SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 118 - May 2008

France: May 2008

The recent upsurge in militancy by French workers and students has accompanied big defeats for president Sarkozy in local elections. Votes for the radical left held up well, again providing the platform for launching a new mass workers’ party. The need for united working-class industrial and political struggle, echoing 1968, could not be more pressing. ALEXANDRE ROUILLARD (Gauche Révolutionnaire – CWI France) reports.

THE SARKOZY-FILLON government has suffered a major defeat in council and departement elections. This shows an important rejection of their policies. But this electoral defeat is not enough to stop the attacks of president Nicolas Sarkozy. Neither the official ‘left’ nor the main trade union leaders want to build a real opposition. Numerous workers’ struggles are left isolated and the proposals of the Parti Socialiste (PS) differ only in form from those of Sarkozy.

It is left to the workers and youth themselves to construct real opposition to the policies of Sarkozy and defend their own demands. A united struggle is more than necessary to defend wages, jobs and pensions; and to fight against privatisation and the numerous measures against the youth, the poor and immigrants. In that context the construction of a new workers’ and youth party to struggle against Sarkozy and capitalism is a central question.

While Sarkozy is flaunting his connections with his rich friends, inviting ministers and family members on luxury holidays, the daily lives of the majority of the population continues to worsen. The next measures to be announced by François Fillon, the prime minister, will again consist of new attacks. The justification of the government will be that economic growth will be lower than predicted. However, all the economists warned that the government’s predictions for growth in the autumn of 2007 were too optimistic. As a matter of fact, the plan of the government was to launch a first wave of attacks and then wait until after the local elections to announce extra measures. Of all the election promises only those which promised gifts to the bosses have been kept.

The risk of an economic recession in the USA and the consequences that this will have for the world economy will bring enormous social damage for millions when thousands lose their jobs and are faced with increasing misery. The measures envisaged by Sarkozy will allow the bosses to heighten the exploitation of workers.

The government had already announced the suppression of thousands of public service jobs at the end of 2007; amongst others, 11,200 teaching jobs are set to go. ‘Reforms’ of public services have been accelerated (like the fusion of job centres, ANPE, with benefit offices, Unedic). Preparations are being made for a future privatisation of the universities with the Pécresse law which will strengthen university ‘autonomy’, and thus dependency on private companies and increased competition between universities.

The government is preparing a new austerity plan – ‘savings’, it likes to call it – of between €6-7 billion, according to the newspaper, Le Monde. The minister of finance has announced that the government needs to cut €5 billion a year in social security and another €5 billion a year in state spending. This while fiscal measures in favour of the bosses from July 2007 amount to €15 billion each year. It is not hard to see where the money is going. Once more the method will be to take money from the workers to give to the rich, to cut thousands of workplaces and to reorganise public services from the level of the departements to the much larger, more remote regions.

There are also plans to continue with attacks on pensions, with a retreat to working 41 years before people are entitled to a full pension. Last year, pension entitlement had been pushed back to 40 years. If there are no massive struggles in defence of pension rights, this will be quickly followed by a ruling limiting pension rights to those who have worked for 42 years.

In the next few weeks we will see the validation of the agreement on the new labour contract, which includes making it easier to make people redundant, and lengthening the trial period before employing new people. This agreement has, disgracefully, been signed by almost all the trade union federations, and those which did not sign did not lift a finger to organise the struggle against it. This new labour code will also introduce a new sort of work contract, for a determined period of time (Contrat duré determiné, CDD) that can last as long as three years, after which the employers can sack people freely. This contract will increase the level of exploitation for workers. Other measures will be announced to ‘flexibilise’ the contracts for civil servants and introduce cost-effective requirements. To put it differently, public services will have to be as cost-effective as possible; they will have to provide the minimum of service with the minimum of quality.

Different struggles developing

THOUSANDS OF SCHOOL students are struggling against the axing of jobs. The same is happening in primary schools and childcare centres. Several thousand school students have demonstrated at different times in Paris and other cities. They were also protesting against the disappearance of the Brevet d’Enseignement Professionnel (BEP, which took two years and acted as the first diploma for skilled industrial workers). Discontinuing the BEP will oblige many school students to choose between a Bac professionnel (crammed into three years instead of four) or to begin working immediately without a real degree and thus for lower wages.

The Sarkozy-Fillon policies (and those of preceding governments) will result in a worsening education for the great majority of young people. Oversized classes and fewer resources will advance the inequalities already existing in education. Only a small elite will receive good quality teaching. This is what the government wants, a system that churns out a maximum of people with a minimum of education who can fill the vacancies for unskilled and super-exploited labour.

Simultaneously, a lot of other strikes have been developing. Workers in the private sector are struggling against factory closures or redundancy plans, with the strikes at Kleber, Miko and Arcelor-Mittal amongst the most well-known.

These redundancies are planned in multinationals that have made billions of profits in 2007. In the last couple of months there have also been strikes to demand more wages. On 1 February, 80% of workers in shops and supermarkets went on strike. In Carrefour, the big supermarket chain, workers won a victory when management was obliged to offer full-time contracts to all workers who asked for one (40% of the check-out staff work part-time on demand of the company, working 30 hours a week instead of 35 which means they receive €200 a month less).

But these strikes and struggles get almost no support from the trade union leadership. The school students who are fighting against the redundancies of their teachers, or against the end of the BEP, were abandoned. Just like the private-sector workers when faced with redundancies or in their struggle for better wages, and those in the public sector against workplace closures. Every weekday we see a different individual strike while it is the government’s whole policy which has to be fought. The school students will not be able to win without the workers. We need to construct a real strike which brings together the youth with workers from private and public sectors against the policies of Sarkozy and the attacks from the employers. We have to demand this of the trade unions while being prepared to participate in struggles without waiting and look to spread them to other sectors.

Sarkozy’s electoral defeat

WITH ABOUT 47% of the vote in the March local elections for the ‘left’ against 41% for the right, this was a real defeat for the right. The defeat was a protest against the policies of the government even if local elements accentuated or diminished that tendency. People who believed the electoral promises of Sarkozy have been enraged to discover that it was all a lie, and have inflicted severe damage on the Fillon-Sarkozy tandem. This government has not got real support in society and has accumulated against it enormous social rage.

There has been a disintegration of the electoral base which elected Sarkozy. This base is very volatile, as we stated last year. The train drivers’ strikes last autumn were the first blow against the government and proved that it was possible to resist.

The right wing lost the election in the majority of the big cities. It held on to Bordeaux, Le Havre, Marseille and Nice. It lost control over Toulouse, Strasbourg, Amiens, Rouen, Caen and many other cities. In most cases, Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) suffered from numerous divisions locally. This also shows that Sarkozy is not able to manage things. As long as he was useful to win elections he was on centre stage but now he has become a liability. Sarkozy had announced that the elections would be a national test and he was counting on leading the campaign himself. But in the end he completely disappeared during the last weeks of campaigning. The majority of UMP candidates hid references to the UMP from their election material and asked Sarkozy not to intervene, while pretending that what was at stake were purely local issues.

No real opposition

THE ESTABLISHMENT ‘LEFT’ succeeded in obtaining an important victory. The PS had no problem holding on to cities like Paris or Lyon. It also succeeded in reconquering its position in many of the suburbs around the big cities, as well as in the smaller cities. However, it was only in a limited number (for example Lille and Rouen) that the PS beat the right by a large margin. In general, victories for the PS were with a margin of a few hundred votes. The vote for the PS and its allies was more a tactical vote to defeat Sarkozy than one expressing support for PS policies. Moreover, the level of abstention stayed very high (the highest since 1959), especially in working-class districts.

Nobody is taken in by the comical games the PS leaders engage in. A recent opinion poll, published by Valeurs Actuelles, showed a new fall in the popularity of Sarkozy. Only 30% of those polled are happy with his policies. Yet only 24% think that the PS would be better, and 51% think that the PS would deliver the same policies.

We understand why: the PS does not question capitalism, and does not defend the workers. On the issue of falling purchasing power, PS leader, François Hollande, does not propose any general measures to increase wages, he only suggests helping the minimum wage to catch up with inflation. The PS does not propose to take on the main cause of falling purchasing power: the capitalist offensive to raise profits and lower wages.

Hollande does not question the $30 billion of help to industry, he only wants to redefine some of the conditions for its allocation. The PS was in favour of the attack on the train drivers’ pensions, as it is ready to accept that people will need to work 41 years before they can retire on a full pension. The central theme in the debates in the PS is how to transform the party into a US-style Democratic Party, openly in favour of capitalism.

Sarkozy has no reason to be worried: the PS will play at opposition but nothing more. And the trade union leaders who could call for major days of strikes in defence of wages, against redundancies and workplace shut downs, against privatisation and pension fund attacks, do not do it. It is down to the workers who are at present involved in struggle, and the school students, to defend this perspective. It is the only means to construct a movement which can unify the workers and the youth which can stop Sarkozy.

It is the ‘abstention party’ which once more was the principal winner in the working-class districts. This shows the urgency and necessity of a new workers’ party that can provide a true expression to those who have had enough of these policies and this system.

The Parti Communiste Français (PCF) participated in a few places on the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) list. In the majority of cases, however, the PCF made its alliance with the PS – almost everywhere in the second round, except where the PS threatened to take a mayor or a departement over from the PCF. The results for the PCF are a slight retreat (-1% according to the PCF’s National Committee, quoted in Le Monde). The PCF has got the majority in an additional five towns of over 9,000 inhabitants than in 2001 (91 against 86). But if you look more widely, it also lost the majority in ten towns of over 3,500 inhabitants (l80 against 190 previously). It has equally lost ten departement councillors. It retook Dieppe but lost Calais, Aubervilliers, Montreuil and the mayor of the 8th district of Marseille. It retook the general council of Allier but lost that of Seine Saint-Denis, historically controlled by the PCF. In some places the PCF has re-knotted the tie with its workers’ electorate but, in general, it has not been able to distinguish itself from the PS in the majority of places. This is unsurprising as the PCF did not criticise PS policies.

The PCF was invisible when it presented itself behind the PS. The repeated alliances with the PS and the acceptance of the PS programme have alienated the working-class and popular electorate. In numerous places the PS accepted an alliance with the centre forces of Modem (liberal democrats) without any criticism from the PCF. That is without talking about the places where the PCF is in the majority and accepts the privatisation of local services. The PS won in a number of big cities by courting the middle-class vote. The latter is more reluctant to vote for the ‘left’ with a PCF candidate heading the list.

The anti-capitalist lists

LUTTE OUVRIÈRE (LO) also stood, with 36 people elected after the first round. Fifteen of them were elected on LO lists. The other 21 were on lists of the ‘united left’, with the PS, PCF and Greens in the first round. This tactic is astonishing, to say the least.

The anti-democratic election legislation can oblige parties to participate on unity lists in the second round, because a party can only compete in the second round if it has polled more than 10% in the first round. If a clearly independent political position is maintained, it would be possible under certain circumstances to participate on such unity lists, and working-class people could understand this approach. But in the first round? Furthermore, in some cities, LO declared that its elected councillors would vote in favour of budgets drawn up by the PS majority. Will LO councillors follow these instructions or will they refuse to vote for budgets that mean more social cuts and the privatisation of public services?

The votes for the radical left, specifically for the LCR, were good. A layer of workers are determined to vote for candidates who struggle against this system. However, it is difficult to work out what the real political basis is of this vote as most LCR candidates stood on lists which were alliances with other forces. Indeed, the LCR’s best results came from such lists, the party not doing quite so well when it presented itself on its own. In a good deal of cities where the LCR list had councillors elected, the LCR list united local or national forces amongst whom many are not in favour of the construction of a new anti-capitalist party.

The lists presented or supported by the LCR had 70 people elected in the first round. The second round confirmed the good score and in some places LCR polled more, like in Clermont Ferrand. The scores of the LCR lists were between 2% and 15%. The programme on which these lists stood was variable from town to town. Some lists spoke about the need to launch a new workers’ party, others did not. The formation of committees for a new party before the elections had not happened except in a few places, such as Marseille and Toulouse. Even here they have not taken on real life. It is urgent that we make up for that delay.

The discussions in the ‘initiating committees for a new anti-capitalist party’ continue. In certain places there is a little progress. Public meetings have taken place and, sometimes, the committees have been able to organise regular work. The problem is in knowing which direction the debate is developing in. The committees can of themselves only develop to a certain stage; the regroupment of a number of activists open to discuss different subjects and raise certain demands of an anti-capitalist programme.

To be built a party needs a more dynamic beginning, one that does not look to force the rhythm but is not too slow either. The dispersal of the movement in little local committees without any regional or national structure means that the LCR can control things nationally and decide when national meetings take place. Many of the participants on a local level would be in favour of a more structured approach. Nothing has been foreseen to go down that route in the next few months. This is urgent. The attacks of Sarkozy will continue and speed up while the struggles which are taking place need an instrument to discuss tactics and perspectives.

The new party must build itself amongst the workers, including the youth, unemployed, pensioners, etc, with a programme in defence of workers’ rights and conditions, and against specific oppression (sexism, racism, etc). That is its central objective. It will be built only when it is an instrument in the struggle of the workers and, at the same time, can be a space to discuss the only real alternative to capitalism, ie socialism.

In this context a united struggle is necessary against the policies of Sarkozy. With the threat of an economic crisis, it is necessary to accelerate this process, to construct real activist committees for a new party of struggle against Sarkozy and against capitalism.


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