The Jobless Movement in France

French unemployed demonstration

"HELL INSIDE, HELL OUTSIDE" - slogan of French demonstrators describing the relationship between work and unemployment.

It is difficult to explain the situation of an unemployed person in France to non-French people - the various benefits which could be paid, or not paid, to somebody having formerly been a "wage earner". The official figures record three million "unemployed" people (those receiving unemployment benefits) but exclude people who have "lost" or not had the "right" to this benefit (those getting only the minimum allowance "R.M.I." Revenu Minimum d'Insertion, minimal income while waiting for a job). The latter are not recorded as "unemployed". To understand this situation we have to explain that in France , "unemployment benefits" are only allowed if you have previously worked, the level of the benefit is directly linked to former wages and the payment period linked to the length of the working period: the more you have worked, the longer you will be paid; the more you have earned , the more you will get. Sooner or later if you have not found another job, you will be left with nothing and then you can ask for the RMI. Single young people can't get any benefit till they reach 25.

If we add to the "unemployed category all other people like "RMIsts" or young people obliged to live with their parents who are often forced to survive through moonlighting, more than 6 million of people ( out of 26 million able to work) have to be classified in the new industrial category "precarious". i.e. people forced to look for any type of temporary job, however badly paid, for their daily survival. Their daily life is at the same time an immediate struggle for survival and worries about what tomorrow will bring. If the figures have meaning and if we take into account only what is "officially" paid as wages and/or benefits ( which means that some people can get far more or far less or even nothing at all), we can find that:

- Less than 25 % of the "precarious" population receives between 0 and 3.000 f per month ( £300.00/$500)

- Less than 27 % receives between 3 and 4.000 F ( £300.00-400.00/$500-$675)

- Less than 33% between 4 and 6.000 F ( £400.00 -600.00/$675-$1,000)

- Less than 15% receiving more than 6.000 F (£600.00/ $1,000 )

We must add that the SMIC ( Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance: minimum monthly wage) is between 5 and 6.000 F (£500.00-600.00/$850-$1,000) and that unemployment benefits decrease according to the previous time worked. It is possible for an unemployed person to quickly jump from one category to the next lower one and at the end finish with the RMI or nothing at all, unless they are lucky enough to find another job - a job generally paid far below the previous one .

Untill recently, the unions and political parliamentary parties were not at all interested in the existing unemployed organizations. Most of the "big" unions ( CGT linked to the communist party, CFDT and FO both linked to the socialist party) were even very hostile toward them, claiming to be the only legal "representatives " of the workers

- employed or unemployed. (It would too long to explain this legal distinction that effectively gives the unions a monopoly which they fiercely defend because it is an important part of their power). During the jobless movement , we could see a clear division between these unions:

- on one hand the CGT is trying to exploit local situations mainly through committees organized to fight redundancies and the closures of some factories, especially in the Marseilles district after the shut-down of the shipyards and the restructuring of the dock work.

- on the other hand the CFDT and FO who hold to their initial positions and refused any contact with the unemployed organizations, even protesting when the government discusses directly with them.

The main unemployed organizations existed for years but never became any kind of mass organization even a low level one. They never tried to resort to radical actions beyond tiny street demonstrations. They were more the result of the activism of ultra left, anarchist or Marxist organizations that were often also involved in committees fighting for illegal immigrants or the homeless, etc... The most widely known unemployed organizations ( which obtained this kind of "recognition" when called on for advice by the government during the movement) were:

"Partage" , the first association of unemployed founded by an individual but remaining very small , the MNCP ( National Movement of Unemployed and "Precarious" ), the CDSL (Homeless Committee), l'APEIS ( Association for employment and engagement of wage earners) linked to the Communist Party et AC ( Act Against Unemployment) with a background of Trotskyists ( Ligue Communiste), left Catholics and anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT. Outside the Marseilles district, the militants of these various groups were in a way the movement's vanguard and the main active people within it. Untill December 97, all actions or attempts at actions launched by these "unemployed" organizations were rather patchy , symbolic and did not get any publicity, either because they remained isolated or localized and did not garner much support, or because their isolation did not generate any interest in political circles. More or less they obtained support from the fringe, alternative unions formed in the aftermath of the December 95 movement; often the same militants could be found within these unions and also within various specific organizations for the immigrants, the homeless , etc..

The pretext for the start of the movement was a reform of the unemployment benefit system. The benefits in which payment is linked to a period of work are paid out of special funds. The money is obtained from a tax levied on wages by both employers and employees and managed jointly by the employers' association and workers' unions; the local funds are called ASSEDIC but they are capped by a national organization UNEDIC which fixes the conditions of payment of the benefits . These organizations and especially the national one - UNEDIC - are bureaucracies in which the workers' unions fight more over political positions than economic ones. Recently the presidency of UNEDIC, for a long time in the hands of the FO union, switched to the CFDT with the help of the employers' association. This inter-union competition may have played a role in the development of the movement, but it was not an essential role and can only explain some minor tendencies, opinions or support of the movement that followed.

Until last July , the UNEDIC had a special "social fund" which allowed the ASSEDIC to dispense "emergency benefits " to the most distressed unemployed; this benefit was generally paid at the end of the year. A new collective agreement for the management of the UNEDIC was signed between the employers' association and the majority of the workers' unions in July '97. Only one union refused to sign ( the industrial relation law is such that if only one workers union out of five signs it , the agreement is valid). The agreement was scheduled to be implemented on October 1, 1997. The "emergency benefits " more or less dried up. For example, in a suburban district of Paris "Val de Marne", these emergency benefits were cut from 52 million in 96 to 15 million in 97 ( from £5 million to 1.5 million/$9 million to $2.5 million); in 1996 in the Marseilles District ( Bouches du Rhone 55.000 unemployed previously received a special benefit of 1,500 F (£150.00/ $250).

Another aspect of this movement, both in the intentions of the militants and in the importance given to the movement by the media, has to be situated in the political background and in the uncomfortable position of the social democrat majority and their supporters in the government. They are trapped between their electoral promises of a quick solution to the "unemployment problem "and the imperatives of managing the capitalist system in France and in Europe ( chiefly with the advent of the European Monetary Union with a common currency). Their present position is particularly uncomfortable because they can foresee not only the rise of discontent among voters reacting to the pressures of daily life but also the potential outburst of a social movement which, even if they could think such a movement could be controlled, channeled or localized, could still be very disruptive. These movements appear to be dangerous, not only for the current Socialist Party regime's political positions, but also for the stability of the capitalist system as a whole. Considering the levels of unemployment and the lack of real solutions ( which politicians are unable to provide because the problem is a consequence of a world situation they have no possibility of influencing) the political leaders could find such radical movements difficult to stop. Similar situations have already erupted during the past ten years into wider, uncontrolled movements which were stopped only by the withdrawal of the measures which started the process. What these movements had in common was that they were sudden reactions to some very precise limited issues, issues not supposed to create such responses; movements expressing a widespread refusal of the system even if it was not openly claimed as such. It is certain that this fear ( and the fear that some limited, disconnected movements could connect to a wider groundswell of discontent difficult to stop) was present in the attitude of all the political milieu. We are obliged to see in the background of the unemployed movement a kind of counter-reflex aimed at crushing in advance a potentially far more important movement.

Apparently, the local unemployed organization of Marseilles (mentioned previously) on December 4th demanded a special benefit of 3,000 F ( £300.00) to be paid to every unemployed person at the end of the year. To support their demand, they started sit-ins in 7 local ASSEDIC offices in the Marseilles district. At the same time, AC organized a sit- in former offices of a closed steel factory, property of the De Wendel company ( the very tough president of the employers association CNPF is also the president of this big industrial holding). If these localized struggles had such a popularity from the start, contrary to the previous actions, it is because beyond the "militantism" or the political manipulations there existed a general awareness concerning the problems of unemployment and work - and linked to this a more general idea about redistribution of wealth. The counter - attack of manipulations, feigned sensitivity, and mediatisation were present in the rise of this movement and must be seen in dialectical relation to it.

From the beginning, the movement not only became stronger and more widespread and was very different from "traditional "movements. It was not "organized " with a kind of central planning, and did not give birth to regional or national coordinating organization. It appeared in a rather scattered way all over France, with different initiatives, with regrouping for local actions, sometimes immediate short-term guerrilla actions , sometimes more permanent sit-ins ( until the inevitable police eviction). Some of these actions were tightly controlled by unemployed organization linked to unions or political parties, but on the other hand, other actions totally escaped this control, impelled by some "unorganized "militants acting more from inside independent local collectives than on behalf of a political or unemployed organization. For this reason, considered as a whole, the movement gave the impression of being something very confused, going in every direction without co-ordination and often making demands beyond the original demand of a special emergency benefit at the end of the year. These new claims were very practical but nevertheless had a more generalized meaning ( for instance demanding there should be no more electricity cutoffs in people's homes because of non-payment of bills). The fact that the movement was wide-spread all over France had nothing to do with any specific organization, but was due more to its own dynamics embodied in local individuals. Even if the majority of activists in the movement were militants or ex-militants of various groups involved in separate struggles ( immigrants, homeless, squats,...), the movement succeeded in gaining the active support of many "unorganized" unemployed people and some workers as well ( sometimes through the involvement of the marginal unions ( SUD , CNT,...). Most of the time , all these militants were active more as individuals motivated to struggle against a "social problem" than as foot-soldiers or deputies of "their " organization.

But we have to emphasize an important fact: even with these distinctive characteristics, the movement remained from beginning to end the action of a small minority. At the height of the movement, 30 ASSEDIC offices were occupied ( out of 600 all over France) - but these 30 were spread all over France. All the same, the demonstrations, even if they took place in more than 26 towns did not gather more than 30 to 40,000 people . These are very small numbers considering the 3 million "officially "unemployed or the 6 million "precarious". A commentator wrote that the " numbers are less important than popularity ". It was true, in a certain sense, as we can see in the results of a poll showing that 70% of the French population "supported" the movement. We could again here the slogan of 1995 that the active people were acting "instead of", i.e. the apology for a minority vanguard movement. If this "popularity" effectively allowed some more radical actions than the traditional ones, often going beyond what is illegally allowed, on the other hand such limited and well "supported" actions fed an illusion (counterbalancing the fear of politicians of a larger, growing movement) that this "diffuse vanguard" could effectively pull together a wider movement. This point deserves more comment because the movements in recent years sometimes were far more extensive than the immediate issues that were initially the pretext in starting them. These movements grew independently of all militant action - but the growth of such movements could have spread the idea that a vanguard could - if correctly used- be the motor of a larger resistance.

The sit-ins were the result of the activity of often only a few dozens "militants", sometimes up to one hundred. Initially only the ASSEDIC offices were invaded, yet these occupations were directed against quite a lot of other targets too: posh hostels and restaurants , bosses' offices, headquarters of political parties ( especially of the Socialist Party), EDF (state-run utility) offices, supermarkets, High Schools ( among them the famous Ecole Normale Superieure) etc...When the government seemed to yield only crumbs to support the counter-attack and the "recognized "organizations, linked to the political parties or other marginal political connections that tried to calm down or stop the occupation movement, this movement split up in all directions, often in swift, suddenly decided actions involving for instance, taking free goods and services in supermarkets , restaurants , or transportation, or else the disruption of various ceremonies (concerts, grand openings,...)

Even if such actions were rather limited and essentially involved organized militants more than unemployed or "precarious" people themselves, some rank and file committees were starting to be built. For instance , a daily assembly met in a Paris University ( Jussieu) to discuss various positions and to co-ordinate actions, but at its best, only 200 participants met there. The EDF office in the 18th district of Paris was occupied for more than one week before the occupiers were evicted by the police; some residents of this working class district joined the action committee's activity.

On the 15th of January, the government decide to put 1 billion F (£100/$150million) into special "emergency funds" to grant a special benefit to the people in "social distress" and to launch promises like special committees to study the problem, the passage a law "against exclusion ", granting official representation status to some of the unemployed organizations and offering early retirement at 55 for those unemployed who had paid retirement contributions for 40 years. From this moment, the "serious" unemployed organizations following the wishes of the government, withdrew their support for the movement. Even if the movement went ahead, pushed by its own dynamics in autonomous daily actions, these actions became more and more sporadic and the decline of the movement started at the beginning of February. If it was the intent of the "legal " part of the movement to build a counter-response, they - and the social democrat government - achieved their aim ; but it is difficult to say if this was so because nowhere was there a fire to dampen . On the other hand , if some of the more radical militants active from the start hoped to open the Pandora's box of a large movement, they totally missed their target. It is true that the number of unemployed and "precarious" and the size of their problems as well as the previous more or less spontaneous and unforeseeable movement could have led these militants to think a larger movement would emerge. But they now have to jump to the conclusion that their militancy experienced a failure and if they reflect on this - to understand that this failure is the failure of the concept of a search for a 'revolutionary subject", the basis for the building either a revolutionary party or an "organized " class movement.

Anyway, such a movement, even as limited and manipulated as it was, was in certain respects a spontaneous one . If it could raise such fears or hopes, it is because it was connected to those previous movements having developed special characteristics for the past ten years. We can find such tendencies in distinct movements like the actions of illegal immigrants, of young people living in the suburbs, homeless people, and quite a lot of workers fighting individually or collectively, as in December '95 . It is not by accident that the slogan then was "Altogether". The only fear of the rulers of this society have is that these movements, completely distinct but recurrent in their particularity, could connect in a formal way and then give birth to a far stronger mass movement. Of course it is impossible to tell when and how this could happen but it is at least potentially a real problem. If this happens, we will see the true nature of all kinds of political or specific organizations which applied brakes on the movement when it escaped their control or political framework. The form of rank and file autonomous organizations, which this time were on the fringe of the movement, could then take on real size and function. But they will have to fight against far more severe repression and fight against more clever attempts at recuperation and disintegration than we have seen in the last weeks of the jobless movement.

Henri Simon Feb. 1998

This is an article from Collective Action Notes, issue #14/15, pp 1-2.