In less than 24 hours, the image of Air France's director of human resources (DRH) with his shirt torn was seen around the world. The corporate world and the government has used this to bludgeon public opinion into thinking that the Air France workers are “thugs,” in the words of the Prime Minister.
Sarkozy has chimed in as well describing the events using the French word “cheinlit,” meaning “masquerade” - a term famously used by Charles De Gaulle in May 68 against the student protests at the time. Is the specter of May 68 haunting the minds of the ruling class?
The media coverage of the events of October 5th has focused attention on the “violence” of the Air France workers. The goal of this has been to shift attention away from the violence of the measures, which led to this explosion of anger. For example, the France 2 evening news on October 6th failed to even mention the 2,900 layoffs, which had been announced. They even failed to explain information already in possession of the media that Air France was planning another 5,000 layoffs by 2017. No: they instead circulated the image of the “lynching” of the DRH in order to lynch the Air France workers and anyone who is wants to resist the attacks of the bosses in France.
It is however very significant to note that this media campaign as not had the desired effect. According to a poll published on October 10th, after 4 days of intense propaganda, 54% of French people say that they “understand” the explosive reaction of the Air France workers at the announcement of the layoffs. Left-wing and Labour leaders have provided strong support to the workers of Air France. There was an excellent intervention on this question by Xavier Mathieu, former “Contis” union representative who under went a similar treatment by the media in 2009. Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Olivier Besancenot also provided strong support for the workers and have denounced the media campaign. Mélenchon even called for the workers to continue such tactics, noting the cynicism of Air France-KLM's CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, who not long ago publicly lamented the existence of child labour laws."
After being laid off by the Air France management, five employees were arrested at their homes on October 12th and placed in police custody. Their arrested at 6am, in front of their families was an attempt to humiliate them. These five workers are at risk of double punishment and they will be tried on December 2nd for aggravated violence. This is unacceptable. The five workers should keep their jobs and should not suffer any legal punishment.
On October 13th, Sébastien Benoît, a union representative for the STX of the CGT (The shipyards workers of Saint-Nazaire) refused to shake hands of the head of state during his visit to the construction sites. This is the mindset which prevails in many unions. Sébastien Benoît told the president “Mr. Holland, for the CGT, we consider that we should not be polite to you due to what is taking place concerning the Air France workers. We consider it unacceptable that those who are now struggling to defend their livelihoods are faced with violence from their employers that is increasingly widespread.” Later on the french radio station RTL, the same worker said that “When there are constant attacks and violence every day, with these phrases they use to attack the working population, it is daily violence. To have to be polite towards someone who is attacking us constantly, it becomes complicated.”
The tone is hardening in the union camp. The unions CGT and Solidaires have refused to participate in the "great social conference" organized for employment by the government. The secretary general of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, has rightly called this conference "the high mass of the bosses' experts" for the "sole" purpose of serving the governments "communications" strategy. He added that the president is "a continuation of his predecessor on the social level". He also denounced the attitude of the Prime Minister, who has been "stubbornly ignoring the employees” of Air France.
Manuel Valls does more than just ignore these employees: in alliance with the government and the bosses, he wants to intimidate and divide all workers of the country through the brutal treatment he visits upon the workers of Air France. They know that there will be further cuts and consequently, other revolts. They want to make an example. But in so doing they are playing with fire. This could in fact galvanize the combativeness of many workers, as is shown by the reactions from the CGT, at all levels. These reactions and the poll mentioned above have also pushed the government in recent days, to reduce its attacks against the employees of Air France. It already feels so sure of it that night of 5 October. The government does not feel as sure of itself as it the evening of October 5th.
The support given to the Air France workers by large numbers of workers is a very significant symptom of the anger smoldering in the depths of French society. Looking at the images of October 5th, many workers surely were thinking that they would like to see their own bosses in a similar predicament. This reminds us of the following passage from an article written by young Lenin, published in 1901: "It seems that we are now passing through a period in which our working-class movement is once more about to engage with irresistible force in the sharp conflicts that terrify the government and the propertied classes and bring joy and encouragement to socialists. Yes, we rejoice in these conflicts [...] because the working class is proving by its resistance that it is not reconciled to its position that it refuses to remain in slavery or to submit meekly to violence and tyranny. Even with the most peaceful course of events, the present system always and inevitably exacts countless sacrifices from the working class. Thousands and tens of thousands of men and women, who toil all their lives to create wealth for others… He is a hundred times a hero who prefers to die fighting in open struggle against the defenders and protectors of this infamous system rather than die the lingering death of a crushed, broken-down, and submissive nag. We do not by any means want to imply that scuffling with the police is the best form of struggle. On the contrary, we have always told the workers that it is in their interests to carry on the struggle in a more calm and restrained manner, and to try to make use of all discontent for support to the organised struggle of the revolutionary party. But the principal source that sustains revolutionary Social-Democracy is the spirit of protest among the working class which, in view of the violence and oppression surrounding the workers, is bound to manifest itself from time to time in the form of desperate outbursts. These outbursts arouse to conscious life the widest sections of the workers, oppressed by poverty and ignorance, and stimulate in them a noble hatred for the oppressors and enemies of liberty." (A new massacre, June 1901)
These lines describe very well what is happening in the ranks of the working class in response to the events of October 5th and explains why the media campaign hasn’t had the desired effect. This is just one reason more to go on the offensive. Workers and their unions should not be treated as “thugs.” Workers directly affected by the sanctions and under threat of legal persecution should not be punished. We should all collectively bear the charges against them. The labour movement must mobilize both against the sanctions (disciplinary or judicial) and also against the layoffs. And in this struggle, the renationalization of Air France should be taken up. It is time to tear this industrial flagship from the hands of parasites such as Alexander Juniac and others!