Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Feature article: France ­ struggle gains currency

Peter Morgan and Lindsey German

The decision of the French president, Jacques Chirac, to call an election for the end of this month is a sign of how worried the government is about the growing workers' struggle. Chirac wants to ensure the election is out of the way before France joins the single currency. He knows that the attacks already made on French workers in the name of Maastricht have provoked huge waves of struggle, and that there will be more to come. France has witnessed a dramatic change in mood over the last two years, since the strikes of December 1995. There is also a growing realisation from many people that something must be done to stop the rise of Le Pen's Nazi party, the National Front.

The Strasbourg demonstration against Le Pen marked a qualitative shift to the left.

Strasbourg was significant because it was the biggest demonstration yet against Le Pen. Some 70,000 people, young and old, came from all over France for the first national march directly against the National Front who were holding their conference there. The whole town was gripped in a carnival-like anti-racist atmosphere for the day with an enormous local turnout boosted by the many 'freedom trains' and coaches that had travelled through the night to get there from all over France.

On the roads leading into Strasbourg every street sign had been covered by anti-racists with a black stripe symbolising that the Nazis' presence had made Strasbourg a city in mourning. Almost every street sign in the city had the same stripe. On the eve of the demonstration a giant cinema screen had been erected in the main square with some 5,000 people, black and white, watching Charlie Chaplin's anti-Nazi film The Great Dictator. This was the culmination of a week long anti-racist cultural festival organised by the local council. On the day of the demonstration itself the whole mood in the city changed as anti-racists took over the cafes and bars before bringing the city to a complete halt with a demonstration that took over three hours to pass. The chant, 'N for Nazi, F for Fascist, smash the National Front', could be heard everywhere.

Orlando, a young student from Toulon (a town in the south of France which the National Front control), travelled on one of the 'freedom trains' and talked about how more and more people want to take on the fascists. 'Two years ago people didn't speak out,' he said. 'Now they want to speak out and do something. People who voted for Le Pen are more outspoken because they control four towns. Now those of us who are against them want to fight back.'

Despite the size and the mood of the demonstration no serious attempt was made to march towards and directly confront the Nazis' conference ­ the leaders of the march ensured this would not happen. But the impact of Strasbourg has been a significant change of mood and it has opened up a real debate about how Le Pen can be stopped. As Orlando says, 'Le Pen wants a polarisation of French society because he wants to destabilise France. He thinks this will help him. But a polarisation can help the anti-fascists as well. The problem becomes one of jobs, wages and the economy. It becomes a European problem, as we've seen with the Belgian Renault car workers.'

Nick Barrett, a French socialist, talked about the significance of the Strasbourg demonstration:

'The impact has been a shift to the left. You have to qualify that of course, because much of the dominant politics after Strasbourg has stressed the idea that we are all citizens in the same republic, that we all have the same interests in defending the republic against the rise of fascism. Jospin [the Socialist Party leader] said that it's a pity the right wing leaders didn't take on their responsibilities and come to the demonstration. So there's a contrast between the shift to the left and the sort of politics which are being argued.'

But the politics of citizenship cut both ways. There are people like Jospin and the Communist Party leadership who use it as a means of avoiding talking about class. But then there are the young people who see racism as a betrayal of the basic rights ­ liberty, equality and fraternity ­ which people should have in the republic. Many of the chants on the Strasbourg demonstration stressed this ­ such as, 'First, second, third generation ­ we're all children of immigrants', 'All together...we demand equality of rights', and, 'Voting rights for immigrants'.

However, the Nazis have built on the basis not just of immigration controls but on appealing to a much wider sort of right wing politics. Nick says, 'The National Front like to use the question of liberty and democracy to argue that they have the right to hold meetings like anyone else. A year or two ago people would have said, "They can go on television, they can have their meetings ­ we don't agree with them but they've got the right to do it." Now there are many more people saying the National Front are against democracy therefore we shouldn't allow them to build a powerful organisation.' For example Rachid, an unemployed worker from Toulon who came to Strasbourg, said, 'The National Front are more openly racist and fascist now than a few years ago ­ so we should not let them speak.' The National Front have always been a fascist organisation but the fact that more people are beginning to recognise this and are openly talking about stopping them from meeting or getting any publicity speaks volumes about how people's consciousness has changed.

The result of the Strasbourg demonstration has been to give confidence to those fighting Le Pen. Since then anti-fascists have demonstrated in Vitrolles, where the Front won its fourth mayor earlier this year, and were evicted from the public gallery protesting against the National Front setting their first budget. At Oullins, a town close to Lyon, over 1,000 demonstrated against the fascists, forcing Bruno Mégret (the number two in the National Front) to abandon the meeting ­ the first time this has happened. And on Saturday 18 April over 10,000 demonstrated in Alès, in the south of France, against the fascists who were meeting in the town. 'The majority of people have woken up after Strasbourg,' says Nick. 'Most people didn't like the NF but were a bit demoralised because they thought it wasn't possible to get loads of people on the streets against them. Now they say great, it's possible, we can do it, so it's given people confidence.'

The argument that often comes from the press in Britain is that there is a division in France between the industrial struggle on the one hand and the fight against the Debré anti-immigration law and Le Pen on the other. The two struggles are seen as completely separate, with the fight against racism and fascism simply composed of middle class intellectuals and the trade union struggle involving only workers. But the fight against the fascists and the Strasbourg demonstration were helped by the fact that France had witnessed a period of nearly two years of rising class struggle, which began initially with the mass revolts over the Juppé plan in 1995-96 and spilled over into a whole number of other key disputes like that of the lorry drivers. What we have seen in France is that suddenly thousands of people are changing their ideas very quickly and moving to the left. As Nick explains, 'There's a lot more anger being expressed and that goes back a couple of years. It started from the strikes in November and December 1995 and then showed itself again through solidarity with the immigrant workers. Recent strike movements have been very popular, for example the lorry drivers. People are saying they have had enough, that things have got to change.' This, in turn, has given people the confidence to take on more general political questions such as racism and the defence of immigrants.

'I think it was easier for a certain number of the artists and film makers to start off the petition movement against the immigration bill,' Nick argues. 'But what we have to understand is that without the struggles that had gone on beforehand, particularly the strikes which were popular and gave people confidence, it is unlikely that these intellectuals would have had the confidence to go ahead and appeal on the basis of a mass movement, even if it is a mass movement which is very loosely defined. That has an influence on the trade union movement. For the first time in years the main union confederation, the CGT, has launched a debate on racism in all of its trade unions. So there are public meetings taking place locally, where they invite speakers from immigrant worker defence associations. Sometimes even representatives of the 'sans-papiers' are invited to come and speak in trade union branch meetings and workplaces. This is a massive step forward.'

In the meantime the struggle against the National Front continues. The May Day demonstration in Paris was called by the different union confederations for the first time. One of the slogans on the day was: 'Power to wage earners, against the National Front'. Nick pointed out that the May Day demonstration was more important this year than previously, 'with one of its themes being the fight against racism and the far right. There's much more politics coming up in the trade union struggles than even five or six years ago.'

In turn, the anti-fascist movement has given confidence to groups of workers to raise other demands. Although the strikes that have taken place after Strasbourg are not as spectacular as those that occurred in the winter of 1995-96, they show signs of workers going on the offensive in a way not seen for many years in western Europe. Junior doctors, a group not normally associated with militant action, blocked roads and railway stations in protest against government plans to cut spending on health care. They also set up strike committees and tried to involve other health workers in action. At one stage 300 of them invaded the National Assembly! Pilots at the state owned airline Air France grounded all flights to and from Paris for two days protesting against a plan to pay new pilots lower salaries ­ and they were supported by mechanics and cabin crew.

Bank workers across the country have protested against the drive to 'flexible labour' as the government planned to scrap laws limiting Saturday and shift working. Postal workers and printers who print France's daily papers have all been involved in strike action. And worryingly for the government, the French truck drivers are threatening to reimpose blockades because bosses have been unwilling to finance the retirement deal they won some months ago. It is this mood of confidence which has forced Chirac to call the election at the end of this month because he fears the revolt may scupper his plans for the cuts that are needed for monetary union.

With the election a lot of these workers will look to the Socialist Party, and perhaps even to the Communist Party as an alternative to Chirac. The Socialists have had a revival since they were badly defeated in the presidential elections two years ago. But not many people support them with enthusiasm, especially those that have been involved in the struggle. Far from benefiting from the unpopularity of the government, 60 percent of people in a recent poll believe the Socialists offer 'no serious alternative'.

'A lot of the anger expressed at the moment will inevitably be translated into the idea of voting, the nearer we get to the election,' Nick argues. 'The main beneficiary of that will be the Socialist Party. But this will be less a vote of confidence in Jospin's party than a vote to get the right out. There are a lot of contradictions in people's support for the Socialist Party. The older people remember all the promises before 1981 and then what happened under a Socialist and Communist Party government. The younger people remember that when the bill for immigration controls was discussed at the National Assembly last December only one Socialist Party MP was present. These sorts of things stick and they don't give them a clear hand.'

It's impossible to say how the struggle will develop in the next few months. With the election there is a real probability that the efforts of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party will move away from demonstrating and agitating against Le Pen into more electoral politics ­ and clearly Le Pen will try to use the election to build on the disillusionment that many feel with official politics and try to get some MPs elected.

Next year is crucial for European governments since it is the deadline for meeting the criteria for monetary union ­ crucially a government deficit no more than 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product. What worries the ruling class in France, and the conservative government, is that on current projections the deficit could reach 3.8 percent. The government is likely therefore to be forced to implement a series of cuts similar to the Juppé Plan which provoked the strikes and massive demonstrations of 1995-96.

Chirac wants to go ahead with these attacks without the 'uncertainty' of a general election hanging over the ruling party. The government is currently preparing the 1998 budget due in September which is crucial to bring down the budget deficit in time for entry into monetary union. As the Financial Times noted, 'Better politically, therefore, to take further austerity measures after an election in summer 1997, rather than before one in spring 1998.' And France, along with Germany, is one of the major players in the move towards monetary union ­ to go ahead without the French would be unthinkable, so the stakes for the ruling class are high.

Another reason why the French government is keen to call a snap election is because there are a whole number of financial scandals simmering in the background which might implicate ministers next year. All this helps feed the idea that the government is incompetent, and creates a crisis of leadership which leads to greater instability. As Nick explains:

'There is more of a fighting spirit at the moment. But clearly the crisis of the government and of Chirac means they have gone back on most of what they promised. They are not able to deliver at all. Because they're in crisis there's a lot of infighting going on and so we've also seen over the last year or so a series of financial scandals which don't just touch the periphery of the main political parties, but which go right to the heart of the political system and concern most of the big company directors. People are disgusted about this.'

The right wing conservative RPR-UDF alliance control 464 out of the National Assembly's 577 seats. In order to defeat them the Socialists (with 63 MPs) would have to ally themselves with the Communists (currently with 24 MPs) who are viciously opposed to monetary union. This, and the mood against further austerity, has forced the socialist leader, Jospin, in the early days of the election campaign to take a decidedly Eurosceptic position ­ he has promised to oppose the move towards monetary union if the price is too high for ordinary workers.

All this leads to a mixture of increasing uncertainty and greater instability in one of the most important countries in Europe. The French ruling class is determined to press ahead with more attacks in the coming months. If, as seems likely, the right wing are in control ­ and the first opinion polls show they will lose about 150 seats but still have a majority of about 330 ­ they are certain to launch more attacks on the working class. But this will be done in the face of a more confident workers' movement which has scored some important and noticeable victories in the last two years. It will also be done against a working class which has moved beyond the confines of purely economic struggles like wages and conditions, to begin to raise political issues such as the right of immigrants to vote and the question of how to stop the rise of the Nazis. This, in turn, has given confidence to other groups of workers to take action against further cuts.

The future promises greater class polarisation and more battles which could match and possibly exceed those we saw in 1995-96. As Nick concludes, 'The French ruling class does not know whether it will meet all the Maastricht conditions. So they don't know what to do and they are afraid of taking on groups of workers. The question of Europe is like a timebomb. France and Germany have immense problems. You can suddenly see how the thing can explode and how the attempt at bosses' unity and flexibility can rebound on them'

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