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Lee Humber & Gareth Jenkins

Light at the end of the tunnel

(April 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995, pp. 13–15.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The mood of fightback in France has put the country’s Tory prime minister under pressure in this month’s presidential elections. Lee Humber and Gareth Jenkins talked to French workers and socialists about the anger from below

The changing fortunes of France’s three presidential candidates – the two Gaullists Edouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac, and the Socialist Party’s Lionel Jospin – lift the curtain on the period of intense social and political instability that France is currently undergoing.

As European integration continues apace and monetary union draws nearer, the French state is desperately trying to reorganise French capitalism in order to help its capitalists compete more effectively against their European and non-European rivals. Prime minister Edouard Balladur and his right wing Gaullist government have been seeking to cut the cost of labour for French bosses by attacking wages and workers’ living standards. Over 30,000 workers have already lost all rights to unemployment benefit as a result of measures brought in since 1992.

However, as in Britain, the ruling class is split over how best to achieve this reorganisation. Running against Balladur is another Gaullist candidate, the current mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. Although he is presenting a largely very similar programme of cuts to Balladur the ructions between the two candidates have increased the instability at the top, causing a recent Financial Times editorial to comment that the presidential campaign could ‘tear the government apart’.

Scandals and allegations of top level corporate corruption are rife and French banks are up in arms over a government plan to bail out the state owned Crédit Lyonnais bank after it reported huge financial losses.

At the same time, attacks on workers have set off a series of strikes and protests over recent months. With unemployment standing at 3.31 million overall, and with one in five people between 18 and 25 years of age jobless, tensions are running high. Marc Blondel, general secretary of the Force Ouvrière union told a rally of 30,000 people in January that changing the welfare system could merit a general strike.

The mood of fightback has dragged the political terrain of the presidential elections to the left, forcing candidates to respond. Chirac now argues that ‘our society is fractured – we must ensure equality of opportunity.’ Amazingly he has also spoken out in support of squatters, who have achieved high levels of organisation in response to the chronic shortage of affordable housing, especially in Paris.

Jospin has offered the most left wing of the mainstream candidates’ programmes, stressing the need for government intervention to combat unemployment. He has also said, however, that he intends to keep the sweeping anti-immigration measures brought in by the arch right winger and interior minister Charles Pasqua, in a clear move to pander to the racist vote. Balladur, meanwhile, now talks of the need to ‘push society towards reform’ and has made a number of vague proposals to help French workers including a grant of 60,000 francs (£7,340) to help young couples buy apartments. But all candidates are hesitant, terrified of going too far and setting off large scale protest.

The Financial Times has argued that, in this climate ‘it is not surprising that France has a leader like Mr Balladur, who conducts reforms as if he were walking on eggs. Mr Balladur was at Georges Pompidou’s side in May 1968 and does not want another “omelette”.’

Socialist Review went to France to talk to workers about their fightback. We began to discover some of the reasons for the presidential candidates’ fear.

Jocelyn works on the Paris Metro. He explains why underground workers are angry. ‘They’re decentralising the network, which means there’s competition inside the transport system.' He explained how on his line management are cutting back by redefining jobs. Drivers are being asked to take on extra work such as checking tunnels. They aren’t trained for this. Hervé, who works on another line, says that someone was nearly electrocuted as a result. The bosses want ‘flexibility’ so that the total number of jobs can be reduced.

There is plenty of resistance. ‘The rank and file want to have a go,’ says Jocelyn. His line is contacting other lines to see what can be done. ‘We want our elected reps to push the CGT [the main union] into calling action.’

Hervé explains:

‘Two years ago we had a week’s strike against job re-evaluation. Management froze the project. The problem was, we got divided – the independent union produced a leaflet saying we had won but my line wanted to continue the action despite an overall vote to end it. The following March management came back with the project and it went through because two unions accepted it.’

Both Jocelyn and Hervé stress that strikes are still defensive, but things are changing. The key is pulling the militants together across the different lines. Jocelyn has ten workmates who buy the socialist paper Socialisme International each month.

Three strikers at a fruit and vegetable packing company at Les Ulis, south of Paris, told how worsening conditions led to a strike which built the union.

ED le Maraîcher is only a small firm of 22 employees but it supplies some of the largest supermarket chains. One of the strike leaders, CGT member Bofambu Sengele, talked of the appalling situation: fruit left to rot for weeks on end, dangerous conditions, no warm clothes, a canteen without water and means of heating food, disgusting toilet and washing facilities.

Then a new manager changed the work schedule. In front of the all immigrant workforce, he said he was here to ‘get rid of the black spots’. ‘We were asked to do 50 percent more work for no extra payment. It was inhuman. Four people were sacked. They increased the work rate and said that only if we managed to make no mistakes would we get paid in full.’

A two week strike was followed by the premises being occupied. The publicity scared the management into partially backing down.

Not far from Les Ulis is a large secondary school where teachers and students have been involved in strike action. Cuts in jobs and a 19 percent increase in hours led to three separate days of strike by teachers. ‘A worsening of conditions went with a worry about the future of the students’, said teacher Dominic Durin. ‘The first day of action back in December was initiated by the teachers.’

On the second day of strike action the students took the initiative. Stéphane, a student leader at the school, takes up the story:

‘We called a general meeting which elected representatives. Three went to see the rector. The other three were the crisis committee, which organised banners and distributing leaflets round the school. We wanted to organise our own union. We wanted a rep on the school administrative council, a room and postal and telephone facilities.’

This second day of strike action was a big success. It was also one which drew in other schools in the district. The preparation for the big national strike on 7 February involved loads of delegation work. ‘Students knew other schools and spread the word around.’ Around 30 from his school turned up at the station to go to demonstrate in Paris as part of the national teachers’ strike, when 100,000 came out onto the streets, throughout France.

Chausson, where Renault and Peugeot make vans, has two factories: at Creil, north of Paris, and Gennevilliers, in the Paris suburbs. Eddie works at Gennevilliers and describes what happened on the day of action over jobs at Creil, when 2,200 Chausson workers came out on strike on 2 February. ‘The whole area stopped out of solidarity. We blocked the station and the motorway to Lille. We also liberated the motorway tollbooths so that people didn’t have to pay.’

The workers occupied the headquarters of the National Employment Agency last month.

‘We forced the doors with crowbars and sat in in the offices. The director was forced to phone the industry minister, who sent a fax to the union secretary promising talks. We refused because the minister hadn’t said what the talks would be over. So a second fax came back.’

The general experience of socialists in France is that, given the anger, they have also made a real difference. The anti-fascist struggle shows what can be done.

Dard, an active socialist, says ‘In February 300 students demonstrated against the hardline fascist group, the GUD, who use the law faculty at Assas in the south of Paris as a base for physical attacks.’

Much more dramatically, the activity which followed the murder of Ibrahim Ali, the young black killed by fascists in Marseilles, led to a demonstration of 20,000 in Marseilles.

‘In Lyons Socialisme International intervened in a 600 strong “gathering”, transforming the mood to build for a demonstration, when 2,000 people turned up – a lot of young schoolkids from the local area, very angry.’

Dard sees more opportunities opening up generally.

‘People detest Balladur. Chirac can only appear different because there’s nothing on the left. Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate, is not even like Blair. The Communist Party may appear more radical, with its talk of the need to increase wages. But it’s tied to electoralism and appealing to small business.

‘There’s no big movement. But the strikes in the post – small, isolated, but becoming more frequent, and the housing campaign – are symptoms. People want to do something. They are turning to us because we want to do things. These are the opportunities we need to take.’

First class post

Jean-Pierre is a Paris post worker.

‘My office was very active in the 1980s. People could easily be mobilised to fight against restructuring and job losses. But each time it was defeat, defeat, defeat. People got demoralised and the union leadership became more passive. There’s been a change in attitude in the last year. There’s been a 90 percent turnout in strikes.

‘They’re responding to management pressure to get more work out of us.

‘This is all part of the drive towards privatisation. Each time there’s an attack people fight back. There are bitter strikes of two to three days, even a week. But we’re only delaying things or saving 10 to 20 jobs out of every 50 job losses.

‘People are angry and fighting. And when they take strike action, they say, “How about that! Everyone’s here!” They’re surprised by the solidarity.

‘They’re wary of what the unions do, of the pally relationship between the unions and the bosses. The CGT is the most radical in appearance but says there’s always a way of sorting things out. They don’t talk about strikes but about days of action.

‘There’s a terrible lack of contact between the offices. A cross Paris strike would have a fantastic impact because the system’s so centralised – everything goes through Paris.

‘People say it’s going to explode, that what we want is a good revolution. Every week people refer to the events of May 1968. They want a big one.

‘When people are working all kinds of racist things get said. When they fight things are different. So it’s easy to show that immigrants don’t have more “rights” than French people, that if they had real rights it would help all of us, that if their lives improve so will ours. It’s easy to convince people about the need for equality in the job market. It would mean bosses wouldn’t be able to exploit us, that we could force them to give in.’

Our house

There are between 400,000 and 620,000 homeless in France.

This has sparked off a massive protest called the Droit au Logement (DAL), the right to a home. Fran├žois is a member.

‘There’s a law dating from 1945 saying that where there is a serious housing crisis buildings must be requisitioned to house the homeless.

‘There’s been pressure to get the authorities and the government to requisition buildings. There have been demonstrations, which have been attacked.

‘So people have been taking over empty buildings themselves. A building society left a building in the Rue du Dragon empty for three years, speculating to force up rents. We decided to take the empty building over.

‘When we occupy these places, roughly 50 of us turn up with the families who are to be rehoused. People come with brooms, hammers, beds, wardrobes and kitchen utensils, to get the place ready, then the families who’ve been waiting move in.’

The DAL has gained support from prominent scientists and singers. There are even two priests who have been central to the activity, the 84 year old Abbé Pierre and the Bishop of Evreux, who was kicked out by the Vatican for his radicalism.

The movement has spread across France. It is not just about the right to housing, but also about the right of immigrants to be treated decently, and about people with AIDS not being thrown onto the streets.

Coming to the boil

The current political climate in France, with high levels of protest and strike action, has been building over the last two years. Back in the early 1990s Edouard Balladur announced an austerity package to combat the effects of the recession then sweeping across Europe. The package included amongst other things tax cuts for the bosses, privatisation of up to 21 state industries, job cuts along with price hikes for petrol, bus and train fares and other consumer goods. Workers were also going to have to pay higher contributions for sickness and unemployment benefits and pensions. Conditions and terms of employment were set to change. The workers’ struggle that exploded in 1993 put the brakes on many of these measures.

From August 1993 onwards a whole series of demonstrations and strikes took place: in factories threatened with closure, among bank workers and Metro workers in Paris and in the four month long strike by postal workers in Toulouse.

France’s three main union federations were forced into action. The Communist led CGT, the right wing Force Ouvrière and the Socialist Party dominated CFDT were all active in organising demonstrations against the austerity measures through from September to November that year. One jointly called demonstration pulled up to 100,000 onto the streets in Paris.

The most remarkable dispute during this first phase of workers’ recovery was at Air France in October. Workers there occupied runways and departure lounges, built barricades of burning tyres and successfully fought off the thuggish riot police, after having been threatened with 4,000 redundancies, on top of 5,000 job cuts made earlier. The strike started amongst freight workers and quickly spread to maintenance workers. Pilots, air hostesses and white collar workers joined in the dispute with levels of solidarity not seen for many years. The mass meetings of between 800 and 1,000 which characterised the strike gave rank and file workers the confidence to reject their union leaders’ advice to go back to work, and to win a full withdrawal of all the proposed job cuts.

In March and April 1994 anger spilled over again with huge demonstrations all over France, especially in Paris. The main focus of the protests was government attempts to cut the minimum wage rate for young workers by 20 percent in an effort to provide a cheaper young labour force for French bosses. All of the main union federations called demonstrations. One was over 400,000 strong with students and workers from all over France converging on the capital.

Other demonstrations also occurred, often turning into rioting. A demonstration in Garges-les-Gonesse over a racist murder saw police beaten back, cars overturned and set alight and shop windows smashed. Opinion polls carried out at the time revealed that 69 percent of people thought a serious social crisis was imminent. Over 57 percent said they would be prepared to join in a general movement of opposition to the government if one developed.

In recent weeks, car workers at Renault have struck over pay, joining a growing number of other workers fighting for higher wages, including a virtual general strike in Corsica on pay.

Workers on the railways and on the Paris metro and buses were planning a strike at the end of March. Miners are also talking about taking action. The power to beat government attempts to channel discontent in a racist direction lies in this new phase of workers’ struggle.

The anger that has been simmering over the past two years may well be coming to the boil. If it does so, whoever becomes president will find themselves under even greater pressure, as they discover that the militancy of recent years has not just been a flash in the pan.

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