SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 126 - March 2009

France: struggles and the new party

IN 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president, he declared that he wanted to end the inheritance of May 1968 in France. Last spring, with the introduction of new labour laws against the right to strike in public transport and primary schools, he also said that "now in France, when there are strikes, nobody can see it". But on 29 January this year, 2.5 million striking workers and young people demonstrated on the streets. A lot of placards read: ‘Now, do you see the strike?!’ A recent survey in Le Figaro magazine confirmed a growing defiance against Sarkozy, with 37% supporting his policies. Last September, this was 50%.

In 2008, unemployment rose to 11%, with 45,000 job losses in December. As in all of Europe, waves of sackings are being announced. At the same time, the oil company, Total, announced record profits of €13.9 billion. Workers have seen quickly that behind Sarkozy’s frenzied actions, especially when he was president of the European Union, nothing has been done in the interests of the population, only for the bosses. On 29 January, 69% of the population supported the strike.

Two days after the announcement of state help worth €3 billion to support the automobile industry (Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen), Christian Streiff, PSA chief executive officer, announced 11,000 job losses, 6-7,000 of which are in France. Crisis is becoming more concrete now in France. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, French GDP fell 1.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008. It is set to fall further this year. The construction and automobile sectors are the most affected. Alongside the smallest factories, subcontractors for the big companies are closing, sacking hundreds upon hundreds of workers. The national institute of statistics (INSEE) expects 285,000 more unemployed workers in 2009. And that is a low estimate.

Automobile workers have been mobilised from the end of last year. But since the Christmas holidays, bosses have been implementing massive layoffs making it quite difficult to mobilise industrial battles which link those in work with those laid off. Nevertheless, in some areas, like Renault Sandouville in Le Havre or Peugeot Sochaux and Mulhouse, there has been action, with more planned since Sarkozy’s so-called rescue plan.

For the moment, after the huge strike day in January, national education is the most mobilised sector, following the massive education strike on 20 November. There has been a whole series of strikes and days of action in significant parts of this sector (school student demos, parents’ mobilisation against class closures, teachers’ strike days against cuts in the 2009-10 budget). On 29 January, workers in national education responded massively. And now there are plans for further cuts in high-school budgets, reform in technical education, reform of the university teacher-research statute, as well as changes in teacher training. The mobilisation is growing. More than 35 universities have been hit by an unlimited teachers’ strike since 2 February. In the public health sector, a new law is going through parliament (the Bachelot law), which aims to extend privatisation and the market into the public hospital system. Step by step, a mobilisation is beginning to develop from the Parisian hospitals.

Significantly, since 20 January, a large committee of unions, associations and local left parties in Guadeloupe have begun a general strike against high prices and the degradation of living standards. In Creole, this committee is called Kolektif Kont Pwofitasyon (collective against exploitation). The movement extends to Martinique. The Caribbean islands are the poorest French départements (administrative regions). Food and oil prices are two or three times more expensive than metropolitan French prices, 27% of the population is officially unemployed. Nearly 40% of the inhabitants work in the public sector (schools, hospitals, local administration) which has been under attack for several years, suffering budget cuts. (Source: INSEE) Although these islands are far from France, many workers are supporting the general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique, and 63% of people in France think that a similar type of movement could develop in France soon, according to an Ifop poll for the Sud-Ouest newspaper.

In that context, a new, united strike day could be a decisive step towards a general strike in France. The trade unions leaders of the five confederations (CGT, CFDT, FO, CGC and CFTC), and federations (Solidaires, FSU and UNSA) are under pressure to propose a new day of action. But they also know that the movement very quickly could become uncontrollable. The Thursday after 29 January, Sarkozy appeared on the main TV channels. The trade union leaderships declared that they would not announce another day of action before they had listened to his ‘social proposals’. Despite the massive anger, announcements of sackings, closures and cuts in public budgets, the union leaderships waited until 9 February, before calling a further day of action on 19 March. At the time of going to print, it is not yet clear whether this means a day of strikes. Nonetheless, it will be an enormous mobilisation, as big as in January or bigger.

The trade unions’ leadership acting as a brake is not new in France. In fact, since the generalised strike in 1995 against Alain Juppé’s attacks on pensions, the union leaderships have done everything to avoid a general strike. In 2003, when a number of sectors were on strike for several weeks, the union leaders succeeded in not calling for one day of general strike action. But the context today, of a deeper economic crisis and the growth of mass unemployment, combined with sharper attacks on living standards, is producing every day a more explosive social situation. Inside the unions, in some places, an internal opposition is developing, with local appeals to strike, committees to unify the different sectors, and calls for a new day of strikes soon. Local CGT union branches in Valenciennes and Lille, in the north, are attempting to put pressure on the national leadership and, at the same time, are mobilising in workplaces.

Anger against Sarkozy and the bosses is growing. And what is new is that the need for a political change is being discussed more and more. Already, this situation has had an effect on left political parties and organisations. Since the presidential election in 2007 there has been a developing radicalisation among workers and youth. Olivier Besancenot (spokesperson of the LCR – Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) embodies this anger and will to change. He is seen as the ‘best opponent to Sarkozy’ in recent surveys. On 13 February his popularity grew by 6 points to 53%, with Ségolène Royal (the former presidential candidate of the social democratic Parti Socialiste) behind him on 46%.

A year and half ago, LCR decided to begin a process to create a new party, the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste), to address this new audience. Inside the ‘left of the left’, this announcement had an effect. In the PS, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who led the anti-EU treaty current), split in December to create the Parti de la Gauche (Left Party) with the support of Oscar Lafontaine from Die Linke in Germany. His new formation is not the result of debates or polarisation inside the former workers’ parties. Melenchon, is surfing on the radicalisation among workers and youth, and is trying to make space for himself by positioning his party between the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) and the NPA.

The huge vacuum opened up by the decline of the PCF and the PS in the working class is a key issue, especially in the political battle against Sarkozy. More and more workers and fighting trade unionists are searching for a political alternative, a perspective to struggle. They are listening to Besancenot, a worker like them, who is the only one to put forward an anti-capitalist programme and the need to struggle. Therefore, the only new party being discussed in the workplaces is the NPA.

On 9 February, the NPA was founded with more than 630 delegates representing 9,123 members. In one week, 1,000 new members joined. Concretely, the newborn NPA is already facing a test period. There is a clear potential for the NPA to attract new layers of workers and youth. A real fighting workers’ party would be decisive against Sarkozy’s policy and the capitalists. In order to become such a party, the NPA has to support and organise workers. The NPA should intervene in all the workplaces and the struggles proposing a clear transitional programme of demands to fight against sackings, cuts in the public sector, etc, linked with the perspective for socialism. That is what Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France), in the party since its launch and a current inside it, stands for.

Leila Messaoudi

Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France)


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