Following the upsurge of action by French railworkers, students and others in October and November last year, a group of young AWL members and contacts visited the city for thee days in December. We joined up with two Workers’ Liberty members who are currently teaching in Paris as part of their university course. As well as learning about the ongoing struggle, we revived our ties with sections of the French revolutionary left. In the process we gained valuable ideas about the way forward for socialist activists in Britain.
By the standards of Britain, at least, the class struggle in France is at a high pitch. Following his election last year, conservative president Nicholas Sarkozy immediate went on an offensive against the unions, with anti-strike laws for “essential services” such as public transport and attacks on the pension rights of the relatively small number of workers who retain a “special regime”. (In 1993, private sector workers suffered a major cut in pensions provision; in 95 a huge wave of strikes prevented the extension of this attack to the public sector, but between then and the defeat of further strikes in 2003, the ruling class gradually got most of what it wanted, but a some workers were exempt.)
Both these struggles have pitched the railworkers, one of the best organised sections of the French working class, to the forefront. Several of the socialists we spoke to stressed that, in take on the railworkers, Sarkozy’s government has a dual purpose. The first is to open the door to a further series of generalised attacks on pensions and other social rights (one comrade used the analogy of the special regimes being a small plug preventing a mass of water rushing through); but the second is to confront and break one of the vanguards of the French working class.
In October and November, railworkers, gasworkers and others carried out major strikes and demonstrations, using General Assemblies (AGs) to organise the struggle. There have also been strikes by teachers, civil servants and other groups of workers under attack. The background is the events of 2006, in which mass student and school student occupations and AGs, backed by a rising tide of workers’ action, forced the withdrawal of the CPE, a deeply unpopular attack on young workers’ rights. This time too, the student movement has clashed with the government, though their struggle is a different one: opposition to the government University Reform Law (LRU), which moves French universities further down the road towards privatisation.
While very impressive indeed, both workers’ and students’ actions have been relatively weak compared to the CPE struggle. In the case of the students, only a minority of universities and a few schools have taken action, compared to the great majority of universities and a large and growing number of schools in 2006. Meanwhile, while there is mass support for the railworkers and others striking to defend the special regimes, the strikes have not burst the bounds of sectoralism and union legality in the way they did last time.
A bit of explanation about the French labour movement. In France, only a small minority of workers are in a union (currently 9%); workers only join if they want to be activists. The unions represent both members and non-members, and many non-members will take strike action. At the same time, there is more of a tradition of minority strikes, and of workers taking action and organising independently of their union leadership. In 1986, for instance, a three week rail strike took place (and won) completely independently of the rail section of the CGT (France’s main union federation). There are obvious disadvantages here, but it is undoubtedly easier for workers’ to take and escalate action even if their union bureaucracy is hostile.
Easier — but the pressure and inertia of the bureaucracy still plays a role. In the 2006 struggle, all the major unions, the national student union UNEF and the leadership of the Communist and Socialist Parties demanded — sluggishly, hypocritically, but nonetheless — the withdrawal of the CPE. That provided a framework in which workers and students felt confident to take action: an inadequate framework for going further to challenge and overthrow the government, but a framework. This time, in contrast, the CGT, UNEF and especially the Socialist Party range from unclear to downright treacherous and in league with Sarkozy. As a result, it has been more difficult for action to snowball.
By the time we visited France, the unions were in negotiations and action (both among workers and students) was fizzling out for the time being. While were we there, national rail and Paris Metro strikes took place, but because most workers regarded these as token actions manipulated by the union leaderships to support negotiations, and not as a serious blows against the employers and government, they were poorly supported. Meanwhile, most of the university occupations had dispersed for the holidays. One French comrade described it as the end of the first round and a draw - but one which could have been a victory if not for the actions of the union leaders.
We did visit one of the last occupied campuses in Paris, and participated in a thousand-strong student demontration. Of necessity, however, most of our activity involved discussions with individuals and groups of activists.
We met with a number of activists from the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, including youth from its left-wing Democratie Révolutionnaire tendency, two members of its political bureau (one from DR and one from its leading majority) and a small group railworkers (one of our delegation was a young AWL railworker, which meant a very fruitful discussion and plans for joint activity in the near future). We met members of Lutte Ouvrière’s minority tendency; a comrade from the rather strange but interesting group Le Militant, which unites a number of Trotskyist activists in the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the LCR and no other group; and a leading activist from the Reseau Education Sans Frontieres (Education Without Borders Network), a left-wing campaign against the deportation of children and families. Last but not least, we discussed quite a bit with the Yves Coleman, editor of the journal Ni Patrie Ni Frontières, and attended a number of public meetings.
There is no space to go into detail here, but a few observations:
1. There is a lot to be learnt from the French labour movement and left. One thing our trip was useful for was disabusing us of the notion that French workers, students etc simply bursting with fantastic, explosive militancy: this is far from being the case. Nor is the deadening weight of bureaucracy absent from their movement. Nonetheless, the French workers have never suffered a crushing defeat as the British working class did in the 1980s; and they have won some big victories (1986, 1995, 2006).
While it will, probably, take a long time to create a fully revolutionary labour movement, there is no reason why our movement in Britain cannot fight, win and begin the process of rebuilding now. There is nothing in the water which makes French workers more militant: and the lessons from their struggles can be applied here. Combativity against government and employers; drives to organise independently of and against the union bureaucracies; mass, democratic forms of organisation such as general assemblies — we should learn from all these and much more. Equally, French worker activists have things to be learnt from us. Building strong links between French and British workers is a crucial task for socialists in the period ahead.
2. One reason why the French working class has better maintained its fighting capacity is the presence of relatively large numbers of socialists in its ranks. Example: the LCR comrades who we spoke to said that there are something like 300 organised revolutionary socialist railworkers in France, including more than 100 in the LCR (LO has a strong base in many industrial sector, including on the rail). The equivalent figure in Britain cannot be more than 30! The same is true among many groups of workers and among students. The LCR’s youth section, JCR, has three hundred activists in universities and several dozen in schools, something which no group in Britain can hope to match.
This implantation is a material factor in the strength of the French working class. The French left has established it by a patient orientation to workplace and union struggles, and by a willingness to reach out beyond the existing structures of trade and student unions (in part, admittedly, because both, particularly student unions, are much weaker in France than in Britain). This helps to establish a virtuous circle: during the current struggle, the LCR’s profile has meant a steady stream of membership applications from railworkers.
3. The French left is in ferment. Since the 2002 presidential election, the LCR has grown rapidly, particularly among young people, probably doubling its size. In the 2007 election, its candidate, the now very famous Olivier Besancenot, received more than two million votes, many times more than the candidate of the Communist Party. The LCR now has a relationship with many thousands of activists who want to fight the bosses and their government, and recognition from many tens and hundreds of thousands more.
This is, obviously, very different from the situation in Britain: but that is because the French left has made different choices. The LCR (and, previously, LO) have grown not through Respect-style opportunism and stunts, but by a basic focus on ideas of class struggle and workers’ representation.
The LCR is currently making propaganda and attempting to launch a campaign for a new “anti-capitalist” workers’ party — and, while there is much to criticise in and many questions to ask about all this, it is very different from the foul populist swamp into which the British far left has collapsed. (When I asked a leading LCR member for his view on championing of George Galloway by their sister organisation the ISG he was obviously embarrassed.) The new party project may not succeed, not least because the majority of Lutte Ouvriere is taking a sectarian attitude towards the LCR’s appeal (the LO minority, in contrast, are, cautiously but definitely positive). But at least the LCR, or some within it, are posing the right questions.
• We had a great time in Paris, and plan to return some time in early 2008. If you would like to come on our next delegation to France, get in touch: email@example.com
• For more critical notes on the French far left and links to the various organisations, see www.workersliberty.org/node/9728