French left discusses next steps

Submitted by Anon on 16 May, 2006 - 11:45

By Martin Thomas

Now it’s the SĂ©go-Sarko show. As if the three months of mass mobilisation which forced France’s right-wing government to withdraw the CPE (its measure to remove all job security for young workers) were just a bad dream, official French politics has turned to speculation about the presidential elections due in 2007 and the front-runners to be candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy for the right (UMP) and SĂ©golĂšne Royal for the ‘left’ (Socialist Party).

Royal is a right-winger within the Socialist Party. And the SP — which was in office, or held the presidency, from 1981 to 2002 with only two years’ break (1995-7) - has legislated several schemes for cheap and reduced-rights employment for young people: the SIVP of 1983, the TUC of 1984, the CES of 1989, and the Emplois-jeunes scheme of 1997. Its opposition to the CPE was only tactical.

Sarkozy prudently distanced himself from the CPE. But generally he represents the “Thatcherite” right wing of the UMP.

Whether SĂ©go or Sarko wins, further attacks are in store for French workers and youth. The key question about the French workers’ and students’ limited victory on the CPE is what it has done to rebuild organisation.

The CGT, the biggest of France’s union confederations, had nearly 2.5 million members in the 1970s.

The numbers meant a lot more in France than they would in Britain. Under French labour law, workers vote for union nominees as representatives, and win recognition for those representatives, without having to be union members. On the whole there is little motive for workers to sign up as union members unless they wish to be active within the union.

After 1981, CGT membership shrank quickly, to 630,000 by 1992. Since then, however, and especially since the mass strike movements of 1995 and 2003, CGT membership has risen to 710,000.

The CGT has also moved to the right. Its latest congress, in April this year, just after the end of the big movement which beat the CPE, marked a further shift towards policies of “realistic” haggling within a neo-liberal framework.

This time, however, there’s something new: an open opposition grouping within the CGT.

In the French Marxist newsletter DĂ©bat Militant (no.104) Raymond Adams reports:

“On 26 April, a few hundred metres from the hall where a largely predictable and stage-managed congress was taking place, some 250 CGT activists met at the Lille Bourse du Travail [rough equivalent of Trades Council] to publicly assert their rejection of the leadership line and the existence of a ‘class struggle’ current which has broken with the policies of the leaderships of the union confederations...

“Activists from the metal industries in the North... formed the majority of those present on 26 April, but there were also activists from the chemical industries, teaching, agricultural and food industries, glass industry, telecom, and social services...

“A delegation of high school and university students was invited, and spoke...”

The meeting spelled out demands for: "the repeal of the CNE [a measure to cut job security in small workplaces] and the Law on Equal Opportunity [of which the CPE was part], a halt to offshoring and job-cut plans, a legal ban on redundancies on pain of nationalisation without compensation of bosses who declare redundancies or offshore jobs”.

A further national meeting is scheduled for the end of May.

The French Communist Party has been revived a bit by the 2006 movement, though the mobilisations seem also to have brought dissent, as in the CGT opposition. The Socialist Party, despite all its years in office, is having some success with a big recruitment campaign.

What about the revolutionary left?

Convergences RĂ©volutionnaires, the magazine of the minority faction of Lutte OuvriĂšre, has published a special issue assessing the movement which defeated the CPE. It looks primarily at universities and schools, where most of the activity happened, workplace action being limited to one-day strikes and contingents on demonstrations.

The first university to go into occupation, on 7 February, and the last to return to normal working, on 18 April, was Rennes 2.

There, things started with an “anti-CPE collective” set up on 25 January by activists from the various left and revolutionary-left parties (SP, CP, LCR, LO) and student unions (Unef, Sud, CNT, SLB: there are several student union organisations in France, but all miniscule).

By 7 February, they could get enough support to occupy. Soon the assemblies rose to 3000 students, and remained at that level through the next two and a half months.

The Rennes 2 campus became a beacon for other universities, and an organising centre for the students to go out to mobilise the high schools and (for the big one-day strikes and demonstrations on 28 March and 4 April) the factories and offices.

However, “widespread anti-political prejudices which were stoked up by an influential group of anarchist activists of ‘autonomist’ bent” caused problems.

“The idea of a strike committee, elected and recallable, was systematically rejected as.... authoritarian...

“Among the consequences of the [‘anti-authoritarian’] allergy was the failure to organise a stewarding squad at Rennes 2 and the fact that the first national student coordination, which had been initiated by local Sud activists, and was held in Rennes, only had Rennes delegates which had been selected by lottery, not elected (a funny idea of rank and file control!)...

“But with all the problems, the campuses had an intense political life for two months: free-ranging discussions or more structured debates, giant picnics, improvised concerts, film showings... A profound experience for thousands of students”.

Things varied from city to city. But the reports in Convergences RĂ©volutionnaires suggest that much in Rennes was typical.

The reformist left, despite everything, was able to play an active mobilising role. It did so while also working to limit the movement and block the emergence of representative leaderships which could rival the SP-controlled Unef.

The revolutionary left pressed for the university students to turn to the high schools and the workers in the factories and offices; and usually succeeded, though more anarchist-minded students tended to prefer a focus on spectacular minority “actions” (occupations of public offices, roadblocks, and so on).

Now, according to the Ligue Communiste RĂ©volutionnaire (Rouge, 5 May), “some students are joining unions and/or political organisations, mainly the LCR and the CNT”. (The CNT is a small anarcho-syndicalist union, organised among students as well as workers).

Can the revolutionary left convince enough people to outweigh the suction from political “realism” towards the Socialist Party?

And two other questions are important for the months ahead. Can the revolutionary left define and popularise a clear, simple programme for action to win decent, secure jobs for all - the underlying issue behind the CPE battle?

And, what will the revolutionary left do in the 2007 presidential election? A united revolutionary-left presidential candidate would help. Is that possible?

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