The 3 weeks of riots which took place in France's poorest working class suburbs, this November, caused some bewilderment but also a flood of rather ridiculous comments this side of the Channel
Most mainstream British commentators jumped on the opportunity to claim that if anything, these riots showed that the situation in Britain was not as bad as it seemed, after all. Coming after the London bombings and close in the footsteps of the Birmingham riot in October, they were keen to point out that Britain's official "multiculturalism" and Blairite economic "liberalism" were proving more successful than France's "secularism" and economic "state interventionism".
So, for instance, a headline in a so-called "serious" paper like The Independent blamed the French riots on the banning of the Islamic scarf from French schools. However, the same paper failed to mention, let alone explain, why it was, then, that some poor estates where Islamic fundamentalist currents have a strong influence were hardly affected by the riots. This goes to show that the alleged "seriousness" of the press does little to counterbalance the prejudices it conveys.
However, there was one aspect that the British media failed to emphasise - the role of policing. Of course, every paper mentioned the spark which triggered the riots - the death of two teenagers who were electrocuted when they took refuge in a transformer's bunker in order to escape from a police patrol. But little was said about the permanent police harassment in France's poor suburbs - not just of black youth, but of all youth, because the police's bigotry is not just racial, it is also aimed at the poor.
Yet should not this ring a bell in British ears? Isn't this a feature of day-to-day life in our working class towns? Not so for the journalists of our "serious" papers, who blamed the October Birmingham riot on so-called "inter-community" tensions when, in fact, it was triggered by the insulting attitude of police officials and the intervention of the riot police against peaceful protestors.
More accurate was the general assessment by the media that the French riots were partly to blame on the high level of unemployment and general dereliction in France's poorest working class estates - something which, of course, does not apply here, under Brown's "affluent economy"!
However, whether the situation in France is really worse than in Britain from this point of view is doubtful. There are indeed remarkable similarities between, for instance, the working class estates of the Paris so-called suburban "red belt", where the riots started, and many East London estates, whether in Barking, Newham or Tower Hamlets, or even in Camden, where 94% of all local council flats are deemed unfit for habitation by official standards.
The level of unemployment among the over 16s in housing estates on both sides of the Channel is comparable - somewhere between 25 and 40%. If there is a difference, it is only in the methods used to keep these unemployed youth out of the official jobless count.
Apart from that, many of these estates are in the same advanced state of decay. They feature the same boarded-up shops, the same absence of collective facilities, the same bleakness. They generate the same sense that there is no future in this society for their inhabitants. Groups of youth hang around all day in the streets, because they have nowhere else to go. And, more often than not, their lives are dominated by local gangs. The only difference between France and Britain in this respect may well be due to the fact that Britain has the highest level of hard drug and alcohol consumption in Western Europe!
The impact of social degradation
There is one, far more worrying aspect in the French riots, which was completely missed by the British media, namely their social content, or rather their total lack of it.
Ironically, much of the British far left managed to see these riots as some sort of a social upheaval in France. The SWP's paper, for instance, described them as "the largest urban uprising since WWII" - an assessment which would have raised peals of laughter from the rioters, had they had any chance to read such nonsense.
Talking about an "urban uprising" is a way of implying that these riots involved some sort of "radicalisation" which, in fact, was never there. Burning one's neighbour's car, setting alight the local school and attacking firemen with petrol bombs - which was the rioters' main activity over these three weeks - are not radical acts in the social sense of the word. This was a display of frustration, to some extent of despair and impotence, and certainly of hatred towards their immediate social environment. Significantly, although small groups of rioters did target the riot police using hit-and-run tactics, they cautiously refrained from attacking police stations: their hatred of the police and alleged "radicalism" did not go as far as risking a direct confrontation.
The fact is that the rioters gave no sign of any social consciousness. On the contrary, the most striking feature of these riots was that despite spreading to dozens of towns and hundreds of estates around France, the rioters never indicated that they had any common objectives nor did they even display a sense of collective interests.
Starting from the eastern Paris suburb where the two youths were electrocuted, they were copycat riots triggered partly by the media and partly by the arrogant stupidity of the government's posturing - particularly that of Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior minister, who saw these riots as an opportunity to woo far-right voters in preparation for the 2007 presidential election, in which he plans to stand. Almost everywhere, the riots involved only a minority of youth, mostly very young, even though they enjoyed the sympathy of the others. But their rallying cry - "on a la haine" (something like "we hate them") - only expressed their rejection of their way of life, not their determination to change it.
Several decades ago, when the French working class movement was much stronger and these estates were the strongholds of various working class organisations, mostly linked to the Communist Party, the youth's revolt might have taken a different, more positive form. But today, after over two decades of attacks against the working class in which its traditional organisations have consistently failed to defend its most basic material interests, the working class movement is weakened and its organisations have no credit among the youth.
The lack of social consciousness among the rioters and their self-destructive methods, are also significant of another aspect of the social degradation which has taken place over the last period - in France, but here as well. It is not just the living conditions of a whole section of the working class which have been going down the drain, it is also the fabric of society. Cutting real social expenditure - particularly in education and housing - has taken its toll, by generating alienation among the poorest working class youth. In Britain, we get moralistic speeches by ministers who claim to be able to resolve this social degradation by introducing more repressive measures. In France, where a similar policy was adopted, it finally backfired. And the odds are that this will happen here too, at some point.
Shifting the burden of the crisis on the working class
Today's situation in France is best understood by taking a look at the past 25 years of attacks experienced by the working class under every single government. In this process, we will find many similarities between what happened in France and in Britain. The timing may have been different in the two countries as well as the packaging of these attacks, but their aim was identical - to reduce the share of the national income and state funds received by the working class in order to boost capitalist profit. In fact, a similar process can be found in every industrialised country over that period.
Just like British capital, French capital was badly affected by the return of the capitalist crisis in the mid-1970s. In Britain, the Labour government rushed to rescue capitalist profit by using state funds to bail companies out, while trying to freeze working class wages. But this failed, due to the resistance of the working class, despite the willingness of the union bureaucracy to go along with whatever the government did. This led to Thatcher's victory and 26 years of Thatcherism, first under the Tories and then under Blair's Labour governments.
In France, events took a slightly more complicated turn due to the dual nature of France's political institutions, in which the directly-elected president, who is endowed with strong executive powers, can belong to one party, while the government and National Assembly are dominated by another.
Nevertheless, the policies followed in France led to the same result. In the 1970s, a right-wing government and president poured money into private companies, buying into their capital, without succeeding in reducing the burden of their debt nor in boosting private investment. In fact, while company profits increased by 21% during the period 1974-80, private investment went down by 3%. However, the austerity measures that were taken generated discontent among the electorate, resulting in the election of Socialist Party candidate Mitterrand in the 1981 presidential election.
Thereafter, first under Mitterrand until 1995 and then under right-wing president Chirac, successive Socialist Party-led and right-wing governments implemented exactly the same policies against the working class.
What made matters worse to some extent in France, was the fact that, after 23 years in opposition, the return of the traditional left wing parties to government did not result in any improvement for the working class. Instead, the same attacks were repackaged using a different language. And this contributed to a growing demoralisation among working class activists and a weakening of their organisations.
The French working class parties
The two main forces which formed the first government after Mitterrand's election in 1981 were Mitterrand's own Socialist Party and the Communist Party.
The Socialist Party was, in fact, a revived version of its previous self. It had been discredited by its role in launching the war in Algeria, back in 1956, and had virtually ceased to exist as a significant force after general De Gaulle took power, in 1958. Fourteen years later, in 1972, Mitterrand initiated a re-launch of the party, by bringing together various groups which had come out of it after 1958.
Mitterrand himself was hardly a commendable figure for a so-called "socialist". In his early years, in the late 1930s, he had been a royalist activist. During the Algerian War he had been the minister of Justice of the Socialist Party-led government under whose authority torture was routinely practised in Algeria. Despite this past, or maybe because of it, he won the endorsement of the new Socialist Party in the 1974 presidential election, thereby positioning himself as the most credible rival to the Gaullist right-wing.
In the process, Mitterrand successfully managed to cut down the electoral weight of the Communist Party, by winning over roughly 25% of its traditional voters. There was a certain logic to this since, for a long time, the CP's policy had been focused on the need for a left-wing alliance aimed at forming a future government. But, above all, this success was a master trump for Mitterrand's acceptance by the French capitalist class as the country's future president.
Indeed, in the eyes of French capital, the CP remained the odd one out - a party which was seen with distrust. Not that the capitalist class questioned the "responsibility" of the CP leadership towards the profit system - after all, as the main postwar organised party, the CP had also been the main artisan of the restoration of French capitalist profit while it was in government between 1945 and 1947. Rather, the capitalists' distrust was due to the CP's assumed allegiance to Moscow and its potential receptiveness to working class pressure. Indeed, unlike the Socialist Party, which was mostly a party of notable personalities, except in a small number of regional strongholds, the CP's organisational and electoral strength relied mainly on its thousands of working class activists in workplaces and estates. This, in and of itself, made it suspect in the view of a capitalist class which was seeking to increase its profits at the expense of the working class.
Of course, once the CP's electoral weight had been somewhat cut down to size by Mitterrand, what remained was its ability to police the working class through its leading influence in the country's largest trade-union confederation, the CGT. Hence Mitterrand's decision to include four CP representatives - two ministers and two state secretaries - in the first government formed after his election, on the basis of an agreement signed by the CP leadership which committed it to respecting government solidarity, including in the workplaces, without demanding anything in return.
A "honeymoon" with... the bosses
No-one can claim that Mitterrand's election was greeted with enthusiasm by the French working class. Mitterrand had been careful to dampen any potential illusions among workers during his election campaign. His personality and political past were far from appealing for politicised workers. Most of the working class electorate had only chosen to vote for him in the second round of the presidential election as a means to vote against the outgoing right-wing.
In fact, Mitterrand's election was hardly a landslide. It resulted from a rift within the right-wing electorate - with a section of this electorate, amounting to around 2% of total voters, choosing to vote for the left rather than for the only remaining right-wing candidate on offer in the second round. And if the Socialist Party managed to win an absolute majority of Parliamentary seats in the subsequent general election, it was primarily due to the electoral system and the failure of the right-wing parties to find local agreements.
Within four months in office, Socialist Party prime minister Pierre Mauroy had managed to almost double the budget for state subsidies to the bosses, already decided by the previous right-wing government. Prices had increased by almost 5% and unemployment had reached 1.8m - a 26% increase over the previous year. Although, it must be added, that the minimum wage had been slightly increased too.
By that time the plans for nationalisations which had been part of Mitterrand's election programme were completed. These plans included seven of the country's largest industrial companies together with 41 banks and financial institutions. But the actual nationalisation was postponed to the beginning of 1982, meaning that big shareholders had all the time they wanted to prepare themselves to make as much money as they could from the deal.
The original plan had been to buy back the nationalised companies' shares at their average price over the previous three years - something which even the London Financial Times presented as "quite generous". In the end, however, under pressure from big business, Mitterrand agreed to increase his offer by 20%.
Of course, the resulting enormous expenditure by the state was presented to the public as a means to rationalise industry and save jobs. But this was an outright lie. The real reasons were spelt out by the Socialist Party prime minister when he declared to a bosses' assembly that "public companies are and will remain the spear-head of economic recovery which will benefit everyone", adding: "Profits are legitimate. We live in a market economy and we will never put this into question. You demand economic power and you will retain it." Indeed, a number of CEOs of the pre-nationalisation era retained their positions after privatisation. As to benefiting everyone, these nationalisations benefited primarily the capitalists themselves, by freeing their capital and allowing them to use it to play on the financial market. Meanwhile the state took responsibility for paying their debt and the investment which they had failed to make for years.
Apart from turning the state - and therefore, working class tax payers - into a milch cow for private capital, these nationalisations were scandalous in other respects.
For instance, some of the nationalised industrial holdings - such as CGE, the shipyard and turbine manufacturing group, or Dassault, the aircraft and missile manufacturer - had built their empires on usually vastly over-priced state orders. Nationalising these companies without compensation would have been only fair.
But there was far worse. For instance, the subsidiaries of the nationalised companies remained privately owned. So, in the case of Dassault, whose largest customer by far is the French army, there was another wing of the Dassault empire, controlled by an inconspicuous "Dassault Central Research Bureau" based on the French Riviera which was to escape nationalisation. Yet, not only did this Bureau own all the land occupied by the nationalised wing of Dassault and all its patents, but in addition, it controlled or had sizeable stakes in the electronics company producing the equipment necessary for the Dassault missiles and aircraft, as well as a luxury high street store chain, France's largest cinema chain, an investment and retail bank, a national weekly paper and the company managing France's largest blood bank. Despite this and the huge profits which had been hidden in this subsidiary's accounts, the Dassault family remained in full control of it. And this was just one of many such examples.
As to the nationalisation of financial institutions which was, officially designed to rationalise the availability of capital to industry, it was done in such a way as to retain the competitive position of each of these companies against its former, now nationalised rivals. This was all the more ironical as in many of them, particularly the largest banks, the state already had a controlling position through one of its own bodies - such as the huge state institution which manages the accounts of all local councils and public housing bodies, for a total which is larger than the French government's annual budget. However, as a rule, the French state had never used this controlling position to exercise its rights as a shareholder in the country's big banks. And rather than act differently, this Socialist Party-led government chose to splash out billions of pounds on private shareholders, not to mention the writing off of huge debts, without even using this opportunity to rationalise the banking system nor plough back some of these banks' unproductive investment into useful production.
Fool's gold for workers and some fight back
On paper, the first measures taken by the new government regarding workers' conditions gave the impression that something was changing. Retirement age was to be reduced from 65 to 60 for everyone, 150,000 illegal immigrants were to be given legal status, 55,000 "new" jobs had been announced in civil and public services, the legal working week was to be cut from 40 to 39 hours and a fifth week of paid holiday introduced.
However, these were only headlines. The truth was, that apart from the earlier retirement age, these measures meant nothing, or turned out to be double-edged swords.
Illegal immigrants soon discovered that when they contacted immigration services in order to get the promised legal status, officials often resorted to intimidation or used the pretext that they had failed to produce some obscure document to turn them away. And since many of them had naively provided their real addresses, they were forced to find another hiding place. Moreover the way this measure was emphasised by ministers as a major "favour", to please the Socialist Party's liberal middle-class electorate, gave credit to the right-wing's demagogic claim that the large number of illegal immigrants was one of the causes for high unemployment and public expenditure - something which was to become increasingly a big political theme in the subsequent years.
Job creation in public services was also given huge media coverage by the government. But the budget for these jobs only represented the equivalent of 1.5% of the total funds allocated by the government for the new subsidies for the bosses and the compensation for the shareholders of nationalised companies! Besides the number of jobs created was just ridiculous compared to actual needs. For instance, only 2,000 of these jobs were allocated to public hospitals, when at least 120,000 would have been needed, according to the CGT.
As to the reduction in working hours and a fifth week of paid holidays, employers interpreted the deliberately ambiguous formulation of the law to do what they pleased. Some proceeded to cut wages, others tried to use the opportunity to smuggle in flat-rate overtime, others still, introduced drastic speed-ups to make up for reduced production.
Predictably, by the end of 1981, disillusion began to express itself among workers through a growing number of strikes, mostly over working conditions but also over wages, because of rising inflation. Some of these strikes affected large companies, such as several Renault assembly plants, the giant Peugeot factory at Sochaux, in eastern France, the railways and banks, the air carrier Air France, etc.. In most cases, the CGT chose to take the initiative in order to be in control of these disputes right from the beginning. After all, if the CP's ministers were to remain in office, it was vital for them that the CGT retained as much support as possible among workers. This resulted in some rather contradictory situations involving CGT leaders and CP ministers. For instance, that October, a national action day organised jointly by the CGT and other unions across the banking industry involved, as one of its central demands, the 35-hour week. But only two days before, the CP Transport minister had written to all railway workers arguing: "I am being asked to implement the 35-hour week straight away. This cannot be serious!" Needless to say, such "hiccups" did not go unnoticed.
There was one case however where the CGT leadership finally chose to show its real agenda almost openly. This was during a strike by line workers at the emblematic Boulogne-Billancourt Renault plant, in the western suburbs of Paris - a plant which had such a long-standing reputation of strong organisation that it was claimed, half jokingly because this was never really true, that "whenever it sneezes, France is about to catch a cold." The problem for the CGT in Renault-Billancourt was that it was one of its best-known strongholds and it was state-owned, so that, like it or not, the strike appeared as a confrontation between the CGT and the Socialist Party-led government. In the end, instead of taking the risk of putting CP ministers in a difficult situation, the CGT chose to do everything possible to push the workers back to work - short of calling for the strike to end. The Billancourt workers were not conned by this and the CGT lost a lot of credit among them as a result. But this was a sacrifice that the CGT leaders were willing to make and one that they would be making over and over again in the subsequent years.
Hand-outs and more hand-outs
This looming discontent did not stop the Socialist Party-led government from pursuing its pro-business policy. Over the following year it awarded another £4bn worth of tax rebates and cheap state loans to employers. Altogether, the economic press estimated that the government's handouts to the capitalists - excluding the compensation paid for the nationalised industries - amounted to £5.1 bn for the second half of 1981 and close to £10bn for 1982!
True, the minimum wage was once again increased over and above inflation. And some benefits for the low-paid were also improved. Although, this did not cost the bosses a penny, if only because the social security contributions they paid on low wages were reduced - which, in passing, amounted to yet another incentive to keep wages at the lowest possible level.
But what the government was giving to the working class with one hand was immediately taken back with the other. For instance social security contributions paid by employees were increased and even extended to the unemployed, thereby increasing the government's income by £1.1bn. In addition, the working class' purchasing power was reduced by another £0.7bn, by increasing VAT and petrol tax. And this was only a beginning. Indeed plans were already laid out to increase social security contributions for those on early retirement and to make civil servants pay unemployment insurance contributions (which they did not before), while cutting the real value of all pensions.
By contrast, the "sacrifices" imposed on the rich who, according to Mitterrand's election programme were supposed to be made to foot the bill of the crisis, were reduced to a minimum. In particular, the government's flagship wealth tax, which was supposed to be paid by the country's 200,000 richest individuals, was cut to a ridiculous level after generating endless storms of protest in the media: instead of the £0.8bn income that it was meant to generate, it only brought in half this amount in 1982 and even less in the subsequent years.
By a sinister irony, however, the Socialist Party-led government had been going so much out of its way to boast about its "efforts" in favour of the working class, that a whole section of the middle class began to blame the working class for its own economic difficulties. This was to provide fertile ground for the electoral growth of the far-right over the following years.
Job cuts and workers' resistance
All these measures, combined with the freeze of prices and wages, which, as usual, was effective on wages but not on price, were bound to whip up discontent in the working class. All the more so as, from the end of 1982 onwards, most large companies began to unveil large-scale redundancy plans, especially in the car and steel industries, shipyards and engineering. So much so that, by September 1982, official figures showed that the number of industrial disputes was back to its pre-1981 level.
Nevertheless, Mauroy's September 1981 statement in Parliament, saying that "the left is bringing to employers something that the right was never able to deliver - a social climate based on negotiation rather than confrontation", remained valid. Despite the brutal attacks on workers' jobs and standard of living and the unprecedented level of state handouts to the capitalist class, the trade union machineries were able to keep the resistance of the working class within limits which were quite tolerable for the bosses.
There was, however, one significant exception - the Peugeot-Talbot strike at the Poissy assembly plant, near Paris. This plant was somewhat special. Talbot had a long anti-union tradition, with a company union running the shopfloor alongside lower management, while the CGT and CFDT were confined to a semi-clandestine activity. So much so that, just to distribute leaflets at the plant's gates, even the CP had to mobilise several dozen activists to keep the company union's thugs at a safe distance. Besides, with 13,000 workers, it was the largest car factory in the Paris area.
In July 1982, Talbot announced plans to sack 2,905 workers and get rid of another 1,200 through early retirement. Regulations allowed the company to get the state to bear most of the cost of the operation, but only if it got clearance from the Labour ministry. When it failed to get it, Talbot made no secret that it would go ahead regardless. This made it easier for the CGT to argue for a fight back against Talbot's decision, in so far as the company appeared to be defying the government.
So, on 7th December, one week before the factory was due to reduce production on account of the winter schedule, the Poissy CGT and CFDT unions called workers to go on strike and occupy the plant. Within ten days, Talbot withdrew one thousand of the 2,905 redundancies and offered a £ 20,000 bonus to any employer who would be prepared to take on one of the redundant workers, while the government offered one year paid training for those who could not find a job. It was clear that the strikers were on the right track. The strike was attracting the interest of tens of thousands of workers across the country and not just in the car industry. It was the main subject of discussions in immigrant workers hostels, as a majority of the strikers were immigrants. It was clearly becoming a potential focus for an increasingly discontented working class.
During the first four weeks of the strike, the strikers remained on their own. There was never any attempt at contacting workers from other car factories who were threatened with similar job cuts. Worse than that, the CGT and CFDT activists who were running the strike made a point of limiting the number of workers occupying the plant to a few hundred, while the others waited at home, turning up to the plant only from time to time, in order to bring some food to the activists and get the latest news.
On 3rd January 1983, the plant was supposed to return to normal production according to the winter schedule. The company's attitude changed. Suddenly the company union went on the offensive. There were severe clashes with the strikers. Nevertheless this was the time chosen by the CGT leadership to make a U-turn, by announcing that as far as it was concerned, it was up to the strikers to decide whether the strike should continue. In the CGT's coded language, this meant that it was no longer prepared to take any responsibility for it. Within two days, hundreds of company union thugs coming from the whole of greater Paris attacked the assembly plant, which was then occupied by a thousand strikers. Due to the policy of the unions during the strike the rest of the workforce was not there to join their comrades. And by the end of the day, the strikers were ejected from the plant by the riot police. It was the end of the Talbot strike. The strikers had made some gains and were proud of them. But what could have been an opportunity to stop the growing wave of redundancies had been wasted.
Backlash in the ballot box
The rise in unemployment and degradation of workers' conditions was bound to have some consequences in the ballot box as well.
The first signs of a changing electoral mood came in the first national ballot following 1981 - the 1983 local elections (in France all local councillors are re-elected at the same time every six years). Compared to the previous local elections, in 1977, both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party lost some ground to the right. Nevertheless, the relationship of forces between the left coalition and the right-wing parties did not change much - with the left retaining control of a majority among the larger towns.
There was, however, a noticeable change in voting patterns in the first round of the election. While the proportion of abstentions was more or less the same as in 1977, the distribution of these abstentions was different: the turnout in working-class districts was significantly lower, while turnout in residential better-off areas was higher. Nevertheless, on the second round, the left-wing parties were able to remobilise their electorate. This showed two things: that a section of the working class electorate was disappointed by the left-wing parties' policy in government, but also that it was not angry enough against them to the point of letting them down completely.
The euro-election, which took place the following year, displayed far more dramatic changes. The turnout was low, with only 56% voting - compared to 61% in the previous euro election, in 1979. Once again abstention levels were far higher in working class areas than in middle-class towns. But this time, the balance of forces between left and right was reversed: while the right-wing lists scored a total of 57% of the votes (compared to 48% in 1979), the left-wing lists only got 36% (compared to 47% in 1979).
This election showed two other major changes. The Communist Party vote had dropped to its lowest level since WWII, with 11% (compared to 20% in 1979). And Le Pen and his far-right National Front, whose election results had been negligible since the end of the 1950s, had suddenly increased their score to just over 10%.
These results indicated three parallel trends. The small layer of wavering middle-class voters who had shifted to the Socialist Party in 1981 and given Mitterrand his victory, had now shifted back to the right-wing. A sizeable section of the CP's traditional working class electorate had either abstained or shifted to the Socialist Party - with some logic since, after all, voting for the CP amounted to voting for the Socialist Party's policies, so why not vote for the real thing? Lastly, a shift to the right had taken place among a section of the electorate, opening the way for the National Front.
At this point, it is worth debunking some misconceptions about the National Front. The existence of an electoral far-right was nothing new in France. Since WWII, there had been several attempts to build far-right parties, using both the electoral platform and street confrontations with working class activists. But since De Gaulle's coup, in 1958, the far-right had been more or less co-opted into the various right-wing regimes and, with the exception of a few unreconstructed nutcases, it had remained largely invisible. But as a current of opinion, it had never disappeared. So Le Pen's success was not, in and of itself, a major surprise. However this did not mean that the National Front was, even in an embryonic form, a fascist party. Its political personnel was mostly composed of former members of traditional right-wing parties who were impatient to get themselves elected. A large proportion of its members and supporters were pensioners who were not in the business of organising anti-working class militias. So the National Front did not represent a fascist threat in any sense of the word. But its rise exercised a reactionary pressure on society as a whole and provided mainstream politicians with a justification for their more reactionary policies, against immigrant workers in particular.
After this electoral debacle, Mitterrand was quick to react. A new government was formed, this time under Laurent Fabius, a Socialist Party upstart from a very rich background. But, this time, under some spurious pretext the CP turned down Mitterrand's invitation to join. After its appalling results in the euro-election, the CP leadership had come to the conclusion that it needed to spend some time out of government to rebuild its electoral support. And over the next year or so, the CGT used every opportunity to make a show of its influence over the working class and its capacity to control its struggles. Of course, this involved a lot of gesture politics on the part of the CGT leaders, but it did help, to a limited extent, to rebuild the confidence that CGT and CP activists had lost as a result of the experience of the previous three years.
The final electoral backlash came two years later, in the 1986 general elections. Everyone expected major losses for the government coalition, but probably not as large as they turned out to be. The various left-wing candidates won only 42.6% of the votes, with the CP's votes falling again, to just under 10%. The traditional right won 44.7%, while the National Front scored almost 10%. Even without the support of the 34 National Front MPs, the right-wing parties had an absolute majority in the National Assembly. This was the beginning of the so-called "cohabitation" period, with a Socialist Party president and a right-wing coalition government led by Chirac. The left-wing parties were harvesting the fruits of their policy in government.
Explosion in the streets and the railways
Although very cautious in its policies and obviously careful not to take the risk of having to face a fight back, the right-wing administration limited itself to repealing some of its predecessors' legislation which, although tokenistic, was most unpopular among the wealthy - like the wealth tax. There was some grandiose talk about long-term plans, concerning privatisation in particular. But in most respects, it merely pursued the policies that had been initiated by the Socialist Party.
However, thinking that he could get away with some measures designed to please the most reactionary layers of the electorate, Chirac introduced a university reform which would have resulted in more stringent selection of students and a new "nationality code", which would have made it far more difficult for foreigners to get French citizenship.
As it turned out, Chirac had misjudged the situation. On 21st November a national meeting of students representing most French universities called an indefinite strike for the repeal of these two measures. The strike spread like wildfire and daily marches began to take place in every university town. More importantly, the strike became massive when it was joined by high-school students, who also joined the daily marches.
The peak of the movement was reached on 4th December when over 500,000 students marched through Paris on the National Assembly. A week later, Chirac backed down. Although already adopted by the higher house of Parliament, the two bills were repealed and the government forced into an unceremonious retreat.
But this was not the end of Chirac's trouble. Just as he had finally managed to get the students off the streets, railway workers came out on strike, this time against the wage freeze, which had been in force since 1982.
Initially, the strike started among drivers, thanks to the initiative of the rank-and-file, before spreading to maintenance and station staff. Significantly, despite the CP being in semi-opposition, at no point did the CGT call for an all-out strike among the drivers, let alone among the rest of the workforce. As to the other unions, which were much weaker anyway, they remained even more passive.
The hostility of the union machineries prompted the strikers to elect their own committees to run the strike - which they called "coordinating committees" as their main problem was to coordinate the strike among a vastly dispersed workforce. Another form of organisation, which was to re-emerge periodically in many large disputes later on, was the daily mass meetings of strikers to which the "coordinating committees" were accountable. On top of these local structures, attempts were made to set up a national leadership of the strike, through a "national drivers' committee" and a "national cross-sectional coordinating committee". The mere fact that these two committees existed in parallel indicated one of the problems of the strike - that the drivers' sectionalism was still too strong for them to identify with a national leadership regrouping all railway workers, in which they would necessarily have been a minority.
This strike held solidly for four weeks over the Christmas period until 15th January. But, as it turned out, it was not strong enough to make any real gains. From the end of the third week of the strike, the CGT and CFDT leaders had clearly decided to get the strikers back to work. It took the union bureaucrats a full week to get the daily mass meetings to vote the end of the strike and, even then, they had to resort to all sorts of manoeuvres. But in the end, they did succeed and this probably showed the limits of the strikers' determination.
Nevertheless, these two events, and some others which followed, such as a national strike in the health service, among others, were to prove quite damaging for Chirac's political fortune. The capitalist class does not like politicians who trigger unrest in the streets unwittingly, and prove unable to enforce social peace.
Right, left, right - no change
Chirac's prime ministership could not last. Anyway, according to the electoral calendar, a new presidential election was due to take place in 1988. And when Chirac stood against Mitterrand, he was defeated without further ado. In fact, Mitterrand won his largest score ever, with 54% of the vote on the second round. It must be said, however, that Mitterrand's victory had more to do with the rivalries between the right-wing parties and the support of a section of the National Front electorate, than with the enthusiastic support of working class voters.
Once elected, Mitterrand dissolved Parliament and called a general election, which the Socialist Party won with a narrow majority. But in many respects, this was a convenient situation for the new Socialist Party-led government, since it could hide behind the fragility of its majority in Parliament as an excuse for its pro-business policies. This was illustrated, for instance, by the "neither nationalisation, nor privatisation" slogan adopted by the Socialist Party after the election. The Communist Party, which was still shaken by its electoral losses, chose to remain outside the new government.
In fact, the following period, from 1988 to 1995, was remarkably uneventful from a political point of view. There was hardly any difference between the policies of the new government and those previously implemented by Chirac. And, when a right-wing majority won the following general election, in 1993, the change of government was so smooth that it felt like a mere reshuffle.
The system of subsidies to the bosses which had been launched by the left after 1981, had been retained under Chirac and reached new heights under the subsequent governments - always in the name of creating jobs. But, of course, while the bosses pocketed these subsidies, no new jobs ever materialised.
Meanwhile, the attacks against the working class were carrying on. The economy was more stagnant than ever, due to the on-going shortage of investment. The only really new jobs that were created were "state-assisted" casual jobs, in other words short-term jobs, paid at or under the minimum wage, for which employers had no social contributions to pay. Unemployment went on increasing regularly. Wages remained frozen while more and more social costs were shifted from employers to employees, thereby reducing further the standard of living of the working class.
Measures originally planned by the left were implemented by the right and vice-versa, without any reservations from the politicians involved. So, for instance, the plan to allow private investors to buy shares in nationalised industries had been formulated by Chirac's government in 1987, but it was implemented by the Socialist Party in 1991. Conversely, the plan to raise the number of annual contributions needed by private sector workers to get a full state pension from 37.5 years to 40 years was worked out between 1988 and 1993 by a Socialist Party minister. But it was implemented by its right-wing successor in 1993.
There were, once again, some reactions among workers against these attacks. But they were more isolated than before. The weight of unemployment was really beginning to hurt and many workers no longer felt that they could afford to strike. Nevertheless, there were strikes in the health service, at Peugeot, and there was a 22-day strike at Renault's Cléon plant, in the west of France, which affected production in most Renault plants across Europe.
The public sector backlash
The 1995 presidential election, in which the new Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin stood against Chirac, was a replay of the 1981 election, except that the scores were reversed. There was no significant shift to the right in the electorate, but rather a much lower turnout among the left parties' electorates.
Nevertheless, now that he had seven years in front of him together with the big parliamentary majority won in the 1993 election, Chirac felt strong enough to go on the offensive. New taxes for low and average earners were announced while further tax cuts were awarded to the wealthy. Plans to cut 30,000 jobs a year in public services, which had been mooted by the previous government, resurfaced together with more drastic measures in specific areas. In the railways, for instance, a minimum of 6,000 jobs were to be cut every year while the number of new recruits was to be halved to 1,000 a year; more workers were to be employed on temporary contracts at lower rates; multi-skilling was to be introduced across the network with the aim of further job cuts in the future. Similar plans were in the making for the Post Office, France-Telecom and the electricity and gas companies.
For good measure, Chirac decided that the time had come to extend the pension reform already implemented in the private sector to the public sector. As it happened this turned out to be a big mistake.
This attack on public sector workers triggered what was probably the largest wave of strikes in any Western European country since 1968. In the last week of November 1995 and the first half of December, hundreds of thousands of workers, possibly over a million at the highest point, took part in these strikes, with a large section among them staying out for three weeks and sometimes more. Many workplaces were occupied in order for the strikers to have a place where they could meet every day and prepare the action they decided on collectively. This democracy, which was completely new for most strikers, was one of the major features of this strike wave.
The vast majority of the strikers were public sector workers. For the millions in the private sector who worked through the strike, the total paralysis of the railways and, in the largest towns, of the entire public transport system for over three weeks, resulted in long and exhausting daily hikes to work. Yet, the strike never ceased to enjoy the sympathy and the support of the vast majority of the working class and even sections of the petty bourgeoisie.
Moreover, many of those who did not join the strike itself, made a point of taking part in the demonstrations which were organised. Over two million workers are estimated to have joined the marches organised on the six "national demonstration days" which were called during the strike. Many others took part in the hundreds of local demonstrations which were taking place daily across the country, including in the smallest towns and the most remote suburbs.
Starting from the section which was initially most militant - the railway drivers - the strike wave spread to the rest of the railways, the rest of public transport, the post office, the electricity and gas company, France-Telecom, the hospitals, central government offices, local authority workers, and, in the last period, to dockers, sailors, teachers, and even to those running the state-controlled betting offices on the country's affluent racecourses.
Everywhere this extension was achieved by the strikers organising "visiting squads" to tour workplaces which were not on strike in their area and invite workers to join in. Very early on, sectional boundaries ceased to matter. Railway and post office uniforms, the nurses' green and white blouses or the orange overalls of local authority dustmen became familiar sights in all striking workplaces. The "visiting squads" were sometimes no larger than half-a-dozen, sometimes as big as several hundred, depending on the target. These squads were first welcomed by local shop-stewards, before going round the workplace inviting everyone to a mass meeting where the visiting strikers would put their case for taking strike action. Then a vote would be taken and in most cases the fraternal enthusiasm of the "visitors" was enough to win the vote and convince those who were still indecisive.
This strike wave would probably never have taken place without the conscious decision made by leaders of the CGT and its smaller rival, FO, to respond to the government's offensive. In doing so, the union leaders had a dual agenda. On the one hand, they wanted to send a warning to the government at a time when it was threatening to take away from them the role they played in the managing committees overseeing various national administrations, such as the insurance benefit, health insurance and pension systems. On the other hand, in the case of the CGT, there was a layer of the union machinery which believed that the only way to reverse the falling electoral fortune of the CP was to raise the militant profile of the CGT. So, for once, not only did these unions prepare the ground for a national strike through a series of national one-day stoppages, but when the strike did start in the railways, their activists put all their efforts into helping the strikers to gain confidence and break sectional boundaries to extend the strike.
In any case, within the limits of the strikers' demands, this strike was a success, since it forced the government to withdraw its plans on public sector pensions and suspend its plans concerning jobs, pay and conditions, "pending further consultation" - to use the official formulation.
The return of the "plural left"
After the public sector strike, Chirac was not exactly in the best position. He had lost some of his credit as a strong right-wing leader and this was whipping up rivalries and rebellions in the ranks of right-wing MPs. He needed to find one way or another to reassert his authority. For some reason he decided that dissolving Parliament and calling an early general election in 1997 would be a clever way of doing this. But once again, as it happened, this proved to be a big miscalculation.
Indeed, instead of the right-wing majority dominated by his own party that he was hoping for, Chirac got a left-dominated parliament and a government led by his former rival in the 1995 presidential election, Lionel Jospin. In addition to the Socialist Party, this government now also included the Communist Party and the Greens - the so-called "plural left" alliance.
We will not go into the details of the policies followed by Jospin over his five years in office. It should be enough to say that they were remarkably similar to Blair's policies. We will just look at their results by 2002, on the eve of the following presidential election.
Overall, in Jospin's five-year tenure, there was only one measure which could be considered positive - the introduction of a system providing a 100% health insurance cover to 5 million people at the bottom of the social ladder. It was a positive measure but an incomplete one, because at the same time, the health budget was being cut and hospitals were not provided with the resources to cater for their additional tasks.
Just like Blair, Jospin endlessly boasted of his "success" in reducing unemployment. According to official figures, the number of workers seeking work was supposed to have gone down by one million during his tenure. Part of this drop was certainly due to many more jobless being struck off the unemployment count for all kinds of reasons - 231,000 in 2000 alone, for instance, compared with 85,346 in 1996. In any case, it was estimated that the official jobless figure accounted for only 47% of the workers who were under-employed, compared to 60% in 1996. In fact, the reality was that more than 3 million people were out of a proper job and a growing number had little or no income.
Of course, for the poorest among them, there was something similar to Britain's old income support, called the RMI. But getting it involved meeting stringent conditions and, theoretically at least, no-one could get it for more than a year.
As to the jobs which had been created since 1997, they were hardly comparable with the hundreds of thousands which had been cut. Many were part-time, most were casual and low-paid. Over 80% of the jobs created in retail over that period involved wages under £200 a week (1.3 times the minimum wage of £160) and in many cases they even paid less than the minimum wage. The number of agency workers had increased considerably during Jospin's tenure, reaching over 1.4m, most of whom earned anything between 30% to 50% of the weekly minimum wage on average over the year. And the number of directly employed casual workers had reached over one million.
The Jospin government did nothing to discourage the bosses from resorting increasingly to casual and part-time labour - in fact, many of the jobs it subsidised belonged to these categories. For Jospin, of course, subsidising casual jobs was merely a means to increase public subsidies to employers as well as helping them to push labour costs down. But it was the working class that was footing the bill.
The consequence of all this was that millions of people remained in poverty. 9m lived on an income lower than £100/w. Among them, 1.5m lived on the lowest benefits, worth £45/wk and another 1.3m were "working poor" - workers in a job earning less than £77/w.
As to the rest of the working class, it had to pay a heavy price in return for the introduction of Jospin's famous 35-hour/week laws. Indeed, their main purpose was to provide the bosses with considerable advantages - a cut in real wages, the introduction of flexible working and massive state subsidies.
In fact the bosses used the opportunity to freeze the wages of the existing workforce (under the pretext that the limited wage guarantee provided by the 35-hour laws amounted to a wage increase), while cutting wages for new entrants.
As to flexible working, it was achieved using two devices. First, by excluding all breaks from the definition of the length of the working day. And second, by using the provisions of these laws to impose a flexible working week, depending on production needs. This kind of flexibility was precisely what the bosses had been demanding for years! And for good reason, since as a result, they no longer had to pay overtime or layoff pay. This flexibility also meant that there was no need for companies to take on new workers in proportion to the cut in the working week - in most cases, all they had to do was to reorganise working patterns.
And, of course, despite the state subsidies offered by Jospin to employers, under the pretext of helping them to create new jobs, very few new jobs were created, since the bosses could get the subsidies anyway. Moreover, Jospin's subsequent decision to increase the legal maximum of overtime to 180 hours a year in smaller companies showed that his objective had never been to reduce the working week.
The chickens come home to roost
With such a record, the "plural left" was unlikely to achieve a brilliant score in the 2002 presidential election. Jospin stood for president against Chirac and both the CP and the Greens ran their own candidates.
The result was a disaster for the left-wing parties. Chirac came first with 20% and the various candidates representing the traditional right-wing polled nearly 40% between them. Le Pen came second with 17%. Jospin came third with 16% and the "plural left" scored a total 32% - the CP candidate being the worst casualty since he scored just over 3%. Finally the three revolutionary candidates polled slightly over 10% between them. For the first time since France elected a president, there was no left-wing candidate in the second round.
The "plural left" parties were quick to react. They launched a double-barrelled campaign. On the one hand, they blamed the revolutionary left for having pushed Jospin in third position - which was a bit rich since each one of these parties had its own candidate in this election. But, of course, this was a convenient way of avoiding admitting that they could only blame Jospin's failure on their own policies in government. On the other hand, they immediately called on their supporters to vote for Chirac, under the pretext that Le Pen had to be stopped at all costs. And, over the following two weeks, the Socialist Party student organisations were busy organising demonstrations against Le Pen in the main towns.
Yet, the figures spoke for themselves right from the first round. There was no risk of Le Pen winning the election and therefore no justification whatsoever, even if he had represented fascism, which he did not, to give a blank cheque to Chirac by voting for him in the second round. And indeed, Chirac got in with a massive 82% of the vote, with Le Pen gaining only 1% on his first round score. Just as the old Socialist Party had brought De Gaulle into power in 1958, the new Socialist Party was bringing his heir apparent into office in 2002!
This election had a demoralising effect on the left voters who voted for Chirac. Those who knew who Chirac really was, had voted for him against their better judgment and when they saw Chirac's score they immediately regretted it. As to those who had illusions in Chirac, they were soon to discover that by voting for him, they had voted for Le Pen's ideas. Because since then, Chirac has been competing with Sarkozy, his main potential rival in the next presidential election, for the favours of the far-right electorate.
Predictably, the fact that Chirac was elected with such a majority gave the right-wing parties a confidence that they did not have before. Their caution was gone and the new government immediately embarked on a whole series of attacks against the working class.
In many respects, once again, it merely started off from where the "plural left" government had left it for them. For instance, the privatisation wave of the past three years really started in 1986, with the first right-wing government under Mitterrand. But it became a permanent item on the agenda of all subsequent governments. And it was under Jospin in particular, that some of the biggest privatisations were carried out.
Likewise, the fact that Jospin's government did not repeal the cuts in private sector workers' pensions which were introduced by the right wing in the 1980s, made it possible for Chirac to relaunch the same cuts for public sector workers seven years after they were stopped by the winter 1995 strike. Significantly, although there was, once again, some resistance among public sector workers, it was in no way comparable to 1995. The workers who were targeted just did not have the necessary confidence.
The balance sheet of a period
By and large the French capitalist class has achieved the objective it had at the beginning of the 1980s. It has considerably increased its share of the national income on the back of the working class. It absorbs an enormous proportion of public funds at the expense of social budgets. Its profits are at an all-time high and economic commentators congratulate themselves about the good prospects offered by the French economy. French capital owes all this to the loyal services of left-wing parties, which used the illusions and lack of a fighting perspective of the working class to get it to swallow measures that a right wing government would have been unable to get through. The result is the social dereliction that we described earlier and the marginalisation of a whole section of the population.
But there is another consequence of the past 25 years, which may be less tangible but no less serious. By doing the dirty job of the capitalist class, the left-wing parties have brought the very idea of politics into disrepute among the working class. Many activists in these parties and in the unions have given up in disgust. The older generation has not been replaced by a new one. The French equivalent of Britain's local trade union councils are often manned by a handful of retired activists who struggle to keep them afloat.
The fact that the Communist Party's electorate has shrunk so drastically is not just an electoral phenomenon and contrary to what bourgeois commentators claim, it is not due to the collapse of the USSR. As mentioned before, it began much earlier, when the CP gave its endorsement to the Socialist Party's pro-business policy by joining it in government. As a result, the CP has lost many of the workplace and local activists, who made up its real strength. And most of these activists will probably never return to politics.
The fact that there are fewer activists in France to defend basic ideas such as the need for the working class to organise itself independently, the class struggle, etc., is a major factor in making it easier for reactionary ideas, such as racism, Islamic fundamentalism, or simply the most crass individualism, to take the upper hand.
In a way, this is something that we are familiar with, here, in Britain. Whenever the Labour party has been in office, it has deceived the workers who expected something out of it. How many rank-and-file workers are really active in the Labour party these days? Who believes any more that politics can bring about any change in the life of the working class?
Take the case of Islamic fundamentalism. Why has it gained so much ground over the past decade? What happened to the activists who used to fight religious prejudices in the Asian community? Most of them have grown old and demoralised, without being able to find a new generation to replace them. Why? Because they never got any real help from the British working class movement. The Labour leaders would never say a word against religion, for fear of upsetting their middle-class electorate. They would much rather woo religious community leaders into supporting them - as Blair does today.
Or take the case of politics in the workplace. This should be the natural place for workers to meet and discuss the political issues of the day. But in how many workplaces are there such political meetings, since the Communist Party of Great Britain got swallowed into the union machineries before exploding into oblivion?
To go back to the starting point of this forum, those who believe that events such as those in France cannot happen here are fools. The youth has an enormous potential energy. But if this energy is not harnessed by living working class organisations which can offer these youth a perspective worth fighting for, it can easily become self-destructive.
However, to conclude on a more optimistic note, we are convinced that the working class has the capacity to produce such living organisations from within its ranks, in the course of the class struggle. But it is the collective responsibility of all those who are conscious of the fact that such organisations are vital for the future, to do everything they can to facilitate this process.