France: militant protest forces government back down

Frederick Engels once commented that “the most repulsive thing here [England] is the bourgeois ‘respectability’, which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. I am not at all sure, for instance, that John Burns is not secretly prouder of his popularity with Cardinal Manning, the Lord Mayor and the bourgeoisie in general than of his popularity with his own class. Even Tom Mann, whom I regard as the best of the lot, is fond of mentioning that he will be lunching with the Lord Mayor. If one compares this with the French, one realises, what a revolution is good for, after all.” (Letter to Sorge, December 7, 1889)

In the light of the recent victory of the French workers and students against the disgusting First Employment Contract (Contrat Premiere Embauche, or CPE), these profound words ring true nearly 120 years after they were written.

The French working class has long had a reputation for militancy – a reputation which has earned it a number of important concessions from the French bourgeoisie over the years. Standards in education and health are higher in France than in the majority of capitalist countries, as are living standards in general (for example, the World Health Organization in 2004 rated France’s healthcare system the best among WHO members). This is not result of any extraordinary benevolence on the part of the French ruling class; rather it is the result of the willingness of the French workers to stand up for what they consider to be their rights: good jobs, good education, good healthcare. As Engels alludes to in the passage above, this willingness to get out in streets, strike, protest – even violently, where necessary – is a result of France’s revolutionary history: the French republic was not won through gentlemanly agreement but through the masses in the streets and through the guillotine. The French workers also have on their record the Paris Commune – the first ever workers’ revolution (albeit relatively short-lived).

Around the world workers’ rights are under attack

The French workers may be militant, but even they are not able to defy the very nature of reforms: small, temporary victories which mitigate the conditions of the working class (or sections of it) but which can be taken away at any time should the ruling class deem it necessary.

The reader will be aware that imperialism is heading towards economic crisis on an international scale. Everywhere the belts are starting to tighten. The first to feel this tightening of belts are the working class and the oppressed masses. In order to mitigate crises, the bourgeoisie turns first to the method of intensifying exploitation – driving every last bead of sweat and drop of blood out of the worker in order to appropriate maximum surplus value. Since the masses of the third world are permanently stretched to the point of exhaustion by capital, it tends to be the relatively better-off working class in the imperialist countries that feels the pinch of the crisis hardest, as the things that it has come to take for granted in more prosperous times (house, car, job, education, healthcare, food, etc) start to slip away. This process is currently under way in all imperialist countries, without exception. Real wages (that is, wages in proportion to the cost of living) are going down, unemployment and disability benefits are being cut, pensions are being cut, job security is being thrown out of the window, industries are being privatised, social housing is being sold off, state education is collapsing and healthcare systems are under attack.

Hard as it is for the French workers to accept, this process is taking place in France as well as everywhere else. As we reported in our November/December 2005 issue, “when France voted ‘no’ earlier this year in the referendum on the European Constitution, this was already a sign of widespread dissatisfaction among France’s working class as the French bourgeois government seeks ways of helping to maximise the profits of the French bourgeoisie by cutting benefits to which French workers have become accustomed – a phenomenon common to all capitalist countries as capitalism faces a generalised crisis of overproduction, which is exacerbated in the old capitalist (imperialist) countries by the export of capital and their difficulties in competing against the fast-expanding low-wage economies of Asia.”

Fuel for the fire

In recent years there has been a significant increase in anti-working class employment legislation in France, alongside a startling increase in unemployment and decrease in job security. BBC News Online of 31 March reported that “joblessness is endemic among the 15-24 age-group in France. About 23% are registered as unemployed – an extremely high figure by international standards. Many more youths are not even looking for work. Not only does France create few entry-level jobs – but most are being offered on a casual basis.”

Allegedly in a bid to reduce youth unemployment, the French government introduced the First Employment Contract (CPE) into law on 2 April this year, as part of a broader bill on ‘equal opportunities’. Clearly aimed at liberalising the labour market and getting rid of restrictions on exploitation, the CPE gave employers the power to immediately terminate the contracts of young employees (those aged under 26 at the time of commencement of the contract) within the first two years of their employment without having to so much as offer an explanation.

Workers and students fight back

Huge protests were staged against this law in the run up to, and in the immediate aftermath of, its introduction. These protests began with university students, and quickly extended to unionised workers, and then to many of the unemployed and disaffected young people from the banlieues, whose voice asserted itself so forcefully last year. At one point, three million people were demonstrating in the streets of France, even blockading hundreds of universities and schools. The significance of the radical students and school pupils linking up not just with the unionised workers but also with the marginalised communities from the banlieues must not be underestimated.

As the protests continued, President Chirac made certain minor concessions, reducing the trial period to one year and obliging employers to state their reason for any dismissal; however, the protestors would not be swayed. After weeks of protesting, the government, clearly terrified that the protests would spread was forced to concede defeat and withdraw the law.

This was a great success for the French workers. The only (but considerable) sad element is the almost complete lack of effective working class leadership in France; the working class movement is on the rise, but without serious, proven communist leadership (about which the French Communist Party knows precisely nothing) this movement simply cannot be channelled towards a proletarian revolutionary movement. Such is the state we have been left in after decades of revisionist domination in working class politics. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that such experiences will help to develop a communist leadership, which in turn will play its part in building a revolutionary movement.

British workers should take a leaf out of the book of their French counterparts

Such is the pervasiveness of class collaborationist cronyism in the British trade union movement that protests and strikes on the level of those recently seen in France seem almost beyond reach. As Anne Perkins, writing in The Guardian of 22 April, commented: “The TUC believes the future has to be through partnership not conflict”. The extraordinarily draconian anti-trade union laws brought in under Thatcher and maintained and extended under Blair have barely caused a stir in the trade union leadership. Why hasn’t there been a concerted campaign of disobedience with these anti-working class laws? Why haven’t the trade unions called out their members on strike to put a stop to the war in Iraq? It’s easy enough to issue statements, but the trade union leadership flatly refuses to use the power of the unions to achieve political results in the interests of the working class.

We must take inspiration from our brothers and sisters across the channel and learn to use the power we have as a class; we must take action to get rid of those trade union leaders (the vast majority) whose role is to mummify the unions and engage in endless self-seeking compromises with capitalism; and we must, for once and for all, break the suffocating link between the trade unions and the Labour Party.