France: Huge strikes shake Europe

June 19, 2016

Huge strikes and protests are rocking France, with the threat of greater shocks to come as a hated labour law “counter-reform” is debated in the French Senate.

The Socialist Party government is trying to force through the so-called El Khomri law, which would eliminate long-held workers' protections. But the law has stirred huge resistance, expressed in different forms, from the occupation of public squares called the “Nuit Debout” (Up All Night) to a revival of mass working class action, including general strikes.

In a Europe where the ruling class has successfully imposed drastic austerity across the continent, and where the far right and racist scapegoating of desperate refugees and immigrants are growing, the French protests show another direction.

Miguel Urban Crespo is a founding member of Spain's left-wing political party Podemos and a deputy in the European Parliament. Below, he looks at the significance of the French struggle. It was translated from Spanish by Todd Chretien for US Socialist Worker, from which it is abridged.


If any country is associated with the “traditions of the oppressed”, it is France. From the French Revolution of 1789 to the general strike of May 1968 — not forgetting the Paris Commune of 1871 and the antifascist Resistance during the Second World War — France was the site of political conflict par excellence.

French history is replete with plebian uprisings and impatient workers, of conflicts that heat up with their own inner energy, that appear out of nowhere.

If it was not possible to predict Nuit Debout nor the strike wave led by the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), we can analyse the reasons for the explosion and try to recover a strategic discussion, conducted in an internationalist key, taking the situation in France as our starting point.

Neoliberal restructuring

Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister in the Syriza government, recently said France was the only country in Europe in which neoliberal restructuring and counter-reforms have not been successfully imposed.

It is necessary to develop this observation in several ways. On the one hand, it is clear that resistance against the counter-reforms has been more effective in France than in other European countries. The first great battle took place in 1995, featuring gigantic strikes in the public sector against proposed cutbacks in social security.

The anti-globalisation movement that arose in subsequent years owed much to the 1995 strikes, which also served as the point of departure for France's rejection of the European Constitution 10 years later.

Without a doubt, the struggle against neoliberalism has never been limited to trade unions. It has also been organised in the realm of politics and elections.

But the 1995 victory contained a paradox: it was the left that organised the strike wave and mass protests, based on hundreds of united workplace committees of struggle. However, the left was not able to translate this into an organised movement with a political perspective.

Thus, in the end, the neo-fascist National Front capitalised on mass discontent with a Europe run in the interests of the elites. This legacy, which continued through various other upheavals in France, was unable to overturn neoliberal hegemony.

Neoliberalism cannot be reduced to a complex of regulatory rules, but also encompasses systematic social dynamics that impose themselves as a model of social relations. The structural exclusion of millions of Black or Arab people from “official” society in France is a direct consequence of neoliberalism's advance into the market and civil society.

The neoliberal advance has broken up defences built by the working class to defend itself from capital. This remains the case even if some highly trained and organised sectors of the working class have managed to defend their standard of living. This especially applies to public employees, who still occupy broad sectors of the economy privatised in other countries.

Two outcomes serve to illustrate the contrast between the explosive resistance of French society and the underlying advance of the neoliberal model.

Weakened unions

Firstly, the union sustaining the current strike wave, the CGT, is a radical union whose main leader has come to personify opposition to President François Hollande. CGT president Philippe Martinez appears as a character plucked straight from a Robert Guediguian film, French cinema's answer to British socialist filmmaker Ken Loach.

At the same time, the CGT is a very weak union. It has shrunk from 3 million to only 600,000 members over recent decades.

On the other hand, the National Front has capitalised on discontent spurred by deindustrialisation and the destruction of communities built around manufacturing.

Despite having a certain base in the working class, the National Front has called for a hard line against today's strikes. This exposes its reactionary character — but also the limits of a political left that has lost its connection to the working class.

If there is no obvious straight line between a person's class and their ideology, it is also the case that France shows that ideas are shaped or conditioned by class relations. This reality is critical for directing anger in one direction or another.

Based on all this, we must clarify how to read the events that are taking place in France.

It is curious how the mainstream left and right both analyse the strike wave as “conservative”. The right, along with the social-liberal left headed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, label the movement as one “opposed to change”.

They depict a nostalgic movement tilting against a necessary modernisation of French society that, naturally, requires liberalising labour relations and wiping out the historic gains won by workers in the 1968 strikes.

By contrast, they say, progress would involve settling accounts with history in order to recover a version of France's past utility for the elite.

Valls and his economics minister Emmanuel Macron appear in this twisted story as countercultural yuppies, who are trying to set society free by destroying a reactionary subject — that is, union and workplace rights that they define as “privileges” available to only a few.

Thus, the crisis of social democracy is assuming a particularly perverse form. The Socialist Party is divided between those who realise that these measures will alienate them from their social base and those, like the prime minister, who are convinced that their historic mission is to destroy social welfare.

New potentials

Meanwhile, when the leader of the French Communist Party Pierre Laurent tells the youth of Nuit Debout, “I invite you to join the Communist Party”, he only reveals the same conservative incomprehension — unable to read today's struggle as a window opening to something new.

However, there is a different reading. We might see what is happening as the sort of “leap” — in keeping with the subversive thread that runs through French history.

This leap is full of potential that must be explored. First of all, today's strikes put back on the table, despite all the fetishistic theories we've heard over recent years, the idea that the organised working class retains a specific strategic power. It is capable of paralysing a whole country by attacking the chain of value in transport and energy production.

This strike is not merely a question of a specific industrial sector. It raises the question of who runs the country: the people who generate wealth through their labour or those who live off the work of others.

This places on the agenda different tools and forms of struggle that correspond to different material realities and correlations of strength.

On the other hand, the movement shows that parallel explosions are possible across different sectors that share common interests. This phenomenon of shared interests is based on the creation of impoverishment of the middle classes (on which Nuit Debout is based) and sections of the traditional working class.

This is true even if we must emphasise the ongoing failure to link these struggles to youth of African and Arab origins, concentrated in the poorest neighbourhoods.

Political questions

As social discontent is transformed into active struggle, into real experience, a combative political layer must emerge that is capable of preventing the National Front from posing itself as the main alternative to the political establishment.

Everything now happening in France can have profound repercussions throughout Europe.

It is important to discuss how to anchor discontent and give it a political expression that goes beyond defensive demands, even as it is based on these demands. It is important to seek through this, to build a social bloc capable of articulating a new social project.

The French left, which is unfortunately very atomised, faces a historic opportunity to recapture its once central role. To do this, as has been shown in other countries, it is critical to construct a political-social instrument that appears new, participatory and open.

Why not discuss this in parallel with how to win today's strikes, how to stabilise structures of struggle and convert them into spaces for organisation, so that all the formidable energy displayed today can form the basis of a tool that can contest for power?

The best internationalist traditions have always been conscious that what happens in one country has repercussions in others. To change the world, we need friends in many countries.

Therefore, building links with France and the struggles of the working people leads us to the key meaning of solidarity: not only do they need us, but we need them.

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