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Ian Birchall

Much ado about netting

(October 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 9, 17 October–14 November 1980, pp. 15–16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is a town-twinning arrangement between the French port of Boulogne and Gdansk in Poland. And if Polish workers gave us the most significant victory of the summer, the Boulogne fishermen put up a heroic if unsuccessful fight for the right to work.

The French fishing industry is in deep crisis. During the seventies the number of fishermen in France fell from 36,000 to 24,000 (the number of jobless in France is now lower than in Britain, but still well over a million). Yet the French government was willing to offer aid to the fishing industry only on condition that wage costs were cut – i.e. that the size of crews doing a dangerous and exhausting job should be cut. The fishermen’s main grievance was the rising cost of fuel. Over recent years fuel prices have risen six-fold, while fish prices have only doubled. Yet in 1979 French oil companies doubled their profits. French fishermen tend to have to travel especially long distances to the fishing grounds, which makes fuel costs a particularly heavy burden.

The most exciting thing about the fishermen’s strike was the way in which it brought to life what is generally one of the most dreary clichés of Marxist theory – the class alliance between the proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie. The French fishing industry is remarkable in that it unites in the same trade unions wage-earning fishermen employed by big companies, like those in Boulogne, and self-employed artisan fishers like those in Brittany. (This situation goes back to the thirties when the CGT and the Catholic unions competed to organise the self-employed fishermen.)

While the Boulogne fishermen merely took strike action they had little impact. But when, in mid-August, the blockade tactic caught on like wildfire, it united in struggle fishermen who were paid according to a variety of systems – either wages plus bonuses, or sharing the proceeds of the catch. Traditional distrust between Breton and Normandy fishermen, based on earlier disputes, also evaporated. Demands for a guaranteed fish-price and, above all, a fuel subsidy, forged a magnificent unity in struggle.

The blockade tactic proved, in the first instance, highly effective. On August 19th there was what amounted to a picket line right round the French coast from Dunkirk to Corsica. The largest French shipowners, the Compagnie Generale Maritime, lost nearly half a million pounds in the first week of the dispute, the port of Le Havre claimed the blockade was costing half a million pounds a day. A hundred thousand processing distribution workers on shore depend on the fishing industry; at Boulogne 900 fishermen on strike caused five thousand lay-offs on shore.

Moreover, the struggle received impressive solidarity. The Boulogne fishermen got substantial financial support from the locality. The support of the fishermen’s wives was magnificent and total. At a demonstration in Boulogne on August 13th fishermen were joined by steel-workers, hospital workers and railway workers. The blockade was supplemented by vigorous and imaginative tactics. Boulogne fishermen regularly invaded employers’ offices; the CGT organised a pirate radio in support of the strike.

The vigour and extent of the strike posed the French government with some real problems. The pro-competition, anti-subsidy ideology which is at the centre of the government’s economic policy meant that it could not concede on the key demand of fuel prices. Moreover, to make concessions at the very beginning of the autumn negotiating round would have risked opening the floodgates to other sectors. Yet to break the strike was also not so easy. The traditional riot-police could not be used against seaborne picket lines – the navy would have to be brought in. But the navy is not a force with any experience of strike-breaking. Many sailors in the French navy come from fishing families, and some of the naval conscripts are themselves fishermen. The navy is popular among sailors and one of its principal peace-time duties is helping fishermen in distress.

For a short time in mid-August it seemed as if the French government was bewildered by the situation. Transport minister Le Theule was left to carry the can while the rest of the cabinet lounged on the beaches. But in fact the French government strategy was rather more subtle than it appeared at first sight.

The apparent neglect of the situation was designed to weaken the unity of the struggle by giving time for contradictions between the various groups of fishermen to emerge. The government steadfastly refused overall discussion, saying the problems were different in the different ports, and would have to be settled by separate negotiations. This distracted attention from the key unifying issue – fuel prices – and encouraged differences to develop. By sitting back the government avoided the unpopularity of sending in riot police and instead allowed clashes to develop between the fishermen and other groups of workers – especially lorry-drivers – as well as with holidaymakers, all of which necessarily weakened morale and solidarity. When the navy was sent in, it was not to break the blockade as a whole, but on the pretext of safeguarding oil-supplies (in fact France had over three months’ supplies at the time). Two ports only were attacked, Antifer and Fos-sur-Mer, the latter of which is on the Mediterranean, far away from the main centres of militancy.

Such a ‘divide and rule’ strategy could have been defeated – but only if the unity of the fishermen themselves had been maintained by united organisation. Unfortunately there was deep and public disunity between the two unions involved, the CP-dominated CGT and the CFDT with its looser links to the Socialist Party. (The Boulogne men are divided 50–50 between the two unions, while the CFDT had most of the artisan fishers). Both unions seemed to be more interested in next year’s Presidential election than in winning the strike. The CFDT was anxious to prove itself ‘responsible’ as the ally of a potential governmental party, while the CGT was concerned to prove its ‘militancy’ by outflanking the CFDT to the left – without actually making that militancy concrete.

The strike originally erupted when the workers rejected the compromise proposed by the unions (reduction of crews from 22 to 20, instead of the 18 demanded by the employers). The unions backed the strike, but failed to take the measures to spread the struggle that could have been crucial at the high-point of struggle (around August 20th). The CGT did nothing to involve dockers and other port-workers in the strike, let alone link the struggle to other strikes, like the long fight by railway tracklayers, which lasted from June to September. If there was spontaneous nationalism among the fishermen (demands for import controls, hostility to British and German fishermen) the unions did not fight it but actually encouraged it. The protest by Seguy, the CGT leader, at the use of the navy, was strong, but purely verbal.

Thus it is no surprise that the strike fragmented and was defeated. The Breton strikers went back, in a mood of bitterness, by September 8th, and the last blockade (Fecamp, near Le Havre) was lifted on September 10th. But it was only on September 18th that the Boulogne fishermen voted, by a majority of 399 out of 699, to resume work, The gains, claimed as concessions by the CFDT, were minimal – a promise to cut hours that is meaningless in the conditions of non-stop work that prevails on a fishing-boat, and an agreement that crews stay at 22 pending negotiations (which will almost certainly lead to cuts). The CGT quite correctly denounced the CFDT for accepting such limited gains; but by urging the Boulogne men to stay out, without any prospect of victory, for an extra week, the CGT seemed more interested in its political image than in helping the fishermen. Bitter lessons from a struggle of magnificent potential.

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