Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Paris 12 December. It is a freezing cold day and the front of the demonstration looks as though it is shrouded in fog as it makes its way along streets packed with marchers and onlookers. Instead the smoke and the blazes of red are from the flares of the railway workers who lead the march. The atmosphere is a cross between angry determination and a carnival as different groups of workers turn up with their handpainted banners. A group in white boiler suits each with a different letter line up to form the slogan, 'Withdraw the Juppé plan'. One banner reads, 'Ile St Denis sees red', another, 'Father Christmas Juppé take back your poisoned present'.
The noise is incredible as people bang drums, let off flares, shout slogans and sing songs--including the revolutionary anthem The Internationale. As the front of the march reaches its end point in the Place de la Nation, thousands of people are still waiting to leave at the beginning some two miles away.
It takes six hours for the march to pass--two hours of that alone are railway and Paris transport workers.
Workers from every bit of the French public sector are represented: transport, hospitals, telecom, post, teachers, airport workers, bank workers, school kids. There are delegations from the fire service, car workers and GEC Alsthom. Every working class area around Paris seems to be represented by banners which often proclaim local unity between the different union federations.
It is worth remembering that this half million strong demonstration is happening in the middle of a strikebound city, where there is no transport and where traffic is completely gridlocked much of the time. Thousand upon thousand walk miles to get there and all the surrounding streets are full of people heading for the march. Others arrive on bikes or on rollerskates.
The mood is confident--that the workers have the government on the defensive. The reasons are clear.
Up to two million workers on, the streets demonstrating against the prime minister. A strike by rail workers and Paris transport workers which brought the country to a halt. Strikes throughout the public sector. A student movement which saw 40 colleges occupied and hundreds of thousands demonstrating. This is the nightmare which according to the pundits is not supposed to happen any more. The working class is in decline, the unions are marginalised, and there is no alternative to welfare cuts and austerity--or so we are told.
Yet it was the workers' movement which was responsible for the upheaval and sense of crisis which have engulfed French society only seven months after the election of a right wing president, Jacques Chirac. Workers have rejected the Juppé plan, brainchild of Chirac's prime minister, Alain Juppé, which claims that France's welfare system is bankrupt and aims to take many more of the costs of health and pensions from the pockets of workers themselves. At the same time, the bosses will actually pay less contributions to the state.
The response of French workers, students and pensioners was amazing. Time after time they took to the streets in demonstrations which kept growing in size and which represented both deep opposition to the plan and a long term bitterness and resentment which has been nurtured by the attacks on workers throughout the 1980s by the Socialist President Mitterrand.
The movement in the provinces, if anything, was even bigger than that in Paris with demos of up to 200,000 in Marseilles, 120,000 in Toulouse and marches in hundreds of smaller towns. In many areas there were local 'coordinations'--links between workers at rank and file level which organised the activity. By 12 December this form of local link up had spread to several local areas in Paris.
What brought French workers to such a level of militancy and organisation? When Juppé announced his plan to the National Assembly in November, he got a standing ovation. His supporters in parliament, and more importantly among France's bosses, were delighted that he had taken a tough stand. The first few months of his government had been dogged by scandals, vacillation and confusion. Juppé's industry minister, Alain Madelin, was forced to resign in September because he wanted to launch these sort of attacks but the government as a whole was still worried about upsetting the unions.
Now, the bosses felt, Juppé was taking his courage into both hands by launching an offensive. They ignored rumblings of discontent already evident--the mass march by public sector workers against a wage freeze in October and the opposition of the rail unions to a restructuring plan which, if implemented, would be as devastating for the French railways and for jobs as the Beeching plan was in Britain in the early 1960s.
Instead they greeted Juppé's plan with euphoria. Its central attack was on the French social security system, introduced after the war and now being cut back on the grounds that it is bankrupt because of a £15.6 billion deficit. Workers were supposed to pay more to clear the debt, while employers had their contributions cut--to encourage growth! Nor do employers have to pay the backlog of what they owe from past contributions.
Particularly galling to many public sector workers is the proposal that they will have to pay contributions for another two and a half years--up from 37.5 years to 40 years--before they qualify for a full pension. Health contributions will go up and family allowances will be frozen.
Anger at the various attacks and the threat of privatisation of industries still in public hands crystallised around the plan. While bosses and politicians congratulated themselves that Juppé was imitating Margaret Thatcher's Iron Lady of the 1980s, in fact they ignored two things: that Thatcher's success was based on a lot of luck and financial advantage--especially the receipts from North Sea oil and the Lawson consumer boom--and that for most of her period of office she was careful to only take on one group of workers at a time. When she launched a generalised attack on workers with the poll tax, it was her downfall.
Her tactic was to isolate and defeat successive groups of workers--it was called the Ridley Plan. Even then she was prepared to retreat if necessary--as in 1981, when her first plan for pit closures was put on ice for three years as miners threatened to strike.
Juppé did exactly the opposite. He launched a near simultaneous attack on virtually every front possible inside the public sector and reaped the consequences. The scale of fightback which he provoked terrified France's rulers, who became more and more split as to which path to take. They bleat that Juppé's plan must succeed, that it is the only solution for French capitalism, that it is needed to meet the convergence criteria for European monetary union as laid out under the Maastricht Treaty.
But the level of opposition has been such that Juppé has not been able to force the plan or the other attacks on workers through without raising the stakes to such an extent that he encountered even more protest and strike action.
This means that he has been forced to make concessions on a sectional basis in the same way that Thatcher had to with various groups of workers. His plans for a full frontal assault have fallen flat. He has had to make major concessions over the railways plan and over the number of years worked to qualify for pensions in various industries. The striking railway workers won nearly all their demands.
The scale of the movement has been such and the level of generalisation high enough that many workers are aware that partial retreats which leave the Juppé plan intact should be rejected.
However, it is also clear that the leaders of the various union federations were keen to do a deal. The longer the crisis continued, the more they feared that the workers' movement would get out of control. In addition, their politics mean that they were prepared to settle for far short of what could have been achieved. Because they see politics in terms of parliament, they fear an election and so are reluctant to push the government too far. And they accept some of the arguments about welfare being cut back 'because the country can't afford it'. The leader of the Force Ouvrière union, Marc Blondel, was prepared to even go along with the Juppé plan initially, and Nicole Notat, the leader of the CFDT (the union supported by the Socialist Party), has welcomed part of the plan--to the horror of many of her rank and file members. However, again the scale of the movement has made it difficult to simply settle the strikes without significant concessions.
Here the union leaders have on their side the contradictions which exist inside the workers' movement. Although there were tremendous levels of militancy and political awareness, and the movement took on a life of its own, there have also been weaknesses within the strikes.
The level of commitment to the strikes was uneven--often with only a minority involved in activity. Even the rail workers--generally considered a very strong section inside French industry--were often confronted with weaknesses on their own side. A mass meeting of CFDT workers at the St Lazare station in Paris had an air of enthusiasm and militancy as it voted virtually unanimously to continue the strike last month. But talking to the union representative there, Christian Sarthe, after the meeting, it was clear that militancy was mixed with hesitation.
'I'm optimistic but at the same time worried,' he said. The optimism stemmed from a feeling that most people inside the working class movement were on their side, and that they received tremendous levels of solidarity. They were visited by bank workers and other public sector workers, and the rail workers' contingent on the 12 December demo with its loud chanting and running charges showed the spirit of these workers.
But he was worried that the white collar workers weren't on strike, he did not relish the prospect of an election and he did not think it quite realistic to completely get rid of the Juppé plan. Although he is a CFDT representative, his views are accepted by many of the--rank and file workers he represents and reflect the contradictions of workers who are hauling themselves up from a long period of downturn in struggle but who are marked by years of defeat and accept many arguments that the struggle has to be limited.
So for example a majority in the public opinion polls supported the strikes, but a similar majority wanted also to see some sort of minimum service or what we would call emergency cover. The movement too reflected this unevenness and made it easier for a compromise to take place between government and union leaders.
In addition to this, the nature of the protests meant that they reached a high level and then a question was posed: would they grow through spreading to the private sector, turning into general strike action throughout French industry? This opened up a vista which terrified the government because it raised the question of who rules France and of state power. However, this also terrified the trade union leaders, who wanted to keep the movement within the confines of established parliamentary and trade union politics.
The alternative scenario was that the movement would grow without any clear direction and at a certain point peak and then decline. The feelings and issues which so often prevent workers from taking action in the first place can begin to raise their heads when this period is reached. The feeling that we can't win everything, or that we've got as many concessions as we can, becomes more widespread. It is then that the trade union leaders can be decisive, playing on the doubts, tiredness and worries of strikers to organise a return.
So, despite the gains the railway workers made, the movement has (at least as we write) been led into accepting much less than could have been won.
However, this is not the end of the story. In 1968 the French ruling class was in a much stronger position to make substantial concessions. It was able to pay wage rises of 10 percent.
Today there is no such slack available, as the French ruling class struggles to meet the Maastricht convergence criteria and remain competitive with its European rivals.
Therefore the concessions won are unlikely to lead to a long period of peace. And there will be a substantial minority of workers who have been politicised by the events and who will begin to link their own grievances with the need for a wider struggle against capitalist society.
Could it happen here? The general view is, of course, no. When the press is not ignoring the strikes or giving them the most scanty coverage, it tends to put across the view that French workers and students are excitable sorts who resort to this sort of behaviour every 30 or 40 years. The revolutionary history of France--of 1789, 1848, 1871, 1936 and 1968--is used to prove that they are unique.
But there is nothing fundamentally different between French workers and others in the advanced capitalist countries. The 12 December demo was similar in many ways to the second big London demo against pit closures in 1992. The major difference was that it contained big contingents of strikers--but it also had the same sort of optimism, of the sense of a united working class movement against a despotic government.
Similar demonstrations will take place in other countries round Europe as workers feel the brunt of having to pay for monetary union and austerity. Already in Belgium 60,000 workers have demonstrated over similar issues to those in France. In 1994 in Italy, mass workers' demos protested against attacks on welfare such as pension rights.
But workers in the different countries also face similar problems from their own organisations. The Labour and Socialist Parties which dominate at best want to compromise with capital, not to fight it. The union leaders refuse to generalise the struggles, allowing the employers to go on the offensive and then try to resolve the disputes in compromise. The years of downturn mean that union organisation, especially at rank and file level, is weak and will need to be rebuilt in the course of the struggle.
A revolutionary political tradition--reborn after 1968--has also suffered from the years of defeat and from ideological confusion following the collapse of Stalinism. It too needs to be rebuilt.
The events in France last month point to the continued existence of a working class which is forced to organise as a class when under attack and which will be mobilised in struggle in the years ahead. It is out of such struggles that revolutionary socialist organisation can grow, and can begin to give a lead which points to a real alternative.