In France right now the executive power is terrified. They threw themselves into a campaign to quickly catch up with everything Thatcher’s Britain and Schroder’s Germany had done: to smash pension rights, employment rights, the right to study – it was like a train crashing headlong into a rock. They came up against a pillar of resistance, a counter attack by the masses which has come to be known as 5th December.
A series of almost unprecedented events have marked the implementation of this policy.
First there was an all out strike at RATP on September 13th, with mass meetings calling for an unlimited strike from 5th December ; there was convergence of all the unions around this goal, lead by the most “corporate” the UNSA. Then there was a wave of militancy against the withdrawal of retirement rights amongst the railway workers, marking a return of their combativity and their determination, this time, to control their own movement from the bottom upwards. The background to this was an ongoing mobilisation amongst hospital staff; at the same time as a rising feeling of total deadlock within the education system, bringing everyone together, following the suicide of a school head, Christine Renon. There was also a suicide by fire of a young student in Lyon, re-starting the first new movements amongst the youth, while an odious and grotesque debate was going on in government circles as to whether this might have been something to do with precarity and whether or not this “act” had a political character. This Saturday, 23rd November, hundreds of thousands of women and men were protesting in dozens of demonstrations across the whole of France, about misogynistic violence.
Everything is coming together, supported by a duel signal from the metro and the train workers, a situation which points in one direction: General Strike on 5th December. We must analyse in depth what is happening in order to understand this entirely new situation and all its unprecedented features.
Since 2016 there has been a sort of “May 1968” stalking France. The presidential elections temporarily stifled it. Independent of joint trade union days of action, it is focused on EPAHD, retirement and small and medium firms. Since 17th November 2018 huge layers of the un-unionised proletariat as well as the impoverished petty bourgeois have been rising up and, occupying roundabouts, they are developing new methods of campaigning for “total blockage”: a new name for “general strike” and for unity against the presidency.
Protected by the existing political and trade union apparatus, the president claimed to have overcome the crisis (did he believe it?). To reassert his authority and to re-establish the pace of his “reforms”, slap bang into this situation, he decreed an end of retirement rights’. From September there has been a convergence of different social strata. Trade union activists, leaders of the working class, those who can remember the solidarity that they built in 1995, 2003, 2006, and 2010 have joined forces, knowing they can rely on the transport workers. To this has been added a new vital ingredient: the essential experience and knowledge of the gilets jaunes.
According to certain commentators “order” has been “restored” because of the limited numbers mobilised for the anniversary of the gilets jaunes on 17th and 18th November. However, if the level of violence and provocation used by the authorities is anything to go by, this is highly doubtful. The official figure of “28,500” demonstrators was even more ludicrous than normal. But even that does not capture the essence of the situation. The movement has not been reduced to a handful of hardened activists reinforced by the “radical left” who donned the vest. The current gilets jaunes movement is highly representative of the dynamic mass movement of hundreds of thousands, even millions which was active last winter: proletarians, impoverished self employed, retired, un-unionised but now organising amongst themselves. They have their traditions their rituals and the same determination to construct something which they called, in a few words “everyone together simultaneously” and in one word “STRIKE”
The aspirations of these different strata converge, multiply and mutually support each other. Collectively this movement is rebuilding in preparation for a general strike. They are working together politically, directing their energies against the executive powers of the ruling class, including the blocking of traffic in the capital, transforming important traffic nodes into places of human conviviality. These processes started last December they are now resuming on a bigger scale.
It is not simply a question of invoking solidarity as some kind of dream, nor simply “a convergence of all struggles ”. Prior to solidarity there is a question of bringing together political objectives: the concrete collective solidarity of the general strike and confrontation with the establishment. Of course this process is differentiated; there is a lack of clear political perspective, not only for 5th December but for 6th and the days that will follow. All the political differences and conflicting ideas will need to be revisited and assessed.
For example, the mass of lycée students are polarised (quite understandably) by proposals for reform of the Bac, which will lead to a clogging up of the entire system of 16 – 19 education in France at its eventual destruction, starting next January. It is likely that such debates will converge with those in the wider mass movement.
Besides, organisations such as the CFDT and UNSA are no longer in a position where they can bluntly oppose the direction in which their members are already moving. The movement is capturing the imagination of trade union militants and wider layers of society many of whom are getting involved.
The foundation of every general strike is that it brings unity to the vast masses of oppressed humanity: the mood created by the big day of the oppressed confronting the oppressors.
The effect of a general strike is, to borrow an expression from one of our comrades, Jacques Chastaing, “outrage” which sparks reflection and discussion. By this criterion, we already have a general strike. While certain people are debating how to bring about unity of struggles and while the journalists of the BMF are writing editorials on the huge range of different demands, the real movement is already forging its political unity in the sense that it already understands very well the nature of the state and of society as a whole and how they interact.
Relative to the long duration of the history of the workers movement in France, the initiatives and improvisation of the past weeks can be summed up as the concrete realisation of social solidarity, with the masses knowing very well and taking into account the fact that the main trade union organisations explicitly want to avoid stating this objective. The workers have not confronted the trade union leaders directly about this but they have worked round them and put pressure on them to declare a general strike.
Thus, at the moment in France, there are no mass trade union meetings in which militants are calling for a general strike while others are objecting or claiming it is not possible; instead we have unofficial preliminary meetings which resemble the prelude to a battle: discussions about a general assembly, what would it do? Which firm do we blockade? What place, what companies? Where is a general strike going to get us?
June 1936, August 1953 and May 1968 had predominantly a spontaneous dimension (of course there were political processes which led up to them). We have to go back a long way in history to find a similar event where smaller confrontations and agitation were simmering for more than a year beforehand. On 1st May 1906 the young CGT of that time voted at its congress that year and announced on that day that there would be a general strike to ensure that no-one would have to work more than 8 hours per day. This was the high point of revolutionary trade unionism whose heritage in organisation and comradeship underpin all the big social struggles of our country. There was an immense fear within the camp of the bourgeois. In the posh districts they stock piled sugar. Emanuel Macron has been busy invoking various figures from French political history who are infamous for having butchered revolutionary workers: Clemenceau, Thiers, Napoleon. But at that time the appeal came from the CGT itself, fully implementing its responsibilities; a world of difference with today. The last CCN (National Confederal Committee) of the CGT made no call to the workers for 5th December but rather busied itself with calls for follow up actions planned for Saturday. It spoke about high level meetings, but it said nothing to challenge the power of Macron: the very aim of the millions involved in this strike. That said, the strike was a long way from being « general » the 8 hour day was not won on 1st May 1906 – 9 hours was won by certain sections of the workforce and it was not until after the war, in 1919, that a the 8 hour day was won for everyone. So progress was set in motion by that generation of militant workers including leaders Griffuelhes and Pouget and those who followed such as Monatte and Rosmer; it revived again and again, notably in 1936, in 1953 in 1968…. and in 2019.
This progress is based on the generalisation and centralisation of the struggles of the exploited and oppressed. If it is coming back with a vengeance at the moment it is because politics is going beyond it normal limits and traditions. The leavening created by these syndicalist, revolutionary traditions is a good starting point. But we must go further because everyone knows that it is a question of challenging the central political powers; Macron, the executive, the 5th Republic. As Rosa Luxemburg put it in 1905 “it is the revolution that nourishes the mass strike”. And that is the very large void: what organisation, what nationally organised force, political or trade union, is stating this clearly today? None. Macron is terrified: the actions of the movement are making themselves felt: but no one is talking about what happens next. It is not 5th December that is the problem, it is the 6th and the days that follow. And this problem is not a gymnastics competition about the best methods of reviving the strike, it is about the rapid centralisation of forces against Macron: the very aims that the Gilets Jaunes announced on 1st and 8th December last year. There will be a general strike on 5th December. In previous similar situations there was a before and an afterwards: this is not a day without a tomorrow. Tomorrow is not planned and there is no political organisation within our class presenting this question seriously for debate and discussion so that we can prepare for victory. Should not a successful general strike be a spring board for a national demonstration at the Elysee? And what should be its objective? The defeat of the new laws against pensions for sure. But that means the defeat of Macron and his executive powers. So does that not also mean that he should be booted out? And then what should go in his place? No more presidential elections like the ones tha Algerian military rulers want to impose!
Combating the destruction of retirement rights, is combating Macron; combating Macron is combating the 5th Republic. Thus there is a way to democracy: the strikers and the road blockers organise elections at all levels of society to take into their own hands the organisation of every district. To provide everyone with a means of living and to seriously address the climate emergency. Taking such measures is, through democracy, progressing towards socialism- real socialism. We can’t move towards it if we fear democracy.
It’s a massive programme isn’t it? Its scope is one of the reasons, not the only one and not an excuse for the lack of discussion of these issues. And what have the Gilet Jaunes been debating for the past year if not the same matters? Arguments For Social Struggle does not claim to be doing anything more than bringing together people who, fully participating in this great collective struggle, openly listen to and share arguments about these aims.
One final word; to do this we have an asset which at the same time underlines the vacuum with which we are confronted, but without fear. It is that France is absolutely not an exception, you may have noticed?
- Care homes for the elderly with medical services
- 16-19 year olds
- University entry exams