[Marxism] The news from France

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 30 13:27:02 MDT 2009

Vive la Revolution?
By Marc Perelman

In April 1968 workers at a factory of Sud Aviation in Nantes, France, 
began a strike to protest the decision by the company to cut their hours 
and wages. A month later, they decided to lock themselves--and their 
boss--inside the plant. They were soon joined by leftist students, a 
turning point that transformed a series of youth protests into a 
nationwide social movement that nearly toppled the government of Charles 
de Gaulle.

Four decades later, de Gaulle's heir, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is 
facing massive street demonstrations, a rash of "boss-nappings" and the 
resurgence of the far left. To be sure, no new French revolution is in 
sight. But Sarkozy, whose popularity has eroded sharply since his 
election in May 2007, has warned of France's "eruptive" nature and is 
careful to remind his fellow citizens constantly that the main culprits 
of the economic meltdown are Wall Street, greedy bosses and tax 
havens--not him.

His concern is not so much the two massive one-day demonstrations, in 
January and March, against the crisis. Or that for the first time since 
World War II, all major trade unions will march together instead of 
separately during the May 1 Labor Day celebration. Rather, for someone 
who won the presidency two years ago on a law-and-order platform, the 
resurgence of radical actions is far more unsettling. On March 12, the 
CEO of Sony France was held by workers in a plant that was about to 
close; he was released the next day after agreeing to pay more generous 
severance packages. Since then, employees of a 3M pharmaceutical factory 
held an executive overnight after layoffs were announced for nearly half 
of them. In addition, three British executives in a Scapa Group 
adhesive-tape plant; the bosses at Faure et Machet, a printer plant that 
lost its contract with Hewlett-Packard; and two managers at the US car 
equipment plant Molex have been "sequestered," according to the 
authorities--"withheld" in trade-union parlance. At the US-owned 
Caterpillar plant near Grenoble, workers protesting a plan to sack more 
than 700 of them blocked the entrance for four days, until they were 
granted a meeting at the Ministry of the Economy.

Most of those actions have targeted local executives who have little say 
on the global strategy of the large companies they work for. The only 
instance of a highflying executive being forced to face the wrath of his 
underlings was the time luxury-brand magnate François-Henri Pinault's 
car was briefly surrounded by salesclerks angry about layoffs in his 
stores, an incident captured by TV cameras.

Sarkozy has strongly criticized such actions as unlawful, although the 
authorities have refrained from prosecuting the perpetrators. The reason 
is simple: at least half the French public supports or understands these 
tactics, according to the polls. But whereas holding executives, 
invading facilities and violent scuffles between workers and the police 
were routine from the late '60s to the mid-'70s, today's rerun is far 
more limited--in scope and in meaning.

"In the '70s, those movements were backed by a political offer on the 
left that included a program of nationalizations, planned economy and 
self-management, i.e., a break with market economy," says Guy Groux, an 
expert on labor relations at the Center for Political Research here in 
Paris. "Today there is no political alternative; workers are just trying 
to bargain over layoffs and severance pay."

Antoine Lyon-Caen, a professor of comparative labor law at the 
University of Nanterre, the birthplace of the student movement in 1968, 
sees the sequestrations as a telling metaphor. "It's a way to oblige the 
employers to actually face their employees, to look them in the eyes. 
There is no escape," Lyon-Caen said. "It so happens that capitalism is 
on the run right now, and so it is a way to oblige its representatives 
to see the reality it has wrought."

The outcry over the excesses of financial capitalism has even reached 
private-sector employees, including at the managerial level. "This is 
new," according to Jean-François Bolzinger, a senior official with the 
General Confederation of Labor (CGT), a leading union that was for 
decades affiliated with the Communist Party. "We are seeing management 
people inform us about what companies intend to do, especially when it 
comes to moving factories abroad. Just imagine, those guys are talking 
to the CGT!"

Jean Kaspar, who started working as an electrical mechanic in a 
potassium mine at 14, vividly remembers the couple of hours, back in the 
1970s, during which he and his comrades locked the factory boss in his 
office "because he did not want to discuss." Kaspar, who eventually 
became the head of the leading French Democratic Labor Confederation 
(CFDT) trade union in the late '80s, notes that the current 
"withholdings" are undertaken mostly by low-skilled and aging workers in 
areas suffering from high unemployment--in other words, people for whom 
finding another job is unlikely and going on strike not much of an 
option because they are stretched financially.

For Kaspar, who heads a consulting firm specializing in labor issues, 
the incidents illustrate the breakdown of social dialogue in many 
companies. "Worker reps should be associated early on with the 
decision-making process rather than asked to swallow orders and try to 
mediate their consequences," he said. Moreover, the contrast between the 
litany of layoff plans and the daily revelations about inflated bonuses 
and golden parachutes has added fuel to the fire. So has Sarkozy's 
refusal to budge on some of the free-market policies he put in place. 
The most symbolic is the so-called fiscal shield, which limits the level 
of taxation to 50 percent. Sarkozy has for now brushed off calls, even 
from his own camp, to repeal or amend this measure, which clearly favors 
the wealthy.

Sarkozy counters that the crisis is a US import and that France's 
vaunted social safety net has helped the country fare better than its 
neighbors. And he knows that unlike the massive strikes and 
demonstrations in 1995, 2003 and 2006, which were focused on specific 
issues (retirements, job programs), the current street mobilizations 
have no clear objective and thus pose no threat. He is pinning his hopes 
on a quick end to the recession and on major trade unions channeling the 
discontent in an orderly way.

"Sarkozy is playing for time and is betting that people will get tired 
of the social protests, just like Maggie Thatcher did in the 1980s," 
says Isabelle Sommier, a sociology professor at the Sorbonne. "But this 
is a very risky strategy, because we are sitting on a volcano."

In addition to factory shutdowns and sequestrations, a movement of 
university professors and researchers protesting a reform of their 
status has unfolded since February, with little input from trade unions. 
As a result their actions have taken decidedly original forms. For 
instance, a group of professors from a Paris university are giving 
"classes" to subway passengers. In front of the Paris City Hall, 
academics, students and sympathizers have been walking in circles 
nonstop since March 24 in what they call the "infinite circle of the 
obstinate." They are taking a page from Italian filmmaker and leftist 
militant Nanni Moretti, who in 2002 organized girotondi around official 
buildings to call for justice and denounce the government of Silvio 
Berlusconi. Professors and students have also held multiple marathon 
public readings of La Princesse de Clèves, a classic of 
seventeenth-century romantic literature written by Madame de Lafayette, 
a tongue-in-cheek response to Sarkozy, who last year tartly remarked 
that he found reading the book a drag and thought it a waste of time for 
those preparing to enter government service.

Another original form of action are the "wild picnics" staged by 
activists, who enter a supermarket, unfold a table and begin eating from 
the shelves until they are ousted by security personnel. Their goal is 
to protest the high food prices asked by large distribution chains. The 
association behind those monthly happenings is close to the New 
Anticapitalist Party (NPA), launched a few months ago by a smallish 
Trotskyite group in an effort to become the standard-bearer of the far 
left. Riding the coattails of its young and charismatic leader, Olivier 
Besancenot, who splits his time between his political activities and 
working as a postman, the NPA is having a field day, thanks to Lehman 
Brothers. CEOs have indeed become fair game for most of the French, 
including Sarkozy, who routinely rails against "gangster thugs."

Ingrid Hayes, a member of the NPA's executive committee, explains that 
its model of social upheaval is the recent general strike over wages in 
Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the French Antilles, which ended up 
forcing the government to compromise with workers. "We know we can't 
replicate it here for now, but this is what we are seeking," Hayes says.

Besancenot spends a lot of time in factories across the country lending 
support to strikers and never misses an opportunity to remind his 
audiences that he himself was on a picket line for several weeks to 
oppose the privatization of the national postal service. This has struck 
a nerve among unions, which see factories as their turf. François 
Chérèque, head of the CFDT, lashed out at the NPA, claiming the party 
was behaving a "little bit like vultures." NPA officials counter that 
they are not encroaching on union territory but merely offering bolder 
responses to the situation.

In broader terms, the party views the social unrest as a 
quintessentially political moment that deserves a political 
response--not merely an isolated strike or a street demonstration. 
"Trade unions are not opening perspectives, and this is not good enough 
for the more combative sectors," explains Hayes. "We are mindful of the 
independence of the unions, but we reject the notion of a waterproof 
separation between the political and the social arenas."

Besancenot, who has replaced the fading Communist Party as the leading 
force of the "left of the left," is also benefiting from the constant 
squabbling and weak leadership of the Socialist Party. In this regard, 
he sees eye to eye with Sarkozy, who is following a strategy that bears 
a striking resemblance to the cynical game played by his predecessor 
François Mitterrand twenty-five years ago. At that time, the Socialist 
president quietly encouraged the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen's 
far-right National Front in an effort to weaken his conservative 
enemies. Just as Mitterrand warned against the rebirth of the dark 
forces of fascism but profited from it politically, Sarkozy is 
denouncing the looming danger of a violent ultraleft as a way to cripple 
the Socialists. He has, for instance, associated Besancenot with the 
violent incidents that surrounded the NATO summit in early April. His 
government also dismantled a group of leftist anarchists who, they 
alleged, perpetrated a series of crude explosive attacks on the overhead 
power cables of railway lines. To be sure, the postman-politician 
fiercely rants against Sarkozy. But at the same time, Besancenot 
relishes the publicity. "We won't complain that we are polarizing the 
political situation," says Hayes.

While the NPA is quick to dampen any expectation that it will crack the 
10 percent ceiling for the first time in the June elections for the 
European Parliament (Besancenot received just above 4 percent in the 
2007 presidential poll), the party is obviously banking on the tense 
social climate to help its performance. While those elections are 
traditionally marked by low turnout, they can be a steppingstone. In the 
1984 European elections, Le Pen garnered almost 11 percent of the vote, 
the first time he had reached double digits. He would go on to match 
this performance in nearly all ensuing elections, reaching an apex in 
the presidential poll of 2002, when he obtained 17 percent and beat the 
Socialist candidate to reach the second round (where he was trounced by 
the Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac). Ironically, the aging far-right 
leader is leaving the political scene, bequeathing his nasty blend of 
nationalist and racist discourse to his daughter Marine. She has tried 
to tap into the social discontent by reviving the populist stances that 
enabled the National Front to seduce part of the lower middle class over 
the years. Some observers predict that the far right will actually end 
up gaining if violent acts multiply and intensify. In this case, Sarkozy 
certainly hopes to capture their votes as he did in 2007 and emulate de 
Gaulle, who was eventually able to turn the tide in 1968 by riding a 
wave of outrage over the paralysis of the country.

Sarkozy might not like classic French literature, but he knows his 
contemporary history: it took another thirteen years after the May '68 
events before a Socialist became president.

Marc Perelman, a freelance journalist based in Paris, was formerly the 
diplomatic correspondent of the Forward. more...

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