France - The class struggle is back, with a vengeance

Jan/Feb 1996

The strike wave which spread over France in the last week of November and the first half of December was probably the largest in Western Europe since 1968. Hundreds of thousands of workers, possibly over a million at the highest point, took part in the strike itself, with a large section among them staying out for three weeks and sometimes more.

Many workplaces were occupied. Not only because the strikers wanted to make sure that no attempt would be made to break the strike, but also because this provided them with a convenient place where they could meet everyday and prepare the actions which they decided collectively. Like the workplace occupations, most of these actions were illegal - whether it was occupying railway tracks or motorways, blockading "parallel" sorting offices set up by post office managers, or reducing the rate paid by private consumers for their electricity. In fact, many strikers joined the strike illegally in the first place, without bothering with the advance notice that they were meant to give by law. Yet, at no point did the government dare use disciplinary action or the courts against the strikers. It was the balance of forces on the ground, the numbers and determination of the strikers that proved decisive, not what the law said!

The vast majority of the strikers were public sector workers. For the millions in the private sector who worked through the strike, the total paralysis of the railways and, in the largest towns, of the entire public transport system for over three weeks, resulted in long and exhausting daily hikes to work. Yet, the strike never ceased to enjoy the sympathy and the support of the vast majority of the working class and even sections of the petty bourgeoisie. It was the strikers' militancy and determination to fight for demands with which all workers could identify which won such a wide support for the strike - not the kind of so-called "moderation" so often preached by union leaders here, in Britain, in the name of "securing the support of the general public".

Nor was this support passive. Many of those who did not join the strike itself, made a point of taking part in the demonstrations which were organised. Over two million workers are estimated to have joined the marches organised on the six "national demonstration days" which were called during the strike. Many others took part in the hundreds of local demonstrations which were taking place daily across the country, including in the smallest towns and the most remote suburbs.

In the end, the strikers forced the French government into a spectacular retreat over a whole range of austerity measures which are central to the policies of the French capitalist class. It will take a lot more, of course, to stop the French government's austerity drive for good and much more still for the French workers to regain the ground lost over the past decade. But the fact is that, probably for the first time since the weight of unemployment began to bear heavily on working people in the early 80s, a Western government has been stopped in its tracks by the collective action of the working class. Such is the significance of the recent events in France.

Going into the detailed history of the strike would be much too long and beyond the scope of this journal. Our readers will find some elements of it in the brief chronology included in this issue of Class Struggle. They wil also find in a separate article dealing a description of the policy of the union leadership in this strike, a policy which, it must be stressed, was decisive in building it up into a powerful counter-attack of the French working class. In this article we will concentrate on the background of the strike wave, its most important features, what it achieved and what new perspectives it opens up for the future.

The "anti-European" myth

It was impossible to understand what was going on in France, or even to measure the depth of the strike wave through the few reports which were published in the British papers. In fact, only the regular reports carried by the Financial Times gave an idea of the extent of the strike - which showed that business was worried about the impact of the strike on financial markets but said little about the strike itself. As to the other so-called "serious" papers, they all came out with the same story: French workers, they said, were striking against joining the European Monetary Union!

Such is the level of debilitation reached by the so-called intellectuals of the bourgeoisie that they just could not see the class struggle when it was staring them in the face! Rather than admit that the working class, whom they had buried so many times in the past, was alive and fighting, they produced a tailor-made tale out of the rags of domestic parliamentary politics. They even found some politicians to take all this nonsense seriously, like those Tory euro-sceptics who appeared on television to warn the British public against the risk of social unrest should Britain join the single currency...

Sometimes governments may use the pretext of "European constraints" to justify austerity measures. But it is never more than a pretext which can only work as long as it is not too obviously so. The French strike had no more to do with Europe than, for instance, last year's signal workers strike in Britain. When British governments have reduced the value of workers' pensions, cut social expenditure and benefits and turned the NHS into a money-spinner, it had nothing to do with Europe, Maastricht or the single currency. They were just out to reduce the working class share of the national income - for the sole benefit of British capitalists. Likewise in France.

Prime Minister Juppé's justification for the austerity measures he announced in the Autumn was to reduce the so-called social "deficits". His objective, in other words, was to make the working class foot the enormous bills left by years of direct and indirect state subsidies to the capitalist class. The largest of these "deficits" is that of the Sécurité Sociale (combining part of the French NHS and the state-run health insurance scheme), which is due to the enormous backlog of unpaid employers' contributions, the contribution holidays awarded to companies by the government as an incentive for job creation (but none were ever created as a result) and the fat profits made by pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, the "deficits" of the state pension scheme and that of the unemployment scheme are due to the employers' unpaid debts, the regular reduction of the contribution rate paid by companies and the fact that fewer employees are at work and their average wage is lower. Juppé's notion of "deficit" even extends to public services, to the state railways for instance, where the "deficit" has not been lost for everyone since most of it went straight into the coffers of the large companies which were awarded the high-speed train contract, like GEC-Alsthom in particular.

Indeed Europe had nothing to do with all of this. It was a clear case of a government trying to pay the capitalists' bills out of the pockets of the working class!

The last straw

The first measure announced by Juppé, in September, was a complete wage freeze in the public sector. This was followed in October with a series of cuts in health provisions, including a 27% increase on the daily rate to be paid by hospital patients and restrictions on prescriptions for all. Then, in early November came what is now known as "the Juppé plan". This included, among other things, a new tax worth 1/2p on the pound, including on the lowest wages; the freezing of family benefit (paid to families on low income with kids at home) which in addition was to become taxable; increased health insurance contributions for the pensioners and the unemployed. All told, Juppé expected his plan to take an additional £9bn a year out of workers' pockets - nothing compared to the £180bn profit that the capitalist class stands to net in 1995, but a significant loss for the working class given its already depleted income. To top it all, almost at the same time, Juppé's finance minister announced a major rehauling of the income tax system resulting in a 20% increase for all wage earners while the top rates were to be cut.

In addition, a global austerity plan was in the pipeline for the public sector as a whole as well as specific ones for each one of the large public sector organisations. To start with, all public sector workers were to contribute to the state pension fund for 40 years in order to get a full pension instead of 37 " years before (which was extending to the public sector a measure already adopted for the private sector in 1993). As to the specific plans, they all amounted to the same thing: more job cuts, lower wages for new entrants and more contracting out to joint ventures with the private sector.

The most advanced of these specific plans, the "contrat de plan" in the railways, involved for instance a minimum of 6,000 job cuts a year while the numbers of new recruits were to be halved to 1,000 a year; more workers were to be employed on temporary contracts at lower rates; operating decisions were to be devolved to the politicians in regional councils (meaning more train lines closed down); multi-skilling was to be introduced across the network with the aim of further job cuts in the future. Similar plans were in the making for the Post Office, France-Telecom and the electricity and gas company.

It must be stressed that these measures were coming after years of massive state handouts to the capitalist class, under the pretext of fighting unemployment, which employers had happily pocketed while shedding more jobs and improving their profits regularly. The previous Socialist Party-led governments had initiated this policy in the mid-80s and then imposed new tax levies on working people to foot the bill. In other words, Juppé's "quiet revolution", as the French papers shamelessly called his austerity measures, was nothing but the continuation of the long standing anti-working class policies of the previous "left" administrations.

Of course, the political and capitalist establishments were quite pleased with this policy. Former Socialist Party ministers were giving interviews admitting that Juppé had "stolen" their idea and congratulating him for his "courage". Politicians were becoming increasingly arrogant, confident as they were that the austerity measures were set to meet no resistance from the population, to the point that on 15 November, the television showed MPs giving a standing ovation to Juppé for his plans, celebrating in their way a new triumphant stage in the racketeering of working people by the capitalist class.

But the politicians and their capitalist masters were to be proved wrong. This time they had gone one step too far.

Working class unity cemented by a common aim

From 24 November onwards, the strike wave expanded, slowly at first and then more rapidly as confidence increased among workers, until its peak on 12 December. Starting from the section which was initially most militant - the railway drivers - it spread to the rest of the railways, the rest of public transport, the post office, the electricity and gas company, France-Telecom, the hospitals, central government offices, local authority workers, and, in the last period, to dockers, sailors, teachers, and even to those running the state- controlled betting offices on the country's affluent racecourses.

The way this extension was achieved was everywhere identical. The strikers would organise "visiting squads" to tour workplaces which were not on strike in their area and invite them to join in. Very early on sectional boundaries ceased to matter. Railway and post office uniforms, the nurses' green and white blouses or the orange overalls of local authority dustmen became familiar sights in any workplace. The "visiting squads" could be as small as half-a-dozen or as big as several hundred, depending on the target. The pattern was always the same. The squad was first welcome by local shop-stewards, then it went round the workplace inviting everyone to a mass meeting where the visiting strikers would put their case for taking strike action. Then a vote would be taken and in most cases the fraternal enthusiasm of the "visitors" was enough to win the vote and convince those who were still undecisive.

Subsequently, these links between workplaces were maintained naturally. They would join ranks in all local demonstrations, organise occasional joint mass meetings together, and constantly send delegations to each other's daily mass meetings. It was indeed the first time in anyone's experience that, for instance, in a sorting office mass meeting, visiting rail workers, Inland Revenue strikers, teachers and, in some cases, school students, would be welcome to attend and invited to participate in discussions and votes just like anybody else. This gave the strikers a sense of universal class fraternity which most had never experienced before.

This dissolution of sectional boundaries was one of the most important features of the strike. It gave a concrete and natural meaning to the idea of a general fightback of the working class. Nor was it solely confined to the public sector. After the end of the first week, partly due to the union activists' initiative but also because this seemed the obvious thing to do given the circumstances, "visiting squads" focused their activity on private workplaces. And even though the result was usually no more than a stoppage, they never gave up, partly due to the friendly response of the visited workers and partly to the realisation that pulling the private sector into the strike was probably the key to victory - an argument which was rightly hammered again and again by the unions' leaderships.

This aspiration to united action by all workers was rooted in a very deep determination among the strikers. Right from the start it was usual to hear rank-and-file railway strikers intervening in mass meetings to insist that although winning the cancellation of the railway's "contrat de plan" was important, the strike was primarily over demands which were common to all workers, and that there was no way the government's propaganda should be allowed to portray the railway strikers as fighting for their own sectional interests, or anybody else among the strikers for that matter. Later on, banners demanding, for instance, the same pension arrangements for private sector workers as for public sector workers (which are more favourable) were often seen in demonstrations, usually carried by public sector delegations.

Workers' democracy in practice

Another of the most important features of the strike wave was the way in which it was run. In every striking workplace mass meetings were held every morning. Where there were several shifts they took place at the beginning of each shift, so that the strikers who were not occupying overnight, came as normal and started their day's strike by taking part in a mass meeting.

This, by the way, is certainly not a tradition in France. Normally, in this respect, the attitude of the union machineries during a strike is more or less the same as in Britain - they only call meetings when they want to get the strikers to rubber-stamp decisions which have been made behind closed doors. As to the day-to-day running of the strike, it is usually sorted out by a handful of union activists who do not often bother to ask the opinion of the strikers, let alone invite their suggestions. In the much larger strike which took place in May- June 1968, for instance, the union activists occupied most workplaces themselves and told the strikers to stay at home and wait for future official announcements by the unions which would be broadcast on the radio. Once they had voted to go on strike, most strikers never had a chance to discuss it collectively before the strike was called off by the leadership!

This time things were different. As it is pointed out elsewhere in this issue, the difference was that the union machineries were prepared to do anything in order to build up the strike. There was widespread resentment and suspicion among workers after the long period of passivity of the unions while the Socialist Party was in office. Many workers just could not believe that the unions were serious about organising a real fightback. Besides, in most workplaces, only a minority of workers joined the strike at first. And it was in order to disarm this suspicion and resentment as well as to give those who were not yet on strike a chance to join it every day, that the union machineries themselves established the principle of mass meetings in which the strike would be voted on every day. This undoubtedly played a major role in boosting the confidence of the strikers and creating the feeling that this time, it was "serious business", well worth taking part in.

Quite naturally these daily votes resulted in creating the habit of discussing collectively all aspects of the political situation, the statements issued by ministers and politicians as well as those issued by union leaders, the pros and cons of the national initiatives taken by the unions, the progresses made by the strike in other sectors, etc.. This led to an on-going political discussion in which the strikers often discovered each other's opinions. Above all, they discovered that it was possible to exchange ideas, be listened to, learn from others, even have heated arguments sometimes, and all this in an atmosphere of fraternity and freedom which they had never known before.

At the same time, and primarily because they needed to build on the strikers' own militancy in order to spread the strike, the union machineries encouraged the mass meetings to discuss all kinds of local initiatives. The first thing that was discussed by these daily mass meetings was, of course, as long as it remained necessary, how to stop any real work from being done in the workplace. This led many strikers to become propagandists of the strike, who won over other workers to the aims of the strike rather than resorting to intimidation - which would probably have been useless anyway in the short term and certainly damaging in the longer term. The strikers developed this skill first with their own workmates before putting it to good use in "visits" to other workplaces.

The organisation of these "visits", as well as local demonstrations, the leafletting of local open markets and supermarkets, the "snail operations" on motorways (i.e. blocking motorways with cars and lorries driving at very low speed), etc... were all discussed by the mass meetings, from the choice of actions and the selection of targets to their practical organisation. Even when a smaller working party was put in charge of arranging the details, in particular when other workplaces had to be involved for the biggest operations, they had to face the criticisms (or congratulations) of the mass meeting the next day.

In other words, this was workers' democracy in practice, something that very few strikers had ever experienced before, with the possible exception of the minority of rail workers who had taken an active part in the co-ordinating committees set up during the 1986 rail strike. Probably more than anything else, the democracy of the daily mass meetings succeeded in bringing a much larger proportion of strikers to take an active part in the strike than in any of the large- scale strikes in France since World War II.

The government caves in

In addition to its demands, the democratic character of the strike and its well-publicised anti-sectionalism were instrumental in developing overwhelming sympathy for the strikers among the rest of the working class. If only because most workers in the private sector, who made up the vast majority of those who were not on strike, had seen at one point or another "visiting squads" of strikers at their own workplace. And this sympathy, far from decreasing, went on to show itself in a more and more spectacular way as the size of the marches on the successive "demonstation days" kept increasing, reaching figures which had never been seen in France since the period immediately following World War II.

This posed a problem to the government. Juppé's hopes to isolate the strike by stressing the so-called "privileges" of public sector workers, their sectional "selfishness", etc.. just did not work. The same workers who often had to walk, or sit in gigantic traffic jams, for hours everyday were ignoring with contempt the government's attempts at whipping up anger against the transport strikers. The opinion polls, based on samples which spanned all social layers, kept giving a majority in favour of the strikers! As to the anti-strike demonstrations called in Paris by Juppé's party, the RPR, they only managed to attract a few hundred of mainly far-right supporters, leading the government to give up on them quickly.

The main problem for Juppé was that, given the way the strike was constantly expanding, he could not be sure that it would not reach some large private company at some point, which would then open the way to a much wider generalisation of the strike. And behind Juppé were the capitalists who were looking at this strike with apprehension. Not so much because of the paralysis of the transport and mail system caused by the strike - it was an embarassment which they could afford, for some time in any case - but primarily because they were afraid of the contagion among their own workers. And they undoubtedly put pressure on Juppé to put his house in order before it was too late.

On 5 December, the 12th day of the strike, Juppé's tone changed. In front of a bemused Parliament he made a statement, which was duly filmed by all television channels and shown on every news programme that evening, to the effect that it had never been the government's intention to make any changes to pension arrangements in the public sector. The retreat was unmistakable. But the strikers were not prepared to take the word of a politician for granted. In the mass meetings on the next day, people's comment was that they would not believe it as long as it was not written out on paper and duly signed in the most public way. Besides, that still left Juppé's plan untouched. If anything, the strikers were encouraged in their efforts to spread the strike further.

Five days later, on 10 December, Juppé made another, this time more tangible concession, by scrapping the enquiry he had set up to reform pension arrangements in the public sector. At the same time, he announced the cancellation of the "contrat de plan" for the railways, blaming the company's top management for the "breakdown of proper consultation" within the railways. All this however still remained vague. The only concession that was actually spelled out precisely was that the retirement age for railway, tube and bus drivers - which was meant to be postponed from 50 to 55 - would not be changed.

Quite obviously, Juppé was testing the drivers' determination, both trying to isolate them and hoping that they would stick to their sectional reputation and go back to work. The next day, having seen that there was no sign of the weakening of the strike - rather the contrary - Juppé extended explicitly his concessions to all transport workers. At the same time, "for the sake of social justice", Juppé announced that the CSG, the special tax paid on wages to fund the health insurance system introduced by a former Socialist Party government, would be extended progressively to financial earnings. Another day and another concession: this time the announcement that all changes to the income tax system were postponed indefinitely. At the same time, the undertaking to leave alone pension provisions and retirement age made earlier was extended to all public sector workers. This was on 12 December, the most successful of all national "demonstration days" called during the strike.

The government had also made some concessions in another way, although they did not mean any direct benefit for the strikers. These concessions were mostly aimed at the union machineries. They involved shelving all plans to take the particular pension funds which exist in some parts of the public sector, such as the railways and electricity in particular, away from the unions. Besides, a whole number of negotiating sessions were planned at top level with the union leaderships, with the aim of rediscussing some parts of the Juppé plan, starting with a "social summit" involving Juppé himself, the leaders of the main employers' organisations and those of the unions. Given the past attitude of the government to the union leaders, these openings could only appear as another proof of the government's retreat.

A provisional balance-sheet

Of the austerity measures targetted by the strike, the only thing left was the Juppé plan itself - I.e. the new tax, the benefit freeze and increased social contributions. This is a big chunk of course, and in some respect the biggest, at least in terms of the amount of cash it takes away from the working class.

In politics, however, arithmetic is not the only criterion. The really fundamental issue in this strike was whether the working class was going to succeed, for the first time, in stopping yet another attack against workers' conditions by the state of the bourgeoisie. So much has been taken away already from workers without any real fight, that had this strike been defeated, it would have been probably a terrible blow and the cause for even more demoralisation. Instead, this victory, even incomplete as it is, has brought back some of the confidence in the collective strength of the working class that had been lost for many years.

Indeed, the strikers went back to work with the conviction that they had won something, not just for themselves, but for all working people. This may actually prove even more true than they think as, in addition, the strike will undoubtedly make Juppé think twice in future before introducing any other austerity measure.

This conviction and the new confidence it gave to workers was illustrated by the way in which the return to work took place. In many places, particularly in the railways, no sooner had the vote to end the strike been taken than workers were out again. Often this was in reaction against the management's attempt at behaving as if the strike had not taken place. But in many cases the strikers were raising new demands - that strike days should be paid normally, that workers on temporary contracts should be given permanent jobs, etc.. In some places, daily mass meetings kept being held several days after the return to work under the noses of terrified managers who did not dare say anything for fear of sparking off an explosion.

A complete victory - i.e. imposing the cancellation of the Juppé plan - could not have been won without taking the strike into a higher gear, which could only be achieved by pulling into the strike at least a section of the private sector. This was something that everyone among the strikers had understood. Many of them had been involved directly or indirectly in the attempts at bringing out the private sector and knew therefore that if these workers did not join the strike, it was not out of indifference, even less out of hostility, but because they lacked the confidence to risk their jobs at this point. And the lesson which was generally drawn from this, at the time of the return to work, was that they would need to have another go after the Xmas break and, this time, on the strength of the achievements of the first strike, the private sector would join them to give the government and the bosses the beating they deserve.

This is why the December strike could well turn out to have been in many ways a rehearsal. Not only because of the present feeling that another, even more powerful strike is needed. But also because in the course of this strike, hundreds of thousands, millions maybe, among the strikers as well as among those who were not on strike yet, have discovered new means of building up their collective force to new strengths. They have discovered how to generalise a strike through direct contacts between workers, in a way which is not only more enthusing but also more effective than remaining confined to their respective workplaces. They have seen how the strike could flood the streets, overcome powerful obstacles, and pull down the walls which the employers put between workers.

Of course, the build up of the December strike was the result of the efforts of the union bureaucracies, and primarily of the union activists on the ground. But the strikers have learnt to use methods of struggle which they could use just as well without the intervention of the union machineries, and even if necessary against their will. All the more so as they have also learnt that, contrary to what the union bureaucrats have told them for so long, running a strike can be the business of all strikers, through democratic mass meetings which make the decisions required and implement them.

This is how new traditions are built. We do not know whether the fightback will resume in January or later on, but it will resume at some point. This time it will be armed with a fresh confidence and these new traditions which may well prove, in hindsight, to be the most far-reaching gains made by the strikers in December 1995 - particularly when, instead of confining their fight to defending themselves against the bosses, the strikers take to the offensive and start reclaiming the ground lost over the past decade.

Of course, such gains are totally beyond the understanding of the commentators and politicians of the bourgeoisie who will undoubtedly keep pretending that we live in a "classless" society where the class struggle is gone forever and only an "anti-European" flare-up can set alight the streets of France. But let them enjoy the cosy shelter of their blinkers - it may not protect them for all that long any more, even in Britain...