France: Workers not defeated

But real political opposition against Sarkozy urgently needed

The political situation in France is marked by an offensive of the government and the bosses against workers and youth; but at the same time there is also a certain resistance to Sarkozy’s violent neoliberal agenda. Sarkozy came to power as a representative of the highest sections of the ruling class, while using populist phrases to attract workers’ votes such as “I will be the president of purchasing power”. He talked about workers’ problems, while the so-called left – the Parti Socialiste (PS) which has socialism only in its name – is going further to the right, saying that there is no alternative to the market economy. If Sarkozy has seemed strong, it is mainly due to the lack of a real political opposition.

A combat government against workers and youth

Very quickly it appeared to workers that Sarkozy’s policy is all about smashing all the social gains from the past – social security, free public services, pensions, labour laws, working hours – with the aim of protecting the profits of the biggest French multinationals. And this while he gave himself a 170% pay rise and spends his holidays with the richest bosses, like Lagardère or Bolloré.

With a growth rate of just 1.7% in 2007 and a chronic trade deficit, the French economy is losing ground on the world market. Workers’ struggles since the 1980s have prevented the bosses and the bourgeoisie from taking back the social gains won after World War Two. Their agenda is made up of privatisations of public services, more flexibility of the labour market, longer working hours and no collective protection for workers against the bosses. To achieve that, the ruling class needed a combat government; Sarkozy is the man for the job.

Sarkozy’s strength lies in the weakness of the opposition

Since he was elected last May, the only opposition to Sarkozy has been that of workers. The former workers’ parties seem paralysed. When the latest attack against pensions was made last autumn, the PS argued that the government’s method was too violent, but that there is a need to “reform” pensions. It means that if they had been in power they would also have attacked workers’ pensions, but more ‘nicely’!

They have had the same attitude to all the attacks the government has made so far. They even went further, with some of their members preferring to directly participate in Sarkozy’s right wing government or in ministers’ commissions, to write the attacks themselves! The last two reports – one on labour and economic competitiveness and one on education – were supervised by PS leaders, Attali and Rocard. Those reports are a bunch of attacks against workers and youth, inspired by the EU Agenda 2010 and the OECD directives. Sarkozy is going fast and the PS is running after him, at the same time hoping that they will be able to use the anger these policies create among workers to their own advantage.

As far as the French Communist Party (PCF) is concerned, it is almost invisible. It has been concentrating on its internal divisions, after its very bad election results in the presidential and parliamentary elections. For the municipal elections on 9 March they are in a weak position and have had to negotiate with the PS to be able to keep their position in a few big cities and thus maintain the party’s apparatus. In the last struggles and strikes, they lagged behind the PS like its poodle, never proposing anything the PS would not accept.

Workers are not defeated

In October and November 2007, a wave of strikes developed against the government’s attacks on pensions and universities. Despite the fact that the right wing union leaders spend most of their time trying to avoid a movement (they’ve been negotiating the attacks since the day after Sarkozy’s election), they were forced to call for strikes in the railway industry because of the pressure from workers and rank and file members of the unions. At its peak this strike gathered more workers than in the last generalised strike of 1995, which precipitated the fall of the right wing Juppé government. On October 18th there were 73.5% rail workers on strike, compared to 67% at the peak of the strike in 1995. Union leaders were still in the minister’s office on the day the strike was called for. They kept negotiating while workers were striving to strengthen and extend the strike to other sectors. The potential for extension was shown on the November 20th day of action when 700,000 public sector workers demonstrated all over the country.

But with the attitude of the union leaderships and the lack of a workers’ party to organise workers and defend a fighting perspective against Sarkozy, it has not been possible to generalise the strike to the private sector. Even though the autumn attack on pensions has been implemented, it is not considered as a defeat for the working class, as Sarkozy expected. The unions are still under the pressure of workers and the government is still wary of French workers’ ability to resist. Strikes for pay rises and against mass redundancies in the private sector, though they are isolated, are developing. Last week 80% of supermarkets were disrupted by strikes, which is the first time this has ever happened.

While keeping up a rapid pace, Sarkozy has to be careful and is making some announcements aimed at gaining popularity amongst the poorer part of the electorate. He has announced a rise for low-income pensioners by June 2008. A plan for the suburbs, which was one of his war-horses and will be seen as a test, has also just been announced. Far from a ‘break’, it is continuing the policy he implemented when he was Minister of the Interior. The main proposals are: 4,000 extra police, the building of 15 “second chance” military schools, and €500 million for the development of transport (taken from the budget agreed at the Grenelle conference on the environment). There is little chance that this plan will bring more support for the government.

The pace of attacks, the global economic uncertainties, price rises, and Sarkozy’s arrogant living standards make anger boil under the surface and it could explode in the next period after the election. This has been shown in a recent opinion poll: Sarkozy has fallen by 13 points to 46% positive opinion about his policies. The municipal elections, to which he wanted to give a more national and political meaning – involving himself in the campaign – are now turning in favour of the PS. They may be a severe defeat for the right, as workers could use a PS vote to express their anger at the government’s policies.

Against Sarkozy and the bosses a new workers’ party is needed and urgent

On the left, Olivier Besancenot, an LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) spokesman and its candidate in the last presidential election, is now the 4th placed political personality (before the PS national secretary, François Hollande) and 30% wish he played ‘a more important role’. The 4.1% votes he won in the presidential election show the potential for the launching of a new workers’ party. Last August the LCR issued a call for a new anti-capitalist party. At their national congress in January 2008, the party decided to begin a “constituting process” and create local “initiative committees” which should join at a national level in June to prepare for a founding conference by the end of 2008. In between, next autumn, the LCR is planning a national conference of its members to dissolve its organisation into the new party.

Gauche Révolutionnaire (GR), the French section of the CWI, has welcomed this appeal for a new party since last August. Several national discussions between the LCR’s leadership and ours have taken place. On a local level, our members participate in public meetings (sometimes co-organised) and will concretely get involved in the committees. Such committees, if turned towards workers and linked to their struggles and if they become a space to discuss politics and how to defeat Sarkozy, could develop not simply towards a new “anti-capitalist” party but a new, even if small, political organisation for workers and youth.

However, the process is very slow to start, as it has started in an electoral period. We have argued since September that to launch a fighting party means having a campaign based on workers’ struggles as far as possible. In France this has been possible, and opportunities have unfortunately been lost in the past, but more opportunities will come, and a new party must be achieved out of them. We have also argued that to launch a party which aims to rebuild the workers’ movement means integrating new fresh layers right from the start of the campaign, allowing them to discuss, decide and take responsibilities in the process.

A danger would be to look at the March municipal election as a first test for the LCR proposal. It is likely that many workers will use a vote for the official left to decisively defeat leaders of Sarkozy’s party or well known right wing politicians; it is certainly the case for Strasbourg, Lyon, Rouen… In Bordeaux, the mayor, Juppé, has suppressed all reference to the UMP (even the logo!), on its election placards.

Further strikes and struggles could follow a defeat of the UMP quite quickly. It will be, at that moment, a favourable period to really launch the campaign for the new party. Local appeals, discussions on tactics in struggles and in the unions, and production of material by the rank and file members of the campaign should be on the agenda. This can then be used in workplaces, unions, communities, demonstrations and strikes, linking the fight against Sarkozy to the building of a new workers’ party.

For us, such discussions will also be the best way to develop a socialist programme and ideas in order to give a real perspective and meaning to “anti-capitalism”.

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