People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 03, 2006
LESSON FROM FRANCE
Sharpened Class Struggle Can Reverse Neo-Liberal Offensive
BOURGEOIS pen-pushers are seeking to create a myth that their neo-liberal globalisation is irreversible. But, of late, some grassroots level initiative and resistance by the mass of workers, in France, some other European countries, South Korea, Great Britain and India have to an extent exposed this myth, forcing the governments and employers to retreat.
RESISTANCE IN FRANCE
It was the French workers and youth who showed the path. In a quick succession the French society experienced tremors, leading to a major victory against neo-liberal offensive of the ruling capitalist class. In the latest such episode in Spring 2006, nearly two months of militant class struggle defeated the government over the CPE (Contract Premiere Embauche) --- the first job contract.
But this was no isolated victory. To recall the background, the first round of presidential election in 2002 gave all the candidates less than 20 percent for the first time in the history of the ‘Fifth Republic.’ The Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate Lionel Jospin came third, behind the far-right Jean Maria le Pen. The Trotskyite Lutte Ovrierie (LO) and Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR) candidates together scored more than 10 percent, far more than the Parti Communiste Francais (PCF) that scored 3.3 percent. The result was an indication of the potential as well as a warning.
The anger the neo-liberal offensive generated took two directions – one towards the far right and the other towards radical anti-capitalism. But the Left failed to take it into account with adequate seriousness. It was in this messy situation that Jacques Chirac, candidate of the right-wing union Pour un Movement Populaire (UMP), scored 82 percent in the second round. Thus he postponed the crisis in governance and obtained the legitimacy that was refused to him in the first round.
Then followed a wave of attacks while the workers’ resistance did not succeed for lack of planning and, to a certain extent, the confused attitude of union leaders.
PEOPLE’S NO TO EU CONSTITUTION
Yet the workers finally forged unity among themselves and decisively rejected in May 2005, with a vote of 55 percent, the proposed constitution of the European Union, which sought to officially foist a neo-liberal economic regime in the member countries. The workers’ preparation for a ‘No Vote’ got support from the PCF (French Communist Party) and CGT, the trade union federation, along with some other Left political formations and trade unions while the PS (Socialist Party) called for a ‘Yes Vote.’ With a clear mandate against neo-liberalism, this signified a great victory for the French working class and the Left.
The ‘Yes Vote’ project was heavily promoted by transnationals and the French corporate managements who urged the citizens to vote for a ‘prosperous’ Europe. “Major proponents included the petroleum concern TOTAL with its 10.9 billion dollars profits in 2004 (the biggest ever recorded by a French firm, but one which is reducing its employment within France) and the cosmetics firm l’Oreal (where CEO is the highest paid person in France at 7.9 million dollars per year and its owner ‘the richest woman of France’ with a fortune of 13.7 billion dollars). Such wealth contrasts starkly with the conditions of French workers, with one out of every six paid only the minimum wage and 7 million living in poverty. Other advocates of the European constitution included Schneider (machine tools) whose shareholders have recently experienced the biggest increase (64 percent) in their stock dividends, and the armament firm Dossault which just bought part of the media. The media, not surprisingly, bombarded the public with Yes slogan, attracting to manipulate them and bludgeoning them with lies” (Remy Herrera, Analytical Monthly Review, June 2006).
Obviously, the vote was sharply divided along class lines, reminding the French elite, international bourgeoisie and their hangers-on that the people still exist, the working class and other downtrodden still have capacity to resist the capitalist offensive. According to Remy Herrera, ‘No’ was the vote of 80 percent of factory workers, 64 percent of government and allied employees, more than 50 percent of craft workers, small shopkeepers and intermediate professions. It got the vote of 66 percent of households with monthly income less than 1,800 dollars, 75 percent of those without degrees, and 71 percent of the unemployed.
HIGHER LEVEL OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Thus it was the result of higher consciousness, resistance and unity of the working class and the democratic minded people. It was, since the big 1995 strike, the first huge victory of the French working class and other toilers against neo-liberalism. It also symbolised an intensification of class struggle in France as this ‘No’ was also a rejection of the rightist parties or a neo-liberalised ‘Left’ who have over the last 20 years handed the country to speculators for plunder.
It was a reflection of the deep anger of the French toiling people against the enormous loss they suffered through the destruction of social services --- carried to the extreme by right-wing parties in power. The so-called ‘pension reform’ by the Jean Pierra Raffarin government generated tremendous resentment among the French working people who had earned, through decades of bitter struggle, pension rights as the biggest social security benefit. The French working people could not forget that neo-liberalism was definitively established in France in 1984 by ‘socialist’ president Francois Mitterand and premier Laurent Fabius.
a matter of fact, with ferocious neo-liberal offensive, many erstwhile socialist or formerly genuine Left parties have today degenerated into ideological adjuncts of the World Bank-IMF. The ideological degeneration of these ‘socialists’ to neo-liberalism is no exception in French politics, and is amply visible also in many ‘Left’ formations the world over. Thus have they succumbed to a formidable attack of the neo-liberal ideology, the most ferocious weapon of capitalism today. For the genuine Left, who are deeply committed to revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society, it is an extremely serious and difficult ideological battle to win. The genuine Left has to draw lessons from the cataclysmic demise of the Soviet Union and its grave ideological and practical consequences as to where this ideological degeneration of the Left can lead to, and decisively act accordingly.
NEW WAVE OF ATTACKS
In France, dizzy with victory in the presidential election of 2002, Dominique de Villepin, nominated as prime minister by President Jacques Chirac, at once started a new wave of attacks, especially on job contracts.
The CNE (contract nouvelle Embauche) was followed by CPE as one of the labour market ‘reforms’ adopted by the rightwing government. Reserved for the youth and applicable to firms with more than 20 persons, it aims at substituting contracts of unlimited permanent duration (CDI; contracts a duree inditerninee) with precarious jobs. The employers resorting to such contracts are exempted from social security contributions.
In February-April 2006, De Villepin used special articles of the constitution to implement the CNE by issuing ordinances without requiring parliamentary debate. This allowed small companies (employing less than 20) to end the contract at any time during the first two years of work, without even bothering to justify sacking. (The government of India is also trying its best to enact a similar law in the name of labour flexibility.) Since August 2005, more than 3,00,000 CNEs have been signed as exasperated unemployed youth found no way out but to sign it.
Meanwhile, interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy had had his own agenda and methods. This UMP aspirant for the next presidential election (2007) specialises in anti-youth, anti-immigrant phraseology combined with provocative speeches. This resulted in the murder of two young immigrant boys, Zyed and Bouno, after a police ‘control’ --- always in fact a term for police harassment and beating up of youth. Sarkozy declared, without any substantiation, that they were robbers. This sparked a revolt in the banlieue, the run-down suburban housing schemes.
The revolt of the immigrant youth of banlieue lacked preparation and a political programme. It was the result of frustration among the immigrants for deprivation from jobs and other means for a decent livelihood – a visible social discrimination. But it also showed, once again, the deep social crisis that can explode at any moment. And it was not just social discrimination, the core of the problem was the class hatred of the French elite against the poor, and the revolt a retaliation.
In answer, the government announced two laws --- a new anti-immigrant law (the ceseda or Sarkozy law) and a so-called ‘equal opportunities law’ containing the CPE. Included in the new law is also a provision for night work for young people aged, say, 15 years. Evidently, the government took advantage of the situation to launch an attack on all workers.
Unlike the CNE, the latest CPE offensive covers all enterprises. It will apply to workers under 26, but will no doubt create competition between workers.
And the Socialist Party’s national secretary, Francois Hollands, had the cheek to say: “Let’s be realistic. The text will be passed. The work of explanation that we are starting today will not see its result in the street but in the ballot box of 2007.” It shows how cynical the Socialist Party is. It thinks it will be elected because of the anger against the right over the worsening living conditions though it is not certain that the 2002 scenario will not get repeated as because a lot of young people and workers do not want such a debased Left.
However, the objective of the CPE is not only to exacerbate confrontation among workers but also to make precarious the employment of the youngest while using them to dismantle the wage earner’s permanent job status. It is an attack on the great victories of French workers embodied in the country’s relatively progressive labour laws.
STUDENTS ENTER THE BATTLEFIELD
A section of the youth directly targeted by the CPE is not so dependent on the political opposition: university students. Since March 28, university students began a strike and blockade to defeat the government and its CPE. A joint strike of workers and youth also began. Students blocked colleges and universities including the famous Sorbonne University and took to the streets. The movement brought three million people to the streets.
Spanning over almost three months, the general strike and a series of demonstrations involving nearly 10 million people, President Chirac and Premier Villepin announced the “replacement of the article of the law creating the CPE with a plan for the employment of young people – with public funds of 150 million euros in 2006, although 23 billion euros were granted to employers in the previous CPE scheme.
It may be recalled that after the April 18 occupation of the Sorbonne University when young activists were forced out by the police forces, many students voted in favour of a ‘reorganisation and mobilisation of the movement’ until the prime demands are conceded. These are: (1) complete withdrawal of the CNE, (2) cancellation of the government’s so-called ‘law on equality of opportunities,’ which promotes apprenticeship contract from the age of 14, and restoration of the right to work from the age of 15, (3) lifting of the anti-immigrant laws, and (4) end of repression. But on April 19, the return to work was voted everywhere.
One is not certain whether the return to work was a half victory, as some feel “the movement was closed to developing further” on other issues raised by students and workers. Yet there is no doubt that the three month long movement ending in 2006 snatched a historic victory due to the sharpening class struggle in France and this has laid the basis of furtherance of united struggle with a more radical ideological direction.
The fight of the French working class and student organisations has again confirmed the conclusion that a united and intensified class struggle with a clear direction can reverse the neo-liberal offensive of the capitalist class. This is a lesson for the entire working class movement in the international arena.