|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
France: victory for the youth, crisis for the right
IT TOOK nearly two months of very militant action to defeat the government over the CPE (le contrat première embauche – first job contract). This victory could have opened up a new political situation, allowing the workers and youth to rush into the break, raising new demands, and engaging in struggle. This was not the case. But the establishment is now severely weakened. In fact, crisis seems to be always on the point of exploding but is each time postponed.
To understand that, we have to remember that in 2002, the first round of the presidential election gave all the candidates less than 20%, for the first time in the history of the ‘Fifth Republic’. The Parti Socialiste (PS) candidate, Lionel Jospin, came third behind the far-right Jean-Marie le Pen, and the ‘Trotskyite’ Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) candidates combined scored more than 10%, far more than the Parti Communiste Français (PCF, on 3.3%). This result gave an indication of the potential and, at the same time, a warning.
The anger had two directions: one non-political or towards the far-right; the other in a radicalisation against capitalism. But LO, LCR and the PCF failed to take that seriously into account. With the help of the PCF and LCR, Jacques Chirac, the candidate of the right-wing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), scored 82% in the second round, using that to postpone the crisis in his government and to obtain the legitimacy that was refused him in the first round. LO stood aside, arrogantly saying that the election was not the workers’ concern.
The following years have seen a wave of attacks, and attempts to resist from the workers, each time betrayed by the union leaders and the left. In 2005, this expressed itself with the victory of the No vote in the referendum on the European Union constitution. But once again, the left has been unable to use that to take steps toward a political alternative to the establishment, including the leadership of the PS (which called for a Yes vote).
The electoral victory was easily transformed by Chirac into a political offensive by naming Dominique de Villepin as prime minister. De Villepin started quickly with a new wave of attacks, especially on job contracts. In mid-summer he used special articles of the constitution (the ‘ordonnance’, which allows for the creation of laws without requiring a debate in parliament) to implement the CNE (le contrat nouvelle embauche – new job contract). This allows bosses in small companies (employing less than 20) to stop the contract at any time during the first two years of work, without even needing to justify the sacking.
Besides de Villepin is his rival, Nicholas Sarkozy, the interior minister. While supporting most of de Villepin’s measures, Sarkozy has his own agenda and methods. Working and manoeuvring hard to become the UMP candidate in the next presidential election (2007), he specialises in anti-youth, anti-immigrant phraseology, combined with very provocative pro-police speeches. This culminated in the murder of two young boys from immigrant backgrounds, Zyed and Bouna, after a police ‘control’ – which is always, in fact, a term for police harassment and beating up of youth. Sarkozy declared that they were robbers, which is false. This sparked the revolt in the banlieue, the run-down suburban housing schemes.
By burning cars and state buildings, and attacks on the police, the youth from the very poor areas showed their anger against the system and the absence of a real future. The government used it to establish a ‘state of emergency’, using a law from the Algerian war of 1954-61 (without even withdrawing the reference to Algeria). Once again, the left did nothing significant. The PS supported the repressive measures, the PCF and LCR were hesitant, only calling for action after parliament voted to prolong the state of emergency. LO stated that the revolt was due mainly to lumpenproletariat elements. The revolt of the banlieue lacked perspectives and a political programme. But it showed, once again, the existence of deep social crisis which can explode at any moment.
In answer to that, the government announced two laws. A new anti-immigrant law (the Ceseda or Sarkozy law), which is being discussed in parliament at the moment, and a so-called ‘equal opportunities law’ (la loi de l’égalité des chances, LEC), which contained the CPE. Included in the LEC is also the possibility for night working for young people aged 15 years, for example. Clearly, the government wanted to take advantage of the situation to launch an attack on all workers: the CPE is like the CNE but for all enterprises. It would be applied to workers under 26 but, of course, would create competition between all workers.
The left and the union leaders were ready to act in the same way. The national secretary of the PS, François Hollande, declared: "Let’s be realistic. The text will be passed. The work of explanation that we are starting today will not see its result in the street but in the ballot box in 2007". The PS showed how cynical and unaware it is. Cynical because it counts on the anger against the right to be elected, because of a deep worsening in living conditions, and unaware because it is not certain that the 2002 scenario will not once again happen, because a lot of young people and workers do not want such a mild left.
An illustration of that is the fact that one of the sections of youth directly targeted by the CPE is not so dependent on the political apparatus: university students. From the very first days of April, at the same moment of Hollande’s declaration, the University of Rennes, and a few others, started a strike, with blockades, against the CPE, LEC, and on the issue of jobs in the national education system. The students were correctly calling on other universities to follow their example. And Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France) stated at that time that a joint strike of workers and youth was the only way to defeat the government, and could be quickly put on the agenda. The school students, while a bit bitter because of their defeat last year on another attack (defeated because the unions completely abandoned them), finally, step by step, came also in the struggle.
From then, everybody knows the story. The movement peaked on 28 March and 4 April, each with three million people on the street, and the government was forced to abandon the CPE. All the work of the left and the union leaders was to avoid a general strike. The CGT, the most important and combative union, issued an internal circular before the 28 March giving the order to limit slogans and demands to the CPE proposal. The LCR and PCF ran after the PS to put out a joint call which was also limited to the CPE. LO stated that it would be a mistake to widen the demands, especially on the anti-immigrant law. All were there to avoid a political crisis, to limit the movement to a ‘social’ protest.
Thus, the victory on the CPE seems to be a half-victory. The movement was close to developing further on different issues but, finally, was still held back by the bureaucrats. All the energy of the students and the school students, all the action, self-organising committees, etc, represent huge political experience but still lack a real perspective. Interestingly, the recent ‘Clearstream affair’ scandal (implicating Chirac, de Villepin and Sarkozy) is only tenth in a poll about ‘which subject are you discussing most’. The top subjects are still the Sarkozy law, and the CPE, etc.
What was clearly lacking during the movement was a genuine, independent voice of the workers and youth, a real organisation that is not afraid to seize the opportunities and go on to struggle and defend the demands of the workers and youth. The future is not certain in terms of how the government’s crisis will next reappear. But the need of a workers’ party that fights capitalism and develops a socialist perspective is the key issue that workers and youth have to take into account. The struggle against the CPE shows both the possibility and the need for that.