The Paris demonstration on 9 April against the “Socialist” government’s new “Labour Law” was livelier, noisier, and more colourful than official trade union marches are in Britain.
The nine friends of Workers’ Liberty who went to Paris were near a truck from SUD, the most radical of France’s nine or so trade union confederations (equivalents of the TUC). Its slogans included: “Share more, work less”; “A society of sharing”; “Not amendable, not negotiable: trash the ‘Labour Law’”; and “General Strike!”
The march ended at the Place de la Nation, not with windy speeches from trade union officials and the crowd eroding slowly through boredom, but with tear gas. The clashes between small groups of young activists and the fully-kitted-out riot police had an air of ritual about them; but police tactics have been more aggressive in this movement than they were under previous right-wing governments. Apparently most workers condemn and place the blame for violence on the police, even if they do not want to join the young street-fighters.
Some hundreds of demonstrators went from the Place de la Nation to the protest camp — a bit like the Occupy movement — which sprang up after 31 March in the Place de la République in central Paris (and then in other cities), under the title “Nuit Debout” (hard to translate: “uprisen night”? “all-nighter”?) The chief initiators were, apparently, supporters of Left Front Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, grouped around the left-social democratic magazine Fakir; but the camp is run in the non-party and would-be “direct-democratic” (but often chaotic and impenetrable) style of similar ventures.
When we were there, activity was limited by steady rain. But Palestine solidarity campaigners sold falafel to raise money; militant health workers operated a first-aid stall and promoted awareness of trade union struggles in hospitals; pacifists and migrant campaigners handed out leaflets, and undocumented migrants addressed impromptu meetings. As we were returning to Britain, on the morning of 11 April, the République camp was evacuated by riot police. It has been re-established, but surrounded by police who vow that they will demolish any shelters or structures put up there.
In the famous events of May-June 1968, student protests were able to “detonate” the greatest general strike in European history, but the students found it difficult to break through the Communist Party domination of strongly-unionised factories and to establish direct communication with workers. Today there are many more students, of more diverse backgrounds, and the Communist Party’s base in industry is qualitatively weaker. Student mobilisations have been a major driving force in this movement, to the point even (so we heard) that some more militant groups of workers, keen to move to open-ended strikes, are inclined to wait for the students to go first.
All this mobilisation — with, according to opinion polls, very wide public support — takes place against a supposedly “Socialist” government. Francois Hollande was chosen as Socialist Party (SP) candidate for the 2012 presidential election in a primary (the SP’s first), in which 1.6 million people voted for him. Campaigning for president against the right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, he promised a policy of social equality and regulation of finance. taxing rich He promised increased taxes on big corporations, banks and the wealthy, including a 75% income tax on the super-rich. He said he would create 60,000 new teaching jobs; bringing the official retirement age back down to 60 from 62; organise new jobs for unemployed youth; and boost industry through a public investment bank. All that has come to nothing.
In fact the Hollande government has gone with the EU capitalist leaders’ consensus that the only answer after the 2008 crash and the subsequent eurozone debt crisis is cuts, “labour flexibility”, more cuts, and more “labour flexibility”. The SP, a party with a weak working-class base and weak democratic structures, has been completely unable to call him to account. Many SP members, and even some SP leaders, have rebelled against the new “Labour Law”, but without effect. There’s a lesson for the British left here. Vague and piecemeal left-wing policies which evade the need for struggle against the plutocracy are almost certain to collapse into right-wing conformism in conditions of economic tension and crisis.
Since 2012, much of the mounting anger against Hollande’s wretched administration has been channelled by the Front National (FN), a neo-fascist party which relies mostly on nationalism and racism but can offer social demagogy from time to time. In France’s last round of elections, the regional polls of December 2016, the FN scored 27.7%, more than any other party. The movement against the “Labour Law” has pushed the FN aside for now. The FN is evasive on its attitude to the law, and plays no visible part in the opposition to it.
Much work still remains to be done on building a strong left-wing voice against Hollande. On the 9 April demonstration, the organised left was visible, but, maybe, less confident than it used to be. None of the organised left appeared to make more than a token effort to sell their newspapers to the demonstrators. Instead, they gave out leaflets, and, mainly, distributed large stickers (“autocollants”) which demonstrators would take to stick on their bags or their clothing. Autocollants are surely valuable. But they are limited to short slogans. And the movement needs more than that.
We discussed with Olivier Delbeke, one of the editors of the bulletin Arguments pour la lutte sociale; with members of L’Etincelle, a faction which was previously an opposition group in Lutte Ouvrière; and, briefly, with members of Lutte Ouvrière.
The paradox, said Olivier, is that this large and broadly left-wing upsurge comes at a time when the organised left is on the retreat more or less across the board. Left-wing SP members and the Front de Gauche — a loose alliance between Mélenchon, who was formerly an SP left-winger, the Communist Party (CP), and others — are focused on the Socialist Party primaries for the presidential election due in April-May 2017. The Front de Gauche itself is in poor condition. The CP has distanced itself. Mélenchon’s own Parti de Gauche, founded in 2008, is feeble. The local Front de Gauche committees which existed for a while have withered. The New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), a successor organisation to the LCR, has influence in the new student mobilisations. But it too has lost members, and it tends to operate more as a conglomerate of factions and groups than as a cohesive party. Large chunks of long-standing LCR activists quit the NPA in 2009 and 2012, wanting instead to work more closely with the Front de Gauche. But some of those have now dissolved into the Communist Party; the rest, organised as Ensemble, scarcely have a Trotskyist or revolutionary-socialist political profile.
Lutte Ouvrière holds to its principles and has a relatively sizeable base in industry; but, according to comrades we talked with, tends to be cautious, and dismissive of the student and “Nuit Debout” movements as “petty-bourgeois”.
What used to be the third professedly-Trotskyist group in France, the POI, split last year. The majority (still called POI) was scarcely visible on the 9 April demonstration: its typical member now, so we were told, is a full-time trade union official in the Force Ouvrière confederation. The minority (POID) makes more effort at political activity, and puts out a well-produced weekly paper; but the paper has many of the traits of the old POI, identifying the main enemy against which it fights not as capital but as the European Union (censured, so Brexiters will be baffled to hear, for being under the thumb of the City of London).
It is important, then, that the healthy currents of the activist left seize the chances offered to them by this new movement to recruit, rebuild, and revive themselves. In some lycées, for example, blockades and actions are decided by small groups liaising over social media, without face-to-face general assemblies.
The comrades of L’Etincelle told us that in arguing for general assemblies, for a consistent orientation to the mass of students or of workers who have not yet or not fully been mobilised, for “maximising the surface of discussion”, they often clash with some anarchists, who oppose all representative structures; “autonomists” prefer ultra-militant gestures by minorities; trade-union and student-union officials, who often prefer to keep things in their own hands; and with difficulties arising simply from inexperience. The immediate task is to hold together and strengthen the minorities across many workplaces and in many schools and universities who are determined to fight for ongoing strikes to defeat the law, and help them win the majority.