Last year's social upheaval in France was one of the most significant moments in European class struggle for decades. This Editorial Introduction provides the international and historical background to our Intakes documents from the French events. We begin with the context of drives towards European integration, and then analyse the changing forms of class struggle in France in the last 50 years, including the 1986 riots, the '86-87 rail strike, the Air France rebellion in 1993, and the winter crisis of '95 itself.
Editorial Introduction to articles on the 1995 winter crisis in France
Two million on the streets burning Roman candles, waving red and black banners, and singing the Internationale... A strike, spreading like wildfire from one sector to another through rank and file delegations... Daily assemblies open to all... Occupations... The switching of electricity onto cheap-rate by striking workers... Rioting coal miners... Shock waves reverberating throughout Europe, echoes in Germany and Belgium... And a feeling that anything is possible............
And yet. A movement initiated by the unions. Peaceful demonstrations policed by the unions. Limited extension of the strike beyond the public sector. Silence in the banlieue. An agreement negotiated by the unions. A return to work called by the unions. Central demands not met. And the postponement once more of hopes for real social change............
These contradictory appearances of last years social upheaval in France make an analysis imperative. There is little doubt that the movement was one of the most significant moments in European class struggle for decades. The working class of France once again assumed a central role in the international amphitheatre of class conflict. In 1968 it launched perhaps the most advanced - if not the most enduring - assault on the post-war settlement. In 1995 the working class of France mounted the biggest challenge to date against European capitals attempts to destroy that same settlement and liberate capital from its institutionalized commitments to working class needs.
Around five million workers were on strike for the mass demonstration on December 12th, while a quarter of a million were on indefinite strike throughout the duration of the movement. This easily dwarfs the numbers involved in any struggles in France since 68. And whilst ten million were involved in the general strike of that year, the movement of 95 saw more people demonstrating, and more often, than did that of 68. More than two million took to the streets for the biggest demonstrations.
Was the movement autonomous? Or was it merely a trade union affair? It would be impossible to answer these questions in absolute terms. The realities of class struggle are riven with complicating contradictions even if revolutionaries often see things in black and white:
The struggles have raised echoes of the great movements of 1936 and 1968 and have placed the power of the working class firmly back on the agenda. (Socialist Review, Monthly review of Socialist Workers Party, January 1996)
In reality the French proletariat is the target of a massive manoeuvre aimed at weakening its consciousness and combativity; a manoeuvre, moreover, which is also aimed at the working class in other countries, designed at making it draw the wrong lessons from the events in France. (International Review, 85, Quarterly journal of the International Communist Current, 1996)
The trade unions played a major role in the movement. Union militants, with the approval of their leaders, pushed for the extension of the strike from its initial base and encouraged the setting up of assemblies. On the other hand these assemblies, consisting of union members and non-union members alike, controlled the day to day affairs of the movement and initiatedmost of what was exciting about the movement. Localized autonomy was one of its key features.
In this issue of Aufheben we include as Intakes a number of leaflets and articles translated from French in order to provide documentation of this important movement. The documents we reproduce here help us to appreciate the current state of class struggle in France. However, on their own these documents are not enough. They do not explain to readers outside France how the French working class has arrived at this juncture. In this Editorial Introduction we will therefore try to illuminate these events in the light of their international and historical contexts. We need to be able to appreciate last years movement in relation to the struggles which have preceded it and those which may follow. Our attempt to place the French events in context has inevitably been limited by the problem of the restricted availability of translated material, which may have led to a certain imbalance in the importance we have placed on, and detail we have given on, some struggles while others have been neglected. This imbalance will hopefully be corrected in the future by the increased availability of further translated texts on the recent class struggles in France.
The class struggle in France, whilst occurring within specific geo-political boundaries, does not however take place separately to those in the rest of the world. Its parameters are determined by forces which exert themselves globally and to which nation states are tending towards responding supra-nationally. It is necessary to place the events of last year in relation to the context of European integration.
(A) The European Context
(i) Maastricht and all that
The leader of the French Communist Party (PCF) denounced the government's call for a clamp down on the budget deficit as lining up with Chancellor Kohl of Germany, a move which raised questions for France and its sovereignty. In response to this and other explanations which blame Maastricht and all that for everything, it has been pointed out that the austerity measures implemented by the French government last November were required to assuage the needs of French capital regardless of foreign policy considerations. Indeed much of the pressure for action came from factions in the French capitalist class who are opposed to Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).
The international dimensions of the situation cannot be ignored, however. The French economy is locked into the global circuits of capital and therefore obliged to play by the rules. Soon after their ascendancy in May 95, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppé sacked a minister who had pushed for action on the budget deficit. The result was pressure on the franc in the international money markets and panic in the French government. After the announcement of the Juppé plan, stock prices stabilized and the franc recovered. All the talk at the moment about the ideology of neo-liberalism obscures the fact that it refers to the political expression of the real imperatives of capital. The global autonomy of finance capital subordinates all would-be masters of capital to its dictates - never before has the alienation of the capitalist been so apparent.
Faced with this tidal wave which threatens to wash away all the messy compromises of the past, the French bourgeoisie clearly intends to cling to the life raft of European integration. Twenty-odd years of rationalization has still left European capital with a competitive disadvantage compared to the US or Japan. Whilst European capital faces an entrenched working class, doggedly clinging on to the concessions wrought from capital during the post-war boom, capital in the US has been able to outflank the battalions of organized labour by shifting investment away from the rust belt industries of the North and East towards the flexible labour of sunrise industries in the South and West. Likewise, Japanese capital has been able to reduce the value of the labour-power, which becomes objectified in its labour-intensive industries, through shifting investment away from its own highly paid workers towards those in Korea and other Pacific NICs. Since the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, capital in Western Europe has increasingly come to recognize that confronting its working class in order to be able to compete with the emerging blocs of the Japanese Pacific and the US-dominated Americas will similarly require a continental territorial perspective.
The process of European integration has proceeded at a pace unimaginable during the years when global geo-politics were dominated by cold war rivalry. By 1999, proletarians in Europe will not only sell their labour-power in a unified market, but could well find it confronted with and bought by money with a single face, the imaginatively named Euro. The working class of Europe is becoming increasingly unified, but only behind our backs, through our alienated labour becoming increasingly integrated into the social abstract labour which is European capital. This contains an inherent possibility, which can be realized only through re-appropriating our activity as struggle: that of the political recomposition of the proletariat across the continent. But whilst this possibility remains as yet unrealized, the cycles of struggle which have occurred over the last few years have proved that the entrenchment of the working class throughout Europe poses a significant problem for the project of EMU. It cannot proceed if any of the central players, particularly France or Germany, fail to meet the convergence criteria. Moreover, the signal such a failure would send to the international money markets would lead to serious repercussions.
The formation of a single currency is conditional upon nation states being able to impose upon their subjects the strict criteria for EMU agreed upon at Maastricht. Meeting the targets for public spending (below 60 per cent of GDP) and national debt (below three per cent of GDP) require significant attacks upon the social wage and strenuous efforts to hold down wage levels. It is against this backdrop that the Juppé plan must be viewed. Class struggle throughout the continent is now mediated by political decisions made at the European level - the Maastricht Treaty has given the general requirement for austerity: quantitative targets to be achieved within a specific timetable. The gauntlet has been thrown down.
The Maastricht Treaty also aims to introduce liberalization and competitiveness to areas of state monopoly such as post and telecommunications, transport and energy. A 1990 European directive liberalized telecommunications, with state monopolies due to end in 1998; a 1991 rail transport decree (which became law in France in 1995) separates management of rail infrastructure and access to the system, allowing private rail companies access to the rail network maintained by public funds; a 1993 agreement frees up internal rail travel; while the next area for liberalization will be energy, where major consumers will be able to buy power from the supplier of their choice while using existing infrastructure to deliver it. Whilst such measures simply reflect the existing situation on the ground in the UK, they clearly have strong implications for France, the most state-dominated economy in the EU.
(ii) Working class opposition
The winter crisis in France was not the first to result directly from measures aimed at achieving the targets for EMU (or, perhaps more accurately in this case, reassuring the money markets that these targets will be achieved). Strikes and mass demonstrations have been seen in virtually every European country over the last few years. These movements have created significant problems for the national bourgeoisies of continental Europe. But, excepting recent events in France for the time being, those that stand out occurred in Germany and then Italy in 1992. The strike wave in both Eastern and Western Germany in the spring of 1992 wrecked hopes that unification would instrumentally undermine the power of the German working class, and further strikes in 1993, 1995 and 1996 have left German qualification for EMU on a knife-edge. Indeed much depends on whether the sweeping welfare cuts announced in April this year, aimed at slashing £22 billion from public spending by reducing sick pay and pensions and eroding employee protection laws, can be carried out in the face of concerted union opposition.
Whilst national union federations throughout Europe have been mobilizing opposition to austerity, there can however be little doubt that they remain generally committed to the well being of their capitals and sympathetic towards European integration, if a little dismayed that the price to be paid for the Social Chapter is subordination to Europes bankers. And the problem remains that, on the whole, these struggles have occurred within a strict union framework. The apparent exception was the movement in Italy against the Amato plan in autumn 1992. This autumn budget comprised a freeze on public sector recruitment and wage negotiations, the abolition of health care for 66 per cent of families, and the imposition of new taxes on houses. Spontaneous strikes broke out in many factories in response. The reaction to these measures combined with anger towards the trade unions because of an agreement they had signed with the government at the end of July abolishing the scala mobile, a mechanism for partial wage protection against inflation. This agreement had been signed whilst most workers were on holiday, in order to avoid an immediate backlash. The trade unions called for regional general strikes, and three million public sector workers took strike action. But when trade union leaders addressed rallies they were met with exemplary expressions of anger. In Florence, Milan and Turin, union speakers at rallies were pelted with rotten vegetables, bolts and ball-bearings, whilst huge demonstrations in Naples, Bologna, Bari, Genova, Parma, Padova, Venezia, Taranto, Brescia and Bergamo saw similar outbursts of anger directed at the unions. Alternative rallies and demonstrations were held, the COBAS providing the necessary autonomous organization. The limits of this movement were exposed by the simple fact that, in terms of scrapping the proposed measures or exacting concessions from the government, it achieved practically nothing. The militants of the COBAS remained marginal with respect to the mass of workers still loyal to the unions. Italian unions have ridden this storm and retained control over the working class. The demonstration in Rome in 1994, the biggest in Italy since the Second World War, was essentially under trade union control. Nevertheless, the struggles in Italy in 1992, 1993 and 1994 will almost certainly mean that the Italian bourgeoisie will be unable to satisfy the convergence criteria for EMU in the foreseeable future.
But what of France? French qualification for EMU is also in the balance, but the whole project would need to be completely reappraised if the French bourgeoisie fails to meet the requirements. Last year's movement certainly came close to wrecking France's chances and following the end of last year's movement there was a strong feeling in France that the working class was not defeated and would mobilize again if provoked. But it is also necessary to look at this whole situation from another angle - that of the proletariat and its potential transnational, antagonistic recomposition. We must turn our attention to the major battles in the class war in France over the last few years and the light they throw ontolast year's events.
(B) French Historical Context - Capital and Class Struggle 1945-1995
Part I: 1945-1986
A short note on French trade unions
A short preamble to this section is required to explain the difference between trade unionism in France and in the UK. Less than ten per cent of French workers belong to a trade union at present, an extremely low figure representing a decline in membership throughout the 1980s. For example, the membership of the CGT in 1994 was only a third of that in 1977. But this low level of membership can be misleading. The influence of French trade unions is far greater than the figures suggest, as it derives from their legal and institutional positions in the state organized system of works councils, comités d'entreprise. All workplaces over a minimal size have a works council in which the workers are represented. As well as being responsible for running facilities such as canteens, sporting activities, clubs etc., these works councils have rights to information regarding the profitability and future plans of the enterprise. This institutionalized social partnership extends all the way to the top, with, for example, meetings in which representatives from all of the councils in each Renault plant will sit around the table with the top management.
Union members and non-members alike vote in works council elections, so non-membership in France involves none of the consequences that it can in the UK. Indeed, to become a member of a trade union in France is quite a different thing to signing up in the UK where it is a relatively apolitical act of combination. In France it is an explicitly political act, nailing one's colours to the flag of the particular union federations political affiliations. The CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), the largest, is explicitly the PCFs union federation, whilst FO (Force Ouvriere) resulted from an anti-Soviet cold war split from the CGT, and the CFDT (Confédération FranÃ§aise Démocratique Du Travail) is closely linked to the Socialist Party (PS). Of course, the CGT has changed a great deal of late, as at least one of the Intakes articles reproduced here points out, due to the historic waning of Stalinist influence throughout Western Europe, although it seemed impervious to the wave of euro-communist revisionism for years. Other unions have emerged to complicate the picture, including the SUD, which resulted from the expulsion from the CFDT of postal service members deemed too militant.
As was the case elsewhere, many of the welfare commitments which capital has subsequently tried to rescind were granted in the aftermath of World War Two. The Conseil National de Résistance (CNR) drew up a programme, even before the Normandy invasions, for nationalization and social security, and for the direct involvement of the unions in processes of planning and the joint administration of social security. Following its patriotic role in the resistance, the PCF subsequently gained the largest proportion of votes in the 1945 Constituent Assembly elections and formed a tripartite government with the Socialists and the Christian Democrats. As a matter of the survival of French capitalism, all parties were committed to nationalization (in order to prevent social revolution), consensus (rather than class war), and the modernization of France along Keynesian lines in order to prevent a return to the crises of the 1930s.
Building on the measures introduced by the Vichy government, the Popular Front and before, a national planning mechanism was established, state education was extended to the age of eighteen, and women were given the vote. A number of key nationalizations were enacted, including the coal, electricity and gas industries, Renault, Air France, Paris transport, the four main deposit banks, 34 insurance companies, press agencies, press printing shops and distribution companies, radio stations and navigation companies. A law subsequently established the comités dentreprise, giving the unions special privileges in elections to them. In October 1946, the right to strike was recognized in principle; moreover, a special status was established for national and local government employees, laying down recruitment and promotion procedures, pension rights and elected joint administrative committees.
The widespread destruction resulting from the war, whilst providing the long term basis for the profitable reconstruction of industry along fordist lines, had left the economy in tatters. Food shortages, low wages and overcrowded insanitary accommodation led to widespread discontent in 1947. Investment in the form of OECD funds provided by the Marshall Plan served to stave off the immediate threat of communism, or at least the real threat of French alignment with the Soviet Union, forcing the PCF into opposition and locking the French economy into the circuits of industrial capital policed by the US. The CGT launched a wage offensive, triggering national general strikes of railway workers, miners and bank employees in the summer of 47 and the Marseilles general strike and factory occupations that November and December. In 1948 an eight week long national miners' strike ended in defeat when a number of miners were killed, thousands were imprisoned and the army occupied the coalfields. But concessions played a role alongside repression. A national minimum wage was introduced along with generalized insurance against unemployment, and urban renewal saw the tearing down of the festering shanty towns which were breeding working class antagonism, gradually replacing them with new suburban estates or banlieue.
These new banlieue provided the dormitories for the new working class concentrations, predominantly immigrants (many from North Africa but with significant numbers from Europe and the rest of Africa) rather than internal migrants, required to rebuild the French economy. The modernization of French agriculture was initially delayed in the post-war era, restricting the number of internal migrants available for the rapid modernization of French industry. The rural population did however decline from 35 per cent of the total to six per cent in 1990, whilst the number of students increased tenfold between 1950 and 1980. Rising labour productivity provided the basis for a modern fordist economy. The production of relative surplus-value, dependent on the application of the mental labour of science to the transformation of labour processes, allowed for relatively stable capital accumulation along with expanded consumption for the working class.
(ii) May 68
May 68 didn't come out of nowhere, unless one was looking for the prior existence of a revolutionary party, or for a major economic crisis. The successful accumulation of alienated labour posited as its opposite the accumulation of frustration and hostility. The resultant proletarian offensive which rocked Paris and the world remains one of the essential reference points for revolutionaries searching beyond the horizons of the old workers' movement in search of the richness of the project for the fully developed social individual.
As such the revolt deserves to be re-examined carefully. This introduction is not however the place to undertake such an examination - space does not permit it. We will have to confine ourselves instead to the briefest of summaries, delineating the two phases of the movement and the separation between them that enabled the counter-revolution to emerge victorious.
The student movement was from the start a movement against the role of the student, developing from a reaction against the use to which power put knowledge in Vietnam to become a conscious desire to abolish the separation of ideas from practice and ideas of separation. In conquering the territory of the university, it had become a movement in which students were a minority and in which the very category of student was being left behind with the division of labour. Through occupying and socializing the university, destroying the separate roles of thinker and worker, it had temporarily abolished it.
This occupations movement was revolutionary in both form and content - the discovery of new ways of living dependent on the full participation of all involved. The situation became a genuinely revolutionary one, however, only when ten million workers went on wildcat strike and occupied the factories, thereby posing the decisive question of control of the means of material as well as ideological production. Those who had seized control over the means of production of specialized knowledge, however, posited the same separation in the factory that they were abolishing in the university. Calls for the formation of workers' councils were issued to the workers. Unlike in the university, the task of seizing control of, transforming, socializing and thereby abolishing the factory was to be the prerogative of those who had been condemned to that particular prison by capitals social division of labour. The workers were expected to carry out the revolution in their factories. But in the era of the real subsumption of labour to capital it is only leftists who self-identify with the alienated role of the worker. The vast majority of workers remained uninspired by the ideology of self-management. Nor had they discovered a need for communism through struggle. Unwilling to make a history which was not their own yet not ready to make their own history, the workers of France delegated.
The CGT controlled the factory occupations, stitched up what passed for councils or assemblies, and locked the gates against the revolutionary tide. There was no organized challenge to the CGT stranglehold - that would have to wait until 86. In sharp contrast to the active nature of the strike in 95, the strikers largely remained the passive observers of the passing of an opportunity. The CGT negotiated the return of the factories in exchange for wage increases, and many never recovered from having to return to the old world when the new had seemed so possible.
(iii) Recession, Austerity and Resistance
(a) Stage 1
The costs of containing such an overt challenge to the rule of capital and preventing such developments elsewhere only served to compound the squeeze on profit rates which were falling globally. Along with those of the rest of Western Europe and the US, the French economy plunged into recession, particularly following the oil price hike in 1973 which saw increased inflation, balance of trade problems, the halving of growth rates and rising unemployment. Despite the fact that the Gaullists remained in power, the response was that of social reform, including an increase in tax on capital and increased social security. In 1976 however unemployment topped one million and inflation was becoming rampant. An austerity package was imposed by the incoming prime minister Raymond Barre in an attempt to reduce wage inflation and curb public spending. Despite a one day stoppage in protest, social security contributions were increased and a wage freeze was imposed. The second oil shock of 1979-80 pushed unemployment over 1.6 million.
The reimposition of material poverty for the surplus population, amongst whom immigrants were disproportionately represented, led to insecurity for those still in work, resulting in a gradual decline in the confidence and combativity of the French working class. There was rioting after a striking steel workers' demo in Paris in 1979, but this was to be the last such riot in central Paris until 1986. And the one day strikes in 1976 marked the beginning of a long decline in the number of days lost (reclaimed) through strikes, a decline that continued all the way through the 1980s (with a slight blips in 1982 and 1988) and 1990s until it was arrested in the strike wave of last year.
(b) Stage 2
At the same time as right-wing leaders such as Thatcher and Reagan were coming to power in the Anglo-Saxon world with explicit mandates to tear up the post-war social democratic consensus and confront the organized power of the working class, the Socialist Party (PS) came to power in France with a Keynesian reflationary programme. A commitment to increase public spending was to be guaranteed by nationalizing the remaining private banks. President Mitterand, backed by a PS majority in the National Assembly and support from the PCF, aimed to create 55,000 public sector jobs, nationalizing aeronautics, electronics, chemicals and information technology companies, taking the state share of turnover from sixteen per cent to 30 per cent and public sector employment from eleven per cent to 24.7 per cent. Further measures designed to reduce unemployment included a reduction in the working week to 39 hours, an extra week of paid holidays, early retirement, and retraining for the unemployed. The national minimum wage was to be increased by ten per cent and family allowances boosted. All of this was topped off by a proposed tax on wealth and rhetoric about attacking the wealthy.
The result was somewhat inevitable. The competitiveness of French companies declined whilst imports were sucked in, leading to inflationary and balance of payments problems. Capital took flight for pastures greener, and the franc had to be devalued three times in eighteen months as the global balance of class forces reasserted itself through the international money markets. The reform policy was put into reverse gear in 1982, with an initial wage and price freeze followed by wage restrictions in the public sector. Interest rates were cranked up to reimpose global disciplinary conditions upon French capital, taxation increased, welfare spending reduced, and wage indexation scrapped. The response to this dose of socialist austerity was a strike wave, but it was relatively weak and certainly unable to counterbalance the pressure upon the French state from capital. Thus in 1984 the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries were all subjected to rationalization, resulting in a wave of redundancies. Other companies were encouraged to shed labour in pursuit of the increased exploitation of the remainder.
The French car industry was already engaged in the process of restructuring: introducing automation, shedding labour, running down certain plants and reorganizing the assembly line along neo-fordist lines in order to re-impose managerial control over the labour process. The inability of previous concentrations of working class power to resist this restructuring, the extent to which the car worker had been fractured (particularly along racial lines), and the confusion of labour at once antagonistic to capital and desperate not be consigned to the scrap heap, were demonstrated by the pitched battles between workers at Talbot-Poissy in 1983. Indeed a major element in the decline in strike activity from 1982 onwards has been the reluctance of private sector workers to strike, public sector workers being on average between half (1980s) and a third (1990s) more likely to strike than private sector workers. But, notwithstanding this historic decline in the level of strike activity, there have been important developments in the class struggle, beginning with the bitter dispute of railway workers in the winter of 1986-7.
Part II: 1986-1996
(i) 1986: Riots Return to Central Paris
In electoral terms, the right-wing gained from the disillusionment of the working class with socialist austerity, although the experience may have played a part in the determination of railway workers in 86 to control their own dispute as the unions were tainted by their attachment to the PS-PCF government. The 1983 municipal elections and 1984 European elections witnessed the rise of the National Front, which was supported by many PCF and Socialist Party officials in an attempt to split the right-wing vote. Indeed Mitterand changed the voting system for the 1986 National Assembly elections in order to boost the NF vote, but it was the conservative UDF (Union for French Democracy) and RPR (Rally for the Republic) which gained a majority, electing Chirac as Prime Minister to work alongside President Mitterand. Privatizations and deregulation (excluding those industries which had traditionally been in the public sector such as gas, electricity, aerospace and telecom), a reform of labour legislation to favour employers, and the refinancing of social security all formed important parts of his programme. But perhaps the most important element was the plan for outright repression of the unemployed second generation immigrant youth who constituted the beur movement.
The first generation of immigrants played an important role in the revolts of the mass worker, from the struggles over the assembly line to the rent strikes of the Sonacotra foyers (hostels and living quarters where large numbers of migrants were housed) in the late 1970s. Marginalized by the processes of restructuring, the torch was handed on to the second generation and their revolts in the early '80s, beginning in 1981 with the summer of rioting in Minguettes, the banlieue east of Lyons. Besides launching a cycle of urban revolt which has continued right up to the present day, the riot led to a number of initiatives to recuperate the beurs' struggle, beginning with the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, which many young blacks and Arabs used as an opportunity to protest against racist attacks and violent police repression (despite their rejection of miserable institutional anti-racism), and ending with SOS-Racisme. This organization was launched by leftists with media blessing in 1985 with the express intention of regaining control over the beur movement and reducing it to a moralistic and non-violent media-oriented vehicle to integrate and destroy the real social movement and promote the re-election of Mitterand. Despite a certain degree of success initially, no doubt succeeding in preventing more riots than the cops, the organization rapidly began to lose its legitimacy in the banlieue, particularly after the movement had reasserted itself as a predominantly anti-police movement in the winter of 86.
The 86 election had been won with a strong law and order platform, aimed particularly at dealing with the beurs. Home Secretary Pasqua introduced a new policy against immigration and expelled 101 Malians on a charter flight, and legislation was passed by the new assembly to change the nationality laws so as to deny automatic French citizenship to kids born in France or to French parents. At the same time, the Devaquet Bill was passed, restricting what had previously been automatic and universal access to university for anyone with the baccalauréat (French equivalent of A levels), a move which would have disproportionately affected those already discriminated against in other spheres. The spectre of terrorism, intifada and Islamic fanaticism was the cloak used by state terrorism, justifying routine harassment, searches and the like - and shootings. Cops were pulling out their guns and pointing them at black and Arab kids on a daily basis, on two occasions accidentally killing drivers for going the wrong waydown a one-way street. Years of repression and now this - no wonder that when the opportunity arose the situation exploded.
From November 26th onwards, students began mobilizing against the Devaquet Bill, organizing meetings and demonstrating peacefully. On the 4th of December, however, a concert to end a march at Invalides erupted into a riot with some 4,000 or so youths, mainly high school students, disrupting the show and fighting the cops, injuring 121. The following day, students gathered in the Latin Quarter to protest against police repression and proceeded to occupy the Sorbonne. Unlike in 68, however, non-students were excluded, and the whole affair served only to illustrate the extent to which students reflected the defensive nature of the times, having moved from a position of subverting their role to defending it. Later on, however, in the streets of the Latin Quarter the smashing up of a couple of shop windows and torching of a Porsche provoked the cops into attacking the crowd, killing Malik Oussekine.
Despite the fact that the crowd naturally enough comprised many non-students just hanging out in the area, Malik Oussekine was an Arab student. SOS-Racisme along with student bodies sought to exploit this incidental fact by excluding non-students from the funeral, outrageously proclaiming him one of their dead. But since the riot on the 4th, the mobilizations had ceased to be simply student affairs in defence of the university but were seen by many as a vehicle for the expression of anger towards the police and the whole stinking system. Many non-students turned up as well, and as the march passed near the 13th arrondisment police station, the CRS (French riot cops) were pelted with missiles. Later that night, rioting erupted in the Latin Quarter, injuring 58 cops. Burning cars, barricades, and looting served to demonstrate the extent to which the initial premises of the movement had been left behind, despite the opposition of many students to such a process of generalization. The repeal of the Devaquet Bill was announced on December 8th, followed almost immediately by repeal of the new nationality law.
Two things need to be noted. First, that the reluctance of many students to embrace the struggle of the marginalized and their wrecking and looting would be overcome when they mobilized again in 1994. Second, as in 68, and as would happen again in 95, the initial impetus created by a student movement was followed by a workers' movement. Although plans for a rail strike were already well under way, the governments climb down boosted the railway workers as they prepared for what would be an historic battle.
(ii) The 86-87 Rail Strike
Through its exemplary quality the movement has created an incomparable precedent (Emergency stop, in France goes off the Rails, BM Blob & BM Combustion).
It was the first time in France that such a large movement broke out completely autonomously while simultaneously setting up organizations of direct democracy to ensure the strikes continuation. (Henri Simon, France Winter 86-87, The railways strike, An attempt at autonomous organisation, Echanges et Mouvement).
During 1986 there had been fourteen one-day strikes organized by the unions in response to rank and file pressure. Although strike committees began to emerge during these strikes, the symbolic nature of the strikes rendered them ineffectual. Then, in November, a non-union train driver from Paris Nord circulated a petition demanding better conditions and the scrapping of a project for salaries based on promotion by merit (read subservience), proposing to have it out once and for all if the demands werent met. Other drivers brought out a leaflet reiterating the demands and calling for an unlimited strike from December 18th. From midnight the strike spread like wildfire, without a single call from the unions, engulfing virtually the entire SNCF (state railway) network by the end of the second day. On December 20th non-drivers joined in as well.
The CGT, with a strong base in the railways, initially opposed the strike openly, tearing down strike posters and in some depots organizing work pickets to encourage drivers not to strike. Finding their position untenable, they made a swift U-turn. But the strike was characterized right from the start by its autonomous organization. Mass assemblies of strikers made all the decisions concerning the running of the dispute and elected strike committees subject to recall (except in the Paris Nord depot where the assembly refused to delegate to a committee at all, seeing it as being a form of separate power potentially above that of the assembly itself, and contrawise in Caen and Gare de Lyons where control lay in the hands of the CGT). Co-ordinations between the different committees were established, beginning with local and regional liaison committees, and then national liaisons, to ensure the circulation of information and maximize the impact of the strike.
At the same time, there were strikes by seamen, dockers and metro workers, as well as patchy strikes by postal and munitions workers. And trouble was brewing amongst gas and electricity workers, and miners in Northern France. Although all of these strikes were initiated and controlled by the CGT the potential was there for a generalization of the struggle on the basis of the methods of the railway workers. But the government was determined to crush this experiment in autonomy before it got out of hand. The CRS were sent in to violently evict the strikers from the railway stations and signal boxes they had been occupying. The government refused to negotiate with the co-ordinations. Then on December 31st it conceded on the demand of the merit wages and announced negotiations with the unions over working conditions - the central concern of the strikers.
Following the evictions there was widespread sabotage of tracks and rolling stock, even extending to the ambushing of trains in the countryside in order to fuck up the brakes. But faced with the government-management-CGT negotiations axis on the one hand and the full force of the state's violence on the other, together with the collapse of the strikes on the metro and in the electricity industry, the strikers felt unable to continue. Although the strike became increasingly violent and bitter, the sense of isolation contributed to a growing recognition of defeat and there was a full return to work by January 14th.
In one sense the railway workers were defeated; they had been battered by the cops and they had been forced back to work without having had all of their demands met. But in having taken control over their struggle, the railway workers had made a huge advance. In 68 the workplace assemblies had been mere audiences for the unions to tell the workers what was happening. In 86 the assemblies themselves were sovereign, accepting no power outside of themselves. They were not without important limitations however. Ultimately it was these limits that allowed the unions to represent the strike.
The co-ordinations were never sufficiently well organized to truly represent the movement as a whole, whereas the unions were able to claim that they represented it because they existed everywhere. And despite outright hostility to the unions at a local level in some places - forcing union members to remove their badges in some assemblies, expelling the CGT in others, and in most insisting that the day to day running of the strike was their responsibility alone - many workers believed that they needed the unions to negotiate with the government. But perhaps the most important weakness of this movement was the extent to which divisionsimposed by the SNCF were reproduced in the autonomous movement. There were joint pickets involving all the different categories of railway worker at Montparnasse, Gare de Lyons and St. Lazare, but sectional differences remained an abiding problem. Separate mass meetings were held by train drivers who insisted on differentiating themselves from the rest of the workforce. Naturally enough this division on the ground reproduced itself at the level of the co-ordinations. Nevertheless, regardless of however else it fell short of it, the development of co-ordinated organizational autonomy in this movement represented a significant advance upon the delegation to the CGT during the general strike of 68.
(iii) Further Co-ordinations/Recuperations
Other struggles of the proletariat over the next couple of years demonstrated that the conditions which had given rise to co-ordinating committees in the railway workers strike also existed elsewhere. Workers in the private sector remained in a situation of precariousness, subjected to team-work and increasingly employed on temporary contracts. Between 87 and 90 the average length of the working week increased by 30 minutes whilst wages fell in real terms. But in the public sector the response to the increasing subjection of public services to capitalist imperatives and attempts to restructure the workforce along similar lines was leading to a number of strikes. Whilst lacking the impact of the railway workers' strike, many of those which occurred in 1988-89 led to the re-emergence of assemblies and co-ordinating committees, and in some cases open antagonism with the unions. Particularly important was the nurses' strike between March 1988 and January '89; this occurred in practically non-unionized sector, tempting the government to deal with the co-ordination and thereby posing a threat to the mediating role of the unions. Also, workers at Banque Nationale de Paris (a state-owned bank) held assemblies, formed strike committees and established co-ordinating committees during a two month strike in 1989, attacking and ransacking the local offices of the unions who negotiated a return to work behind their backs.
The lycée (secondary schools) movement of autumn 1990 however demonstrated that the form of the co-ordinating committee is no more a guarantee of autonomous content than workers' councils. In that movement (for more money, better buildings and more teaching staff) two co-ordinating committees were established - one close to the JCL (PCF youth federation), the other close to SOS-Racisme - which aptly illustrated that the open and democratic nature of the co-ordinations was no assurance against their political recuperation. The TV seized upon media-friendly leaders, but the lycée students tended to reject them and their co-ordinating committees, preferring spontaneous violence to dialogue with leftist recuperators.
The demonstrations were characterized by clashes with the police, in which kids from the banlieue were particularly involved, and the emergence of looting as an aspect of mass demonstrations. The media tried to split the movement by criminalizing the casseurs (hooligans, wreckers) in the hope that, as they had in 86, students would disown them. But this was a movement of high school students rather than university students and thus closer to the harsh realities facing lower order labour-power. Many casseurs were ex-students, but more significantly many students recognized that they too might be in the same situation as the casseurs. This awareness enabled the movement to embrace the involvement of outsiders and take up the themes of the revolt in the banlieue.
On the terrain of the banlieue themselves there was to be a heat wave the following spring. In Vaulx-en-Velin (a suburb of Lyons), cop cars were being smashed up regularly from February onwards to avenge the killing of Thomas Claudio, and more than 600 cops had to be mobilized following the ram-raiding of a cop shop with a BMW. In Sartrouville (suburb to the North West of central Paris), on the 26th, 27th and 28th of March, three days of rioting followed another death, with further incidents on April 10th. Cops were attacked with stones and petanque balls, plainclothes cops beaten up, cars burned and a furniture shop set on fire. TV journalists were systematically attacked and a TF1 camera stolen.
But if the left had proved incapable of recuperating those who knew French society had rejected them, an alternative was offering itself in the aftermath of the Sartrouville riots. Whilst cops guarded the supermarkets, the streets were being watched by 30-40 year-old North Africans wearing the green armbands of Islam. A spate of murders to which the rest of French society seemed indifferent, the rise of Le Pen, institutionalized racism, and the rage against anti-Arab media manipulation during the Gulf War - all of these factors combined to produce a climate favourable to the development of Islamic rackets; and following the riots Islamists attempted to reinforce the ghettoization of the beurs. The anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was circulated; and, journalists, shopkeepers and the Mayor of Sartrouville were criticized as Jews in meetings held to discuss what to do next.
The left wants the beurs to identify themselves with the nation whose subject they are. The Mullahs encourage the beurs to identify themselves ethnically. Neither want them to identify themselves in terms of what they do. But other ideologies compete for their minds. Excluded from work, they are nevertheless seduced by the images of consumption and the French way of life they depict. Whilst the Mullahs are content with the Koran, the beurs want these things, and want them immediately. And they can gain access to the commodities of French society by involvement in the black economy or through joy-riding, ram-raiding and looting. Through these collective criminal activities, the beurs share not only the wealth of modern society but also in the construction of an identity. This identity is neither ethnic nor French but subverts both categories. It is constructed socially, as they are, but through opposition rather than acceptance. It is antagonistic to both backward and modernist variations of hierarchical society. Moreover, it is one which is constructed alongside the marginalized French kids and Jewish kids of the banlieue, through the formation of multi-ethnic territorially delineated gangs. The beurs have more in common with these other excluded subjects than they do with the Mullahs. Furthermore, women in particular will not want to renounce the freedoms of bourgeois society for the subjugations of a theocratic one.
The experience of blacks in the US has demonstrated, however, that this separatist ideology can be extremely influential amongst the most marginalized. As in the US, the youth of the French ghettos waste much of their anger on gang fights and the like. We should resist the fetishization of violence that forgets to question the ends to which it is used. But, in LA in 92, gang rivalries and separatist ideologies were superseded practically through ferocious anti-hierarchical violence. As we shall soon see, such a supersession also occurred in France in March 94.
(iv) Truck Drivers 92
The relative failure of the first co-ordinations and their subsequent political recuperation, compounded by fragmentation and restructuring in the public sector, led to a gradual decline in the tendency in working disputes towards forming co-ordinating committees. The result has been a tendency towards localization - fragmented struggles concentrating on localized autonomy of action.
The truck drivers' strike in the summer of 92 was characterized by a refusal of mediation through virtual non-organization and an emphasis on spontaneous activity. Public sector strikes in the spring of that year had seen off Edith Cresson, who had prioritized the fight against inflation on replacing Rocard as Prime Minister. But, despite the problems they posed for the project of restructuring the public sector, these public sector strikes remained the usual uninteresting affairs. The truck drivers actions on the other hand captured the imagination on a wide enough scale for the Carling Black Label ad men to base a TV commercial on them.
In response to the announcement of a new points system for driving licences which they saw as a potential threat to their jobs, the truck drivers blockaded the motorways. Riot police and soldiers used tanks to break up some blockades but new ones sprang up in their place. Refusing mediation, communicating locally by CB radio rather than establishing committees, they just waited for the government to accede to their demands - which they did when major industries began to complain about the damaging effects of the strike. By paralysing the arteries of commerce, the truck drivers caused one billion francs of damage to the tourist industry and cost Spanish fruit firms 150 million francs. More significantly, the strike revealed the vulnerability of the just-in-time factory regimes which had built on the neo-fordist experiments of the 70s. Renault and Peugeot had to close car assembly plants due to shortages of parts whilst the production of Michelin tyres was disrupted.
Whilst the truck drivers' victory was important, it did not serve to bury the culture of defeat and subjection amongst workers which had been produced during the long period of PS rule. But such a transformation occurred the following year when the honeymoon plans of the new conservative government were rudely interrupted by trouble on the runways.
(v) Air France 93
The PS lost out in the National Assembly elections in March 93, although Mitterand remained President. A significant minority of the electorate (33 per cent voted for the RPR and UDF, sufficient to give them 80 per cent of the seats in the new parliament) was unhappy with the sacrifices which had supposedly made the French economy one of the strongest in the industrialized world. Notably, unemployment had risen from 1.7 million when Mitterand took power to 2.9 million, no longer only affecting blacks and Arabs but making the rest of the population feel insecure and concerned about its social costs. Not the least of which was the continued destruction in the suburbs - particularly worrying for the petit-bourgeoisie who voted for the right.
In 1991 France had signed the Maastricht Treaty and joined the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), committing the French government, of whatever shade, to pursuing the Franc Fort policy of tailing the relatively strong Deutschmark. This circumscribed the government's ability to deal with the onset of recession in late 1992 through monetary policies (interest rates etc.), leaving only budgetary (tax and spending) and structural policies - exactly the kind of head on measures liable to provoke a working class response.
The incoming government under Edouard Balladur faced a dramatically deteriorating economic and financial situation. A sharp downturn in the economy at the end of 1992 had led to both an unexpected shortfall in tax revenues and an increase in social spending as unemployment rose. As a result, the government's budget deficit, which only six months before had been comfortably within the Maastricht convergence limits, was now projected to double to 5.8 per cent of GDP and was threatening to spin out of control. In response to this financial and econom ic situation, Balladur's government announced a package of tough economic measures. The package comprised making workers in the public sector work for 40 instead of 37.5 years to qualify for a pension, freezing public sector wages, and increasing hospital charges. Shopkeepers and other petit-bourgeois elements on the other hand were rewarded with grants and other forms of assistance. They were further appeased by the race card the government had used to steal votes from the National Front. Nationality laws and immigration procedures were to be tightened up once more.
The proposals met with only muted opposition from the PS and PCF. The CGT, alone amongst the unions, held a day of protest, but this was a damp squib of an affair. Although the size of the government's majority in relation to its proportion of the votes had produced an air of unreality and a gulf between government and electorate, this lack of opposition to a pretty drastic assault on living standards did not bode well for the prospects for class struggle against the overhaul of the state. Which is why, when frustrations did surface, the struggles were so significant.
The government embarked on a series of privatizations: June 93 Crédit Local de France, October 93 Banque National de Paris, November 93 Rhone-Poulenc, January 94 Elf Aquitaine, May 94 Union des Assurances de Paris, November 94 Renault, etc... Shares in nearly all of these privatized companies have fallen since they were floated and, now that they are no longer shielded from the blackmail of competition by state protection, squeezing more surplus-value from their workers in order to arrest their decline is the logical response. And the threat of privatization, along with European directives demanding liberalization, has loomed large over industries that remain part of the state sector. The fear of being fragmented from the state sector and subjected to the discipline of the market has played on the mind of workers in the post office, telecom, EDF-GDF (Electricity de France and Gaz de France), RATP (the Paris public transport authority), SNCF and Air France ever since.
The privatization programme was however only one aspect of the government's plans to drastically accelerate the process of industrial reorganization and the restructuring of the wage relation. Fundamental to these plans were legislative changes to reflect in labour laws the de facto situation in the post-fordist social factory. The Five Year Employment Law, supposedly aimed at reducing unemployment, comprised removing job protections guaranteed by the Popular Front and Liberation governments. But first the government tried to push through a programme of rationalization in one of those industries still directly under state control - Air France. Four thousand workers were to be sacked, with reduced wages, increased productivity and new functional hierarchies for the remainder.
The response by Air France employees was both massive and determined. A national one-day strike called by the unions for October 12th was rapidly spread and extended to all sectors, bringing together all categories of ground staff for the first time since 68. Almost immediately, strikers began to take action to increase the effectiveness of the strike by occupying runways to prevent planes from taking off. The government stated that the plan was irrevocable and sent in the CRS. On October 20th at Roissy, strikers blocking the runways responded to police intervention by launching a vehicle at their lines (missing them and hitting a plane). On October 21st at Orly there were violent confrontations on the runways between the CRS and strikers, masked and tooled-up in anticipation, using vehicles against the cops water cannons, and further confrontations the next day with strikers smashing windows in the terminal. On the same day in Toulouse strikers blockaded the runways and the central railway station. Unable to break the strike by force, unable to get the strikers to accept a compromise, and unable to withstand the huge losses the strike was causing, the government withdrew its plan on October 24th and the manager of Air France resigned.
The strike was characterized not only by its violence, but also by its organization and its openness. A significant minority of strikers were consciously hostile to the unions, but the unions were generally given reign to control the formal organization of the movement - organizing the general assemblies, co-ordinating the different sites within and between airports, and handling negotiations with the government. The CGT in particular had learnt the lessons from the 86 rail strike and adapted their approach to the assemblies in order not to provoke the re-emergence of non-union co-ordinations. Nevertheless, when it came to actions the unions were practically outflanked. During the hot week at Orly the morning general assemblies called by the unions were quickly terminated by cries of to the runways!, where tactical discussions around immediate practical objectives took place outside of union channels. And when the FO (and in some places the CGT) called for a return to work following the government's revocation of the irrevocable plan in order that workplace elections could go ahead, assemblies voted for a continuation of the strike - at Orly 3,000 marched on the police to demand the dropping of charges, and at both Orly and Roissy victory demos were held on the runways on October 26th. Furthermore, despite a degree of corporatist pride and identification with the well-being of the company, not unusual in the state sector, the movement was open. Divisions within Air France (freight vs passenger, white collar vs blue collar etc.) were broken down, and outsiders were welcomed - the strikers received huge popular support.
The most significant aspect of the strike however was the blow it had struck against the bullish new government so early in its term, and the boost it had given to the rest of the working class in the face of the timidity of the unions. Wary of sustaining another defeat, the government turned its attention to an area where it reasoned that the forces of opposition would be weaker - training. Youth unemployment was high, the unemployed relatively disorganized, and the student movement not directly concerned with the issue of wages. The government argued that youth unemployment was a result of high labour costs and attempted to impose a reduction in the youth wage, the CIP (Contrat dInsértion Professionnel or beginning work contract), only for it to explode in its face.
(vi) Youth Revolt March 94
The government's defeat at the hand of the Air France strikers only served to increase the popular perception that the right-wing government lacked legitimacy. There was a pervasive air of alienation from the political sphere, and this extended to the PS and PCF as well. The rejection of the usual channels of discontent was expressed in January 94 when a demonstration in Paris against a law authorizing regional and city authorities to fund private (predominantly Catholic) schools was taken as an opportunity to vote with the feet. Between 600,000 and one million people took to the streets, many of whom had no real concerns about the educational issue but wanted to express their general opposition to the government and frustrations with society in general.
The demonstration was peaceful, which is partly why it has almost been forgotten, overshadowed as it has been by the confrontations which rocked France on either side of it. Incidentally, the law was scrapped as unconstitutional. But the demonstration was significant for establishing a practice of responding to unpopular decrees from above by taking to the streets en masse, taking the opportunity to develop a popular but diverse unity of opposition therein, and using the demonstrations to protest against a general malaise without having to go through bureaucratic channels. This demonstration can be seen as a prelude to those against the Juppé plan when exactly the same phenomenon occurred, but repeatedly, on a wider scale, and connected with a strike wave.
If the peacefulness of this demonstration marked a break with the violent tendencies of the lycée movement and Air France strike then such a tendency was to be quickly re-established. In February 94 French fishermen rioted, and, in an attempt to hit the cops with distress flares, burned down the Breton parliament (a local court building) in Rennes. Although some other elements used the opportunity to have some fun, it remained a strictly sectional affair, defined by opposition to measures affecting the fishing industry. But the following month saw the emergence of a movement which combined the tendency towards violent confrontation with that of using demonstrations to express an opposition held in common by different social groups.
On February 24th the government presented the CIP, allowing employers to take on first time wage-slaves at only 80 per cent of the legal minimum wage, establishing a SMIC-jeune or minimum wage for youth. The response to this 20 per cent wage cut for young proletarians was a month of almost daily marches which increasingly tended to become full blown riots. Prime Minister Balladur became haunted by the fear of an explosion of the May 1968 sort whilst President Mitterand began to talk of the danger of imminent social revolt, and on March 30th the government conceded defeat.
The movement was unprecedented. Although in some respects it marked a continuation of tendencies which had been emerging in the student movements of 86 and 90, the Air France strike and the recent schools mobilization, it nevertheless had a unique character. The CIP created an immediate basis for unity between different types of students, workers, and the unemployed. Each sector was concerned to fight an attack on the terrain, defined socially, as that of the wage relation - the fundamental social relation of capitalist society - but on the terrain defined physically of the streets.
The movement was diffuse - both spatially and organizationally - and stronger for it. Spatially, it was the first movement which was not dominated by the gravitational pull of Paris; marches happened in Lyons, Nantes, Rennes - literally everywhere. Organizationally, the movement was characterized by an almost complete absence of legitimate representation. The movement made use of the traditional structures - the unions, including the student unions UNEF, UNEF-ID and FIDL, and the co-ordinations of technical university institutes - which were used for the initial mobilizations and to develop the movement nationwide. Assemblies were held in university buildings which had been occupied by striking students. But as the interaction of the subjects in the streets developed its own dynamic, formal structures, and the unions in particular, became marginalized. The level of organization characterizing the movement was fluid and unstructured, arising spontaneously out of the marches themselves. This outflanked attempts by the unions to establish march monitors/stewards. Thus the movement developed in a direction that was both haphazard and powerful. 
The movement was also heterogeneous. No single social subject asserted hegemony over it. It was not a student movement. When the state came to analyse the composition of the 5,000 or so arrested during the course of the movement, 30 per cent were found to be university and technical students, 30 per cent secondary school students, and 30 per cent unemployed or precarious workers. The gangs from the banlieue, including beurs who were also angry about the ID checks and nationality laws recently introduced by the government, were incorporated without being neutralized. This heterogeneity gave the movement a truly proletarian character, breaking completely, in the direction other movements had only pointed, with the politics of the labour movement.
What characterized the movement more than anything, however, was its systematic and targeted violence. Initially defensive and determined to resist the state's attempts to physically repress the movement, it brought the intifada from the peripheries to explode in the centre of the metropolis. The lack of any centralized organizing structure allowed for differences, however. In Nantes, for example, there was night after night of violent clashes with riot cops guarding the prefecture, but in the main shops were spared, some having their windows smashed but not looted. In Lyons on the other hand, not only were there daily clashes with the cops, but over 200 shops were looted. And in both Paris and Lyons cars left along the route of the marches were routinely wrecked or torched. Indeed the police had to ban parking along the proposed routes of demonstrations in Paris and insist that shops within a mile radius put up their shutters.
This endemic violence was extended from the movement's most apparent enemy - the cops - to a more insidious one. Television crews and anyone else with a video camera were confronted, their equipment smashed up, and chased from the demonstrations. These attacks were not just a response to the immediate threat posed by this equipment but was also a response to the media role in the government's attempt to divide the movement.
The government sent the CRS in hard and made thousands of arrests. But, as it had been with the Air France dispute, it was concerned not to get into a continually escalating spiral of confrontations for fear of where it might lead. The state needed to be able to target its violence, and thus needed to get the movement to disown the casseurs which it had identified as the most dangerous subjects. In Paris and Lyons efforts were made to intercept the multi-ethnic gangs from the banlieue as they arrived at Metro and railway stations linking the centre to the peripheries, and efforts were made, helped by union stewards in some cases, to single them out on demonstrations. But the main tactics were ideological. That old scumbag Pasqua, who had overseen the murderous period of 86 and had come back to preside over the latest bout of state terrorism, defended the right to demonstrate but said he would not permit thousands of hooligans to come in from the banlieue and attach themselves to demonstrations in order to engage in street fighting and looting. He then expelled two Algerian kids from Lyons in order to give the impression that the violence was ethnic in origin. After having tried to paint the movement as a whole as nothing more than one of mindless hooliganism, the media quickly picked up on this theme of a division within the movement between the respectable students and the casseurs.
But the movement refused to be divided. Nous sommes tous des casseurs! (we are all wreckers!) was one of the slogans used to counter this propaganda offensive. Another was simply to argue that it was the government and capitalists who were the real wreckers. The movement, except for the union stewards who also wanted to rid the movement of this element, refused to accept that the phenomenon of wrecking was down to a separate contingent who could be disowned. On March 25th in Paris all of the sections of the march demanded the freeing of comrades arrested, casseurs or not, during the confrontations. The movement as a whole had come to accept the legitimacy of the methods which the youth from the banlieue had brought to the movement. Hence when the government tried to split the movement by conceding to university students, restoring the legalminimum wage for those with a two-year university diploma or its equivalent, those students insisted on remaining with the movement as a whole until the government backed down completely. University students had recognized that, rather than being the bosses of the future, most of them looked forward to a future in which they would remain (skilled) proletarians, possibly even unemployed ones at that.
(vii) The stage is set
We arrive almost on the eve of battle and it is time to assess the troops. This short survey of class struggle in France since the Second World War has revealed something quite important. The working class has for sure been on the defensive since the heady days of 68. Inevitably such a rearguard campaign has meant that there have been many defeats. But there has been no defeat on the scale of the miners' strike in the UK. There has been nothing to send a signal throughout society as a whole that the boot is firmly on the other foot. In the UK it has been a pretty sure bet that kicking up a fuss will lead to defeat. But quite the opposite is true in France. What lessons would the working class of France have drawn from the major battles with the state of the 90s? Surely the main one would be that taking to the streets can defeat the government - that active opposition bears fruit.
This is not to say that capital has not succeeded at all in restructuring the factory. As we have seen, workers in the private sector feel less inclined to take strike action. Nevertheless private enterprises are far from having eliminated strikes altogether. For instance, in March 95 a spontaneous strike wave paralysed Renault plants throughout France by blockading or occupying the plants. Nor is it to say that no progress has been made in rationalizing the welfare burden. But, as we have seen, attempts by the state to restructure the reproduction of labour-power (Devaquet Bill or CIP for instance) have been repulsed.
What of the union question? Following the initial experiments with the co-ordinating committees, we have seen a tendency towards seizing control over the actual daily activity of struggles but, rather than making a direct organizational challenge to the mediation of the unions, allowing the unions to play the role of representing the movement and negotiating for it. And why not? Alternatives to unions tend to become alternative unions as a result of having to perform the negotiating role. In these recent struggles in France the negotiating position has been made clear to the unions at the grassroots level - repeal of the law, or the bill, or the plan. It has been absolute. A single measure on the one hand and outright opposition to it on the other. What room does that leave for a sell out? But what happens to the opposition when that single measure becomes split up into a number of measures and the unions have been left to resolve the situation - does the opposition fragment as well?
(C) The Social Movement of November - December 1995
(i) Paris in Spring
If the French state's economic strategy had been in any way blunted by a right-wing government having to compromise with a socialist President then that problem would be resolved in May 95 with the election of Jacques Chirac, bringing to an end fourteen years of Mitterands rule. In March 95, France had been brought to a virtual standstill by simultaneous air, rail and urban transport strikes, to which the Presidential candidates had responded by exuding sympathy. This understanding approach was used in Chiracs successful electoral platform, which promised to put employment first (unemployment had now reached 3.3 million), increase wages, cut taxes, heal the countrys social fracture and protect social welfare benefits.
Alain Juppé was installed as Chiracs new Prime Minister. The rent-fixing scandal, involving his acquisition, when Mayor of Paris, of city-owned luxury flats at bargain rents for his friends and family, coming hot on the heels of other corruption scandals and exacerbated by the resumption of nuclear testing in the Pacific, sent the government into an unprecedented slump in the opinion polls. But priorities lay elsewhere. U-turns and broken promises on economic priorities had led to speculation that the government would fail to cut the public sector deficit enough to keep to the timetable for EMU, and consequently there was a run on the franc. On October 6th Chirac was overheard muttering The priority is to avoid a monetary disaster. The government has not convinced the financial markets. We must send signals.
(ii) Autumn Rumblings
The statement above reflected the situation which existed after the September budget for 1996 which included a freeze on public sector wages, a measure over which Juppé publicly refused to negotiate with the unions. The job security, retirement rights and conditions of workers in state owned companies like France Telecom and the SNCF were also effectively denounced as special privileges. Trouble had already been brewing in the public sector, with a series of local strikes and occupations in the post office against the piecemeal introduction of a restructuring plan, and over 700 strike notices issued in the SNCF on top of regular wildcat strikes. The response from the public sector unions to the pay freeze was to organize a day of united public sector strikes and demonstrations for October 10th. Over three million went on strike for the day, the biggest such stoppage for over a decade, with the demonstrations mobilizing 382,000 (according to police figures). The scale of this protest gave a clear signal to the unions that further calls would be heeded.
Meanwhile science and technology students returning to studies in Rouen from their summer holidays had started an indefinite strike against a spending cut resulting from the Bayrou plan which was endangering their adequate reproduction as technical labour-power, demanding twelve million francs for more teachers and equipment, and demonstrating the extent to which the grim realities of survival had come to replace the hope for real life as the central concern of students over the years since 68. A strike committee was formed and the strike quickly became an active one, seeing 1,000 students blockade Rouens rail traffic on October 16th, followed by motorway blockades and toll-booth occupations. On October the 25th the university administration offices were occupied and barricaded, whilst the police were kept busy by a student demonstration elsewhere, only to be violently evicted by the cops that night. This only resulted in an escalation of the strike, however. Over a thousand students demonstrated in protest at the eviction and humanities students joined the strike.
By the first week of November, having had an offer of six million francs rejected by the Rouen students assembly, and remembering 86 and 94, the government was sufficiently concerned about the possibility of the movements extension to concede nine million francs to end the strike. But far from containing the movement within this one university, this concession encouraged it to spread throughout the provinces. Within the next fortnight, students in Metz, Toulouse, Tours, Orleans, Caen, Nice, Montpellier, Perpignan and elsewhere staged strikes and demonstrations, each raising demands for greater funding, and on November 16th students in Paris finally joined in the movement. More than 100,000 students demonstrated across the country on November 21st, three days before the first big demonstrations against the Juppé Plan, and on the November 30th student demonstration the numbers swelled to 160,000 as railway and other workersjoined in with their banners as students had the demonstrations against the Juppé Plan on November 24th.
This mobilization gave an added impetus to the spreading of the public sector strike following the November 24th day of action. The fact that it was about money, plus the fact that many students defined it as a social movement rather than a student movement, made it easy for the two movements to grasp their connection. But the student movement as such began to subside just as the struggle elsewhere was picking up, with those students who wished to participate dissolving themselves into it as individuals - proletarians - rather than constituting themselves as a separate body within a coalition of specific groups. Part of the reason for this was the disastrous outcome of the student co-ordinations meeting in Paris. Delegates from the provinces, where the movement was strongest, tended to be representative of assemblies whilst those from Paris, where the movement was relatively weaker, tended to be hacks from the student unions or leftist groupings. Centring the co-ordinations in Paris therefore resulted in a high degree of politicking and ideologically-motivated sectarian rivalry which alienated those who wanted to take the movement forward. At the University of Jussieu on November 23rd, the nationally co-ordinating body unsuccessfully tried to exclude students who, having two days earlier looted the university book shop, had just overturned a number of cars, thrown molotovs at the cops and raided the canteen. The result of separating the political representation from the social movement ended in chaos when the excluded finally gained admittance. The student co-ordination appears to have disintegrated soon thereafter, unable to contribute anything useful to the unfolding of events apart from a lot of hot air.
However, the main reason for the subsidence of the student movement was the government's policy of selective appeasement. On December 2nd the government opened negotiations with student representatives and conceded to their demands in order to split them off from the rest of the movement, a tactic which would be repeated with great success with the railway workers a week or so later.
(iii) The Juppé Plan
On November 15th Alain Juppé revealed his package of measures to cut the deficit of a welfare budget argued to be heading towards bankruptcy. This set of measures was seen as crucial for reassuring the foreign exchange markets that France would be able to stick to the Maastricht timetable.
The austerity package was such that many of the measures only had a direct impact on workers in the state sector. Above all, workers in the SNCF and RATP were to be subjected to specific measures on top of those aimed at the rest of the public sector, and at the working class in general.
The Juppé Plan
... A new tax (the RDS, Réimbursement of the Dette Sociale) of 0.5 per cent on all wages, breaking with the practice of exempting the low paid from direct taxes, to be introduced to clear an accumulated welfare deficit of 250 billion francs over the next thirteen years. The current welfare deficit was to be reduced from 64 billion francs in 1995 to seventeen billion francs in 1996 through a series of increased contributions and reduced benefits.
... Reduced spending on health, estimated to account for up to half of welfare losses, and increased charges on patients for public hospitals. Introduction of log book medical records to restrict prescriptions and prevent patients from consulting specialists without the approval of a GP.
... Family benefit (paid to low income families with children) to be frozen in 96 and taxed from 97. Suspension of plan to introduce a home-care allowance for the elderly.
... Pension system for public sector workers to be brought into line with that of private sector workers, extending from 37.5 years to 40 years the length of service required for a full pension. Also abolition of the régimes particuleurs for those in the public sector with difficult working conditions, under which SNCF or RATP train drivers can retire at 50 or other RATP, EDF-GDF, post office and coal workers at 55.
... Radical restructuring of social security administration, transferring health, pension and family allowance financing from joint control by the unions and employers into a form involving an enlarged role for the state, along with a planned constitutional amendment to allow the government to set a ceiling on welfare spending.
... At around the same time, the details of the contrat de plan, a restructuring package for the SNCF, were revealed to include the regionalization of management, closure of 6,000 km of track and the sacking of 30,000-50,000 workers. Considered by many to be a prelude to privatization, a threat also hanging over the heads of workers in telecom, EDF-GDF etc.
... Also at the same time, the Treasury mooted the removal of a 20 per cent tax allowance given to all employees.
The nature of the Juppé package may explain why, as we shall see, the strike started in the SNCF and spread to the RATP first; above all, it explains why the movement was concentrated in the public sector. It also gives us some clues, but not the whole reason, as to why the unions adopted such a degree of militancy in opposition to the plan.
The package was presented to the National Assembly without any official consultation with the unions. In the eyes of the unions, this threatened to undermine the acceptance by the French bourgeoisie, one that had endured since 1936, of the role of the unions as social partners. Indeed the main employers' federation, the CNPF (Conseil National du Patronat FranÃ§ais), also resented the government's unilateral declaration of the Juppé plan and the way it interfered with its partnership with the unions. Bipartite negotiations over major social issues such as unemployment had been established between the union confederations and the CNPF, which had been particularly concerned over recent years to maintain institutional channels for the expression and mobilisation of discontent....
On top of this the social security reforms explicitly sought to limit the power of the trade unions to manage the welfare system. The trade unions derived a great deal of benefit, in terms of entrenchment, perks and cushy jobs for functionaries, from this administrative function. In particular the usually moderate FO particularly resented measures which would have meant removing its nose from the trough of health insurance administration. Indeed, whilst the leader of the CFDT, Nicole Notat, greeted the proposals with the statement the reforms proceed in a sensible manner, the leader of the FO, Marc Blondel called them a declaration of war to the FO and called for a day of action on November 28th.
The unions needed to flex their muscles in order to demonstrate to the government that they could not be either disregarded or ousted from their spheres of influence. At this point it is worth remembering that for all the French bourgeoisies attempts to impose austerity upon the working class there had never been a challenge to the unions' position as social partners. The Popular Front and Liberation governments had promoted the unions to a central position in the social organization of French capitalism, and such a position had remained unchallenged. Whilst such a relationship was being terminated in the UK by the new broom of Thatcher and in the US by Reagan, Mitterand was coming to power in France determined to work with the unions. His fourteen year rule had ensured that the relationship had been maintained despite the eventual rightwards shift in policy. It was only now, following the election of Chirac, that the partnership role of the unions was being explicitly questioned for the first time.
However, if the unions' position was being threatened by new developments in the French state, they also had to beware that their mediating role was not to be endangered by the rising discontent which had sometimes sought to bypass them in the past. Whilst not wanting to precipitate a general strike, the CGT and the FO certainly wanted to unleash a strong public sector strike. But in order to make clear the basis of their status in the social partnership, the unions had to ensure that they did not do anything to provoke or encourage the development of autonomous organizations which would have threatened their role as sole legitimate representatives of the workers in negotiations with the state. Thus they were not in the least antithetical to the development of localized autonomy in the form of strike assemblies. Indeed the contradictory experiences of the 86 rail strike and the 93 Air France strike had shown them how to maximize their influence with the state by minimizing interference at the grass roots level. However, the tendency to portray the struggle as one in which the unions simply ran fast to stay abreast of autonomy in order to get in a saving tackle on the strikers says more about the limits of an analysis which sees unions only as firemen for the bourgeoisie than it does about a contradictory movement, like the one we are dealing with here, in which the union structures themselves as well as the workers were under threat.
(iv) The Response
(a) The strike
The CGT called for a day of action in support of civil servants for Friday November 24th. Perhaps sensing a determined groundswell of discontent, the unions one by one issued strike notices to coincide with the demonstration - the CGT for 8pm on the 23rd until 8am on the 25th, the FO for a five-day strike to connect to their day of action the following week, and the CFDT, demagogically, for an indefinite strike. Whatever, it was to be another three and a half weeks before most of the workers who struck that day returned to work.
Throughout the whole of France, half a million took part in huge demonstrations which were relatively larger in the provinces than in Paris, with tens of thousands marching in cities as far apart as Marseilles, Lyons and Toulouse in the South to Lilles in the North. In Paris, workers from throughout the public sector, from train drivers to teachers, were joined by workers from a wide variety of private sector companies. Nicole Notat, leader of the CFDT, was subjected to violent abuse by workers belonging to her union, forcing her to leave the demonstration. And it was clear that this was not a tokenistic affair like the usual one-day strikes. The public transport system in the Paris region, including the railway network, was completely paralysed.
Railway workers held general assemblies in the big rail depots, deciding to continue the strike and to hold further assemblies on a daily basis. Delegations of strikers, including union activists acting with the approval of their leaders, then played a crucial role in the extension of the strike, first to the RATP, and then to the major postal sorting offices (usually located near rail depots) and other urban public tr ansport systems. Some of the most active minorities engaged, without the democratic blessing of the assemblies, in exemplary acts of sabotage. Whereas in the 1986 strike movement the sabotage was more of the traditional variety (train couplings etc. with a hammer and spanner), that which occurred last December comprised hi-tech sabotage of the control boxes on the railway and of other computer systems and communication equipment including the bringing to a standstill of nuclear power stations (without danger of release of radioactive substances) This level of rank-and-file activity was in marked contrast to the passive nature of much of the 68 general strike. The way the assemblies operated also marked an advance on those which the rail strike of 86 had produced. Not only were the divisions between different categories of railway worker transcended - drivers, ticket collectors and all the other grades discussing how to proceed together - but complete outsiders - other workers, the unemployed etc. - were also welcomed, transcending the divisions which cripple the class. However, we must not overstate the self-activity of the assemblies. In the first place, the assemblies varied in openness across different workplaces; and, second, the assemblies were ultimately unable to escape the control of the unions.
By the end of November, substantial numbers of electricity and gas workers, kindergarten and primary school teachers, and some secondary and tertiary lecturers had joined the strike. In those sectors where only a minority were on strike (post, telecom, electricity and gas), occupations of premises were used to increase the impact. In exemplary fashion electricity workers occupying distribution centres switched domestic consumers onto the cheaper night tariff during the day.
Despite some autonomous efforts to encourage the spread of the strike to the private sector, as a rule such an extension did not occur. There were exceptions though. In some parts of France, lorry drivers blocked roads in support of their unions' demand for retirement at the age of 55. At Caen, Renault workers from Blainville along with workers from Moulinex, Citroen, Credit Lyonnais, Credit Agricole and Kodak struck in order to join the regular demonstrations. In Clermont-Ferrand thousands of Michelin workers did the same, and in Lorraine miners went on strike for higher wages and fought running battles with the police. But the only place where substantial numbers of private sector workers broke down the political barrier separating the two sectors was in Rouen where a delegation of 800 strikers went to the Renault Cleon plant to encourage them to strike and join them in blockading roads and the like.
(b) The demonstrations
Whilst there was no general strike, the winter crisis amounted to more than simply a public sector strike. Local government buildings were occupied, the channel tunnel was blocked, runways were invaded, and motorway toll booths were requisitioned to raise strike funds. But perhaps the most notable feature of the movement was the series of demonstrations which brought hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets: the Juppéthons of November 24th and 28th, December 5th and 7th, culminating in the huge rallies on the 12th and 16th of December. Juppé had promised to resign if two million people took to the streets, thereby setting a target for the movement. Other public sector workers including civil servants, dockers, airport workers and hospital workers, as well as delegations from the private sector, struck on the days of the demonstrations, and they continued to grow in size. By the first week of December, more than a million were taking part in the demonstrations. And by the second week the magic number of two million had been reached.
The demonstrations were both massive and carnivalesque. Proletarians mixed and had fun regardless of professional or sectional differences, unlike on the funeral marches so typical of normal political demonstrations, producing a tangible feeling that social relations were being transformed through transforming the psychogeography of the street. But although there were clashes with the cops after demonstrations in Paris, Montpellier and Nantes on December 5th, the marches themselves did not erupt into the kind of confrontations which occurred regularly in the movement of the previous year. In large part this may have been due to the fact that the demonstrations were too big for the cops to attack so the CRS had to be kept on a tight leash. Rather than risk raising the stakes it was left up to union stewards (including revolutionary ones from the CNT) to keep the peace. Moreover, without an initial spark provided by friction with the cops, the step to riot and direct appropriation is, psychologically, a huge one for most people.
It has to be recognized, however, that the movement did not attract the casseurs who might have transcended the limited dialogue of the workers' movement in favour of the universal language (spoken by worker and non-worker alike the world over) of the proletarian riot. The demonstrations remained peaceful, within certain boundaries and limited in impact. Only in Montpellier and Nantes, the cities where the clashes occurred, did the kids from the banlieue join in with the social upheaval. In the main, the banlieue remained quiet.
Some 6,800 acts of urban violence had occurred in 1995 according to the French intelligence services, causing the junior minister for urban affairs to denounce what he called an intifada Ã la FranÃ§aise. Riots had occurred throughout the year in the suburbs of Paris and elsewhere. But it seems as if the gangs were not attracted to the movement. Perhaps it was because they were not being directly attacked as they had been in 94. Or perhaps because from their perspective, that of the marginalized, the government's labelling of the main protagonists as privileged rang true. Or could it be that the attraction towards a separatist ideology had increased? In May beurs and Jewish kids in a Parisian suburb had fought the cops together after the latter had issued racist statements attacking both groups. But since then there had been a wave of terrorist bombings related to the civil war in Algeria and Islamic fundamentalism had become a national obsession, labelling anyone without a white face as a potential terrorist suspect. The French media had celebrated the public execution on September 29th of terrorist suspect Khaled Kelkal, an unemployed 24 year-old of Algerian origin from Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyons. TV pictures showed a cop kicking the corpse, and reactions to the footage revealed deep divisions. Whilst many felt relief that an enemy within had been eliminated, Vaulx-en-Velin exploded at yet another state atrocity.
(v) Prospect of European Escalation
The movement in France was also beginning to hear echoes of itself beyond its national boundaries. Solidarity rallies were held in Rome and Athens. In Berlin on December 14th a demonstration in solidarity with foreigners inside Germany turned into a demonstration of solidarity with the struggle of those in France. But the most significant developments occurred in Belgium where, after a month long strike by Alcatel employees against redundancies, and following a demonstration of students and teachers in Liege which ended in a violent confrontation with the cops, a demonstration was called by the unions for December 13th. Sixty thousand or so marched in Brussels against spending cuts. The railway workers of the SNCB, who had been on strike for three days, along with Sabena employees, whose strike had disrupted air traffic, were at the forefront.
Any possibilities of transcending national divisions in a unified struggle against the formation of a bankers' Europe were stillborn, however. Negotiations between the government and the unions in France had begun to seek a settlement. Within two days of the demonstration in Belgium, strike assemblies in France were discussing a faxed circular from the CGT calling for an end to the strike.
(vi) The Settlement
Through paralysing circulation, the strike was beginning to have a major impact upon the French economy. Shortages of raw materials began to hit the production of surplus-value whilst a lack of customers in the cities hit at its realization. All in all, the strike was estimated to have cost French capital up to eight billion francs in lost production. But the government was unable to break the movement by force. Efforts to run a fleet of scab buses for Parisian commuters had to be abandoned due to the paralysis of the traffic system. The RPRs attempt to organize a demonstration against the strike, using De Gaulles half million strong demonstration in May 68 as its model, ended in farce, mobilizing only a couple of hundred people. And attempts to form transport users' committees barely got off the ground. Clearly the strikers enjoyed overwhelming, if still overwhelmingly passive, support. So threats to call a referendum or general election to resolve the crisis also had to be forgotten quickly.
Unable to face down such a strong and unified movement on December 5th, the government offered to open negotiations with the unions, offering a few paltry concessions with no mention of the planned changes to pensions. This offer in itself was taken by the CFDT as reason enough to call off the strikes, indicating the extent to which the priority of all the unions was to regain their invite to the bargaining table. But the CGT and FO dismissed the offer as a non-response and vowed to continue the strike until the welfare reform plan was withdrawn. However, the opening of negotiations signalled that the movement's unwillingness to challenge the unions' overall control would fatally undermine its ability to achieve its demands. On November 28th, the government had declared that the welfare reforms are a single package, and the movement had united around the twin demands of scrapping the package as a whole and sacking the man responsible. But in the negotiations the government's strategy became one of selective appeasement in order to split the movement. Concessions had already been made to the student movement in order to split it from the main body of struggle, and the government now proceeded to separate and isolate the different aspects of the package in order to deal with each one separately over a longer period.
On December 10th the climb down was announced. The contrat de plan for the SNCF would be put on ice and the proposal to increase the number of years public sector employees would have to work for their pensions dropped. The régimes particuleur would remain. Promises were made to protect the public services from the deregulation demanded by the EU. Wage negotiations with the miners were to be reopened. Assurances had been given to the FO concerning their position regarding social security reform. A social summit between the government and union leaders was announced for 22nd December.
The dissatisfaction of the rank-and-file with these concessions was evident when two million demonstrated on December 12th. But the fax from the CGT on December 15th marked the beginning of the end. It was greeted with anger by many strikers including CGT
branch officials who were initially convinced it was a forgery. General assemblies at the Gare du Nord in Paris, the South West Paris rail depot, in Lyons, Rouen and elsewhere initially voted to continue the strike, unhappy that the demands of the movement as a whole had not been met. But no alternative to union control had been established. There was no national co-ordination to organize the continuation of the strike and negotiate a better deal. Anyway, the seeds of division had been sown with the withdrawal of those aspects of the Juppé plan which had particularly riled the most combative sectors in the struggle, those who had been on all-out strike. The assemblies of striking railway workers began to exclude the outsiders who had previously been made welcome. Votes for a return to work were carried. Within three days, and despite the fact that the demonstrations on December 16th were still huge, the rail strike was practically over. The return to work followed, gradually, elsewhere. Bar a few notable exceptions, the movement had ended.
The union leaderships had won major concessions from the government. Railway workers and other workers in the public sector had ensured that the aspects of the package which had made them most angry had been scrapped. But those measures which had figured in the immediate deficit-reduction timetable remained. The RDS, the increase in hospital fees, health spending caps, the freeze on family allowances - all of these measures which would together reduce the social security deficit by 43 billion francs - remained intact. These were the measures which had united the demonstrators, measures which affected public and private sector worker alike. But by ending the strikes the government had managed to preserve these measures, described by The Economist as the essentials.
Only idiots complain about sell outs. We can criticize unions and parties, recognize their role of recuperation and mediation, but our criticisms must begin with and develop from within the movement of the working class itself. The question is why the movement was unable to go further. If it could not go all the way, and had to settle for crumbs, then could it still not have achieved more? What was missing was some kind of co-ordinated autonomous control over the movement. Perhaps if the local examples of autonomy had co-ordinated nationally... But this would have been a big step. The unions were wary of provoking co-ordinations, and thus avoided confronting the strike assemblies, even going so far as to praise their autonomous activities. And those railway workers who wanted to trigger an all-out strike did not see the need for autonomous organization; quite the opposite, they knew that if they tried to revive something like the co-ordinations they risked confrontation with the unions and the end to the spirit of unity that seemed to be of paramount importance in persuading hesitating workmates. Besides which, their strike of 86, for all its advances in self-organization, and perhaps in part because of them, had ended in harsh defeat.
Perhaps this is the wrong way to look at the question. There was no autonomous organization because there was no clash between the strikers and the unions to give rise to it until it was too late - the forms of autonomy arise out of circumstances which make them necessary. The CGT and the FO roundly condemned the Juppé plan and encouraged an all-out strike in the public sector. The problem then is that the movement was unable to extend itself beyond a public sector strike on the one hand and limited demonstrations on the other. Or to put it another way, the fundamental problem was that the class remained divided between those prepared to throw themselves into the struggle and those who supported it passively.
In strictly formal terms the movement was simply a trade union affair. It cannot be denied that the unions remained in charge, permitting and even encouraging a certain level of autonomous activity. But it would be an easy mistake to look at these events from the sort of perspective which looks only for particular organizational forms, seeing in the unions only monolithic structures of domination. The new unionism which tolerated autonomy should be seen as mediating a real expression of antagonistic subjectivity. Like that of the state, the mediating and recuperating role of the union is made and remade through struggle - crystallizations of previous waves of struggle liquefied by new antagonisms. The movement can be criticized for not developing the requisite organizational forms in order for it to go further. But it is also necessary to identify the more positive aspects of the struggle in the hope that - next time - they may develop the forms adequate for the realization of their full potential. The Intakes articles we reproduce in this issue of Aufheben draw out some of those aspects.
Epilogue: France Risks New Unrest
The most important thing about the movement of November and December 1995 must be how the working class of France follows it up. The only thing that is certain is that it will come under attack again. The pressures which led to the Juppé plan remain. The convergence criteria for Maastricht still need to be met.
In May 96 a special cabinet meeting was held where ministers were ordered to make savings of £7-8 billion over eighteen months. Chirac had demanded draconian cuts, insisting that a change of mentality on public spending had to be made either voluntarily or by force. A government official announced that No figure has been fixed yet on eventual savings, but the effort needed to meet targets will mean cuts on a scale never seen before.
It is because more battles will be fought that it is necessary for the limits of the winter movement to be superseded. There is a need for critique. The articles we reproduce here are attempts at such a critique by people who were participants. Without necessarily agreeing with every point in them we recognize their importance. The movement towards communism depends upon critical reflection and practical supersession. It is to be hoped that the inclusion of these articles may hasten the day in which the struggles of the French working class become as one with our own.
1 The SWP is the largest (far-)leftist organization in the UK; the ICC is (probably) the largest left-communist organization in the world (not saying much!). That theoretically the ICC puristly upholds communist positions while the SWP opportunistically flits between different counter-revolutionary positions is of course a difference between the organizations. What is interesting with regards the French events is their similarity. The SWP thinks all the movement lacked was the right leadership which was not given by the PCF, the unions or French Trot groups. The ICC on the other hand sees the working class as completely hoodwinked by these cunning factions of the bourgeoisie. But, as Leninists, they both agree that they somehow possess what the working class lacks - the correct leadership or consciousness.
2 See EMUs in the class war in Aufheben 1.
3 From France after the strikes, in Frontline (Australian activist newspaper), posted on the internet by Harry Cleaver for Accion Zapatista de Austin.
4 See Dr Kohls prescription for trouble, in The Guardian, 1st August 1996.
5 See A New Hot Autumn: The struggle against the Italian government and the official trade unions is the struggle against the Europe of the bosses, London Notes, 1993.
6 One account of the COBAS is Gregor Gall, The emergence of a rank and file movement: the Comitati di Base in the Italian workers' movement, in Capital & Class 55 (spring 1995). A more satisfactory account, but earlier and therefore more about their origin, is David Brown (1988) The COBAS: Italy 1986-88: A new rank and file movement (Echanges et Mouvement).
7 In considering the extent to which bourgeois anti-fascism played a central role in shaping post-war France, the period of the Popular Front government should not be forgotten. Many enduring labour protection laws, such as the 40 hour week and significant nationalizations (Banque de France, war industries, railways etc.) were enacted in June 1936 in response to a wave of strikes and factory occupations involving two million workers. An account of internationalist resistance to fascism is contained in the pamphlet Internationalists in France during the Second World War by Pierre Lanneret.
8 The reference to a fordist economy requires an explanation because of a later reference to the neo-fordist labour process further on in the article. By fordist economy we mean Fordism, a mode of capital accumulation based on the mass production and mass consumption of consumer durables. The establishment of the fordist labour process was its necessary prerequisite. As a valorization process extracting relative surplus-value it allowed for rising profits to occur alongside expanded consumption for the working class. By using the assembly line to dictate the pace of work to a workforce which had already been broken down into deskilled component parts by Taylorism, the fordist labour process was, up to certain limits, able to impose progressive increases in productivity. See previous issues of Aufheben (in particular EMUs In The Class War in no. 1 but also the review article in no. 2 and Auto-Struggles in no. 3) for our use of the concept of Fordism and for our criticisms of the regulation school which developed them.
9 Interrupted only by strike waves in 1953 and 1963.
10 Readers unfamiliar with the events are encouraged to seek out original sources. Fortunately there are a number of decent pamphlets available in English: R. Gregoire & F. Perlman (1969) Worker-Student Action Committees: France May 68 (Detroit: Black & Red), R. Vienét (1968) Enragés and Situationists in the Occupation Movement, France, May 68 (New York: Autonomedia / London: Rebel Press), and the eye-witness account produced by Solidarity (1968) Paris: May 1968 (London: Dark Star/Rebel Press).
11 This analysis obviously owes a debt to that of the Situationist International.
12 It would be inaccurate to say that the movement seized control over the means of production of ideas per se because the mass media was able to continue its function of counter-revolutionary propaganda unthreatened by the movement. This criticism, amongst others, is made in the text by Gregoire & Perlman, referred to above (note 10), an account notable for its willingness to engage in self-criticism.
13 As with all Keynesian programmes which involve concessions, these measures are ambiguous in that they necessarily involve the rationalization of capitalist production and the struggles that result from this. For example, most of these nationalizations were undertaken in order to perform badly-needed restructuring in these sectors; and the implementation of the 39 hour week involved the suppression of certain benefits in working time.
14 Whilst the government was forced to back-track on certain measures, it did not retreat on all of them. Moreover it did not opt for the Thatcherite model but rather pursued policies which were more consistent with Gaullism. No attempt was made to tear up the social consensus - the unions were kept on board. This point is extremely important because it is only now that the French bourgeoisie are considering emulating their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
15 The technological elimination of aspects of the labour process, making redundant whole sections of semi-skilled workers, was combined with an organizational restructuring of the remainder. The fordist labour process had individualized its component workers at distinct work stations connected by the assembly line. The neo-fordist labour process retained the assembly line in order to dictate the pace of work but brought workers back together in groups. By breaking with some of the accumulated rigidities of Taylorism, allowing the groups themselves to organize how to meet the demands imposed by the line, a greater intensity of labour was made possible than under the previous organization as more of the time imbalances between distinct tasks could be eliminated. But the neo-fordist assembly line was not just a technical innovation aimed at quantitative goals. Whilst not completely successful, neo-fordist experiments were deliberately designed to reduce the antagonism between capital and labour which had made the car factories one of the central battlegrounds of the revolt of the mass worker. By taking on board some of the lessons which industrial sociology had distilled from its analysis of the class struggle, the experience of a real increase in the rate of exploitation could henceforth be made less inhuman. The introduction of group co-operation not only made the experience of assembly line work less atomizing, in itself reducing the tendency for conflict, but also, by getting the group to internalize and co-operate around the dictates of management, it served to create a new aspect of capitalist control, that of the work group over the potentially unruly individual. See Benjamin Coriat The restructuring of the assembly line: A new economy of time and control, in Capital and Class 11 (summer 1980).
26 In response to the announcement of several thousand redundancies, workers struck and occupied the factory. Immigrant workers, who comprised 90 per cent of the workforce in some factories, were attacked by scabs and foremen as the struggle against restructuring took place along racial lines. See Sol Picciotto, The battles at Talbot-Poissy: Workers' divisions and capital restructuring, in Capital and Class 23 (summer 1984). These incidents occurred after a series of conflicts in Citroen factories during which immigrant workers clashed with CGT and CFDT trades unionists.
17 Although the downward trend in the incidence of strike activity cannot be disputed, exact figures should be viewed with caution. On the one hand they demonstrate the unions' inability to stage symbolic actions as well as a reluctance of workers to take meaningful ones, and on the other the statistics rarely take account of the number of rank and file conflicts at factory level which neither management nor unions have any interest in publicizing.
18 The PS and PCF agreed a Common Programme of the left in 1972 in a bid to break the control of the right-wing over parliament. The PCF was still the biggest political party in 1956 but had been in continual decline in opposition since 1947, being gradually overtaken by the PS. Although the PCF renounced the agreement in 1977, a deal was struck between the leaders of the parties for the 1981 elections. Mitterand won the second round, dissolved the National Assembly and called for elections, and then formed a coalition government in which the PS were the majority. Four ministerial positions were reserved for the PCF including that of Employment Minister, which meant that the CGT came to adopt a less than militant approach in industrial disputes, continually emphasizing the need for negotiations (see the article on the dispute at Talbot-Poissy referred to earlier, note 16) and sabotaging a wildcat strike on the railways in 1984. The PCF withdrew from the government in 1984 following the replacement of left-wing Prime Minister Mauroy with one from the right of the Socialist Party, Laurent Fabius.
19 When the word beur was made fashionable by the media, it was in order to grasp a reality that was escaping them: some individuals were presenting the interesting characteristic of not really having an identity. They didnt really feel French, nor really Algerian or Moroccan etc. Without a homeland, full of energy, capable of criticizing each civilization with the values of the other, of rejecting Islamic obscurantism as much as the inhumanity of the modern West: here were people who risked being absolutely un-integratable. (Suburbs on fire - The centre in the middle, in Mordicus 4, April-May 1991).
20 A clear opposition between white liberals and black/Arab militants would be a gross oversimplification - from the start the beurs were not a homogeneous grouping. Following the success of the march against racism, there was a boom in beur culture which principally benefited a new cultural elite, the beurgeoisie, who gained access to the corridors of ministerial power and the circles of the caviar left. Conferences were organized, building on many localized working class initiatives, with a view to gaining representative legitimacy in the eyes of the state, and the movement was split between those seeking to climb the social ladder and those that recognized that, even if this became a real possibility for everyone, it was one which could only ever be realized by an elite few. Since then many blacks and Arabs have joined the political classes, but many have been left as before with nothing to lose by adopting a lifestyle of criminality (Immaterial Labour, Mass Intellectuality, New Constitution, Post-Fordism and all that, Red Notes, July 1994).
21 For a full account of the movement see France goes off the Rails (BM Blob and BM Combustion, London, 1987).
22 See the leaflets reprinted in France goes off the Rails.
23 Strike committees had also emerged in strikes on the railways in 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1984.
24 For example Chausson (February-March 88), SNEMCA (spring 88), nurses (March 88 - January 89), and a (relatively) rare strike in the private sector, Peugeot (autumn 89). See Echanges et Mouvement 66/67 (January-June 91).
25 Echanges et Mouvement 65 (July-December 90).
26 Echanges et Mouvement 66/67 (January-June 91). Regarding the question of recuperation, a critique of the distinctive style of rap music which emerged in France in the 1980s as part of the rejection of the left's patronizing assimilation strategy would be valuable. The fact that the lyrics are not in English imposes restrictions on the size of the market and precludes the emergence of mega-rich gangsta-stars as happened in the US, but nevertheless must lead to the development of hierarchy within the beurs movement as muchas it unites it around an antagonistic social identity. As for the film La Haine, based around the desire of three young banlieue residents (one black, one Jewish, and one Arab) to avenge the murder of a mate by a cop, and containing real footage from a riot in a Parisian suburb, to what extent does the spectacularization of the struggle hinder its real development? It is worth noting that there were riots in Noisy le Grand, Le Havre and Rouen during the first fortnight of the film's release, but it is arguable whether these were in any way related to the film or whether they would have happened anyway. The film does not seem to have a particularly pacifying effect, however. In the UK when crowds emerging from a screening in Brixton last year found a riot in full swing following a Brian Douglass memorial march (killed by cops wielding the new US-style batons) many were not merely content to have consumed the representation of revolt but had been fuelled to seek out the real thing.
27 See Indians of the suburbs in Mordicus 4 for an analysis of Muslim recuperation of the '91 riots.
28 See The co-ordinating committees in France: A new form of organisation in the class struggle in Echanges et Mouvement 72/73 (January-February 93).
29 The elimination of stock inventories in favour of parts being delivered just-in-time, and extending this principle throughout the factory, served to increase the discipline imposed by the requirements of the production process upon each work group and thus of this alienated collectivity on individual workers (see note 15). The just-in-time disciplinary regime is itself highly dependent upon a well disciplined workforce - a system which works through the establishment of its own preconditions - and thus highly vulnerable when disruptions do occur. Having served to reduce the incidence of strikes these developments in the capitalist labour process have also served to increase their potential impact. An interesting analysis of this vulnerability, prompted by a dispute with similarities to the one being considered here, the Spanish lorry drivers dispute of 1990, was included in the June 91 edition of the Barcelona based magazine Etcetera, and translated as Dispersed Fordism and a New Organisation of Labour in Here & Now 13.
30 Unlike sterling, the franc had been able to withstand the kind of intense speculatory pressure which led in Britain's case to Black Wednesday and the exit of the pound from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). According to the socialist government's figures, growth was at 1.8 - 2 per cent p.a. (greater than that of all its competitors except for Japan), inflation down to 2.4 per cent, and the public spending deficit down to 2.7 per cent of GDP. The franc had been stable against the Deutschmark since 1987, income tax was at its lowest for 25 years, and the number of strikes down to a post-war record low. See The Economist, 21st November 1992.
31 The apparent strength of the French economy (see previous note) had been bolstered by the economic boom that had followed German unification. The failure to stem the rise in eastern German wages towards levels paid to western German workers, together with the generous rates of conversion of Ostmarks into Deutschmarks, had created an inflationary surge in consumer demand in Germany that French industry had been well placed to meet. However, the failure to both stem the levelling up of eastern German wages and make the western German working class pay directly the full costs of unification had meant that the Bundesbank, as the last line of defence against inflation and the erosion of profitability, had little option but to pursue a tight monetary policy. The Bundesbank steadfastly maintained high German interest rates even at the cost of triggering the exchange rate crisis that wrecked the ERM on what became known as Black Wednesday. By late 1992, this counter-inflationary policy had begun to take its full effect with a sharp slow down in the German economy. Having weathered the storm on the exchange rate markets, with the franc remaining firmly tied to the Deutschmark in the ERM, France found itself not only at a significant competitive disadvantage with regard to those countries such as the UK, Spain and Italy who had devalued following Black Wednesday, but also tied to a stagnating German economy. As a result, the French economy went into reverse: having grown by nearly two per cent in 1992 it shrank by over one per cent in the first quarter of 1993 alone.
32 A chronology of events and analysis is contained in the winter 1993 edition of Mordicus. A translation into English has been produced by 56a Infoshop, London.
33 The plethora of struggles which followed the Air France strike, including many wildcat strikes, is catalogued in Collective Action Notes 3/4.
34 The significance of this demonstration is explored in Circuit breakers broken by Echanges et Mouvement, in Nous Sommes Tous Des Casseurs (see note 37 below).
35 The CIP was, like many divisive social security reforms in the UK, aimed specifically at those under 25 years old. It applied to school leavers still unemployed after six months, who would receive vocational training in return for this reduced wage, and to those holding a baccalauréat and two years further education starting their first job.
36 The Economist, 12th March 1994.
37 It is impossible to do justice to this movement in the few lines which an introduction to a subsequent movement allows. It is therefore strongly recommended that readers try to get hold of Nous Sommes Tous Des Casseurs. This pamphlet includes various translations which provide a detailed account and analysis of the movement and deserves a wider circulation than it has so far received. It should be available from AK Press. The movement is also dealt with in Immaterial Labour, Mass Intellectuality, New Constitution, Post-Fordism and all that, Red Notes, July 1994. This pamphlet is nigh impossible to get hold of as well. Readers could try writing to Red Notes.
38 Since 68 the state has made significant efforts to evacuate proletarian social life from the centre of Paris, filling it with Culture. For example, the Pompidou Centre was built on one of the few areas of central Paris in which the working class could afford to live. To be sure, the state has had a degree of success in this strategy - social movements have of late failed to focus themselves in the heart of the capital, with the resultant feeling that the movements have somehow been less significant for it. But when unruly proletarians do manage to reconquer the territory from which they have been excluded, as in the case of this movement, the treasures to be recovered by looting are all the richer for it.
39 Despite a network of student organisations supposedly putting a coherent case ... the past few days have shown that the movement, dominated by high schools and polytechnics, is headless, spontaneous, decentralized and ready to explode. The Guardian, 31st March 1994.
40 Press photographs of looters found their way onto notice boards in police stations throughout Paris. See The Independent, 6th April 1994, for more on this subject.
41 It is worth remembering that the general strike in May 68 came out of a day of protest at the brutality of the cops' assault on the barricades of the student movement.
42 See Collective Action Notes for a chronology of struggles in France. This makes quite clear the contrast in the level of strike activity between France and the UK.
43 Quoted in The Economist, 14th October 1995.
44 There had been a gradual rapprochement between the unions which culminated in 1995 with an end to the internecine conflicts which had broken out following the end of the Union of the Left in 1977. The collapse of Stalinism reduced the significance of the CGTs attachment to the PCF and raised questions about the FOs raison dÃªtre, whilst the CFDT had increasingly distanced itself from the PS since Mitterands 1988 re-election. The CGTs general secretary received a warm welcome at the CFDTs conference in March, whilst his symbolic handshake with Marc Blondel of the FO was a first since the split in 1947. But the main factor was a greater desire for unity at rank-and-file level in response to the evident weakness of each union. A notable feature of the days of action in November and December 1995 was that workers from all the unions (as well as those from none at all, of course) participated regardless of which union had organized it.
45 The universities in Paris are funded more generously than those in the provinces, where the student movement, like the subsequent workers' movement, was more impressive in relative scale.
46 Although the Liberation government introduced a comprehensive system of social protection, it emerged as a far from universal system but one which is a strongly particularistic tangle of administrative units. Each of the general, specific, basic and supplementary schemes that make up the social security system is separately administered by a council representing both unions and employers. Each has responsibility for collecting contributions and paying out benefits. Perhaps the most important aspect from the present point of view is that this financing is done on a current-funding or pay-as-you-go basis - each year's receipts from workers' contributions go out immediately in payments to the retired, ill, or injured. This means that, unlike in the UK where social security is funded out of general taxation, imbalances are immediately visible. Thus the talk of bankruptcy in France compared with the message of an unsustainable burden in the UK. However the crisis in the welfare budget manifests itself, the state needs a degree of control in order to impose restructuring.
47 In Steve Jefferys, France 1995: The backward march of labour halted?, in Capital & Class 59 (summer 1996).
48 This seems to represent an important breakthrough, not only in its effectiveness, but also in bringing beautifully on to the social terrain what has previously been a very individualized form of resistance (i.e. the hacker).
49 The miners in the Lorraine basin were attacked by the cops, however. After the cops tear-gassed a peaceful rally and beat up 30 strikers at Houilleres, the miners kidnapped the local mayor and held him down a mine shaft for thirteen hours. The next day 2,000 miners were met by 1,000 cops and further running battles ensued. In Merlebach on December 8th, 4,000 miners with helmets, protective eye-glasses, gas masks, armed with pick-axes, steel cable, explosive pétards and molotovs fought for a day and a half continuously with the CRS, successfully burning down a building. State violence was also targeted at those strikes which persisted after the majority had returned to work, as we shall see below.
50 The Economist, 27th January 1996.
It has been pointed out, however, that much of the circulation process of capital occurs electronically. Telecom strikers apparently identified the possibility of paralysing this aspect of the process as well, but it did not happen in this strike, partly due to kind of respectful taboo amongst telecom employees, partly due to a whole range of repressive disciplinary measures aimed precisely at interference with the means of electronic communication.
51 Strikes continued over local demands in the Marseilles transport authority and Caen post office. Despite the use of the CRS to evict strikers from occupied premises and escort scabs, resulting in violent clashes, these strikes were successful.
52 Tactical retreat: Costing Juppés concessions, The Economist, 16th December 1995.
53 France risks new unrest, The Guardian, 3rd May 1996.