France - The unemployed against the "plural left" government

Mar/Apr 1998

In December and January, the British papers carried several reports on the movement of unemployed workers which was taking place in France at the time. Most expressed utter dismay at what they considered as a "bad example", while some blamed the "Old Labour" policy of the French Socialist government for encouraging social unrest. All completely failed to understand both the nature of the movement and the attitude of the French government. As to the British Left's portraying of this movement as a "rising tide of protest" generating "panic in the ruling class", they were unfortunately just as far off the mark.

In fact, the movement of the French unemployed was not a mass movement. But it did receive widespread support from the public and made considerable impact for more than a month.

However limited it was in terms of the numbers of unemployed who took part in the occupations of public buildings, or even in demonstrations, this movement was notable for its duration and for the determination and imagination of those involved. The press, radio and television reported it widely and allowed the movement's organisers and ordinary unemployed people to speak out, thus giving them many opportunities to expose the conditions in which they are forced to live.

In the opinion polls two-thirds of those interviewed expressed sympathy for the movement, though more in humanitarian terms than in terms of struggle. In fact, employed workers did not join ranks with the unemployed in this movement, which remained isolated as a result.

As to the "plural left" government - as Jospin's government likes to call itself, due to being a Socialist party-led coalition involving, among others, the Communist party and a Green current - it was certainly surprised by the tenacity of the movement. At first it thought that it could deal with it quickly, having nothing but contempt for the unemployed, their demands and their organisations, which it considered marginal. It thought that a little token charity would be enough. In any case it was out of the question for the government to spend money to improve the standard of living of the unemployed, the bosses being the only people it cannot say no to. On this occasion, the "plural left" government clearly showed what side it was on: certainly not that of the working class and the unemployed, whom it treated with the greatest contempt and to whom it made no concessions.

Unemployment, a major catastrophe

The unemployed movement had all the more sympathy from the public, particularly amongst workers, because unemployment is so widespread, affecting the whole of the working population.

Although December's unemployment figure showed a slight reduction in the number of unemployed, due to changes in the method of calculation used, it officially exceeded three million.

But this official figure reflects only part of the reality of unemployment. There are also casual workers (1m), part-timers who are seeking a full-time job (1.5m), and also the 1m who are entitled to the RMI (the "re-insertion minimum revenue", a benefit worth £243 a month, paid under certain conditions to people without any income). Indeed, an official report stated recently that the 3m officially unemployed were the just the hard core of a much wider section of the working age population, numbering 7 million, who remain on the margin of the labour market.

A survey revealed that 78% of those interviewed had an unemployed person in their immediate circle and that half had already given material help to an unemployed person.

The problem of unemployment is all the more severe because the length of unemployment is increasing. The long-term unemployed (for more than one year, but up to 5 years!), with less and less hope of finding work again, are more and more numerous, now representing nearly 40% of the total figure.

The unemployed people's movement revealed to the public the plight of these men and women, 80% of whom have to live off less than £500 a month.

In the face of this major problem, successive governments have claimed to be making the fight against unemployment their priority. In reality this has been a pretext for giving out billions of francs each year to the bosses. This has not resulted in any job being created, nor has it prevented the employers from carrying on cutting hundreds of thousands of jobs year in and year out.

The Jospin government is not doing any more than its predecessors to reverse the trend. Like them, it has made promises which, even if they were kept, would not really change the situation. Admittedly, it committed itself to creating 700,000 "youth jobs" in three years, half in the public sector and half in the private sector. So far only a few public services have taken on a total of 40,000 young people, a number which is particularly short of the mark given that the same public services are still axing jobs at the same time! As for the private sector, Jospin, who does not want to apply any constraints on the bosses, has not yet succeeded in getting them to create any "youth jobs" at all.

As for the much-publicised 35-hour law which Jospin wants to introduce from the year 2000 onwards, not only does it include labour flexibility measures, in terms of working conditions and wages, which the government and the bosses want to impose on workers, but it will not create any jobs whatsoever, despite what Jospin says. Its flexibility provisions may even help the bosses to do without temporary workers and short-term contracts during busy periods.

The beginning of the movement

Not only has nothing been done against unemployment, but in order to be able to go on giving out large sums of money to big business, the various governments have been cutting the benefits of the poorest, including the unemployed. The savings have been derisory but they have pushed those affected even more rapidly into poverty, thus revealing the lack of scruples of these governments towards the poorest... so long as they let themselves be pushed around!

Thus, it was a series of harsh measures adopted by Jospin in 1997 to cut the emergency benefit budget which was the direct trigger of the December movement.

This budget enabled local benefit offices to make one-off payments to those unemployed in greatest difficulty. Under the pretext of making these payments more equitable, Jospin redirected most of this budget towards various charities and bodies designed to help out the unemployed. As a result the total amount of money that benefit offices could use for emergency help in cash was reduced to very little so that, by the end of 1997 there was nothing left at all.

In the Marseille area, over the past few years, the unemployed committees run by the CGT (the largest union confederation in which the Communist party plays a leading role) had managed to get the money, which was usually left over by the end of year, distributed in the form of end-of-year bonuses (thus the previous year, 55,000 unemployed in the area had received a £150 bonus). In December 1997, however, they were faced with a blunt refusal.

So, on 11 December, several hundred unemployed people occupied eight local benefit offices to demand a Christmas bonus of £300. A few days later, other offices were occupied in various parts of France, each by a few dozen unemployed. On 17 December, 200 unemployed occupied the Louvre museum in Paris, while 2,000 demonstrators marched in Marseille.

These actions were made possible by the work of activists who had been trying to organise the unemployed for years. Over the previous few years, the CGT unemployed committees had managed, at least in the Marseille area, to establish a genuine organisation among the unemployed, a fact already reflected by the heavy participation of the Marseille unemployed in the demonstrations of November and December 1995.

The CGT unemployed committees have been in existence since the end of the 1970's, the CGT being in fact the only major union confederation which has tried to organise the unemployed. By 1997, they claimed 7,500 members.

Three other, more recent organisations were actively involved in the movement. The APEIS (Unemployed Association for Employment, Information and Solidarity), initially set up in 1984 by some Communist Party structures in the Paris region, is close to the CP and mainly based in this region. The MNCP (National Movement of Unemployed and Casual Workers) has existed since 1987. "AC!" or "Agir contre Le Chomage" (meaning "Act against Unemployment", but pronounced like "assez!" which means "enough!") was set up in 1993 by dissident activists of the CFDT union confederation (whose leadership is close to the Socialist party), together with members of the SUD and FSU unions (both are conglomerates of independent unions, the FSU being solely in education), plus a number of unemployed groups, including the MNCP. Some acitivists belonging to the LCR (the French section of the USec) play an important part in "AC!". Among other things, "AC!" organised an unemployed march in May 1994, which attracted several thousand demonstrators.

After a period of rivalry and mistrust in the first days of the movement, the CGT took the initiative of accepting cooperation with the other groupings and, from December 23 onwards, the CGT, APEIS, MNCP and "AC!" unemployed committees met to discuss the organisation of the movement. The activists of all these organisations made every effort to involve more unemployed people in these actions, without any real success. Similarly, they were able to mobilise only very few workers - not even all union activists - in the joint demonstrations. To have a chance of succeeding, they had to try to do this, and it is to their credit that they did. And the small minority of unemployed who really took part in the movement now form a core group who have gained a taste for collective action. This is probably one of the most important things achieved by the movement.

Less than charity

On December 18, one week after the first benefit offices had been occupied, Martine Aubry, the Minister of Unemployment and Solidarity, announced that some benefits would be increased by between £3 and £6 a month! This pathetic rise provoked indignation among the unemployed, all the more so as she asserted with great self-assurance that this was "to put right an injustice" and keep Jospin's promises regarding increasing minimum benefits! The Minister of Solidarity had lifted mask.

The occupations of benefit offices therefore continued, and increased in number, sometimes short-lived and sometimes lasting, each time involving a few dozen activists and unemployed people. The demonstration organised by the CGT in front of the social benefits head office in Paris, on 24 December, involved only 150 people, even though the CGT had for the first time sought the help of the unemployed associations.

On Christmas Eve, Martine Aubry made another gesture which cost her nothing. Refusing the Christmas bonus demanded by the unemployed, she asked local administrations to find the means to help out a few individuals. This had the advantage of not costing the state a penny and dealing with the problem case by case to try to break up the movement.

The comments made by the CP daily, L'Humanité, following Aubry's gesture were respectfully critical: "their movement has been listened to, but does not seem to have been entirely heard. The government has taken some initial steps; they are not yet proportionate to the true scale of the social, economic and human tragedy. The real effort is yet to be made."

On the same day, the Communist MP Alain Boquet announced he and his CP colleagues would propose a bill in mid-January enabling older unemployed workers who had paid national insurance contributions for forty years to receive a minimum of £500 a month up to retirement age. This proposal was the only one made by the Communist MPs throughout the whole movement. Although this proposal is both obvious and legitimate, it is extremely limited since it concerns only around 20,000 unemployed. No wonder Jospin immediately sent Boquet a letter stating that he would support his proposal. In his letter, Jospin also announced that help with transport fares for a large number of youth, unemployed and other claimants would be introduced shortly in the Paris region.

But the unemployed groups were demanding something very different - not just the Christmas bonus but a full-scale re-evaluation of the various benefits for those no longer entitled to unemployment benefit and the possibility for the under-25s to receive the RMI.

A third week of action thus began. More benefit offices were occupied by small groups of people. On 31 December, 14 offices were occupied in about ten different cities. Other one-off operations - such as toll-free motorways, blocking of railway lines and a few demonstrations - were also organised.

On 30 December, the CP general secretary, Robert Hue, made a statement offering the support of the Communist party and its elected representatives, saying that they would pass on the demands of the unemployed at every level. This passing on of demands consisted in telling the government it needed to "respond positively without delay" to the demand for a special end-of-year bonus. Hue added that "for the unemployed it is a question of dignity, for the left it is a matter of duty to show solidarity"

From Aubry's bluff to Jospin's blunt refusal

The government showed, once again, how it understood its "duty to show solidarity". On Friday January 2, Jean-Claude Gayssot, the CP Transport Minister, received the unemployed groups to discuss the Paris region transport benefit announced by Jospin the week before. 270,000 people (out of 800,000 officially unemployed in the region) are to be granted travel cheques to a total value of between £70 and £140 maximum for the year, which corresponds on average to half the annual cost of buying a 2-zone travel card in Paris!

Martine Aubry, not to be outdone, called a press conference to announce that £50 million would be allocated for youth training. In reality it was a trick. That money was owed by the government to the unemployment budget and had been already used! As far as the unemployed were concerned, it was only making a mockery of them.

This gave the movement new impetus. It expanded further. Even though some sit-ins were lifted in a few towns, others picked up the baton. Meanwhile the original strongholds of the movement, Marseille, Arras, etc. were holding firm. By then, around 30 benefit offices were occupied, out of 636 national - which was still very limited. The police intervened in some places, but the occupiers just went elsewhere... or came back later.

On Tuesday January 7, the day of the benefits authority board meeting, the CGT, FSU and SUD, together with the unemployed groups had called for a demonstration in front of the benefits head office. It was attended by only 3,000 people, who marched to the Ministry of Finance. The demands were: a single unemployment benefit rate regardless of duration; a £150 a month increase for all minimum benefits (which are under £250 a month); the right for the under-25 to get the RMI; and of course, the £300 bonus. In Marseille, a few thousand people also demonstrated, and in some 10 cities there were demonstrations by a few hundred people.

Nicole Notat, general secretary of the CFDT union confederation and chairwoman of the benefits authority board, began to get impatient and spoke of "the manipulating of people in need".

Jospin then took things in hand. He tried to soften up the unemployed groups by receiving them at his official residence on Thursday January 8. He probably hoped that they would feel honoured and dared to ask them in exchange to end the occupation of benefit offices and other public places!

Interviewed on the radio the next day, CP general secretary Robert Hue declared: "Not only should the left not fear this movement, I'm tempted to say it should congratulate itself on it". And he added that the Communists had "played their full part" and did the left a service by "being at the heart of the movement".

The same day the left government came up with a pitifully inadequate proposal: Jospin announced that the state was to free £100 million for an emergency welfare programme. In the eyes of the public, Jospin seemed to be making an effort with his £100 million. But some compared this with the £14 billion which the state will pay out to rescue the Crédit Lyonnais Bank. What is more, it was easy to work out that Jospin's £100 million meant just £33 per unemployed! Above all, the government had still not given way on increasing minimum benefits.

The unemployed groups therefore called for the movement to continue. Jospin, having failed to obtain the voluntary evacuation of benefit offices, sent the police in around twenty offices at dawn on Saturday January 10.

At this point the CP leaders shared out their roles. The CP minister Gayssot approved Jospin's action. Those who were not part of the government were able to criticise, like the Communist MP Boquet who considered that Jospin had made "a mistake in human and political terms". Robert Hue ventured to comment: "I prefer the force of dialogue to the forces of law and order. There is no ambiguity on this question for the Communist Party".

In any case the unemployed did not let themselves be intimidated and found other places, public or otherwise, to occupy. A new day of demonstrations on January 13 saw 5,000 people marching in Paris, the same number in Marseille, 1,500 in Lyon, a few hundred or a few dozen in other places, despite the appeal to workers and pensioners. On Saturday January 17, the demonstrations attracted more people, often double the number of the previous ones: 10,000 in Paris, a few thousand in other big cities, but only 1,000 in Marseille, where the movement had won the payment of a bonus of £180 to £200 to the most needy cases.

The increase of minimum benefits was now the movement's main demand and Jospin announced a statement on TV for Wednesday January 21. In the National Assembly, however, Jospin stated that it would be too expensive to increase minimum benefits by £150 a month, at a total cost of £7bn. Yet this was much less than the £100 billion set aside in Martine Aubry's budget for handouts to employers. But Jospin prefers to give money to the bosses than to the unemployed. He also had another argument: "in addition, the problem is not just a financial one (...) If we increased the RMI by 70%, the income of a couple on RMI would be greater than the minimum wage earned by a man or woman who goes to work every morning. And work is at the heart of social relations. We do not want an assisted society, we want a society based on work and productive activity". Sounds familiar? Yet, it wasn't Blair nor Brown this time...

Jospin's televised interview could only be seen as a blunt refusal. The only thing he had to offer was a sermon to the unemployed to the effect that they should be patient and wait. After Jospin's statement, which provoked anger in some cases, but above all disappointment, the movement began to peter out. But even now, more than two months after the start of the movement, the unemployed people are still occupying a few buildings in towns where the local authorities have have refused to call in the police. They are still carrying out occasional actions in various places to show that they are still there. The unemployed groups joined the union demonstration on January 29, the day when the debate on the 35-hour bill began in the National Assembly. Another unemployed demonstration is planned for March 7th. As to the CGT, it has now shifted the emphasis on the 35-hour law.

The policy of the Communist party leaders

The Communist Party leaders saw the movement as an opportunity to show that they could go along with the unemployed and support their demands, without openly opposing the government. The aim was to convince people that being part of the government did not prevent the CP from defending working class interests. The movement, which was popular but only involved a minority, did not seem able to create too many problems for the government and the CP thought it could show its differences on this occasion.

But while the CP leaders did not stint on generous words, they contented themselves with going along with the movement while taking care not to be too critical of the government, and its MPs were careful not to make excessively bold proposals.

And yet the Communist Party had activists involved in the movement, particularly in the CGT unemployed committees and in the APEIS, who played as much of a decisive role in the movement as the activists of the other unemployed groups. They made great efforts to develop the movement and fight for its demands. The party leaders did not disown their activists, but did not in any way help to define a clear policy for them - quite the contrary!

The CP leaders basically chose to support the government's policy, however despicable it was towards the unemployed. Has the CP done the government a service, as it now claims? If it has, it has done so by using its credit in the working class to support the idea that the government is moving in the right direction - despite the fact the government's attitude clearly revealed a policy which went against the interests of the poor. Confronted with this major problem of unemployment, the government will discredit itself and bring about the discrediting of the CP, which uses its own credit to back up Jospin. That is why Hue, while he may have done the government a good turn, has not done a good turn to the workers who trusted him, especially the activists of his own party.

Whatever way one looks at it, in order to fight unemployment or even simply help out the unemployed, the funds required must be taken out of the state handouts currently made to the bosses and out of their profits, in order to provide everyone with a decent standard of living. Those who refuse this choice only show that they are prepared to let people sink into poverty in the name of economic necessities - that is in the name of profit.

The tide needs to be turned

The activists and unemployed people who fought to obtain a few improvements were absolutely right to do so. They did it in a difficult context, because it is not easy to regroup the scattered ranks of the unemployed, many of whom use all their energy to survive on a day-to-day basis and are often demoralised. This also took place in a period of low militancy, in which the sympathy felt for the movement among workers did not lead to the active support of even a fraction of the working class.

It is true that no excessive efforts were made by the unions in this respect. Some of them, like the CFDT and FO confederations, deliberately abstained from the movement. The CGT, on the other hand, gave its support to the movement and its demands, and took part in all its demonstrations. But its actual participation, outside the CGT unemployed committees, remained by and large symbolic, all the more so as it did not really fight to pull employed workers into the movement. With the exception of the demonstration held on Saturday January 17, all the other marches were called during working hours on weekdays, which did not allow the minority of workers and activists who wished to participate to do so. And the CGT did not do very much to help its own activists to mobilise their fellow workers, at a time when this is a difficult task given the widespread feeling among workers that the working class is too weak to turn the tide. The CGT attitude in this respect is significant of the fact that it had no real policy aimed at expanding the movement.

Yet, it is the working class who hold the key to the future. Its situation can only really change if the workers' movement regains confidence and takes charge of both the struggle of the unemployed and that of people in work, because this is the same struggle. At present the bosses are using unemployment to squeeze wages and aggravate working conditions to the point where large numbers of those in work cannot live off their wages. The bosses are not yet using the unemployed against workers, but this might happen because it will always find politicians who are prepared to be the instruments for such a policy.

It is therefore essential and urgent that the workers' movement should set itself aims which enable a real fight against unemployment to take place. This is a vital struggle, not just out of solidarity with the unemployed but because the living conditions of the whole working class depend on it, and it is only in a mass struggle, using the strength of its main forces, those who keep the whole economy going, that the working class will be able to force the bourgeoisie to give up some of its profits to ensure a decent living for everyone.