The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

France:
An Assessment of the September 7th Movement

Nov 12, 2010

The following article is a translation of an article written by the comrades of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the French Trotskyist organization, appearing in the November 2010 issue of Lutte de Classe [Class Struggle] concerning the demonstrations that marked the French political scene last autumn.

No one could have predicted, on the eve of the September 7th demonstrations, that they would be the beginning of a period of mobilization which would last about two months and that these demonstrations would influence the social and political events in this 2010 “rentrée” [that is, the beginning of work and school in September after vacations].

Not the government in any case. The government that initiated the so-called “reform” of pensions was more worried at that time about the troubles Woerth had. As minister of labor, he was supposed to run the reform but he had been weakened by revelations about the Bettencourt scandal. (Lilane Bettencourt, who owns cosmetics multinational business L’Oréal, holds one of the biggest fortunes in France. Revelations showed that Bettencourt lied about tax evasion while Woerth was budget minister and his wife was working for Bettencourt.)

The awakening of consciousness in political and social life sometimes takes detours which are not always immediately perceptible. The successive revelations of the Bettencourt affair, the wealth of this billionaire, her way of life, the favors she was getting from the state, the small gifts she was giving out to representatives or ministers, the multiple links between politicians and the high bourgeoisie, certainly played a role to motivate those who were going to participate in the mobilization.

In a period when life in the working classes is more and more difficult, this small window opened on the world of the rich, on their practices and their lifestyle, and entered the collective consciousness of the popular classes. In much the same way, two years before, tens of billions had been distributed to the bankers while an increasing fraction of the working class was sinking into unemployment. Inequalities and injustices are permanent in capitalist society. But at times they appear in full daylight.

At the beginning of September, the government was more worried about extricating itself from the Woerth-Bettencourt affair than about the workers’ mobilization.

Why Did the Union Federations Change Policy?

The first day of the demonstrations, September 7th, was something new compared to the year before. First of all because there WAS a call to demonstrate, missing in the 2009 “rentrée,” (the September return.) And the date itself was something new, as it so quickly followed the “rentrée.” Finally, for the first time, the union federations, united, announced in advance there would be another day of demonstrations, even while they were calling for the September 7th demonstrations.

Why this attitude from the union leaderships, and why, above all, this change compared to earlier years?

For years, the union federations have kept a low profile, whether facing the government or the bosses. In May 2003, the CFDT had signed a shameful agreement on pensions, which had been justly interpreted by a number of its own militants as a surrender to Fillon, then minister of labor. (The number of years during which one contributes to get a full pension – which had been increased from 37.5 years to 40 for the workers of the private sector in 1993 – was then extended to the state workers. Moreover they were increased progressively so that by 2012, all workers would have to put in 41 years in 2012 to get a pension, and increases were to continue to keep pace with life expectancy.)

The CGT leadership had shown itself more and more ready to compete with the CFDT on the CFDT’s own field, acting as a partner to the bosses, participating at the end of January in a series of forums organized by President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss how to develop French industry.

The CFDT had paid a heavy price for its signature on the agreement with Fillon, with 30,000 members choosing to quit.

The CGT did not have such a brutal loss, but discontent among its militants was discernible. It could be seen in the demoralization of some of the militants, in the fact that others quit being active, and in the criticism of the leadership, which could be heard even among officials at different levels.

The two main federations, CGT and CFDT, were losing ground not only among workers but also, and maybe above all, among their militants, among the lower and middle-level officials who are the living force of the unions in the workplaces, in the local and departmental unions and in the trade federations. And the government gave the federation leaders nothing to pay them back for their loss in credibility with their base.

The problem became visible on the question of pensions.

Sarkozy meant to make the “pension reform” the highlight of his five years in power. The union leaders had expected that, on a reform dealing with a social question, they would be involved in negotiations and that they would be able to justify their role and their readiness to negotiate, producing a “success” they could brandish in front of the discontent of their base.

Well, they were not invited to the negotiations! The government even treated the union leaderships like a negligible quantity. Enough to enrage even the leader of the CFDT.

The union federations have been reformist for a long time – and most have always been so. It has been a long time since they wanted to propose objectives or a program of struggle to the workers, facing the big bosses. Their attitude facing the offensive of the bourgeoisie since the beginning of the crisis shows that.

But the union leaderships did not want to lose their credibility with the workers for nothing. This credibility is precisely what they can capitalize on with the bourgeoisie. All the union federations needed to recover credibility. This was the objective basis for their agreement and their unity.

Confronted with a losing situation, regarding both the workers and the government, the union leaderships chose to react. But, by reacting in accordance with the interests of their apparatuses, in September and October, the union federations opened the floodgates through which the workers poured, expressing the discontent they had long held in.

With the “pension reform” and the discussion on the age of retirement brought in front of the parliament, the union federations found an opportunity to engage in a kind of arm wrestling with the government – on a ground which was not fundamentally dangerous to the bourgeoisie.

The focal point of Sarkozy’s reform was the change from 60 to 62 years for the legal age to retire. And it is on this ground and only on this ground that the Socialist Party opposed Sarkozy, obscuring the question of how long workers would have to pay into the system to get a full pension. For the big bosses, the age of retirement is not crucial. The bosses from the big industrial companies are the first to want to get rid of the worn-out workers even before they reach 60 years old. For the big bosses, what is at stake is the number of years workers must contribute to qualify. And beyond that, what is at stake is the freedom for the bosses to use the pension funds as they wish, just like any other public fund. They don’t want to pay the real or supposed deficit and they don’t want the state to pay either. Sarkozy’s reform meant that workers have to pay for two more years or they get a cut in their pensions.

From the point of view of the bosses, there is not a big difference between Sarkozy’s reform and the program of the Socialist Party.

In the end, government majority and opposition, as well as all the union federations, tacitly agreed that the controversies should revolve around the age of retirement and that the movement too should be on that ground.

Workers Step through the Opening

The policy of the union federations can be very well explained by the self-interest of their apparatuses. But what explains the duration and extent of the movement of September-October was the response the federations met from the workers.

The first to step into the breach opened by the union leaders were the union activists themselves. For several months, CGT activists had been chomping at the bit. And then, their leaders gave them the opportunity to act. The attitudes of these activists have obviously been different from one sector to another. Even within a branch as big and important for the movement as the SNCF, French railways, reactions have been quite different from one region to another, from one station to another, between those who were pushing in favor of the strike, or even of blocking stations or trains, and those who were only following the movement.

One of the remarkable aspects of this movement was that it brought out an unusual number of workers from small workplaces. And the role of the activists from the local unions was undeniable in bringing them out.

Except for some sectors where strikes were important – the SNCF in a certain way, more so in the oil refineries, the docks in Marseille, the trash collection in several big cities – the demonstrations, not the strikes, were the distinctive aspect of the movement. The successive demonstrations allowed the development of the movement and the movement structured itself around them.

Even the existence of different sorts of demonstrations turned out to be useful for the development of the movement. There were demonstrations on working days when participating meant being on strike or not working at that time; and there were demonstrations on Saturdays that allowed those who were not yet ready to lose half or one full day of their pay to participate. And it also allowed some to evaluate their participation according to what they had already lost on their salary.

The succession of demonstrations allowed the movement to grow, with its peak coming on October 12th and 19th. Since the movement focused overwhelmingly on demonstrations alone, that also set its limit.

Except for workers from the refineries, the majority of workers from the big industrial companies were not driven to strike. The work stoppages appeared in the private sector as a kind of technical supplement meant to facilitate participating in the demonstrations. They were neither the beginning of a strike movement, nor of explosive strikes leading toward a general strike.

It is childish to blame the absence of a strike wave on the absence of a call for a general strike from the union federations. Of course, they, and particularly the CGT and CFDT did not have a policy of preparing for a general strike. But they did not try to slow down anything because there was nothing to slow down. SUD and FO were more inclined to issue radical slogans – which they had neither the strength nor the necessary authority to carry out.

Arm wrestling with Sarkozy through demonstrations suited the union leaderships. But it also suited the workers. Once again, here were the limits of the movement:

The bosses were not directly threatened because their interests and their profits were not threatened (except marginally, in some circumscribed sectors like the small and middle bosses of Marseille, who erupted in rage when the port was blocked).

Yet, despite its limits, the movement pulled along at least three million workers, be they active, unemployed or retired, in collective action on a national scale.

One of the most important aspects of the movement was precisely this: it was not the movement of one category, it was a movement of workers, all categories mixed together, against the government and its policy. It was a political movement raising the workers up not only against a particular boss, but also against the bosses in general and against the government.

This characteristic contributed to make the movement popular well beyond those who participated. The polls, even with their limits, testified to this, showing that the movement had the sympathy of two thirds or even more of public opinion (which means the overwhelming majority of the workers). And even more significant was the sympathy expressed by most workers toward the workers of the sectors who were fighting the most. For example, other workers didn’t complain about the railway workers, even though they were prevented from going to work. The workers in the refineries, whose strike threatened to paralyze the economy, were warmly supported by other workers who expressed their support in many ways.

The non-sectional and national characteristic of the movement was unique despite the diversity of actions. Other forms of action – such as blocking workplaces, busy intersections, railway stations – were added to the demonstrations, work stoppages and strikes. They have often been used by the union apparatuses in the name of so-called efficiency, replacing collective action or even preventing it, but this time, they got their significance within the framework of the collective movement.

Contrary to the dreams or the ramblings of some leftists, the union federations completely kept control of the movement. While the different federations tried to distinguish themselves in their speech, as a whole they remained united through the inter-union committee.

With the decline of the movement, when FO differentiated itself and when the different unions started to show divergences, commentators rambled on a lot to explain why. As if it were something unusual, when it was only the ordinary state of affairs reasserting itself when the movement declined.

The union federations maintained their unity during the two months of the movement because none of them wanted to step back for fear of being discredited. Thanks to the movement, they all recovered some credibility and none wanted to lose this advantage.

The Winners of the Movement

Two days after the demonstrations on Saturday November 6th, the headline of Le Figaro proclaimed: “Weakened and divided trade unions.” Divided? What insight! As if they hadn’t been before the movement! As if they weren’t all the time! Weakened? Wishful thinking on the part of the right-wing newspaper journalist. The trade-union leaders won the arm wrestling with Sarkozy, even if the movement did not make him change his mind about “pension reform.” The trade-union leaders demonstrated to the government and to the bourgeoisie that they are a force to be reckoned with. Their ability to make workers take to the street will be understood by their “social partners” as an ability to make workers return to the factories, even to keep them there.

What they will do with this renewal of credibility is another matter. The CFDT leader ChérPque gave a hint in a television debate with, among others, CGT leader Bernard Thibault and Laurence Parisot, the leader of the bosses’ organization MEDEF. He pounced on a vague proposal by Laurence Parisot to engage in negotiations, just like a hungry dog pounces on a bone.

The offer by the trade union leaders is to both the bosses and the governments – not only to the current Fillon government or to a possible new Fillon (right-wing) government or to another new government emerging from a reshuffle. The proximity of the 2012 elections opens other prospects to the trade union leaders. In a political context marked by discrediting of the right-wing government, including in its own camp, and by the possibility that the left may return to power, the trade-union apparatus has reason to think that a left wing government will assure them a better position and an increased role.

The Socialist Party, for its part, probably gained something in this movement, be it only because its leaders could take part in the demonstrations without being booed, as some of them noticed with relief. They think they may be able to use the movement to reduce it to a prelude to the elections of 2012.

What the Workers Gained Thanks to Their Movement

Many politicians or union officials expect to benefit from the movement of September-October, and even to make use of it later against the workers. But this movement was, within limits, a success for the workers themselves due to the simple fact that they raised their heads and showed that they cannot be ignored.

During the years of attacks by the bourgeoisie, the working class yielded ground enormously. The responsibility falls on the large reformist parties whose rise to government disarmed, depressed, and demoralized the working class. Just as great is the responsibility of the large trade-union organizations, which never proposed a plan to the workers to defend themselves or counter-attack. Apart from the long-ago 1995 popular upsurge and then in 2006, on a more limited basis, workers endured an almost continuous deterioration in their situation over the last 20 years, practically a generation.

The simple fact of not accepting the latest attack, of reacting collectively, has in itself great significance for the collective consciousness of the working class. This reaction did not upset the relationships of force between employers and the working class, nor even between the government and the working class. But the simple fact of refusing governmental measures and of showing for two months that the refusal did not come from a minority, but from all the workers, is a necessary condition for changing those relations. It is a beginning or, in any case, it can quickly prove to be one. And the social and political landscape has already changed from the same time last year, and even from before the summer break.

The movement etched other ideas, clearly or faintly, in the collective consciousness of all workers: the idea that the government is a government for the rich, which is mocking the problems, the aspirations, and the sufferings of the working classes; the idea that the workers have the same interests and that particular demands, that is all the demands inspired by the illusion that a section of the workers could save themselves by isolating themselves and opposing other section of the working class, are not working.

Although the movement did not involve large numbers of the working class, it involved public and private workers, workers from large and small companies, unemployed and retired workers, as well as young high school students. It was an exploited class opposed to a government of exploiters.

What will remain of the gains of the movement? Nobody can say. Among the workers who took part in the movement, some considered the demonstrations of September-October like a kind of test run, a training or preparation for the future. That can be the case only if there are other fights in the near future against the government and/or employers, taking the struggle to a higher level.

The Capitalist Class and its Government Are Already at War with the Exploited

There is at least one certainty: the offensive against the working class will not stop and can only be accentuated. The crisis is far from being finished. We cannot even say that its hardest phase is behind us. Employers will continue to benefit from unemployment to worsen working conditions, to freeze or even reduce wages and generally to worsen exploitation.

However, surplus value is shared between production and financial activity, and this surplus value as a whole comes from the exploitation of the working class. To maintain and to increase total surplus value, capitalism since its beginnings has done nothing but increase exploitation. In the future, this exploitation will be reinforced by increased pressure from governments – i.e. the states themselves, whatever the label of those who govern – to pay back the amazing sums they borrowed from the financial system, then used to save that system.

“Public debt must be reabsorbed” – this is already and will increasingly be the war cry of governments to justify austerity policies everywhere. And, in all countries, national debt is at such a high level, that even if the economic situation improved, the debt couldn’t soon be eliminated.

It is obvious that a change of president for France or a change in the governmental majority would not alter the problem. The Socialist governments of the other European countries are behaving no differently. The reason for this is simple. The crisis has exacerbated the violence of the bourgeoisie against the working class. To give the workers any protection at all against this offensive, it would be necessary to take radical measures against the big bosses, which these Socialist governments will not do.

The simple possibility of a return to power makes the Socialist Party extremely cautious. They are careful not to make promises which, if taken at their word by the workers, could upset the bosses. On the subject of pensions, it is significant that the Socialist Party makes only one promise: to restore 60 as the legal age of retirement. Time will tell if even this promise will be kept. However they are careful not to promise the right to retire at 60 with a full pension.

The memory left by the Jospin government is still fresh in the minds of the working class, and workers do not expect to be protected by a Socialist government. Votes for the Socialist Party will above all be votes against Sarkozy. For a long time the electoral strategy of the Socialist Party has been limited to arguing, implicitly or explicitly, that “our candidate is the only one capable of beating Sarkozy.”

The Socialist Party in government will be no better than the Right. Not only will it use its own credibility with the workers to persuade them to accept more austerity measures, it will also use the credibility of trade union leaders. And, if the trade union leaders hope to gain a better position for themselves with a left wing government, their relationship with the government will be at the expense of the working class.

The Task of Revolutionaries

Revolutionaries should not embellish their assessment of the September-October movement, but neither should they imitate certain demoralized militants who talk about failure because Sarkozy did not give in, nor imitate many leftists who are prone to wishful thinking. While acknowledging the limits of the movement, the role of revolutionaries is to highlight the lessons learned by it, even if only in embryonic form, and to draw conclusions about the non-corporatist and political nature of the movement. But the work of revolutionaries is also to reveal the intentions of the reformist parties, starting with the Socialist Party, which will endeavor to conclude from the political character of the movement that we must vote in the 2012 elections for a Socialist president to succeed Sarkozy.

Opposing this means explaining that the movement did not need the actions of Socialist Parliament members in order to create a political problem for Sarkozy. What upset Sarkozy was a million workers in the street and the risk that a wave of strikes would emerge from the movement to threaten the bosses and their interests.

It also means demonstrating that the best guarantee for the workers is not to entrust their interests to a parliamentary majority or a president of the Republic. This would be naive concerning the Socialist Party, which was in office not so long ago. As for its potential presidential candidates, former ministers Aubry, Royal and Strauss-Kahn, the latter is still a director of the International Monetary Fund.

The working class can defend its interests only by directly intervening in politics itself with all its weight; in the economy, using its own weapons: strikes, factory occupations and demonstrations. The real political alternative to Sarkozy is not the election of a Socialist president, who would follow largely the same policies as Sarkozy, even if the words used to justify them are different. The bourgeoisie, which holds all the reins of the economy, would not allow another choice within the framework of its institutions.

The real alternative is collective intervention by the ranks of the working class to force the government to withdraw measures unfavorable to the workers’ interests, regardless of the label of the government which proposes such measures. The composition of the government can change, as its political label can change, but it remains “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.”

By learning how to use its class weapons in the political field, the working class will be able to do more than defend itself: it will be able to impose its own class politics, instead of alternatives that hardly differ from the politics of the bourgeoisie. Working class politics – ceasing to recognize private ownership in the means of production, the rule of the market and the dictatorship of individual profit – will offer another prospect to society than the stagnation in which the bourgeoisie keeps it.

12 November 2010