France: Rotten to the core

Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Continuing protests over education cuts have increased the pressure on the Jospin government

Rotten to the core

News of a corruption scandal has hit France's Jospin government. At the same time strikes, demonstrations and occupations are growing. Jim Wolfreys reports

Pay off politics

  • In return for securing contracts for major construction companies to repair schools it was alleged that £56 million of public money was diverted into the coffers of the mainstream parties.
  • Over three years foreign minister Roland Dumas ran up a bill at a single Paris restaurant of £27,000, all paid by an Elf credit card.

    Strikers stopped traffic for several hours by setting fire to furniture in the street

  • Last month's revelations that the French oil company Elf provided millions of pounds worth of sweeteners for Helmut Kohl's right wing CDU as part of a high-profile deal concluded between the German Chancellor Kohl and former French President Mitterrand was a reminder that corruption has never been far from the surface of French politics over the past decade. The story broke as a further cluster of strikes and demonstrations--another major feature of political life since December 1995--erupted, their focus mostly centred on the Socialist government's attempts to introduce a 35 hour week. That the two issues remain for the most part separate is a symptom of the current social climate in France, where volatility and anger have sparked a number of disputes which have yet to generalise politically.

    The 35 hour week, which became law on 1 February 2000 for companies with more than 20 employees (the rest have another two years to come into line), formed the centrepiece of the Socialists' election manifesto in 1997 and was presented as a means of reducing unemployment and ending job insecurity. The employers, meanwhile, saw it as an opportunity to introduce greater flexibility. The government's decision to allow individual sectors to negotiate their own agreements has led to a protracted period of trench warfare since June 1998. By the time the law came into being last month 86 percent of firms had yet to come to terms with their workforce.

    Since December of last year the conflict, hitherto dominated by union negotiations with a belligerent employers' association, has increasingly spilled over into strike action with truckers, bus, metro and Air France workers being joined by postal workers, hospital staff, teachers, civil servants and benefit office staff. Not all groups have been directly concerned with the 35 hour week. Teachers and hospital staff, for example, have staged a series of strikes and demonstrations over staff shortages and working conditions. In the health service the government's decision to cut hospital beds forms part of its strategy of reining in spending, and underlines the continuity which exists between Prime Minister Jospin and his predecessor, Alain Juppé, whose proposed cuts in the health and social security budget led to the strikes of December 1995.

    The government initially made unsuccessful efforts to head off hospital workers' anger with promises to implement the 35 hour week in the health service. Since December ongoing protests have ranged from a national day of action in January to more spontaneous outbursts of anger, such as that in front of the Paris La Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, Europe's largest, during which strikers stopped traffic for several hours by setting fire to furniture in the street. These have increased government fears that the mobilisations could give a national focus across a range of issues. Extra funds have therefore been freed up. Pressure has increased on Jospin since the disclosure of a government 'nest egg' of at least £3 billion.

    Government tactics have so far prevented the strikes from escalating. A major factor in its success has been the lack of a coherent political alternative to Jospin. His partners in government, the Communists and the Greens (represented by environment minister Dominique Voynet), remain on board. One business journal even came to the conclusion that the Communist transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, was the second most useful member of Jospin's team, after the finance minister, following his handling of the Air France privatisation. The revolutionary left remains too small to exert a consistent influence. This means that links between sectional concerns and the broader political situation have not always been made.

    Strikes and occupations by parents and teachers over staffing levels and working conditions, for example, have frequently met with government promises to do something about the worsening climate by clamping down on 'indiscipline', seen as the cause of unprecedented levels of violence in schools. Yet in the same week that education minister Claude Allègre introduced another set of measures to deal with the problem, an investigation revealed that between 1989 and 1996 France's main political parties had all connived to hive off public money for repairing school buildings in a scam labelled the 'break in of the century'. In the fortnight after the story broke, however, no link was made between the two issues by those involved in the protests.

    Despite Jospin's election pledges to root out corruption, high profile politicians embroiled in scandals are still able to avoid permanent damage to their careers. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the case of ex prime minister Laurent Fabius and his former health minister Georgina Dufoix. In the mid-1980s they were implicated in the calamitous decision to make HIV-contaminated blood products available for use. Today at least 550 people have been infected with the HIV virus via contaminated blood. Last year Fabius and Dufoix were acquitted, while former secretary of state for health Edmond Hervé was found guilty but exempted from punishment. 'Am I exempted from my Aids?' one of the victims asked bitterly outside the courtroom.

    Two leading figures in the Jospin government under investigation for fraud, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, deputy leader of the Socialist Party, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, both remain confident of political rehabilitation. Strauss-Kahn has also been implicated in the long running Elf affair, a scandal which reveals both the way in which corruption forms an integral part of the workings of the French state, and the extent to which the Socialists have been happy to connive and indeed wallow in this state of affairs.

    One of the more grotesque examples of the unprincipled acquisitiveness of the clique that formed around Mitterrand during his presidency concerns his former foreign minister Roland Dumas. It has emerged that Dumas's former lover was in the pay of Elf and acted, with his knowledge, as an agent for the company while he was foreign minister, effectively bankrolling his opulent lifestyle with the help of the unlimited use of an Elf credit card. Dumas was thus able to enjoy the use of a luxury £1.7 million Paris apartment along with more minor perks, among them a £1,000 pair of shoes and a £6,000 painting. Despite rumours at the time about Dumas's links to Elf, Mitterrand saw fit to appoint him president of France's constitutional council, one of the highest ranked state posts, and one which, astonishingly, he still holds today.

    Elf, set up in 1962 under de Gaulle, was always more than simply a flagship state company. In Africa it acted as a state agency, its various networks picking up information, distributing bribes and securing France's commercial interests in the region. Its strong links to the presidency were retained under Mitterrand who was happy to put the Elf networks to his own use. By the late 1980s the company was effectively being used as a gigantic slush fund for both Gaullists and Socialists. The use of company funds to the tune of £25.6 million to smooth the joint purchase, with the German firm Thyssen, of the Leuna oil refinery in East Germany was no doubt a factor in Helmut Kohl's exhortations to French prime minister Edouard Balladur in 1994 to proceed with the deal because of its importance for East German industry and 'the people of the Halle region'.

    Partly as a result of disastrous investments like Leuna, Elf is estimated to have lost £2.5 billion in the early 1990s, including anything between £150 million and £400 million in fraudulent payments and bribes. When TotalFina began takeover proceedings last year it was widely assumed that such sharp practices would come to an end, a theory somewhat dispelled in the aftermath of 12 December 1999 when a TotalFina oil tanker, the Erika, sank off the west coast of France. An oil slick killed over 100,000 birds (four times those killed by the Amoco-Cadiz slick 20 years ago). Soon it emerged that the body from which the government was receiving expert advice, which had minimised the scale of the catastrophe, was not only funded by Elf and TotalFina, but its strategy committee was run by one of Elf's directors. Later an inquiry revealed that the tanker was over 20 years old, seriously corroded and considered unsuitable for use by other oil companies such as Shell.

    A cartoon in the newspaper Le Monde summed up the mood, showing the captain of a sinking tanker shouting, 'Profits and stock-options first!' Despite promises by Thierry Desmarest, head of TotalFina, to fund the clean-up operation, the episode continues to feed widespread anger. Up to 30,000 people marched through Nantes, western France, on 5 February, with slogans ('Jospin, Voynet and Desmarest, all guilty, all responsible') and placards that linked the catastrophe to wider targets like the World Trade Organisation and underlined the intensely political reaction to the disaster.

    A significant weakness undermining the revival in combativity under way in France remains the failure to crystallise frequent but sporadic outbursts of militancy around a political alternative to the mainstream left. But the weakness and fragmentation of France's political establishment, which the recurrence of corruption scandals persistently underlines, combined with the growing mood of workers' defiance over the 35 hour week, frustration at the government's persistent concessions to the bosses and the simmering disaffection with the global market, creates a situation ripe with possibilities. For example, one 15,000-strong demonstration over education in N"mes in the south of France was bigger than any held in December 1995.

    There are signs, then, that the uneasy stand-off between employers and the labour movement that has existed since 1995 is becoming increasingly tense. With the right and extreme right in some disarray, and the various forces to the left of the government lacking cohesion, Jospin has so far been able to position himself at the centre of this stand-off, a situation that cannot hold indefinitely.

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