Jul 30, 1983
(The following is a translation of excerpts taken from two articles on the current situation in France, from the May and June issues of Lutte de Classe, the journal published by the French Trotskyist group, Lutte Ouvriere.)
The working class in France has remained singularly quiet since the announcement of the austerity plan in March, although the working class is its principal victim. On the other hand, different categories of the petty bourgeoisie have noisily and spectacularly demonstrated in the streets.
The medical students who protested against the reform project of their studies, were joined by the hospital interns and the chiefs of the clinics who demanded a change in their status. In their turn, other students followed into the streets, essentially those who plan on entering the different professions, the future architects, pharmacists or lawyers.
Also, peasants have attacked a prison in Quimper, a town hall, and more recently they started to build up barricades in the streets of Saint Brieuc.
From their side, the store owners and the managers of the small companies demonstrated two times, May 1 and 5, in Paris and in a certain number of cities in the provinces.
These reactions remain, for the moment, limited. In the universities, the movement was far from including the great mass of students. The student demonstrations in Paris, at the most never surpassed 10,000 participants. The peasant demonstrations concerned only the producers of Breton pork. As for the demonstrations by the shopkeepers, they were not as big as the demonstrations during other periods, even if the one on May 5, with 15,000 people, was bigger than hoped for by its organizers....
After these demonstrations by the petty bourgeoisie which took place this last May, the police also demonstrated in the beginning of June. June 3 several hundred police booed Badinter, the Minister of Justice, in front of his Ministry. Several hundred others, or the same people, booed Deferre, the Minister of the Interior, in front of his ministry. But this anger of the police, spectacularly shown as it was, did not spread. The police who demonstrated are in the minority. Clearly the government today is not directly threatened by its own state apparatus. For the moment, the government doesn’t really have a problem with its own state, in the sense that the state is not revolting against the verdict of the voting booths in 1981, when the left took over the government....
For the moment, the challenge by a minority of police, just as the challenge by the petty bourgeoisie in the streets, does not go beyond the limits of the existing institutions. All these movements have been encouraged, or at least exploited by the right wing party of Chirac, which for a long time has been present within different parts of the state apparatus as well as within all the organizations of the professionals and the petty bourgeoisie. Profiting from old positions, conquered when Chirac was prime minister, conquering new positions by taking advantage of discontent now that it is in the opposition, the RPR (Rassemblement pour la Republique, the major party of the right), simple electoral machine that it is, has transformed itself into a militant organization in all the layers of the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry to the small bosses, up to the police and other layers of the state apparatus.
The right has drawn a lot of people in the middle classes into political activity. It has seized all kinds of opportunities in order to have this politicalization expressed in the streets. And it has done this, even though the political objectives of a Chirac do not by-pass the institutional framework. Even when Chirac proposes to move the elections forward by referendum, he still has electoral objectives. All this is part of a political campaign. And the expression of anger by the police is part of this campaign designed to show that the government’s parliamentary majority no longer represents the sentiments of the majority of the country. For the moment the challenge in the state apparatus is inspired essentially by such political men as Chirac who speculate on everything they can get their hands on. The administrative court’s overturning of the election of a few Communist mayors for electoral fraud is part of the same sort of political campaign. For once, the judges had the heart to come out against practices that everyone knows are carried out everywhere, from the right to the left.
If the Socialists in the government run into political problems with their state apparatus, it does not go beyond, for the moment, the traditional electoralist game....
That which could modify the situation today is that the right in opposition takes less care to stick to legality, to the same strict respect for institutions that the left had when it was in the opposition. The right leads its political battle by using all the means it can, without regard to fair play. When the left was in the opposition, Mitterand never used the union apparatuses in order to give a political challenge to the right in power, even with only an electoral goal in mind. The politicians of the left have never used such a pressure in order to force a change. Of course, after the municipal elections in 1977 when there was a high tide of support for the left, the Socialists said that the right was a minority in the country. But that is all they did. And they were satisfied to wait for the next elections, the legislative elections in 1978. In 1977 we did not see the Socialist Party systematically incite the workers to descend into the streets in order to fight against the government then in place, even in order to have itself take over the government. In 1977, Mitterand was satisfied to debate on television with the prime minister of the time, Raymond Barre. Today Chirac, before the elections, talks of a referendum. The left in the opposition criticized, but never acted like that. The right in opposition uses all the social pressures that it can, from the petty bourgeoisie and from the state apparatus, and takes up a permanent political challenge to the government.
Maybe Chirac is playing with fire and is risking an institutional crisis that goes beyond electoral objectives.
But the right has never feared to take this risk.
Anyway, we are not at the point of an institutional crisis, and the political unrest of the right attains its objective in that it forces the government to retreat. For the moment, this doesn’t mean that the right is able to get a response from the masses. The petty bourgeoisie that is mobilized remains a small minority, as do the protesting police. The army remains quiet.
Only things could change and go much faster than one might think.
The most dangerous factor in this situation is not the ambition of the right. Neither is it its mobilization of the petty bourgeoisie, nor its political campaigns within the state apparatus. What is most dangerous, is the stance of the Socialist Party, which retreats again and again, and gives in so much, until it doesn’t know where to give any more. Under the pretext of taking sanctions against the police, the government gave in to the police by replacing two chiefs with two other men who are well known for their ties to the right, one of whom is a friend of Chirac.
The government’s retreat does not demobilize the right. It only gives an ever increasing appearance of weakness. The government demonstrates its weakness, first on the social level, since it does not answer the demonstrations of the petty bourgeoisie with its own demonstrations. It shows its political weakness even more flagrantly, since each time a layer of the petty bourgeoisie rebels, it gives up a little more. And each time, the Socialist politicians discredit themselves a little more, and first of all in the eyes of the people in the state apparatus, people who would never bet their careers on a loser.
Right now there is no political crisis. But if the economic conflicts increase, if the petty bourgeoisie feels really hurt by the crisis (which for the moment is not the case), if the petty bourgeoisie finds itself massively in the streets, they will have their heart set on the right. Because the left will be discredited, and the right will have precipitated this. But right now the petty bourgeoisie is not in the streets and all this is hypothetical.
The question remains of the possible reactions of the working class. It would be tragic if the working class’s reaction would be weak, disorderly, dispersed, showing more its weakness, its lack of organization and of prospects, than of its strength. Such reactions encourage the adversary rather than dissuade it. It’s what we must fear because the left has efficiently disorganized the workers and prevented them from seeing any prospect....
The danger for the working class does not lie in the fact that the petty bourgeoisie fights for the defense of its interests. Neither is the problem the fact that the petty bourgeoisie want to live better. It is more generally in the relations between the social classes and in the political situation. The petty bourgeoisie is a composite of many layers. Within it are the sections whose living and working conditions are close to the proletariat’s. Others are closer to the capitalist bourgeoisie. But the petty bourgeoisie constitutes a social layer that is different than the working class, often indifferent to its preoccupations and its interests, sometimes hostile. However, if the proletariat was engaged in social and political struggles, if it showed itself to be combative, it could without a doubt find allies among a fraction of the petty bourgeoisie for its fight against the state and against the big bourgeoisie which are their common adversaries....
Today, the fight of the different categories of the petty bourgeoisie remains limited to their particular problems. One more time, the demands of these categories are not antagonistic to the interests of the working class. There is nothing threatening for the working class in the fact that layers of the petty bourgeoisie defend themselves, but the proletariat, present on the political level, must propose a political solution to the petty bourgeoisie.
That which is threatening is that this increase in discontent, and a small amount of combativity of certain layers of the petty bourgeoisie, is taking place while the government is a government of the left and while the working class is absent. If the crisis gets worse, if the petty bourgeoisie really begins to be affected and mobilizes, if the proletariat does not appear as a political force independent of the government, capable of offering a political perspective, then this could be a very dangerous dynamic for the working class.
The bourgeoisie has been able in the past to direct the anger of the petty bourgeoisie in order to crush the proletariat and its organizations. This was fascism.
We are not yet in this situation, nor are we, perhaps, even caught in a situation that could develop into fascism. The small bosses and merchants mobilized by the extreme right, may be crying anti-communist and racist slogans, but they are not yet at the point that they want physically to attack the working class.
But long before a real fascist threat will be seen, there can be many intermediate situations filled with dangers for the working class. Let us not forget Chile.
Allende fell, a victim not of the petty bourgeoisie, but of the army. This is not to say that the petty bourgeoisie did not play a role in his fall. Multiplying the demonstrations, occupying the streets, they furnished a kind of pretext for the army, an army that benefitted from all kinds of concessions from the regime.
But Allende, fallen under the blows of the tanks and planes of Pinochet, was also a victim of his own policy. Just as Mitterand does today in France, Allende governed for the Chilean capitalists. His government fooled the working class, just as the Socialist government today disarms politically, morally and even physically the French workers by using the leftist parties and unions.
Nothing allows us to say that the scenario of events will be the same. But the comparison should make us reflect.
Today the working class leaves the field open to the petty bourgeoisie, hoping to avoid social confrontations. But with the crisis, with the increase in discontent, confrontations are inevitable. The only possible policy is not to rely on the government, nor on the left parties, nor on the unions which support them. To do so would be dangerous for the working class.
The working class must show its force, in the factories, in the streets. Against the big bourgeoisie. But also against a government which is tying the workers’ hands and leading them to defeat.