(eng) French Strikes Against Neoliberalism?

Harry M. Cleaver (hmcleave@mundo.eco.utexas.edu)
Fri, 29 Mar 1996 01:05:34 +0100


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 1996 21:31:28 -0600 (CST)
From: Harry M. Cleaver <hmcleave@eco.utexas.edu>
To: Chiapas95 <chiapas95@mundo.eco.utexas.edu>
Cc: Accion Zapatista de Austin <accion-zapatista@mcfeeley.cc.utexas.edu>,
Chiapas-l <chiapas-l@profmexis.sar.net>
Subject: E;French Strikes Against Neoliberalism? Feb 18

This posting has been forwarded to you as a service of
Accion Zapatista de Austin.

NOTE BENE: The following article discusses the issue of whether the
recent wave of strikes in France constituted a moment in the long
anticipated counteroffensive against the neoliberal strategies of global
capital --a counteroffensive some believe to have started with the EZLN
uprising. This is an important issue, especially in light of the imminent
EZLN-called gatherings on the struggle against neoliberalism. I am
posting this piece as food for thought on this subject.

Harry

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 1996 10:59:43 -0800
From: D Shniad <shniad@SFU.CA>
To: Multiple recipients of list LABOR-L <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Subject: Long article on the French strike

8

Date: Sun, 18 Feb 1996 21:13:35 +1000
From: dspratt@peg.apc.org (David Spratt)

(From Frontline, an activist newspaper in Australia.)

FRANCE AFTER THE STRIKES

Last gasp of the French labour movement, or first blow
against the new Europe of money, markets and cutbacks?
Our correspondent in Paris reports on the recent
strikes in France.

Sitting at the station in Paris, waiting for the train,
I've been browsing through Alexander Cockburn's 'The
Golden Age Is In Us'. Cockburn's diary reflects on last
year's Chiapas rebellion in Mexico, and wonders whether
'that rising is the last of the old-style Latin
American guerrilla movements, or the augury of the new
fissures opening up in the global economy'.

The same question has been exercising minds in Europe
in the wake of the November and December strikes in
France. Hundreds of thousands of people rallied against
the Juppe government's restructuring plan, and the
country was paralysed by strikes in all provincial
centres. Was this massive mobilization the last gasp of
the old labour coalition or was it the first sign of a
broader challenge to the 'new Europe', a Europe based
on global markets, competition, and the destruction of
public institutions that were created as part of
postwar reconstruction.

France has a long tradition of centralized public
service administration, a strong interventionist state,
and an elaborate social security system. But as with
the rest of Europe, the social chasm is wide. Huge
billboard posters in the Metro from a Paris charity sum
up the gulf between France's high tech modernist
projects and the reality for 3.5 million unemployed.

'France:

Its TGV high speed train.
Its Ariane rocket.
Its grand national library.
Its 400,000 homeless'.

Conservative cutbacks

Jacques Chirac, leader of the conservative
Rassemblement Pour la Republique (RPR) was elected as
French President in May 1995, promising change and an
end to this 'fracture sociale' after fourteen years
under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. Few
people were aware of the speed with which the new
conservative majority in the National Assembly would
set its social and economic agenda.

Prime Minister Alain Juppe presented his plan to the
National Assembly on 15 November, arguing that France
must reduce its public deficit if it is to remain an
equal partner with Germany in the European Community.
The government's proposals hit hard at workers,
pensioners, the unemployed:

* a new tax of 0.5 per cent on pretax income to
reduce the public debt;
* the removal of a 20 per cent tax allowance given
to all employees;
* a radical restructuring of the health system, with
increased charges for public hospitals;
* changes to retirement and superannuation schemes,
workers now being required to work 40 years
instead of 37.5 to receive pensions at the full
rate;
* a reduction of funding for universities and
education;
* new fiscal reforms affecting inflation and
savings;
* a massive restructuring of the public transport
system, including the national railways (Societe
Nationale de Chemin de Fer or SNCF), with the
closure of 6000 km of track and the sacking of
30,000-50,000 workers.

The trade unions seemed in a weak position to respond
to an incoming conservative administration. Unlike
Australia, with one peak union council, France has
three major union confederations and a number of
independent unions, divided on political and sectoral
lines. The largest grouping, the Confederation General
du Travail (CGT), has traditionally been aligned to
the left and the Parti Communiste Francaise (PCF). The
Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT)
grew out of social-democratic traditions, while Force
Ouvriere (FO), with American backing, split from the
communist-controlled CGT after the Second World War.

The union movement has lost much of its membership,
with only 9.8 per cent of workers in France belonging
to unions (down from 22 per cent in 1970). Most union
members work in the public sector.

Most leaders of the opposition Socialist Party accepted
the need for Juppe's reforms; their disagreement was
over the timing and manner of the cuts. This was clear
in statements from CFDT leader Nicole Notat. A number
of left-wing intellectuals around the review 'Esprit'
launched a statement in support of the Juppe plan,
agreeing with the need for a major overhaul of the
social security system, and praising 'the courage and
independence of spirit' of Nicole Notat as she lined up
with the conservative government.

Strikes and protests

Public opposition was overwhelming, however, with
opinion polls showing 80 per cent opposed to elements
of the plan. As strikes and protests broke out around
the country, two of the three major trade union
confederations, FO and CGT, joined forces in a series
of massive public protests. This was the first time
since 1947 that the two competing union bodies had
marched under one banner! Five hundred delegates and
officials in the CFDT also signed a public statement
supporting the strikes and criticizing the CFDT
leadership.

The cheminots, the railway workers of the SNCF, were at
the forefront. By the end of November, the strikes
spread through other public bodies: post and
telecommunications, electricity and gas, kindergarten
and primary school teachers, with some secondary and
tertiary lecturers. University and high school students
had been agitating over education cutbacks under the
Bayrou plan and, after a national demonstration of
100,000 on 21 November, students continued to agitate,
but their numbers were soon swamped by what one
protester described as 'the grown-up's playtime'.

The day after announcing his plan to the National
Assembly, Prime Minister Juppe said that 'if two
million people go onto the streets, my government will
not survive'. With the target set, national rallies
brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in a
series of 'Juppethons': 24 and 28 November, 5 and 7
December, culminating in two huge protests on 12 and 16
December. The 12 December rally saw more than two
million protesters in 89 cities around the country.

A major feature of the protest was the size of rallies
all around the country, including some provincial
centres not noted for their radicalism. On 5 December,
as Juppe addressed the National Assembly in an attempt
to calm the protests, the evening news presented the
roll call: fights between police and protestors in
Paris, Montpellier and Nantes; all SNCF trains halted;
the Paris Metro out of action: 84 out of 135 mail
sorting centres on strike; power supply reduced by 30
per cent as a third of EDF's workforce went on strike;
one nuclear reactor shut down and 23 on reduced power;
25,000 rally in Caen, 40,000 in Bordeaux, 20,000 in
Marseilles, 16,000 in Lyons, 35,000 in Toulouse, 30,000
in Clermont-Ferrand.

French demonstrations are much noisier than Australian
ones: megaphones and microphones; chants and songs;
jazz bands and tuba players. People gather in a central
square, march around the city for hours in the rain or
snow, then go home. And no speeches! From the front
line of dignitaries , the rallies extend through the
streets, people marching under union banners, home-made
signs, brightly coloured flags. Railway workers,
teachers, unemployed groups, newspaper sellers
scuttling up and down the edges, a homeless rights
association dressed in Paris Commune gowns and singing
'Qui seme la misere, recolte la colere' ('Whoever sows
poverty will harvest anger'). The CGT and FO
contingents stand out, but there are dissident CFDT
workers proudly flying their flag, and a number of
banners are from a town, region or business which
unites workers across union boundaries.

Local protests

As well as the rallies, strikers organized various
actions on the ground:

* Caen: striking postal powers occupied a mail sorting
centre, and were still going strong when evicted by the
riot police a month later.

* Albi: EDF workers bricked up the office of the local
conservative mayor after he denounced strikers as
terrorists.

* Montpellier: striking teachers set up a classroom in
the main town square, and gave history lessons to
Juppe, singing songs and reciting poetry.

* Montlu=E7on: protestors blocked the local prefecture
office by building a brick wall - the ' wall of money'
- across the entrance. In Le Puy, the cheminots used
railway ties for the same purpose.

* Toulouse: striking students set off on a cross-
country bike ride to Paris, to leaflet high schools in
rural areas.

* Paris: over 200 people occupied part of the Georges
Pompidou Centre - the Centre for Contemporary Art at
Beaubourg - after a call from a number of homeless
people's organizations. The occupation held public
meetings, inviting homeless activists, striking railway
workers, illegal immigrants and more to discuss public
housing, immigration law and unemployment benefits.

Some centres developed quite intricate systems of local
coordination. In Rouen, the strike started with a
general assembly of 700 railway workers from the
different union confederations. To avoid the bitter
cold, the meeting adjourned to 'The Ditch', a giant
SNCF railway shed at Sotteville used to repair
locomotives. As the strike progressed, the cheminots
invited delegates from other unions. By early December
the general assembly each afternoon included postal
workers, teachers, car workers from the local Renault
factory, EDF power workers, unemployed activists and
students; representatives of 22 unions and enterprises
attended regularly. Teams of strikers went out on
public transport to leaflet and talk to passengers
about the reasons for the strike. The general meetings
coordinated picket lines, planned rallies, and provided
a forum for debate, argument and agitation.

Such protests were not always easy. Police attacked a
rally of striking coal miners at Feyming Merlbach in
the Lorraine Basin. After police tear gassed a peaceful
rally and beat up 30 strikers at Houilleres, the miners
kidnapped the local conservative mayor and held him
down a mine shaft for 13 hours. A rally of 2000 miners
the net day was met by a force of 1000 police.

Public opinion

The strikes caused chaos throughout the country,
especially in Paris: no mail; transport cut; people
leaving home at 4 am to get to work, or staying
overnight in city hotels; museums, galleries and public
buildings closed; and disruption of travel, child care,
schooling and care for the aged or infirm. But
successive opinion polls showed that a majority (and up
to 65 per cent ) of the public supported the strikers
and condemned the arrogant and inflexible attitude of
the government as it refused negotiations with union
leaders. Early right-wing attempts to mount anti-strike
rallies were soon replaced by splits in the government
ranks, as the size of the protest became apparent.

The scale and depth of social uprising surprised not
only the government, but most intellectuals and media
commentators, who had been proclaiming the end of old-
style unions and class struggle, and the need for
'modernization' and ' globalization'. A decade of
retreat by much of the left-wing intelligentsia was
evident when Juppe put forward his proposals. Not only
have many intellectuals in France given up changing the
world, they've even stopped interpreting it.
(Australian intellectuals take note: postmodernism is
decidedly unfashionable in France at the moment.) The
Socialist Party majority elected in 1981 soon gave up
its radical agenda and introduced austerity policies,
and elite opinion followed. As one commentator noted:
'From 1983 to 1993, socialist intellectuals and leaders
abandoned all hope of transforming the world, and
proposed (in the guise of a radiant future) the one
program drawn from the Darwinian terminology so dear to
the neoliberals: to adapt. That is, to renounce, to
abdicate, to submit.'

In the early days of the strikes, most media
commentators kept up a drumbeat of attacks on
'privileged' public servants, who ignore the public
good and the interests of the unemployed, who are 'in
retreat from the modern world', and who need to act
with more 'realism and responsibility' to accept 'the
inevitability of globalization'. Gradually, it became
clear that the scale of the protests transcended the
narrow boundaries of the old labour movement. In a
'statement in support of the strikers' published on 4
December, five hundred intellectuals, church leaders
and public figures from the left added their voices to
the protests. Just as Jean Paul Sartre spoke to
striking car workers at the Renault factory in
Billancourt in May 1968, the current guru of French
sociology, Pierre Bourdieu, went to Gare du Nord in
Paris on 12 December to meet 500 striking railway
workers. His speech highlighted the broader agenda of
the events: 'We must retake democracy against the
technocracy. We must finish with the tyranny of
'experts' from the World Bank and the IMF, who impose
on us the verdicts of the new Leviathan - the financial
markets - who don't listen or negotiate, but only
explain what's good for us.'

European reaction

Internationalism, once the strength of the left, has
become an arena for the transnational corporations, the
IMF, and the institutions of the European Community.
The strikes in France were watched with great interest
in the rest of Europe. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl
and other European leaders were concerned about the
impact that the French strikes might have on their own
communities. Railway workers in Belgium joined the
strike, and a national day of protest on 13 December
saw a rally of 60,000 in Brussels. Solidarity protests
were held in Athens, Berlin, Rome and other cities. The
resumption of French nuclear testing in the Pacific is
part of an attempt to show that France is a major
strategic force in Europe, and is a counterbalance to
the overwhelming German dominance of the European
Community. As French citizens rallied around the
country on 5 December, the French Government announced
that France will rejoin NATO's Military Committee, the
first formal link since Charles de Gaulle withdrew the
country from NATO in 1966.

On 16 December, as 750,000 people rallied around
France, leaders of the 15 members of the European
Community met in Madrid for a summit of the European
Council. The European leaders discussed the timetable
for the introduction of a common European currency, the
'Euro', to be introduced in 1999, with national
currencies to be phased out by 2002. The European
Community will develop a list of countries that meet
the criteria for 'convergence' with this new joint
currency; criteria that have been defined by theories
of free markets and privatization of public services.
Countries must exercise 'budgetary discipline', and
mount 'a struggle against inflation'.

The Maastricht Treaty, which links the members of the
European Community, defines the community as 'a system
of open and competitive markets'. Like the NAFTA and
APEC agreements, the key focus of inter-governmental
meetings is on financial, trade and strategic
interests, with limited attention to the social,
cultural or environmental programs that could unit the
regions of the world.

Maastricht aims to introduce 'liberalization' and
'competitiveness' to areas of 'state monopoly' such as
post and telecommunications, transport, and energy - a
process familiar to citizens in Kennett's Victoria. A
1990 European directive liberalized telecommunications,
with state monopolies due to end in 1998; a 1991 rail
transport decree (which became law in France in 1995)
separates management of rail infrastructure and access
to the system, allowing private rail companies access
to the rail network maintained by public funds; a
January 1993 agreement frees up internal air travel;
while the next area for 'liberalization' will be
energy, where major consumers will be able to buy power
from the supplier of their choice while using existing
infrastructure to deliver it.

After the strikes

After the strikes, a key change has been in the
development of the French unions and social movements.
Rank-and-file unionists have tasted some successes, and
concerns expressed by labour movement activists have
been articulated to a broad community right across the
country. The CGT has reaffirmed its position, while
debates by left-wing forces in the CFDT and FO will
shake up French union structures. (CFDT Leader Nicole
Notat launched a public attack on her critics within
the labour movement, denouncing them as part of a left-
wing network. A cartoon in 'Le Monde' shows Notat
declaring: 'We've been infiltrated by leftists and
unionists'!) At one level, both sides could claim some
victories: Juppe was still prime minister even though
his sacking was one of the aims of most protesters. The
Juppe plan, though battered and amended, was not
completely abandoned. For the unions, the railways
restructuring plan was frozen, and the SNCF's director-
general resigned. The government was forced to pledge
f900 million extra for university education, and
abandoned a number of the new taxes. Most importantly,
the government's offensive was stalled, though not
defeated. With Chirac as president for seven years,
everyone is settling in for the long haul and expecting
more action in the springtime.

The social movement of November and December was
constantly compared to the events of May 1968, but the
differences are important. The student and worker
uprising in 1968 was part of a global pattern of
rebellion and repression, that spread through the Tet
offensive, Mexico City, Chicago and Prague. At the
time, 'everything was possible, and revolution was in
the air'. But the 1960s era of economic growth is
starkly different to today's economic situation, and
the collapse of regimes in eastern Europe has destroyed
one model for those advocating a planned economy. The
global spread of unemployment and changing patterns of
production across international boundaries pose new
problems for labour and community groups focused on
local issues. While the December strikes rallied most
of public servants, the strikes did not extend into the
private sector, where unionism is very weak.

The protesters in the streets of France did not have a
concrete alternative to the Juppe plan. But the scale
of mobilization, and the debate, ferment and discussion
of millions of people in action, has posed a
fundamental challenge to the economic vision promoted
by Europe's leaders. Ignacio Ramonet, writing in 'Le
Monde Diplomatique', expressed it well: 'By their
incredible revolt in December 1995, the French have
collectively shown, for the first time, their rejection
of a society based on economism, on uncontrolled
liberalism, the totalitarianism of the market and the
tyranny of globalization. They reminded their leaders
about an old republican principle: citizens prefer
disorder to injustice.'

Just as the Chiapas revolt highlighted flaws in NAFTA,
and the French strikes have set back the timetable for
the European Community, there is a renewed need to look
at APEC and decide whose interests are being served by
the creation of a new Asia-Pacific region.

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