France: Deep malaise marks ‘la rentrée’

A fighting, working class left remains to be built

As in other Southern European countries, the return to work after the Summer holidays in France is often seen as a time when the struggle of workers and students will be renewed, even taken up a level from the previous year. Not in 2013! This year’s ’rentrée’ has been characterised by a deep malaise.

With the exception of the National Front, now with a local bye-election victory in Brignoles (South-East) under its belt, none of the main political parties is confident of its future. The trade union leaders know there are battles to be fought but have no policy for entering them, let alone winning them. They have no stomach for a fight and no alternative policy to the ’reforms’ being continued by a ’Socialist’ president – Francois Hollande – after a year in office. A call for action against the harsh changes drawn up on retirement conditions – was called by the union tops deliberately early (10 September) and with little or no preparation. The low turn-out on demonstrations then enabled them to avoid getting into a higher gear. The CGT trade union federation announced a follow-up week of action starting on 7 October with not even a suggestion of what action to take!

There is no lack of burning issues in relation to inflation, public spending cuts and factory closures. The government has given back to the bosses in tax concessions more than what they have to contribute to the new retirement scheme. So much so that the paper ’Liberation’ carried the headline "A painless reform for the bosses”. In fact, they said, “It could turn out to be very good for businesses”. This was the conclusion of the bosses’ organisation, MEDEF’s, Summer School held in Jouy-en-Josas at the end of August! They look confidently to a ’Socialist’ government to make the workers pay for the deep recession that has hit the economy. Gone into oblivion are the scare stories about 75% taxation of big fortunes, gone is the talk of nationalisation for companies like Petroplus and Arcelor Mittal.

Reprieve for whom?

As September started, the financial press in France was delighting in a ’reprieve’ for the economy…registering a growth of 0.5% at the most! Another piece of ’good’ news was a lower monthly figure for unemployment. In fact, only a new way of calculating unemployment resulted in a lower figure! It remains at over 10% and for young people between 15 and 24, more than 25% are registered at unemployment offices.

Nearly three million children in France are living in poverty and yet the ’Socialist’ government is launching a new attack on allowances for families with children at school. Budget cuts of €14billion are on the agenda for 2014. In the countryside poverty is palpable; uprooted vines lie in piles on abandoned vineyards, villages are deserted as young people leave in search of an income. Anger simmers beneath the surface and there are numerous, scattered strikes and struggles. At present, no left party or trade union is taking up a serious fight against the bosses or the government. Yet the government’s attacks on workers are still moderate compared with other countries; the fear of provoking a generalised confrontation between the classes is ever present in France.

The ’Socialists’, in spite of their crippling unpopularity, (and severe embarrassment over Syria), may still be the best option for the capitalist class to push through their ’reforms’. None of the other parties has returned to the political fray with confidence, with the exception of the National Front (FN), which is now scoring higher than both the SP and the UMP in opinion polls. As the article below explains, the parties of the right are in disarray. There has been recent talk of Sarkozy making a come-back after his heavy defeat in 2012, a gathering of the ’Friends of Sarkozy’ just before the ’rentree’, was noticebale for the absence of a number of previous loyalists and ex-ministers in Sarkozy’s government. Would-be leaders in the centre – notably Borloo of the the UDI and Bayrou of MoDem – are having difficulty resolving differences to form a real alternative to the UMP.

As L’ Egalite – the paper of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) – explains, the Front de Gauche (Left Front) is under severe pressure. As local and European elections approach in the spring of next year, the Left Party and the Communist Party are divided on important issues.

“So, the Left Party and the Communist Party have made their return to work disunited within in the Left Front, clashing over tactics for the municipal elections instead of devoting their energy and their discussions to how to fight the measures of the government and the bosses’ attacks.” Their declared aim is to push the Socialist Party back to the left. But “if the latter could go back, it would only be under pressure from mass mobilisations, not under the impact of an election result”.

L’Egalite continues (page 6): “ It is certain that the workers and youth will continue to struggle. And once again, the question will be posed that, in order to be the most effective and to satisfy their demands it will be necessary to organise politically as well as to take action in the streets. Initiatives will pose even more sharply the need for organisation and for building a determined opposition against capitalism.”

Leila Messaoudi (National Secretariat of Gauche Révolutionnaire) outlines the challenges that the current situation presents:

In September, the cost of food and of electricity went up by 11%. So did the level of unemployment. The return from the Summer holiday is particularly hard this year for workers. New job cuts have been announced in every sector of the economy – Air France, Michelin, Danfoss, Technibel…

The Hollande-Ayrault government is also returning to work. Its retirement law reform, announced in the Summer, is being put to parliament and budget cuts have been announced that amount to €15bn. This is a first that even the last president, Sarkozy, did not do in order to reduce the public deficit. The government is pursuing a policy of getting public spending onto a healthy footing which means once again numerous cuts in the public spending budget, particularly for the poor, such as legal aid and the running down of public services.

The retirement ’reform’ that is presented as a ’mini-reform’ is in fact a severe blow for present wage-earners and pensioners. It means a rise in contributions, taxation on what we pay into the scheme and an increase in the age at which you can leave work with the full pension – probably to 67 for those born after 1973 who have jobs.

The government’s approach gives the impression of having no choice but to make the majority of the population pay. But the facts suggest otherwise: the finance minister, Moscovici , has announced a lightening of the tax burden – compensation to the bosses in exchange for a tiny increase in their contributions, which they do not pay from their own pockets anyway. And this after the presents made to them just a few months ago of tax credits to the tune of €20 bn. With the National Inter-professionnal Agreement (ANI) last Spring, Hollande’s government did not hesitate to open the way for easier redundancies; it allows for lower wages with the aim of helping the bosses and avoiding closures. The effects on conditions at work are now very heavy. A majority of the population is not happy with this situation and is opposed to this government’s policies. The level of Hollande’s popularity has fallen to to 23% – near to the record low of Mitterrand in 1991 – (but this was after ten years in office and great dissappointment with his retreat from what were genuine reforms).

And if there was a united movement of opposition?

In the face of a lowering of conditions at work and of living standards, there is action being taken by workers affected; sporadic and sometimes longer action is taken, but separate from each other. Walk-outs took place in the week of 10 September in Peugeot PSA factories, strikes in post offices, hospital workers in Paris and firefighters here and there. On 10 September itself, some sections called for demonstrations as well as strike action over jobs, wages and pension rights. The day of action had been announced from the end of June, as was the case in 2010, when there had already been a successful mobilisation in the Spring against Fillon and Sarkozy.

The 10 September, 2013, brought out several hundred thousand workers and pensioners – a significant section who wanted to demonstrate their opposition to the government and that they were not going to be duped by its tactiocs. This latest day of action – close to the return to work after the holidays and under a PS government – was not going to see a big-turn-out on the streets or on strike. It would have been necessary to organise much more everywhere – against redundancies, low wages and the attack on retirement. It would also have been much better to call for a real strike and not just vaguely for a mobilisation. All of this would certainly have made the day worth it for those who were out and to prepare for the necessary follow-up.

Many people will be wondering what use it is to be on strike, to lose a day, if you get the imprression that it changes nothing. And it is a valid question. To be on strike, in view of the low wages and precarious jobs, must serve some purpose, either in gaining something in the workplace or in a broader sense. A strike was needed that demonstrated fully the discontent and anger, by stopping the economy, a strike that is thoroughly prepared to make them step back and not just to « negotiate » a few points. It is in this way that dates for mobilisation should be prepared in the future. It is not acceptable to let this new attack go ahead without fighting. A genuine one day strike is needed to confront the government and the plans of the big bosses to throw people out of work.

This government has accepted the role of dealing with the crisis for the capitalists and making us pay. The right is in disarray and having difficulty recovering from the knock-out inflicted on Sarkozy through the ballot box by the majority of workers and young people. In fact, at bottom, the UMP has difficulties because, apart from its style of government, very little separates it from the policy of the Socialist Party-Green government.

The government of Hollande and prime minister, Ayrault, is not carrying out policies fundamentally different from Sarkozy. Hollande is doing nothing decisive to show even the slightest opposition to big business. This is demonstrated by the example of Arcelor Florange. He refused to nationalise it and is now proposing a research centre on the site, not providing any future for the workers thrown off the site or those who depended on it.

In this context, the National Front presents itself as the only party in opposition to the PS and UMP The FN has had this approach for 40 years but what is different today, after the left governments under Mitterand, Jospin and then Hollande, is that the ’left’ in government is not pretending its policies are pro-worker. This open anti-worker politics of the left is accompanied by a justification that is racist; that is the case with Valls as it was for Chevénement. (At least Chevènement did not use racist terms such as Valls has been using about the Roma). The PS no longer says the problems are the fault of the big bosses and racist language blaming immigrants suits them.

This absence of a position against capitalism and against racism benefits the FN. It can falsely present itself as a party of opposition while it is against workers – for retirement at 67, for example – and fundamentally for capitalism. It is in this way that it can continue to profit from this political vacuum particularly at the time of the next elections.

An opposition of the left is needed against the bosses and the government!

Those who are fighting the closure of their workplace or against a PSE ("Plan to Save Employement or Jobs") or fighting for better wages have to be able to take up the struggle immediately and cannot count on this government to defend them. Against redundancy plans, against the destruction of retirement rights, against the deterioration of our living conditions, our working conditions and our education rights. In the face of racism and islamaphobia, workers, young people and pensioners must be able to make their voices heard. We need a real opposition of the left against the government and the bosses which draws together all those who want to struggle – in the unions, in the workplaces and among the youth.

Who is fighting for these interests at the moment, those of the majority of the population against the interests of the capitalists? To the left of the PS there are several political forces. Since 2012, the candidacy of Mélenchon for the Left Front, a bit like that of Besancenot in 2007, was widely supported and a whole section of the population still looks on him supportively. Today, if the Left Front wanted to put up real opposition to current policies, it should take advantage of its position and appeal to all those who want to oppose the government to fight and make a broad call for organising and building the struggles.

As they returned from the Summer break, the Left Party and the Communist Party were not united within the Left Front about the municipal elections. Their disagreement is over tactics: how to put the most pressure on the PS in the first round? And the question of deputy mayors and councillors also comes into it. For the PCF it is whether to be allied with the PS from the beginning or put pressure on from outside. The Left Party, is hoping to change the policy of the Socialist Party in a leftward direction without adopting an electoral alliance…at least until the second round of elections. Neither of these approaches shows a way out for fighting the attacks of the bosses and the government.

Among the population, a large number of people reject this society of precarious jobs, of poverty, which leaves more than 25% of its young people unemployed and also dictates how to dress, who to love, what to think, while it is not even capable of providing the basic necessities of subsistence: work and shelter. The causes of all this are exploitation, the rule of profit, it is in the foundations of the capitalist system. The struggle for a different society – a socialist society – is necessary.

  • No to redundancy plans

  • No to the new retirement law proposals

  • For a strike of all sectors at the same time – a complete strike that shows our strength

  • For an opposition of the left against the bosses and the government

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