France: crisis, strikes and anti-capitalism
Virginia de la Siega is a member of the national political council and international committee of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France. In this article she explains how the economic crisis has thrown up new struggles and new organisations.
“Now, when there is a strike in France, nobody realises.” When President Nicolas Sarkozy said these famous words, he was at the summit of his glory. He, and many others around him, thought that he would finally manage to steamroll his reforms, which were meant to transform France into a country like Britain, in which the neoliberal rules work to the full. No more 35-hour week, restriction of the unemployment benefits, and above all, no more unrestricted right to strike: the new rules guaranteeing minimum service would make sure that if workers went on strike, nobody would realise.
And at the beginning, his plan seemed to work. The French working class, attacked on all fronts—the State Administration, Research and education at all three levels, the National Health Service, Workers’ rights, etc.—, defended itself as a groggy boxer who managed to deflect some of the blows, but who, on the whole, was not able to put in a good one.
Then, the systemic crisis of capitalism arrives, wreaking havoc among banks, car makers and private enterprises in general. And Sarkozy congratulates himself for having the unparalleled chance to show the world how to set things right. His solution: to go ahead with the same reforms that have caused the crisis. But now things have changed. The boxer is still defending himself, but he has recovered his strength, and, this time, he is forcing his opponent to step back. The champion of neo-liberalism is in need of air, his popularity has plunged, his blows have become erratic, and his fighting strategy is wavering.
His own ministers despair about the future. A government advisor, who demanded that his name be kept secret, told the journal Le Monde: “We reach a decision but we cannot apply the reforms. It is humanly and administratively impossible to do so.” After only two years of government, Sarkozy has attained the limit of his power: those workers who voted for him believing his promise that if they worked more they would earn more, have abandoned him; the MEDEF1 wonders whether he will be able to deliver his promise to curb workers fighting spirit to force them pay the costs of the crisis; and his own ministers wonder when they will have to suffer one of his tantrums when, as usual, things do not turn out the way he wants them to.
For the last three months, high-school pupils, teachers, university researchers, lecturers and university students, railwaymen, car workers and steelworkers have taken to the street to say “We will not pay for the crisis of capitalism. It is for the capitalists to pay for their crisis”. On 29 January, all Trade Union organisations called to a national general strike and demonstration which put 2.5 million people on the streets in all the cities of France, and a new day of strike and demonstrations is programmed for 19 March, in spite of the new promises made by the president to prevent it. These demonstrations are, once again, likely to be huge. Impervious, Sarkozy blames his unpopularity on the crisis, refuses to listen and repeats as a mantra that the application of his reforms is the only way forwards. Only now, there is a new storm in the horizon.
Trouble in the Caribbean
Seven weeks ago, the government was taken by surprise by this news: the workers on Guadeloupe, a French department in the Caribbean, had paralysed the island—and still continue to do so. This general strike to fight against the cost of living, low salaries and lay offs, was called by the LKP (Movement against Pwofitayson—a Creole word which is a combination of “profiteering” and “exploitation”) with the full support of the population on the island. Soon, the movement, with its blocking of roads and attacks on supermarkets by the hungry masses, extended to Martinique, and affected the other overseas territories as French Guiana and, as the island of La Reunion.
Some of the problems of Guadeloupe, as well as of the other overseas French departments, are specific: their under-developed semi-colonial economies are completely dependent on that of the mainland. There is also a racial component to their struggle, as the whole of the economy is in the hands of the “bekes”—the minute white community, descendants of the old slave owners—who control prices and are the major employers on the island. The prices of fresh beef or yoghurt are over 30% higher than on the mainland, and unemployment is three times as high, to give but two examples. This white bourgeoisie, which is a member of the MEDEF and has its full support, absolutely refuses to give in to the demands of the workers, in spite of the enticements of the central government, which has promised them all sorts of tax exemptions.
After seven weeks of general strike, the “bekes” have finally accepted to give workers the pay rise they demanded, but the LKP in Guadeloupe and the Movement 5 February in Martinique refuse to call off the strike until all conditions have been met and the agreement has been corroborated by the central government. This corroboration is particularly important as the national leadership of the MEDEF accuses Sarkozy’s government of forcing Guadeloupian bosses to come to an agreement. The LKP and the population of Guadeloupe and of Martinique do not want to call off the strike and find that all the promises of the local governments were written on wet paper… as has usually been the case.
The government’s behaviour in relation to this crisis has been erratic. At the beginning Sarkozy refused to acknowledge it, hoping that if he ignored it, the crisis would go away. When it became evident that it wouldn’t, the president sent the Secretary of State for the Overseas Territories, Yves Jégo to find a solution. Incapable of doing so, he kept commuting from Guadeloupe to Paris to the point of becoming an object of ridicule.
As the crisis deepened, Sarkozy’s silence became deafening. Forced by the protests at home and on the island, he has finally promised that he will be on Guadeloupe in April. Too little, too late, say the Guadeloupians, who are incensed by his arrogance. For a president that prides himself of always visiting the regions where there is trouble, ignoring a seven-week strike only shows his scorn towards the islanders. This idea was reinforced when, in one of his public speeches, Sarkozy mentioned the conflict only as an aside, referring to the islands with their old colonial name. If to this we add his sending of the anti-riot police from the mainland to defend the interests of the white bourgeoisie, we can understand the rage of workers on the island and on the mainland. At this stage, the question that began to be asked was how long it would take for the contagion to extend from the islands to the mainland. On 28 February, the magazine Marianne, said “The Outbreak in Guadeloupe is Ominous: the strike in the Antilles is one of the first socio-political manifestations of the crisis”, acknowledging the fact that the workers on the mainland have already realised that they share the same problems with their compatriots in the Antilles. A poll showed that 63% of the population on the mainland is in favour of the methods of the LKP and the Movement 5 February. This solidarity was concretely shown by the demonstrations to support the struggle in the Antilles, which took place in Paris and in other cities in France.
Will there be a contagion? Nobody can, for the time being, answer this question. For the moment, a lot will depend on what happens on 19 March—the day of the national general strike—and the actions (if any) that follow it. If the trade union leaders continue with their policy of “building up the resistance” to better negotiate with the government, little will be achieved, as Sarkozy has only one objective: to divide the trade union front and play the unions one against the other to force them to accept his reforms one by one. If, on the contrary, the existing initiatives that support the local and regional strikes develop to build a real movement from below to confront the bureaucrats in the unions and extract from them a real plan to struggle, we will reach the future confrontations in better conditions. This is not utopian. It already happened during the campaign for the NO to the European Constitution. At that time, the regional cadre of the CGT forced its leadership to campaign against the Constitution, when all they wanted was to call to an abstention.
Besides, there is a new actor on the political scene that may help develop this possibility: the NPA (Nouveau parti anticapitaliste – New Anti-capitalist Party).
The need for a political way out to the crisis of leadership
By the end of 2007, it was evident that even if the French working class had waged many battles in the last fifteen years, they had all finally petered out, because they were always faced with the same problem: there was no political way out.
In spite of their electoral strength, the old left was and is no longer an option. The Socialist Party, in the deepest crisis of its history, only wants to take power to manage the capitalist system. The French Communist Party, a mere shadow of what it was, is in quest of its identity and desperate to ally itself to the Socialists. The Unitary Committees, which had grouped round the charismatic José Bové, split up in different groups after their leader said he would accept a position in an eventual government of the SP. The Greens, also in crisis, saw their votes diminish during the last elections. Within the LCR, the idea of founding a new left-wing party had long been in consideration—and discarded because, at the time, it was thought that it could only be done in conjunction with other political forces.
Finally, when it became evident that the vacuum left by the crisis of the SP had to be filled by a revolutionary force, or else either the reformists or the extreme right would do it, an idea which had been floating about finally entered members’ minds. What about building a new party from the bottom up, in which revolutionary Marxists would be joined by thousands of fighters from the trade unions and from the social movements, by students and housewives, by former members of the PS and of the PCF and by people who have never been members of any political party, in short by people who are neither revolutionary nor Marxists, but who are convinced that the only way to change this world is by ending with capitalism? The discussions came to a head in the 17th Congress, in January 2008, when an ample majority (over 80%) of the delegates voted to go ahead.
The NPA is born in the middle of the crisis
What better moment to found a party for the revolutionary change of society than when the working class is up and fighting?
Creating a party at the same time that its members take part in the struggle has not been easy. The cost of this crisis is enormous, and Sarkozy is determined to make the French working class pay for it. At the same time that he closes down or reduces services in public hospitals, closes down classes in primary schools, reduces the money given to research, extends the age of retirement to 70 years, and tries to privatise everything he can find with the excuse that the State coffers are empty, he squanders billions of Euros to fill in the black holes that are the banks and enterprises of the CAC40 and to pay for the golden parachutes of their managers.
But it bodes well that the NPA has been able to build itself in the middle of this fight. In all the villages and cities where there was an NPA committee—be it the defence of the local maternity as in Quimper, or the support to the struggle of the car workers of Peugeot in Mulhouse—its members were in the front line of the struggle.
Of course, there have been problems: integrating people coming from different political experiences or no experience at all is never easy. More so when people were conscious that there was already an organised force, the LCR, within the NPA. Obviously, they needed the reassurance that they would not be crushed. To guarantee this, the LCR committees were dissolved as the committees of the NPA were put into place, and the members of the LCR leadership were in a minority in the provisional NPA leadership that conducted the whole process. Finally, on 5 February, the day before the Founding Conference of the NPA, the LCR voted its own political dissolution.
On 6 February, at the opening of the founding Conference of the NPA, all the doubts were finally dissipated. After a year of hard work, the figures were made public: the NPA had 9123 founding members and its 465 committees all over France had elected 630 delegates to its Founding Conference.
A party born out of a deeply democratic process
There were many points to be discussed at the Founding Conference: the nature and the structure of the new party, its political line towards the European elections and, last but not least, its name. When the moment came to pose the amendments proposed by the committees to all the delegates at the plenary session, obviously, the different political components wanted their position to win. However, in spite of the diversity of origins, the decisions of the delegates proved to be quite homogeneous.
On the question as to whether the new party would be “socialist” or “eco-socialist”, the delegates decided by an ample majority that it was to be a socialist party, and that if some qualification was needed, it was “socialism of the 21st century”, to differentiate it from the Social Democratic and Stalinist versions. On the delicate question as to whether the institutions of the capitalist state could be reformed or whether they had to be destroyed, 447 delegates voted for their destruction.
The second important decision taken was that of the structure of the new party. A large sector coming from the associative networks, did not want to set up a party structure. The majority of the delegates, however, voted that what was needed was a party with a flexible structure that accommodated the representation of the different regions of France with the need to carry out centralised tasks.
At this point, the new party had a programme and a structure but it did not have a name. This discussion had taken hours in the committees. The question was not about the term “anti-capitalist”, as the day before the Founding Conference, in an interview broadcast to the whole country, Sarkozy attacked us by saying “Anti-capitalism is not a solution”. Rather, the discussion was as to including the word “revolutionary” in the name or not. The choice was then, between New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) and Revolutionary Anti-capitalist Party (PAR). As you will realise, it was the first name that carried the day.
But the tensest political debate was around the policy for the coming European elections. Should we make all necessary concessions to participate in an electoral front with the PCF and the PG2 , or should we propose to all parties to the left of the SP a permanent front “in the struggles and in the elections, on the basis of an anti-capitalist programme.” It was the second motion that was carried, by an ample majority.
Now, we are terribly conscious of our responsibility. In France, we have a working class which is just one step from moving from defence to attack, and a political party, the NPA, which, even though small, has voted a policy to actively participate in this struggle and in the re-organisation of the working class.
We are conscious that no party can fulfil this role on its own. This is why from the day after the foundation of the NPA we have opened the dialogue to all the forces to the left of the SP. We do not want an electoral front for the European elections, which will evaporate the day or the week after. We want a front which will take part in the struggles of the working class, in the organisation of their strikes and in the setting up of committees to support and develop them, a front that will help in the preparation of the national strike of 19 March. A front, finally, that will take part in all the initiatives against the government in defence of decent employment and the right to health and education, whether they take place in the universities, in the factories or in the working class and poor neighbourhoods where people fight for decent housing. Unfortunately, up to now, none of the initiatives proposed to the possible “partners” have given a positive result, but we are willing to continue. We owe it to the thousands of workers, students, men and women who get in touch with us every week and want to join us in this struggle.
The battle against Sarkozy and his government has only started. The French working class is coming back with a vengeance. After almost two years of delivering one powerful blow after the other, the government is looking at a loss. It is the moment for the workers to begin to attack. Will they do it? As part of the French working class, the NPA is ready to engage together with them in this struggle. As the delegates chanted at the Founding Conference “This is but the beginning. The struggle goes on.”
1. MEDEF (Movement des entreprises de France) the association of the largest and most important French enterprises.
2. The Parti de Gauche (Left Party) is a left-wing split from the SP. Its plan is to build a party similar to Die Linke in Germany, i.e., on an antineoliberal non anticapitalist basis. They have the support of the CP and of Oscar Lafontaine (the leader of Die Linke), who was present at their launching rally. Their objective is an electoral Front of the Left to participate in the European elections and, on the basis of the results, negotiate a better deal with the SP.