This year millions of people have taken to the streets in cities across France to protest against the policies of the conservative government of Prime Minister douard Balladur elected late last year. Green Left Weekly's SAM WAINWRIGHT spoke to JOHNATHON HIGGINS, a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) about the resurgence of political activity, especially among youth.
Balladur came to office following a huge collapse in the vote for the previous Socialist Party (SP) government. At first glance this might seem to be an unlikely prelude to such an upsurge of protest. Higgins said that the big business media tried to portray the election result as the product of French society becoming more conservative.
"The media went on about how society has shifted to the right and how communism is finished. Last year we had the 25th anniversary of May '68 and it tried to pull the strings saying that May '68, the '70s, the '80s and a strong left are finished. All that is left, they said, is to modify capitalism."
The disastrous electoral performance of the SP was the product of its pro-capitalist austerity program, not because of a shift to the right in popular opinion. Higgins explained that the SP government was elected in 1988 in the wake of huge protests and strikes against the policies of the conservative government of Jacques Chirac. The policies of the SP turned out to be not so different to its predecessor.
"The SP were on the same path as other social democratic parties in the Western world, going further and further right ... People who had been backing the SP through the '80s didn't know who to vote for any more. In some cases left-wing voters, who were so disgusted with what the SP had done, took their leaflets and crossed them out or wrote insults about the SP on them.
"People would come up to you in the street and say, 'Well who am I supposed to vote for?' It's the same throughout Europe, people are looking for a real left to vote for, a party which will take up their concerns. In '93 when the SP went down it was like no one had any faith in them any more."
At first the conservative government was very careful to avoid measures that would damage their standing. Balladur also worked hard to present himself as a man of consensus. The big business media chipped in highlighting opinion polls that showed 60% of the population thought Balladur was a good politician. Meanwhile his Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, took on the job of pushing the hard right stance.
"The conservatives avoided causing any fuss because they wanted a free ride all the way to the Presidential elections in 1995." This honeymoon period was to be short lived. After a few months, the government was pushed to act by its conservative supporters — big business and the church.
"The right-wing backers of the government were getting impatient. They were saying 'Where's the privatisation, the moralisation of society, the disciplining of young people?'"
The first big showdown was in November 1993 over plans to privatise Air France. This was met by a hard-fought and well-organised strike by Air France workers. The government was forced to back down. Higgins attributed part of the success of the strike to the prominent role played by LCR members in the movement which prevented the conservative union leaders from negotiating a deal with the government behind workers' backs.
Although there was a lot of sympathy for the strike in the community, the Air France workers remained isolated.
In January mass opposition exploded in response to the government's proposal to fund private schools through the education budget. The right-wing Catholic lobby was a strong backer of the government and private education in France is overwhelmingly Catholic.
However, the government severely underestimated the popular feeling — stemming from the French revolution — that the powers of the church and state be separate. Secular cultural societies transformed themselves into organisations which drew people together from all sections of society to take a stand. They organised the transport for an opposition rally held in Paris.
"You didn't really think it was going to be as big as it was," said Higgins. You thought maybe there will be a 100 from this town and 100 from the next. There was a train leaving from Strasbourg where I live and all 900 seats were full. There was hardly a train or bus left with seats to Paris. We suddenly realised that this was going to be a massive demonstration — 600,000 to 1 million people in Paris."
The government was again forced to back down. The illusion of Balladur's consensus was shattered.
"This issue united the whole left — workers, students and parents. But it wasn't followed by anything. Because it was so weak the SP got scared because if the movement had developed into anything, the SP wouldn't have had any control over it. After that people had the feeling that they could fight this government; the fighting spirit came back."
The government then tried to implement a new youth "training" wage as part of its five-year economic plan. Under the scheme most people under the age of 26 would be paid 80% of the average wage.
Unlike in Australia where the ACTU leadership has supported a below-award "training" wage, the French trade union confederations opposed the attack. The spirit of opposition to the government's education plans flowed into the movement against the youth wages. The strong stand taken against the proposal by the unions and the various left parties encouraged youth, who were going to be most immediately affected, to get involved.
Commenting on the role of high school students Higgins said, "The media had been trying to say that youth weren't interested in politics any more. This was proved to be false. High school students were going to unions and asking them for the use of their printing presses for their leaflets and so on; you would never have seen this in the earlier on in the '90s. These young people were seeing themselves as future workers; they started to realise that they belonged to the working class".
There was massive community opposition to the youth wage plan; during March and April hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. In most French cities mass demonstrations were happening on a weekly basis. Balladur rewrote his proposal a number of times in an attempt to diffuse the protest. In the end it was withdrawn.
The demonstrations were organised by mass meetings that involved all community sectors. The involvement of youth from poorer backgrounds was particularly noticeable.
"There were a lot of students from technical schools and less-privileged backgrounds. With no political background and very little access to information these people are often the hardest to get involved. There was also a good representation of the immigrant community. In the course of this campaign, the government deported two Algerians and demonstrators showed a great deal of solidarity and called for their return."
The government tried to cause divisions by counterposing "nice" demonstrators with others who were "violent". According to Higgins, "Some police, dressed up as youth and went around smashing things and encouraging other young people to break things.
"When poor kids went and smashed windows and stole things they could never afford from shops, people defended them saying 'I live in the same building as him and you're not going to scapegoat these people'. There was a real feeling of solidarity and trying to draw these people back into the demonstration."
Since then large protests against the government's economic program have continued under the banner of AC! (Agir Ensemble Contre le Chmage—Act Together Against Unemployment). Workers from various unions and unemployed people are involved in AC! which allows workers to go around the more conservative union leaderships. Its demands include: a shorter working week with no loss in pay as a means of reducing unemployment; more public housing and more relief for the unemployed.
Commenting on the period Higgins thought that its long-term impact would, in many ways, be similar to the student/worker uprisings in 1968 which gave valuable political experience, and still gives inspiration, to hundreds of thousands of people. In the '90s however the traditional parties of the left, the SP and the French Communist Party, are weaker and less able to propose alternative ways forward. This gives a new generation of activists the challenge and opportunity to do just that.