Lionel Jospin, freshly back from his holidays at the end of August, made a glowingly optimistic speech about the French economy. Within a few days, France was plunged into chaos. All around the country, refineries were blockaded, as were fuel storage plants, airports, motorways, tunnels, bridges, and a number of railway lines. Within 48 hours, petrol stations were running out of fuel, and on the third day, no petrol at all was available in a number of major cities, and 8 stations out of every ten were out of stock.
Although this particular protest action was not spearheaded by workers, but by the bosses of the biggest road haulage companies and agricultural enterprises, it was nonetheless yet another symptom what can only be described as an extremely unstable social and political situation in France. The central core of those who blockaded the roads was made up of the same notoriously right-wing companies who have organised similar action on many occasions in the past against worker's rights, benefits and wages, against the reduction of the working week, against road safety regulations and against the use of the public sector network for the transportation of merchandise. The action organised by these elements was therefore of a reactionary character, aimed at forcing the government to make additional hand-outs to capitalists in the form of tax concessions, reduced social security payments, and special rebates on the price of fuel. The taxi company bosses' syndicates, notorious for their political links with the extreme-right parties, orchestrated action to force increases in fares, thereby passing the burden of increased fuel costs onto their customers.
However, the overall effect of these successful protests on the consciousness of the working population, irrespective of the real class interests which lay behind them, was a positive one, in that they were yet another irrefutable demonstration of the practical effectiveness of collective militant action.
Everybody suffers from the increased price of fuel, and so there was general support for the blockades from the public. The bosses were not demanding a general price reduction. Their demand was for special prices for themselves as owners of capitalist enterprises. Jospin very quickly gave in to almost all their demands. Whilst there can be no question of supporting the demands of the big companies, we must take a different attitude to the self-employed and family-based businesses struggling to make ends meet. These sections of the population are hard hit by the increased price of petrol, as are working people as a whole.
The main beneficiaries of the concessions made by the government are the big road haulage companies, who stand to collectively gain up to 5 billion francs in increased profits. In the haulage industry and in taxi companies, the workers unions refused to support the employers action.
Ernest-Antoine de Sellière, the president of the national employers confederation (the MEDEF, equivalent of the British CBI), was of course sympathetic to the demands of its affiliates in the haulage industry. The MEDEF itself had already obtained huge tax handouts, reductions in social security payments and subsidies from the government. The reduction of the working week to 35 hours in the haulage sector was more than paid for by the state, which gave an overall figure of 104 billion francs in compensation to the employers over the last year on that account alone. This figure should be compared to the measly one billion offered to the 3 million unemployed at the time of protests about the scandalously low level of minimum unemployment benefits. However, de Sellière was uneasy about this type of action, as were virtually all the representatives of the right-wing parties. The reason for this is obvious. They fear above all that in the socially explosive situation that has developed in France over recent years, such actions may well give ideas to French workers. If a handful of capitalists, simply by using one or two lorries out of their fleets to block roads and transport facilities, can bring a government to its knees within days, what would happen if the workers moved into action?
These events are a symptom of the increasingly unstable political situation in France. Over recent years, just about every section of society has been involved in some form of protest action, including strikes, occupations, demonstrations and mass rallies like the one which took place at Millau in solidarity with the imprisoned leader of the Confédération Paysanne, José Bové, at the end of last June, and which brought together something like 30,000 people.
Lionel Jospin has earned the reputation of being more to the left than his social-democratic counterparts in Europe such as Blair or Schroeder. Of course, it requires but little effort to be to the left of such individuals as these. In fact, the political beliefs of Jospin are little different to those of Blair. He stands for privatisation, for the market economy, for more "flexible" working conditions, and all the other hallmarks of the social-democratic leaderships in Europe. It is true, however, that on many fronts, Jospin has been forced into making significant concessions to the workers in France, and cannot allow himself to be so brazenly outspoken in his support for capitalism as Blair, for example. The reason for this is that Jospin came to power under very different circumstances to Blair and Schroeder. His election victory took place in the aftermath of the huge public sector general strike of November-December 1995, which was the greatest movement of the French working class since the revolutionary crisis of 1968.
The 1995 strike was provoked by the attempt to carry out a thatcherite offensive against the workers by the right-wing prime minister of the time, Alain Juppé. The strike lasted for almost six weeks and involved several million workers. From the beginning to the end of the strike, in spite of the enormous disruption it caused, the movement was consistently supported by over two thirds of the population. The strike forced the government to withdraw its attacks on the rights of railway workers and to postpone a number of other counter-reforms. However, by far the most important result of this truly great event was the enormous effect it had on the consciousness of the workers as a whole, in that it provided irrefutable proof of the enormous power of collective action by the working people. This was a trial of strength between the classes that affected all aspects of everyday life. The events forcefully stamped the irreconcilable character of the conflicting interests into the minds of the youth and the workers. The strike revolutionised the attitude of wide sections of the population about the class character of society, about the real nature of governments and about the interests that lie behind them. Above all, it boosted the self-confidence and the willingness to struggle of the wage-working population and of the youth. This fact is the key to an understanding of the very important events that have taken place in France over the last five years.
At the time of the general strike, Jospin actually supported the Juppé plan. In fact, Jospin is applying many of the counter-reforms that were part of this plan at the present time. He has privatised more than the two previous right-wing governments, that of Balladur and that of Juppé, taken together. In relation to the 35 hour week, a demand put firmly on the agenda by the general strike and by the persistently high level of unemployment, Jospin and his Minister of Labour, Martine Aubry, tried to turn this reform into its opposite. By offering the employers the legal means to impose greater casualisation, more "flexible" work practices, annualisation of hours, savings on wages, and massive financial handouts, Jospin and Aubry tried to give employers the means of taking back far more than they stood to lose by the nominal reduction of the working week.
The practical application of the 35-hour week in the workplaces has been one of the most important reasons for the many strikes that have broken out over the recent period. In many cases, workers have been able to secure a reduction of the working week under reasonable conditions. But wherever workers have been in a weak position, unorganised, or else betrayed by their union leaderships, the "reform" has backfired against them. The CFDT metalworkers leadership at Renault, for instance, signed a 35-hour agreement that had already been rejected by a clear majority of the union members, and which allowed for 4500 job losses over 5 years, whereas the aim of the 35-hour week was to create jobs, not to destroy them. In the case of the CFDT in Renault, the rank-and-file fought back, forced the leaders who had signed to resign and revised the agreement.
The whittling down of the budgets for health and education, the dismantling of the public sector, the 35 hour week swindle, the general worsening of living and working conditions, the brutal treatment of immigrant workers left without work permits, the sickening spectacle of socialist politicians enriching themselves by stealing state money or by "earning" huge commissions on contracts given to private industry, have all combined to undermine support for the policies of the government. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the wealthy right-wing Finance Minister, was forced to resign in the midst of revelations about illegal earnings. In October 1999, Jospin was startled by a wave of protest and criticism that followed one of his rare TV appearances. Asked about his attitude to the latest redundancy plan announced by Michelin, Jospin frostily replied that this was not his problem, and that the government would not intervene against such sackings, which were simply the result of market conditions. Such was the public outcry, reinforced by the fact that Michelin was receiving public money from the government as part of a "job creation" programme, that Jospin was forced to make a public apology and promise a series of reforms in order to save face.
Accidents and catastrophes often serve to bring the contradictions in society into sharper relief in the consciousness of workers and youth. This was the case with the sinking of the Russian submarine Koursk, and was also the case with that of the petrol tanker Erika, which went down off the coast of Brittany on the 12th December 1999. The sinking had very serious social and economic effects on an area already hard hit by unemployment. Four hundred kilometres of coastline was polluted, throwing hundreds of people out work and ruining businesses. Fish stocks were decimated and an estimated 500000 seabirds were killed. The government initially tried to minimise the extent of the disaster, and the oil company Total-Fina declined all responsibility for what had happened. However, the facts that were to emerge in the wake of the tragedy revealed a secretive, mafia-like world of illegality and corruption in which greed for profit put lives and jobs at risk. Ship crews go unpaid for months, sometimes for years. It was shown that Total-Fina was perfectly aware that the Erika was not at all seaworthy. It took several weeks of enquiries to discover who were the owners of the vessel, hidden as they were behind an almost impenetrable screen of fictitious "letterbox companies". Volunteer workers who spent weeks cleaning up the beaches were not informed of the risks to their health. Some of the youngsters who worked as volunteers throughout the winter were later imprisoned and expelled as illegal immigrants. The Erika episode clearly demonstrated the frightful social, economic and ecological consequences of capitalist greed for profit, and undoubtedly contributed to the sharpening class consciousness of French workers.
Last March, the maturing social crisis came to a head. Teachers, health workers, and Finance Ministry employees struck against spending cuts, privatisations and attacks on working conditions. The strikes forced the government to back down. Jospin sacked the unpopular Education Minister, Claude Allègre, and effectively withdrew the disastrous "reforms" which were strangling schools and universities throughout the country. Jospin also sacrificed Sautter, who had replaced Strauss-Kahn as Finance Minister just a few weeks before, in order to put an end to the occupation of the Ministry buildings by state employees, who were also refusing to collect any further taxes until the government climbed down. As a result of this rather hasty ministerial "shuffle", the Communist Party representation in the government was increased, and a leader of the "socialist left" tendency in the Socialist Party was also brought into the government. Then, in order to reassure big business interests, the right-wing socialist Laurent Fabius was appointed as Finance Minister.
The French economy grew by 2.9% last year, and may well reach 3.2% this year. Generally speaking, the economic growth that has taken place in Europe has benefited the ruling parties. It has helped Aznar in Spain, and Schroeder in Germany. The same is true in France, but with a difference. Because of the particularly stormy background to the election of Jospin and the resulting increase in the boldness, self-confidence and fighting spirit of the French workers, the improvement in the economic indicators has been a mixed blessing for the Jospin government. Towards the end of the year, the government lied about the size of the budget surplus. Strauss-Kahn and then Sautter had claimed that the tax windfall from economic growth would leave a surplus of 13 billion francs, whereas the real figure was nearly 60 billion francs. Clearly, the government felt that it would be difficult to justify the running down of budgets for health, education and social services whilst its coffers were seen to be overflowing.
The boom, together with a publicly financed job creation scheme for youth, has brought down unemployment slightly, but eight new jobs out of every ten are casual or part-time and short-term contracts. There are now 650000 workers in France who depend on temporary work agencies to earn a living, compared to less than a third of this number six years ago. Average earnings of the employed have fallen in absolute terms, in spite of the boom. The government statistics agency, INSEE, has produced figures to show that 16% of the population are living in real poverty, and that, were it not for special minimum subsistence benefit payments and facilities, the figure would be a staggering 26%. INSEE also shows that the poor are increasing in number, among all age groups.
At the same time, the biggest companies have been making record profits, the Stock Exchange has been soaring. This situation has creating enormous resentment, affecting all layers of society. In Paris and in all the major cities of France, homeless people, organised into increasingly powerful associations, have stormed and occupied empty office blocks and apartment buildings. The unemployed have regularly occupied social security offices and job centres. The" illegal" foreign-born workers, used as little more than slaves by employers and liable to be handcuffed, imprisoned and deported at any time, instead of hiding from the police, demonstrate openly and defiantly in the streets and on public squares. Hotel chambermaids, cleaners, lavatory attendants, road-sweepers, and many other sections of society are taking militant action and getting organised for the first time.
The middle layers of society have also mobilised. Doctors and magistrates march down streets with banners flying. Dentists, shopkeepers and professional people imitate the methods of struggle used by the workers. When the Le Monde Diplomatique, a monthly newspaper, called for the creation of an association to fight against financial speculation and "globalisation", some 25000 members signed up in little over a year. The association, known as ATTAC, has a confused, hotchpotch programme, in which progressive demands are mixed in with reactionary proposals such as stringent protectionist measures. This programme reflects the middle-class outlook of its founders and the intermediary social position of the bulk of ATTAC membership. Nonetheless, the development of ATTAC and the mass rally in rural Millau can only be understood as a shifting of middle class opinion towards a radical "anti-capitalist" position and, as such, represents yet another sign that French society is hurtling willy-nilly towards a new and colossal confrontation between the classes. The 1995 strike was a dress rehearsal for this future explosion, just as the general strike of 1963 was a preparation for the revolutionary events of 1968.
Another clear indication of an approaching pre-revolutionary crisis is the fact that every single one of the right-wing parties has split. The ruling class in France has never had the advantage of a single, stable party of the ruling class. The RPR and the UDF were the two main parties of the ruling class in the 1980's. Against the background of the failure of the left in power to struggle against capitalism and of a huge increase in unemployment, a third right-wing party emerged in the form of the extreme right-wing and racist Front National. But since the 1995 strike, all three organisations have split. The extreme right has virtually collapsed. Since the split in the Front National, a new attempt was made to form a parliamentary bonapartist movement in the form of the RPF around Pasqua and de Villiers, but that party has now also split. The splintering of the right-wing parties is rooted in the impotence of the direct representatives of capitalism in the face of widespread social unrest and, in particular, in the fact that the last time a right-wing government tried to carry out a reactionary program provoked a gigantic social upheaval. The 1995 events, followed by the crushing electoral defeat in 1997, has demoralised and disorientated the ruling class.
Many leading figures, including ex-prime minister Juppé, the right-wing mayor of Paris Jean Tibéri and even the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac himself, are up to their necks in allegations of large scale electoral fraud, corruption, illegal financing and political scandals. On 21st September, the filmed "confession" of an official of the RPR, now deceased, was published. The video directly incriminated President Chirac in the organisation of an elaborate system of bribes and commissions to finance the RPR.
The paralysis of the right-wing parties is a mixed blessing for the leaders of the socialist and communist parties. Whilst strengthening their position in some ways, it has also had the effect of further reinforcing the confidence of the workers, who are far less hesitant about fighting against the pro-capitalist policies of their "own" government as a result.
Both left parties are losing members and credibility. The Socialist Party leadership has openly gone over to support for capitalism, and has gone much further in carrying out counter-reforms than Juppé would ever have dared. In this situation, the socialist left tendency (Gauche Socialiste) could make big gains, as was shown by an increase in it's share of votes within the party during the first 18 months of the Jospin government. However, the participation of the Gauche Socialiste leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the Cabinet in the wake of the strikes and the governmental crisis of March 2000 has led to an increasingly moderate and "pro-market" stand on the part of this tendency, which has now declared itself to be in "alliance" with Jospin against his rival Laurent Fabius.
According to official figures published by the Communist Party (PCF), its membership has fallen at an average rate of 4% per annum over the last five years. The PCF annual festival, the Fête de l'Humanité, attracted 80 000 participants this year, compared to 250000 in the 1980's. The PCF has been in steady decline since the party leadership betrayed the 1968 general strike. It participated in the 1981 left government led by Pierre Mauroy on a reformist program, and remained in the government when the latter went over to a policy of counter-reform and wage restraint. The PCF finally left the government in 1984, in an attempt to restore its credibility. However, the nationalist policies and divisive tactics of the PCF only further weakened its position. At the present time, the PCF is participating in the Jospin government, and the PCF Minister of Transport, Gayssot, has direct responsibility for the privatisation of Air France and of the Aerospace Industry.
A number of indicators show that the peak of the economic boom has in all likelihood already been reached. In July, unemployment figures were again on the increase, and the rate of job creation is slowing significantly. France has had a foreign trade surplus every month since 1994, and yet has now slid into a negative balance. The European currency has fallen to new all-time lows in relation to the dollar, forcing up interest rates, which in turn is squeezing demand. The inflation rate is rising, and INSEE has lowered its forecast for growth over the year from 4% to 3.3%. The reality will no doubt be below this, since the economy has only grown by 1.6% over the first six months of the year.
Strikes are once again breaking out on the railways, in the Paris metro and bus services and airline companies over staff shortages, 35-hour agreements and wages. Major strikes are inevitable in the state sector unless large-scale recruitment takes place to replace the hours that will be lost because of the shortening of the working week. A one-day national general strike on the railways is planned for the 28th September, which may well be followed by an indefinite general transport strike on 19th October if concessions are not made on wages, pensions and working conditions.
Jospin lost 20 points in his popularity rating, falling from 62% to 42%, because of his handling of the employers' blockades. Divisions over policy are opening up within the Cabinet. As a result of the policy adopted by Jospin in relation to Corsica, Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who is also the leader of the nationalist-republican Mouvement des Citoyens, (MDC) resigned from the government at the beginning of September. The policy involves a deal with right-wing parties and terrorist racketeers at the expense of the working population on the island, in exchange for the promise of an end to terrorist violence. Martine Aubry, Labour Minister, will also leave the government shortly. Finance Minister Laurent Fabius is manoeuvring to gain big business support with a view to replacing for Jospin as the presidential candidate in the 2002 elections.
Taken as a whole, the course of events in France points to a new revolutionary crisis over the next period. This new upheaval may well occur in the near future. Whatever the precise timing of events, the main stages in the developments over the last few years bear out this general perspective. To recapitulate: In 1995 a general strike forces the newly established Juppé government into retreat. Juppé is swept away fifteen months later and replaced by a socialist-communist coalition. The right-wing parties split and the extreme-right collapses. The new government tries to maintain the Juppé "plan" but is forced to retreat on several fronts. In March, major strikes break out and threaten to spread into a repetition of 1995. The government abandons planned attacks on the educational and public service sectors. Jospin sacks the ministers most closely associated with the counter-reforms. The economy slows down, threatening to further undermine working conditions and employment. In September, big companies and some sections of the self-employed set up blockades immediately followed by what promises to be a new and powerful wave of workers strikes. Weakened and divided, the left government is once again on the defensive.
Of course, events may not lead straight to a new general strike, especially given the role of the trade union leadership. Nonetheless, all these developments point clearly in the same direction. In France, that "mother of revolutions", the working people have shown that they will not accept cuts in public spending, wage restraint, bad working conditions and increased poverty without a struggle. And that very struggle is bringing capitalism and those left leaders associated with it into question. A new general strike is on the agenda for the next period. This will open the way for the emergence of a fighting socialist leadership capable of carrying out the socialist transformation of society, an achievement that will immediately spread across frontiers to the whole of Europe and beyond.