less of a burden on their wage bills in terms of welfare provision, thus adding to their profitability. Juppé is also looking to impose a new 0.5% tax (the so-called Contribution au Remboursement des Dettes) on workers over the next 13 years. This, it is hoped, will turn the £33.3 billion social security debts and the annual £8.4 billion annual deficit into a surplus.

In France the trade unions are much more integrated into the state apparatus than in Britain. Although union membership is only at about 8% most of these are in the public sector. Currently welfare benefits are administered jointly between the unions and the state, Force Ouvriére being the most involved. What Juppé hopes for is that these will be phased out and replaced by benefits derived wholly from taxation instead of payroll levies. The unions, particularly FO, CGT and CFDT (the main leftist union confederations), are resisting shit change. It would be a major blow against the patronage of the union bosses. Nevertheless all of them, at some time or another before Juppé’s announcement, had either welcomed dialogue with the Government or had accepted the need for the new taxes. It was only when the workers’ anger at the final proposals was made clever that the unions began to feel threatened by more than loss of control over major areas of finance.

Against the Unions, Against the State

The campaign has been coordinated by the unions throughout. Although some workers took strike action days the union asked them not to, for the most part the unions have successfully called each section out on different days. They, of course, argue that this is so that the campaign can be sustained and not everyone loses money at the same time. But the other side of this is the fact that it drags the campaign out (and the nearer the Christmas holiday the greater the pressure to accept a deal) and makes the efforts of the workers more fragmented. Here the unions are doing a good job for the state. Who can calculate what might happen if 15 million workers went on all-out strike indefinitely? Certainly not the unions who want to keep everything under control. And the bourgeoisie are so confident that they are going to control the anger of the workers that the Paris Bourse (the Stock Exchange) is actually rising in value.

The French bourgeoisie keep saying that there is “no alternative”. This was Thatcher’s rallying cry for years but in fact there is no-one presenting an alternative programme. The Socialists and Communists in the National Assembly cannot really argue since they introduced similar taxes in the early 1980s. The unions are aiming to negotiate a deal for themselves by Christmas. For the workers though the alternative is either to fight or pay up. The problem is that fighting means more than just striking against the current policy. It also forces the issue of how to fight and what sort of society the working class want. The danger is that the workers are defeated in this stalemate without gaining a real understanding of the issue.

Meanwhile Juppé and Chirac are clear in their aim that they want to take France into monetary union with the EU (And therefore the debts of SNCF (the railways) and the welfare system must be lowered. If they succeed the policy of the restructuring of the French economy will continue apace, and the shedding of jobs as state-owned concerns are privatised or deregulated, will continue. Workers need to recognise that this crisis-ridden system cannot do anything else but make them pay. The alternative of out and out class struggle requires that workers not only don’t leave the organisation of their own struggles to the capitalist intentions of the unions but also that they adopt a clear goal - the destruction of the capitalist system and the inauguration of an economic and social order based on socialist (and not state capitalist) principles.

In 1968, ten million workers went on strike and received enormous pay awards to get them back to work. Today the development of the economic crisis means that the state cannot afford such concessions. But one thing is similar to 1968. For all the talk of revolution then and the lack of it now there was no clear working class programme then and there is no working class programme now. Until workers the communist programme these mass actions can continue without posing a real threat to the system. However one important point that should not be lost is that the actions in France (and to a lesser degree in British car factories, and the postal service here) gives the lie to those who are once again arguing that the working class as a producing class should be written off and that the real struggles are elsewhere (roads, animals, environment). Only at the point where capital and labour meet and fight can we even begin the process of challenging the state and the capitalist mode of production. Single issue movements (however working class some of the participants) are ultimately all recuperable by capitalism and are in fact a new form of reformism. They fragment rather than unite class action and they certainly don’t lead to any questioning of the state (on the contrary they tend to look to it as an arbiter against multinationals etc). Those elements who denigrate the class struggle in favour of these single issue movements are objectively and literally counter-revolutionary. The French working class, in common with the rest of the international working class, may have a long way to go but they have once again shown us a glimpse of the real road to revolution.


Friday, December 1, 1995

Revolutionary Perspectives

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