By Joan Trevor
Elections matter. Since they romped home in the parliamentary elections in 2002 on the coat-tails of Jacques Chirac's freak presidential win, France's UMP government with their massive majority have been punching holes in the French welfare state.
They have made massive cuts in pension and unemployment entitlement. They are looking at ways to cut healthcare. They have embarked on a programme of "decentralisation" in education as a way to soften it up for more local pay bargaining, and cuts in the standard of provision.
They are creating new job schemes, especially for young people, which allow businesses to hire the unemployed on poverty wages.
In short, as the far left puts it, the government of France is embarked on a policy of wholesale "Thatcherisation" of society.
The latest of many reports commissioned by Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government is the Virville report, by Michel de Virville, director of human resources of car company Renault. His remit is to "simplify" the "code du travail" - the rules governing terms of employment. Virville's proposals include generalisation of the "contrat de mission" lasting 3-5 years - that is, a short-term contract, favoured by employers, at the expense of actual, real, long-lasting jobs that favour the employee.
The "contrat de mission" is a weapon in the armoury of the government trying to "flexibilise" the labour force, making work less secure, workers more afraid to stand up for their rights, making it easier for bosses to hire and fire. Virville also recommends setting up "conseils d'entreprise" - works councils with representatives of management and workers - that could undermine the legal rights of trade unions to be consulted and to represent workers.
The sugar on the pill is that these measures, this flexibility, will create much-needed jobs.
The parties of the mainstream "plural" left, the ex-governmental left - the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Greens, and two smaller parties, the Mouvement Républicain Citoyen [Citizens' Movement of the Republic] and the Parti Radical de gauche [Radical Party of the Left] - oppose the proposals. What will they do to stop them going through? These parties are impotent in parliament itself; they will not lead a fight outside it.
They released a joint declaration where they well outlined what is at stake:
The bill on job creation: a grave threat to our social model the President is feigning to have discovered that jobs are a priority for the French. His action and that of his government are however instructive in this regard: 200,000 more jobless, explosion of job insecurity, generalised deregulation. The Raffarin government wants to expand this policy:
By calling into question the entirety of our social gains since Liberation [in 1945]; by dismantling our social pact . The bill on job creation appears, with the finishing touches applied by the Virville report, a calling into question of the right to work, in particular the right to a permanent job [and] the wish to construct a society based on insecurity and competition between individuals. Its consequences will be:
- to place major social burdens on working people, by generalising job insecurity, making access to training more difficult, making it harder for people to get full pension entitlements, generalising instability and social competition
- to create an uncertain future for households, making it more difficult to get access to accommodation, property and financial credit, and for us to create stable jobs, an indispensable condition for us to have confidence in the future of our social model
In consequence, [we] are issuing a joint demand that the government rejects the proposals of the Virville report and organises a debate in the National Assembly on the question of jobs before the elections in March.
Liaisons, a newsletter reproducing documents from the social movement in France, commented on this joint declaration:
Yes, we need political unity to combat this directly Thatcherite policy of the government A united stand by the parties of the left to denounce this policy and to fight it are of course a good thing, and acknowledging this does not in any way undermine what we say about the past policies of these parties. Fine
But what exactly are the [parties] calling for in this joint statement? They ask the government to reject the proposals in the Virville report Who are they kidding? Can you expect the government to renounce its own policy?
Can you expect anything at all from this UMP national assembly elected in the wake of the presidential plebiscite of 2002 and which, in such conditions, is not responsible to the people, who have given it no mandate, but which is the tool of the president?
This is our problem: to fight this government, we need a political alternative, to say that they have no right to do what they are doing, to kick them out, to call for a vote in the regional elections [in March] and in the European elections [in June] to kick them out, to get ready for a social battle, a general strike, to stop them, get rid of them, and with no illusions: if we wait until 2007 [the next presidential and parliamentary elections], they will have by then broken our social and democratic rights
It is the leaders of the parties of the ex-plural left - of all these parties, and not just the Socialist Party - who, in keeping with what they did when they were in power, maintain the present government
Flying in the face of all democracy, because democracy is not respect for the institutional calendar. Democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Nothing that this government is doing has been supported by the majority. Everything they are doing must be stopped. So, democracy means: down with this government!
If the leaders of the ex-plural left break with Chirac and this government, great! If not, and in any case, citizens and workers at the base, socialists, communists, trade unionists we must organise ourselves!
Without exaggerating the importance of the institutional calendar, what are the prospects for the political alternative to Chirac et al making any gains at the polls in the coming elections?
Opinion polls have shown strong support for the revolutionary left lists for the June euro-elections, organised by Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. Nine per cent of voters say they are "certain" to vote for the revolutionary left, and another 22% say they might consider it. But LO's magazine Lutte de Classe of December 2003/January 2004 predicts a much lower score.
It predicts a result "of the order of 3% for our common lists (the same as our total score in the legislative elections of 2002)." LCR/LO are in any case in grave danger of losing some of the five MEPs that the two organisations have between them.
LO expect the following factors to work against them:
- low level of morale in the working class, after the de-escalation and defeat of last summer;
- a consequent rise in the vote for the fascist National Front;
- intense working class hatred for the government might lead some working-class voters to rally to the Socialist Party.
What Liaisons are saying, and they are right, is that elections matter, but that their outcome cannot limit socialists', workers' and democrats' activity and resolve to combat the policies of the ruling class, especially in a country where the ruling class has yet to do its Thatcher and is still only setting out on that path.
- Socialism and democracy: democracy, direct action and the class struggle, a Workers' Liberty pamphlet of 1994, relevant to the issues raised in this article, is available in photocopy form for £2.50 from AWL, PO Box 823, London SE15 4NA; cheques payable to "AWL". Extracts will soon be available on this website.
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