Class Struggle in France
The Necessity of Revolutionary Leadership
Capitalist austerity has provoked mass protests across Europe—in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Britain and elsewhere. In France, the bourgeoisie is also intent on reversing past concessions; yet the depth of popular resistance to such attacks and the relative self-confidence and class-consciousness of the working class have limited the scope of the assault to date. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s September 2010 proposals for “reforming” pension entitlements by raising the retirement age by two years touched off a movement that, at its height, brought 3.5 million people into the streets in the largest demonstrations since May-June 1968. Militant workers closed ports, oil refineries, post offices, railway lines and public transportation networks. Many high schools and universities were blockaded by students, often with the active support of teachers and parents.
Police repression against demonstrators was widely denounced, and one opinion poll reported that an astounding 70 percent of the population sympathized with the protests (Sud Ouest Dimanche, 10 October 2010). There were even instances of employees from different firms holding “inter-professional” meetings and joining each others’ picket lines and general assemblies. These sorts of initiatives, if developed more broadly and systematically, could have provided a framework for militants to overcome the sabotage of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy.
In the end, the government was able to push through its “reform” package and is now preparing further attacks. Although the fight against the pension overhaul was defeated, French workers are showing few signs of demoralization. The union bureaucrats managed to get their members to go back to work, but many—particularly the strategic refinery workers—returned reluctantly. The evident willingness to resist further incursions means that there is a potential opportunity for revolutionaries to help the more class-conscious layers of the proletariat learn from their recent experience.
Sarkozy’s victory was clearly the result of what Leon Trotsky called the “crisis of proletarian leadership.” The workers were ready to fight, but the treacherous conduct of the union misleadership, and the absence of a viable alternative, made defeat all but inevitable. The “intersyndicale,” a bloc of the major labor confederations, refused to call for a general strike—the necessary response to Sarkozy’s offensive. As the struggle radicalized, Bernard Thibault, leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT—traditionally seen as the most militant), denounced the idea of a general strike: “To me it’s a slogan that’s completely abstract and abstruse […] it doesn’t correspond to the way in which you improve the relation of forces” (AFP, 7 October 2010). Instead of launching a serious struggle, the intersyndicale, which did not even call for scrapping the pension bill, initiated staggered “days of action” to allow militants to vent their anger and pressure the government to include them in negotiating the details of the “reform.” Their behavior was applauded by Prime Minister François Fillon, who declared: “the leadership of the big union organizations is being responsible for the moment” (AFP, 5 October 2010).
The political counterparts of the union bureaucrats in the Socialist Party (PS) nominally opposed raising the retirement age, but supported measures designed to reduce pension benefits. The Parti de Gauche (PG), a recent left split from the PS led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, proposed holding a referendum as an alternative to settling the issue in the streets. The decrepit French Communist Party, which is in an electoral bloc with the PG, backed the leaders of the intersyndicale and suggested a few minor reforms in parliament.
On what is considered the “far left,” the ostensibly Trotskyist Lutte ouvrière (LO), whose policy was one of wholesale adaptation to the labor bureaucracy, rationalized its capitulation with predictions that the union leaders would inevitably be forced to adopt a more confrontational policy in order to retain credibility with their base (Lutte de Classe, October 2010). But in the absence of a militant alternative leadership, the bureaucrats did not feel compelled to posture to the left, despite growing sentiment among the ranks for some sort of general strike. At one point, pollsters reported that 54 percent of the population said they would back “a general strike like in 1995” (LeParisien.fr, 14 October 2010). But when no general strike materialized, LO blamed the ranks rather than the leadership of the intersyndicale:
“Apart from those in the refineries, the majority of workers in large industrial enterprises were not drawn into the strike. The walkouts were, in the private companies, only a technical complement intended to allow participation in the demonstrations. They were not the beginning of a strike movement, let alone explosive strikes leading to the general strike.
“It is childish to denounce the union confederations for not having made such calls. They, in this case the CGT and CFDT—for SUD and, in another sense, FO were all the more inclined to radical phrases inasmuch as they had neither the necessary strength nor authority to do what they claimed would be useful—obviously had no desire to pursue a policy of preparing a general strike. But they held nothing back either, because, in this case, they had nothing to hold back.
“Leading the showdown with Sarkozy through demonstrations suited the union leadership. But it also suited the workers. These were, once again, the limits of the movement.”
—Lutte de Classe, November 2010
LO even took the opportunity to congratulate the labor bureaucrats on a job well done: “The union centrals, by their successive calls to demonstrate, allowed the movement to take place” (Lutte Ouvrière, 12 November 2010). In drawing up a balance sheet of the struggle, LO derided the demand for a general strike as “empty words” and characterized the defeat as: “A success for the union apparatuses that was not achieved to the detriment of the workers” (Lutte de Classe, December 2010). It is hard to know whether this is simply a reflection of profound political demoralization or whether LO’s leadership is really so brain-dead that it is no longer able to distinguish between victory and defeat. What is certain is that French workers cannot afford many more “successes” of this sort.
LO’s chief “far left” rival, the reformist Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA), struck a somewhat more militant posture, and at one point even proposed strike committees and a general strike. But it was obvious from the mild tone of its criticism of the union bureaucracy, and its speculation that the “days of action” might somehow turn out to be springboards for more radical initiatives, that the NPA’s “general strike” talk was really only aimed at giving its essentially parliamentary orientation a left cover. A serious effort to promote a general strike would have required a sharp attack on the labor tops as collaborationist saboteurs, as well as a struggle to break their organizational stranglehold. This would probably have been resisted by many of the NPA’s union supporters, who do not want to jeopardize their comfortable positions in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy.
The terminology the NPA employed and the politics it put forward were overtly reformist: “Cutting into profits and sharing work time to allow everyone to benefit from our retirement—it’s not utopia, it’s not even socialism, but we must impose it by inverting the relation of forces” (Tout est à nous!, 16 September 2010). The NPA is a left social-democratic organization that does not set itself the task of overthrowing, but rather reforming, capitalism. Its chief objective is to gain enough electoral support to secure a place in a new popular-front government and thereby share responsibility for the administration of the state machinery of the French bourgeoisie.
The following is the text of a speech given by IBT comrade Josh Decker in Toronto on 17 September 2010.
France’s capitalist rulers are currently engaged in an attempt to roll back many of the gains won through workers’ struggles in the past and to free themselves from any obligation to pay decent wages, offer job security or provide social benefits like healthcare and pensions. Karl Marx observed that class conflict is the motor force of historical development. While reformists try to paper over the social contradictions that produce class struggle, Marxists seek to help working people and the oppressed find the means to win the class war by seizing state power and reconstructing society along socialist lines.
Historically, class conflict in France has tended to be rather sharp. In his introduction to the third edition of Marx’s classic work, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Frederick Engels observed:
“France is the land, where, more than anywhere else, the historical class struggles were each time fought out to a decision, and where, consequently, the changing political forms… have been stamped in the sharpest outlines…. France demolished feudalism in the Great Revolution and established the unalloyed rule of the bourgeoisie in a classical purity unequalled by any other European land. And the struggle of the upward-striving proletariat against the ruling bourgeoisie appeared here in an acute form unknown elsewhere.”
The modern communist movement has various progenitors, including Gracchus Babeuf’s ill-fated “Conspiracy of Equals,” which stood on the extreme left of the radical-bourgeois French Revolution of the 1790s. This historically premature and unsustainable appearance of egalitarian collectivism was soon submerged by the wave of reaction unleashed by Thermidor, which eventually produced the Emperor Napoleon and later saw the restoration of the monarchy.
Yet the ideals espoused by Babeuf and his comrades lived on in the collective imagination of the oppressed and their champions. In the first half of the 19th century, France emerged as the center of what Marx and Engels called Utopian Socialism—a petty-bourgeois doctrine developed by Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Etienne Cabet that aimed at attenuating the contradictions of nascent capitalist industrialization. Another French forerunner of modern socialism, Auguste Blanqui, who had a conspiratorial conception of social revolution, was also influenced by Babeuf.
The shortcomings of the early socialist movement were starkly revealed by the revolutions of 1848, in which it failed to mobilize the proletariat as an independent political force. The aspirations of the French working class were pushed aside as the bourgeoisie consolidated a republic tailored to its own requirements. A few years later, Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s nephew, seized power in a coup d’état and established the Second Empire.
The socialist left retreated, but it did not disappear. Two decades later, in March 1871, the Parisian proletariat seized power for the first time in history. Among the participants in the “Paris Commune” were Blanquists, anarchist supporters of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as a handful of adherents of the Marxist wing of the International Workingmen’s Association. The Communards made many mistakes, and were brutally crushed after only two months, but much was learned from their experience. Marx celebrated them as heroes who had “stormed heaven,” and asserted that the government they created was the world’s first glimpse of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
It was 46 years before the working class—this time in Russia—again took power. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 had a profound impact on the workers’ movement in every country around the globe. In 1920, a majority of the French social democratic party (the SFIO) formed the Communist Party of France. The rightwing minority kept the name SFIO.
The isolation and economic backwardness of Soviet Russia led to the emergence of a parasitic and oppressive bureaucracy headed by Joseph Stalin which appropriated political power in 1924. Lenin’s partner Leon Trotsky, who had taken a close interest in the development of the French Communist Party, was exiled as the Left Opposition was sidelined. The Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union was mirrored in the Communist International, and the revolutionary capacity of its various national sections was incrementally destroyed.
But the Communist Parties retained the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of the best proletarian militants across Europe, including in France. In 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, a series of mass strikes and factory occupations erupted in France, terrifying the bourgeoisie and creating the possibility of a working-class seizure of power. Instead of taking advantage of this revolutionary opportunity, the leaders of the workers’ movement—the social democratic SFIO and the Stalinized Communist Party (PCF)—formed a “Popular Front” government with the bourgeois Radical party supposedly to defend “democratic” capitalism against fascism. This counterrevolutionary policy of open class collaboration was directed by Moscow as part of a futile campaign to win allies among the “democratic” imperialists to hedge against the threat of attack by Nazi Germany. Stalin’s popular-front strategy short-circuited the struggle for socialism, which was a real historical possibility, and instead opened the door to the barbarism of WWII and the bloody invasion of the Soviet Union.
The French workers’ movement suffered a major blow with the German occupation in 1940 and the creation of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Following the war, however, it sprang back to life, as workers, many of whom had fought in the underground resistance, reconstituted their unions. The reformist political parties also reemerged, and the PCF, which joined the bourgeois government, was particularly important in restabilizing capitalist rule in the face of a restive working class. The Stalinists’ slogan for tamping down workers’ struggles was: “Produce first, make demands later!” The bourgeoisie made many concessions to the working class in this period in order to prevent social revolution—including laying the foundations for the postwar “welfare state.”
Twenty-odd years later, in May-June 1968, the French working class again rose in a mass general strike that shook the Fifth Republic to its foundations. Millions of workers and students took to the streets, occupied factories and erected barricades, sending shock waves around the world. France had once again entered a pre-revolutionary situation. But also once again, the PCF and its allies among the “left” trade-union bureaucrats played a key role in defusing the struggle and restoring bourgeois order. In the following period new concessions were granted, including higher wages and improved pension benefits.
End of the ‘Trente Glorieuses’
Despite the dissipation of the revolutionary energy of May-June 1968, much of the French working class continued to identify with the tradition of revolutionary struggle and the goal of socialism. There is a “red thread” woven through French history—the living memory of the experience of class struggle stretching back to the Paris Commune, 1848 and 1789 that has been passed on from one generation of fighters to the next. While this “memory” has become faded and warped by reformist/Stalinist influences, it remains a real factor in shaping French social and political conflicts to this day.
When the post-WWII economic expansion (known in France as the “Thirty Glorious Years”) ended in the 1970s, governments across the advanced capitalist world began implementing “neoliberal” austerity programs. The French bourgeoisie was just as eager as the American or British to boost capitalist profitability by driving down working-class living standards with layoffs, wage reductions and cuts in social spending. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher won a major victory by smashing the miners’ strike in 1985, and in the U.S., Ronald Reagan spurred a new wave of capitalist attacks by busting the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. But in France, the state had considerably less success.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture here. The workers’ movement in France has been pushed back a great distance since the 1970s. In the late 1940s, 40 percent of French workers belonged to a union. By the early 1970s, the figure had declined to roughly 25 percent, and today it stands at something like 8 percent, most of which is in the public sector. However, unlike in North America, there are no union shops and no dues checkoffs, so that counts for more than the 12 percent of American and 30 percent of Canadian workers who belong to a union. Moreover many radical workers remain unorganized because of union-busting in the private sector or because they are repulsed by the treachery of the conservative labor bureaucracy.
The decline in unionization in France—in both absolute and relative terms—is partly attributable to deindustrialization, but it is also linked to the ever more overt class-collaborationist policies of the trade-union bureaucracy and its increasing integration with the capitalist state. This rightward devolution is paralleled by the trajectory of the PCF and the Socialist Party (PS—the descendant of the SFIO), which, while in government at various times since 1981, have implemented a series of austerity measures.
Class Conflict in the ‘Neoliberal’ Era
A central battleground in the class struggle in France has been the complicated system of pay-as-you-go pensions. For more than a quarter century, the capitalists have been attempting to “reform” pensions, which are a major working-class gain. In 1983, French workers who had made 37.5 years of contributions were able to retire with a “full” pension at the age of 60. A decade later, in 1993, the union leadership permitted the conservative government of Edouard Balladur to significantly reduce the payouts from the main private-sector workers’ scheme and gradually increase the contribution period by 2.5 years. Essentially, private-sector workers were being asked to extend their working lives to collect smaller pensions.
Balladur’s reform did not affect civil servants or employees of large (mostly state-owned) enterprises. In 1995, his successor, Alain Juppé, sought to “align” those pension schemes with that of the private sector—all in the name of “justice” and “equity,” of course. The Juppé Plan, which also included a regressive overhaul of the healthcare system, ignited a mass movement in November-December 1995. A series of powerful labor actions, centered on a three-week public transportation strike, and millions-strong demonstrations forced the government to back down on the pension overhaul, though the rest of the Juppé Plan survived, since the labor bureaucracy sabotaged the movement for a general strike that had emerged at the base (see 1917 No.18).
One of the most significant features of this strike wave was the practice of workplace “general assemblies” (AGs)—rank-and-file meetings open to all workers at a given enterprise. The AGs are a traditional organizational form for labor struggles in France that give workers, whether unionized or not, the chance to vote on their own strike tactics, and thus to potentially challenge the sabotage of union leaders at least on the level of a particular enterprise. AGs do not solve the problem of misleadership by the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, the defeat of which is ultimately a political, and not an organizational, problem. Indeed, they were not able to prevent the bureaucrats from winding down the movement before it had achieved its broader goal, but they did provide a forum where workers could discuss the lessons of the betrayal.
The struggles of November-December 1995, the most important since May-June 1968, shook up the entire social and political situation and played a role in the fall of the right-wing government a year and a half later and its replacement by a popular-front coalition of Socialists, Communists, Greens and other small bourgeois parties. The so-called “Plural Left” government, which remained in power until 2002, carried out a massive program of privatizations, but was forced to back down from a tentative plan to increase the pension contribution period for public-sector workers.
By the spring 2002 presidential election, the Plural Left was so discredited that PCF leader Robert Hue scored an embarrassing 3.4 percent, while the PS candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, got only 16.2 percent and failed to qualify for the runoff election. The second round thus pitted right-wing President Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. The flipside of France’s more radical workers’ movement is that, in response, the fascists and extreme-right racists have been able to gain a significant hearing among middle-class layers (and even backward elements of the working class). With the support of most left-wing parties, which absurdly claimed to be defending the republic against a fascist takeover, Chirac easily won the election with 82.2 percent of the vote. One of the most important developments in the 2002 election was the willingness of disaffected PCF and PS supporters to vote for two ostensibly Trotskyist candidates—Olivier Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Arlette Laguiller of Workers Struggle (LO), who got a combined total of 10 percent.
The next year, in 2003, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his social affairs minister, François Fillon, pushed through a pension “reform” to increase contribution years for civil servants from 37.5 to 40 by 2008. The law also affected the private sector by mandating that the new “harmonized” contribution period rise to 41 years by 2012. There was considerable active resistance from the working class to these measures, but the union bureaucracy managed to contain it by organizing ineffective staggered “days of action” (strikes and demonstrations) intended to allow the base to blow off steam while ensuring that the labor tops retained their seat at the (concession) bargaining table.
Workers in the education, rail, postal, energy and other sectors voted in AGs to extend their strike activity, but little came of this in the absence of a general strike call from the traditionally largest and most militant union, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). In this case, CGT leader Bernard Thibault explicitly rejected any pretense of serious class struggle and called instead for a petition to ask parliamentarians to postpone the vote on the pension bill. Fillon, who is today the prime minister, praised Thibault for his “responsible attitude” (Le Monde, 15 June 2003).
In late October 2005, when police chased two teenagers to their deaths in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, suburban ghettos across the country erupted in weeks of rioting. Suffering from vicious racism and chronically high unemployment, the impoverished Arab and black ghetto residents burned cars, attacked government buildings and clashed with police. Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, declared a state of emergency and echoed the National Front in describing the rioters as “scum.” The leadership of the unions, as well as the reformist PS and PCF, made some criticisms of the government’s response, but their attitude toward the suburban population has long been tainted with racist disdain.
The government responded to the riots with heavy police repression but also with an “Equality of Opportunity” bill to, among other things, reinstate night work for 15-year-olds and deny family allowance benefits to parents whose children skip school. Particularly cynical was Prime Minisiter Dominique de Villepin’s proposal to reduce youth unemployment by creating a First Job Contract (CPE), under which workers could be fired without cause anytime during the first two years of employment—a major revision of France’s labor laws. This sparked an eruption of mass mobilizations and strikes across the country between February and April 2006. On 28 March the total number of protesters was estimated at some 3 million, and a similar number turned out on 4 April. I was in Paris for the demonstration that day, and there were as many as 700,000 people on the streets—it was by far the biggest demo I’ve ever been on. The students and youth were particularly vibrant and full of life, but the fix was already in, as the CGT leaders and company were ready to pull the plug on the movement. In the end the government was forced to scrap the CPE, but much of the rest of the “Equality of Opportunity” law remained (see 1917 No.29).
The next year the right-wing government finally managed to impose the public-sector pension “reform” on workers in the large enterprises (rail, Paris transit and energy). On 14 November 2007, on the eve of a scheduled public transport strike, the CGT’s Thibault met with Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand and agreed to company-by-company negotiations. This was deliberately intended to short-circuit the possibility of a concerted struggle to defeat the measure. Once again the grateful capitalists were moved to praise their labor lackey, and Claude Guéant, a presidential spokesperson, declared that “Bernard Thibault has seen to it that the crisis can be resolved from the first day of conflict” (Le Monde, 15 November 2007). Thibault handed Sarkozy a major victory, allowing him to impose the same reactionary takeaway that Juppé had attempted 12 years earlier.
Capitalist Crisis & Working-Class Resistance
Unlike in Canada or the U.S., in France the bourgeoisie is very much aware of the possibility that the working class could seek a revolutionary solution if the situation becomes too desperate. During the economic meltdown of September 2008, Sarkozy felt it necessary to declare: “the crisis is not a crisis of capitalism” (LeFigaro.fr, 25 September 2008). In response to downsizing and looming austerity, the French working class began to mobilize for strike action. Throughout the first half of 2009, there were cases of workers occupying factories, ransacking government buildings and temporarily detaining their bosses. Former Prime Minister de Villepin warned of a “risk of revolution”: “[People have the] feeling that we’re doing a lot for the banks, we’re doing a lot to help businesses but that the workers themselves are paying the costs of the crisis, that it’s always the same ones who suffer” (LePoint.fr, 19 April 2009).
The reason that FOX News and its ilk have such a particular antipathy for France has a lot to do with the fact that Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism that “there is no alternative” to brutal capitalist exploitation never gained much traction among the French masses. A poll commissioned by the BBC World Service to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last November  found that only “11% of those questioned across 27 countries said that [free-market capitalism] was working well” compared to 23 percent who felt it was “fatally flawed and [that] a different economic system is needed.” This latter sentiment, which was shared by only 13 percent of respondents in the U.S. and 20 percent in Canada, was supported by 43 percent in France. This provides a rough index of the relative level of class consciousness. What was also interesting in the BBC account is that there were higher levels of anti-capitalist sentiment in France than in Mexico, Brazil or any other country mentioned.
While many French workers have a basic idea of how a “different economic system” to replace free-market irrationality might work, it is important not to exaggerate the likelihood of revolutionary struggle erupting in the near future. The semi-spontaneous strike wave of 2009 was chiefly defensive in character, and in many places focused on demands for things like better severance pay. While the level of militancy and degree of participation indicated the potential for more serious struggle, the union leadership was once again able to contain the discontent. Instead of organizing a general strike (like the successful ones that erupted in the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe in early 2009), Thibault and his cronies resorted to yet another series of isolated “days of action,” the highpoint of which came on 19 March 2009, when 3 million people participated. The level of activity declined afterward, though there were heated conflicts throughout the summer. Sarkozy began to prepare another attack on pensions in a new round of austerity in 2010.
That round commenced this past February , when talks with the unions began. A national day of action was organized on 23 March and two more were held in May. In June the government announced it was opting to raise the official retirement age to 62 by 2018 and to increase the contribution period to 41.5 years by 2020. The CGT leaders, and most of the other unions, which formally oppose the age hike, are meekly requesting “real negotiations” to “rewrite” the text (Le Monde, 1 July 2010). On 24 June, as many as 2 million people were in the streets protesting the pension reform, which, while important in its own right, has also become a symbol for generalized capitalist austerity.
The labor bureaucrats decided to hold the next day of action a full two and a half months later, on 7 September, when parliament began debating the bill. I and other IBT comrades were on the demonstration in Paris, which drew up to 270,000 protesters (out of a total of 2.7 million across France). Anecdotally, no one we talked to seemed to disagree with the idea that a general strike is the only way to force the government to back down. While we can’t know what’s going through people’s minds, I think it’s safe to say that a clear call for a general strike from the CGT would be immediately and enthusiastically picked up by the base of the unions and the wider workers’ movement, which wants to smash Sarkozy, but lacks a class-struggle leadership willing to do what is necessary.
The CGT bureaucrats are fond of saying that a general strike is not decreed, it is built. It is certainly true that an authoritative force in the labor movement with influence in all industries and parts of the country is required to build a general strike, but that’s precisely what the CGT tops are trying to prevent. Instead, there is another day of action planned for next Thursday, 23 September. These days of action are not building toward a general strike—they are in place of one. Barring a rank-and-file revolt that sets off a general strike (which would, initially at least, be over the heads of the national union leadership), it seems likely the government is going to score a victory: it will get its pension reform, with perhaps a few minor concessions. This would represent a serious blow, demoralizing at least the softer layer of working-class militants at a time when further austerity measures are being planned.
Racist Anti-Immigrant Campaign
In France, as elsewhere, the ruling class has sought to blame many of the ill effects of the global economic downturn on the most vulnerable sectors of society. In late July , Sarkozy delivered a major “law and order” speech in Grenoble, where less than two weeks earlier riots had broken out when a young man of North African descent, Karim Boudouda, who was suspected of robbing a casino, was killed in a gunfight with the cops. The authorities responded by locking down the neighborhood of Villeneuve, home to many Arabs and blacks. The residents of Villeneuve, who already suffer from poverty, high unemployment, widespread anti-social violence and other social pathologies produced by institutional racism under capitalism, had to endure Sarkozy’s insulting pronouncement that the riots could be attributed to “insufficiently regulated immigration.” The recent ban of the burqa, which supposedly reinforces secularism and women’s rights, is in fact an expression of the same racist conception.
Sarkozy announced his intent to table legislation to strip French citizenship from foreign-born citizens convicted of harming a police officer or practicing polygamy (New York Times, 9 August 2010). The legislation also abolishes the right of immigrants’ children born in France to citizenship at age 18 if they are convicted of a crime as a minor. These measures, which are almost identical to proposals made by the National Front during the 2007 presidential campaign, led an FN leader to comment that Sarkozy’s initiative “lends legitimacy to our arguments” (Le Monde, 15 August 2010).
Sarkozy’s proposals, which clearly violate the first article of the French constitution supposedly guaranteeing “equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin,” are pitched as necessary in a “national war” (Le Monde, 3 August 2010) against criminal elements. Everyone recognizes that the targets are Arabs and blacks, who are not really considered part of the French “nation.” Sarkozy’s vicious campaign to strip citizenship from the children of immigrants parallels the actions of the Vichy regime, which during WWII deprived some 15,000 people, mostly Jews, of French citizenship.
Sarkozy also stepped up measures to “evacuate” Roma (or “Gypsies”) from informal camps and squats inhabited by an estimated 15,000 men, women and children. Hundreds of Roma have been “voluntarily” shipped back to Romania and Bulgaria. Even before Sarkozy’s pronouncement, many Roma had been deported. In 2009, almost 11,000 Roma were kicked out of France. And the “evacuation” of camps, too, is nothing new. The local governments that have initiated many of these attacks have often been composed of left-wing parties. On 6 July , for instance, police in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, which is run by the Communist Party, evacuated 150 Roma from their shantytown. On 1 September, when Martine Aubry, the leader of the Socialist Party who is also the mayor of the city of Lille, ordered the local police not to carry out any more expulsions, Sarkozy responded by pointing out that in April she had asked authorities to expel a Roma camp in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, a suburb of Lille (Le Monde, 3 September 2010).
To their credit, many French leftists have come out in opposition to these vicious attacks. Two weeks ago, on 4 September, a total of 100,000 demonstrators in 140 towns and cities across the country marched to protest the government’s anti-immigrant repression and the campaign against the Roma.
For a Revolutionary Workers’ Party!
The situation in the French workers’ movement provides a clear example of what Trotsky called a “crisis of leadership.” The official leaders of the working class—both in the unions and the reformist workers’ parties—offer occasional verbal criticism of Sarkozy’s attacks, but their actions demonstrate that they are more concerned about propping up the capitalist status quo than advancing the interests of working people.
The three main “far left” groups support the labor bureaucracy—some openly and some with a bit of criticism. None of them are making any attempt to build serious resistance, much less organize a fight for militant leadership in the unions. The organization associated with the late Pierre Lambert (today called the Independent Workers Party [POI]), which long claimed to be “anti-revisionist,” has fallen so far as to embrace French nationalism. The POI falsely asserts that the French bourgeoisie’s anti-working-class attacks are caused by pressure from the European Union and the United States.
LO, a group that long prided itself on its proletarian orientation, pushes bland reformism and low-grade class-collaborationist electoralism at the local and regional levels. The LCR, which for the past decade has been the most dynamic force on the “far left,” recently rebranded itself the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) and formally repudiated the nominal Trotskyism which it had long espoused. The NPA has spent the past year signing joint statements with the PS, PCF, union bureaucrats and various small bourgeois parties in pursuit of a sub-reformist “citizens’ mobilization” to pressure the government to “reconsider the place of work in our society” (Le Monde, 15 June 2010).
There is a huge gap between the tasks that confront the working class and the reformist class collaboration pushed by the various left organizations. Over the past 15 years, French workers have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to fight capitalist austerity. When the current economic crisis erupted in 2008, the French ruling class was at a disadvantage in comparison with its rivals in Canada, the U.S. and most other imperialist countries, which over the preceding decades had successfully hobbled the workers’ movement and are therefore far less concerned about the possibility of popular anger destabilizing their system. The French bourgeoisie remains confronted with a more militant working class which, despite the best efforts of the servile union bureaucracy and decrepit reformist parties, has not forgotten how to fight. While we can expect working-class resistance in all the advanced capitalist countries in the coming period, we are seeing it now in France, prior to the advent of really savage attacks of the sort that touched off the strikes and protests in Greece.
What is urgently needed is the creation of a revolutionary Trotskyist formation to fight inside and outside the unions to counterpose class-struggle politics to the reformism of the union bureaucracy and the left and “far left.” An authentically revolutionary organization would actively champion full citizenship rights for the Roma and all immigrants. It would support every fight against the attacks of the bosses and their state, whether over pensions, healthcare, jobs or anything else. Yet the role of a Marxist vanguard is not merely to lead a fightback, but to find ways to transform defensive actions into a working-class offensive to win full employment through a combination of reducing the work week with no loss in pay and the initiation of a massive public-works project to improve infrastructure, public transportation, education and other human services in suburban, urban and rural areas alike.
The situation in France today is not like the one we currently confront in North America—there is a tangible prospect that a genuinely revolutionary organization of even a few hundred people could make rapid progress. By advancing a transitional program to connect opposition to capitalist attacks to the struggle for workers’ power, a fighting Bolshevik-Leninist group could play a catalytic role in building a mass revolutionary party capable of smashing capitalist rule and opening the road to the Socialist United States of Europe.