France: French workers say ‘NON’ to the European constitution and the establishment

"We’re voting no. It is a constitution for the bourgeoisie, for multinationals, for bosses. It is only about the economy, competition, profits, the market and capitalism. We are against all that; we are communists. There isn’t any progress for workers. Most workers want to say "merde", to stick two fingers up at them. We are fed up with saying yes to politicians".

Thomas Meurnier, a 32 year old history teacher and sympathiser of the French Communist Party (quoted in the newspaper ‘the Guardian’, Saturday 28 May 2005)

France voted on the European constitution on Monday 30 May and, although a win for the no camp was predicted, the result came as a shock to the French and European establishment. 42 million people where eligible to vote and, on a turnout of 70 per cent, a massive 55 per cent voted for the "no", against 45 per cent for the "yes". Commentators are struggling to explain why such a clear majority of the French people decided to repudiate all mainstream parties, ignoring the scaremongering by the media and senior politicians. The French president Jacques Chirac, and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, tried every trick in the book to cajole the electorate into voting yes. Chirac declared that France would only be able to defend its interests in Europe if it voted yes, the alternative being that it would "cease to exist politically, at least for a while". Raffarin warned of the, "spectre of chaos descending on France" and predicted, "long months of economic crisis" following a defeat and added, "I know Americans, Chinese and Indians who would not be angry to see a Europe – broken down by the side of the road".

Class politics

Now, the morning after, media outlets in Britain try to portray the vote against the constitution as a victory for French nationalism or even as a victory for the extreme-right and fascist Front National and its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

However, while those who voted for the Front National in the last elections are amongst those who against the constitution it is deceitful to declare that this ‘no vote’ is a victory for nationalism and the extreme right.

The campaign against the European Union, and its defenders of the centre left and centre right, in France has been marked by the political expression of class division in French society. At the beginning of 2005, the opinion polls showed 65 per cent support for the treaty. But during February support for the Yes camp began to slide after a series of mobilisations and strikes against the government’s plans to abolish the 35-hour week. When the CGT, the second biggest trade union confederation, voted in its leading body, and against the wishes of its own leaders, to appeal for a no vote to the constitution it lifted the debate about the European constitution to another level. It made it into a social issue, a political battle against neo-liberal policies, central to the mobilisation of the working class against the Raffarin government. It electrified the activists, polarised the debate and united private and public sector workers; pensioners and youth; unemployed and part-time workers. On the 5 February more than 500,000 public and private sector workers took part in demonstrations to defend the 35-hour week, many of them carrying placards and banner against the European constitution. On Thursday 10 March more than one million people took to the streets of France demanding better wages and battling against a longer working week. This impressive show of working class force, the fifth national day of action since the beginning of 2005, was the most important mobilisation since the battles against pension reform in the spring of 2003. At the same time France was struck by an important mobilisation of school students against education reform with school student strikes, occupations of schools and a day of action in which 160.000 school students participated in 150 demonstrations across France.

This rise in class consciousness, brought about through the struggles of the working class, found its expression in the vote against the European constitution. The majority of workers who earn less than 3,000 euro a month voted against the constitution, of those who earn less than 1,500 euros a month, 66 per cent voted against. The French daily Le Monde (30/05/05) writes that 79 per cent of blue collar workers voted against the European constitution (up by 18 points since the referendum on the Maastricht treaty in 1992) and amongst white collar workers opposition reached 67 per cent. For the establishment, a worrying sign of the deep social crisis is that, for the first time, a majority (53 per cent) of middle class professionals voted against the European Union as it stands accused that it does not do enough to protect their wages in a globalised world.

A bosses’ government and President

The Raffarin Government and the Chirac Presidency came to power with big majorities as a result of the presidential elections of 21 Aril 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the far right, beat the social democrat and then Prime Minister Jospin to third place. Chirac received less than 20 per cent of the vote in that first round of the presidential elections. Two weeks later, Chirac was re-elected as President with 82 per cent because the mass mobilisation against Le Pen, the candidate of the far right, was channelled into the campaign to vote for Chirac. Jospin resigned and the centre right took control of parliament and a new government. The three years that followed saw an offensive of the French bourgeoisie against public services, social security and the working class and poor. Chirac and Raffarin had gained political capital and despite all the talk of representing the whole of France they used it to attack the working class. The employers’ federation Medef, under the leadership of Baron Ernest-Antoine Seilière, saw things move in their direction. Pension reform in 2003, privatisation or part-privatisation of public services including La Poste, EDF-GDF (electricity and gas company) and a tightening of public spending. According to the CGT public sector wages have fallen in real term by 5 to 6 per cent in the last three years. Ernest-Antoine Seillière, who called himself "a killer" when he took over at the helm of Medef in 1997, dismissed the Prime Minister as "poor Mr Raffarin" for yielding to the power of the trade unions. Yet shareholders have never had it so good as French companies published their profits for 2004. Total, the oil company, published profits that were up by 24 per cent, to 9.04 billion euro. L’Oreal, the cosmetic group, managed a rise in profits of 143 per cent, and made 3,351 billion euro. ‘Société Générale had a 25.4 per cent hike in profits and made a total of 3,125 billion.

The class polarisation in French society has reached such heights that it is right to point to elements of May ‘68 reappearing. The anger at the corrupt and wasteful elite, the frustration at capitalism’s inability to develop society and the rage at the enormous profits are certainly reminiscent of ’68. Public confidence in employers has never been so low, according to opinion polls. In 1985, 56 per cent of those surveyed said they trusted business leaders. But today only 45 per cent voice faith in the ‘patronat’ and, more worryingly for the establishment, only 21 per cent trust their own employers.

Political ramifications

"The centre right and the centre-left parties are like the twin towers. You know they will collapse but we do not know, yet, which one will go first". This quote is attributed by the press agency Reuters to a leading member of the centre-right UMP (Chirac’s party) and an indication of the political instability in French society aggravated by the campaign surrounding the European constitution. The political authority of centre right and centre left parties is in tatters. Raffarin, who will resign in the next few days, is leading the least popular government in the history of the fifth republic and President Chirac’s personal approval ratings have slipped to 40 per cent, the lowest in 8 years.

The weakest of the French twin towers is the social democratic Parti Socialiste (PS). The current leader François Hollande organised an internal referendum in the PS to determine the position the party would take in the referendum debate. The yes vote won with 59 per cent of the members in favour of the constitution. Under pressure from the working class mobilisation, and as an attempt to shore up the support for the PS in general and their own careers in particular, a second tier of PS leaders began to campaign for a No vote. Henri Emmanueli, ex leader of the PS, waded in with sharp interventions comparing PS members who support the European constitution with socialists who voted to grant full powers to the Vichy Nazi-collaborationist regime of Marshal Henri Pétain in 1940. Last week Henri Emmanuelli invited some workers from 25 workplaces hit by outsourcing to the French parliament. He attacked the pro-constitution camp in the PS: "they are making a historical mistake". "You have those who will vote with Thierry Desmaret – CEO of Total [French oil multinational] – and the CAC 40 [French equivalent of FTSE 100] and those who will vote together with the employees. Spot the difference and you will find the deception".

The sharpness of the debate in the Parti Socialiste does not necessarily reflect a left wing turn or growing popularity of the party among working class activists. Although the PS can gain electoraly and defeat the right-wing in the next elections, the PS is devoid of an alternative to the policies of the present centre right majority and the people have not forgotten the policies of the Jospin government which started the drive for more flexibility and privatisations and lead to the catastrophic election results in 2002.

It is telling that the leader of the no vote inside the PS is Laurent Fabius, the number two of the party and Mitterrand’s Prime Minister in 1983, who is from the right wing of the Socialist Party. Not so long ago he claimed to have been a Blairite before Blair but now he has reinvented himself in the hope of conquering his party’s candidacy for the presidential elections in 2007. It is however too soon to predict what will happen to the PS except to say that the PS is no longer a stable force and even a split cannot be ruled out.

A new workers’ party to fight for socialism.

The rejection of the European constitution in France is a rejection of ‘globalised’ capitalism. It is a rejection of neo-liberal reform, a rejection of privatisation and a dismissal of the free marketeers. The French working class, having fought against the neo-liberalism of the Raffarin government on the streets; having mobilised thousands in the public sector and, despite the lack of principled revolutionary leadership – having resisted the reforms of the ruling class, has now taken the struggle to a higher stage. Now it needs to build a mass political force on the basis of a fighting socialist program. Immediately the representatives of the working class in the no-campaign should launch an appeal to workers, trade unionists and activists in other European countries to come together, draw up a program of fighting demands – including nationalisation under workers control and management of failing industries – and act as organising centres to coordinate the struggle against neo-liberalism. The no-vote in France has given the working class the advantage – we should use it.

The French and European bourgeoisie are calling for a period of ‘reflection’. It is more than likely that the European constitution will be declared officially dead when the No vote wins in the Netherlands on Wednesday. While that would be a significant blow to the confidence of the European bourgeois and could unleash more working class struggles against neo-liberal measures in the countries of the European Union, it will not alter the fundamental direction of European capitalism.

Blair and Brown have already announced that when Britain takes over the presidency of the European Union they will push ahead with a neo-liberal agenda to make the rest of Europe as much a paradise for capitalists as Britain. Supporters of Mr Barosso, the president of the European Commission, have already announced that he will relaunch the "jobs and growth" initiative. Nelli Kroes, the EU Competition commissioner, has called for tighter rules on state aid and government subsidies. A few weeks from now the Frankenstein directive to liberalise the Europe’s service sector will come back to the fore.

Socialist must, while fighting to defend the rights of workers and partaking in all struggles for reforms in favour of the working class, point to the failure of capitalism to develop society. Socialists and workers must oppose all attempts to secure and legitimise the EU project of big business and the rich. The EU cannot be democratised, either by a constitution or by a constituent assembly. Only when the whole edifice of this neo-liberal union is broken down can we begin to build a society based on real solidarity between the workers and poor of Europe. This solidarity and unity will be based upon the voluntary cooperation between the peoples of Europe, upon the construction of a society in which the key sectors of the economy are taken out of the hands of the bankers, tycoons and majority shareholders. A society in which the economy is planned, managed and controlled by the working class, a socialist society.

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May 2005