France: from economic to political struggles

Issue: 125

Denis Godard

After last year’s huge days of action, demonstrations and the radical conflicts against redundancies in the car industry, has French rebelliousness disappeared over the past few months? Are we witnessing a downturn in struggle as a result of the social movement’s inability to remove the obstacles put in its way by trade union leaders?

The most emblematic struggle of this period, that of workers at Continental Tyres, won important concessions from management—but the factory is going to close all the same. Another important conflict, at the Molex factory (producing parts for the car industry), ended in defeat. In contrast to previous years, the trade union leaders did not call even one day of action this autumn. In response, most organisations of the radical left have decided to accept the position of the French Communist Party (PCF) which, in order to hang on to its elected representatives in France’s regional assemblies, has issued a call for left unity in forthcoming elections based upon building “majorities to manage” with the Socialist Party (PS) and the Liberal Ecologists led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

First of all it needs to be said that “social” France only appears to have gone silent. It seems that the failure to achieve a generalised movement last spring has not translated into a nationwide downturn in struggle but has instead resulted in a series of very localised struggles, less “visible” to the media. A railway worker explained how the call by his union for a day of action on 20 October translated into an unusual level of local calls for strike action. Drivers of trains linking Paris to the banlieues took four separate days of strike action in early November—without the backing of the main CGT trade union confederation—against longer working hours, and won. Workers in a small firm subcontracted by the Post Office in the Paris banlieues took strike action when the firm was threatened with closure, organising pickets outside postal depots demanding redeployment. In Dreux at the end of September the local CGT section proposed “the creation of a ‘workers’ council’ in firms to advance class struggle in the face of capitalism and these lying thugs of bosses”.

But what characterises the present phase of class struggle is the increasing prominence of conflicts of a political nature: marches against “precarious” employment and mobilisations around the Copenhagen summit on climate change and, most significantly, campaigns against the privatisation of the postal service and for the regularisation of sans-papiers (immigrants denied residence rights).

For the second time since 2008 the CGT has launched a wave of strikes and workplace occupations in the Paris area in support of the regularisation of workers without residence papers. But this wave is much bigger than the last, and more united, involving more than 40 companies.

The campaign against the privatisation of the Post Office reveals even greater possibilities. A nationwide “citizens’ referendum” was arranged for Saturday 3 October by a broad range of organisations including parties of the left (including the PS), associations and trade unions, giving rise to a multitude of local unitary networks. The results went beyond even the most optimistic predictions with 2.3 million signatures collected, for the most part in a single day, outside post offices and certain left wing town halls. In the days that followed Olivier Besancenot, a leading spokespeson for the New Anti-Capitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste, NPA) responded to the government’s refusal to give way by calling for a demonstration to impose a referendum. In spite of the anxiety of the PS and trade union leadership in the face of rank and file mobilisation, the idea began to take hold. Not only were demonstrations held but the popular support expressed in the citizens’ referendum gave postal workers the confidence to take national strike action (alongside teachers’ unions) on 24 November.

What links these two struggles is the potential they reveal for a qualitative step forward in the class struggle in France, the possibility of establishing a practical link between social and political struggles. In both cases it is political themes which are mobilising workers as workers, in the workplace, both against their bosses and the state. Conversely, the weapon of strike action is being applied in local mobilsations, giving political struggles a class character.

One ancecdote is illustrative of the potential to go beyond the separation between political and economic struggles. During a demonstration against the repression of activists who destroyed genetically modified crops in Versailles in mid-November, Xavier Matthieu, leader of the Continental strikers and himself faced with prosecution by the state, came to give his support. The demonstration went past a picket of sans-papiers workers. They were invited to intervene in the debate which followed the demonstration.

During the process of building the NPA, we argued that a potential alternative leadership has begun to emerge to the traditional leadership of the labour movement, whose role has been to paralyse struggles. This has begun to manifest itself in a limited way through the links forged between striking sections of the car industry. On 17 September they organised a very radical rally outside the Paris stock exchange. On 22 October Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the CGT, was whistled at and insulted by a third of the 20,000 workers the CGT had mobilised “for jobs”.

The debates under way over the regroupment of the radical left for the regional elections of March 2010 take on a new significance in this context. Since the summer the NPA has initiated unitary meetings to reach an agreement, proposing that united electoral lists should be based on opposition to those who seek to manage the crisis of capitalism and the need for an alternative to them. The cycle opened up by the strikes of winter 1995 in France continues. What is needed today is to bring into being, through different struggles and elections, forms of working class organisation which provide both the basis for resistance to attacks and the prospect of an alternative to capitalism. This excludes any possibility of co-management at a regional or local level with the PS.