The withdrawal of the CPE is a humiliating defeat for Chirac and the de Villepin government. They came out of this ordeal completely discredited. It is also a defeat for Sarkozy, the UMP and the MEDEF – even if, faced with the scope of the anti-CPE mobilisation they ended up distancing themselves from this project, like rats fleeing a sinking ship. The UMP is divided and demoralised. An electoral defeat looms in 2007. François Bayrou has aptly summarised the seriousness of this defeat by describing it as an “atmosphere of collapse” and the reign of “institutional chaos” in the higher levels of the state.
After the struggle against pension reforms in 2003, against the referendum on the European Constitution, the long and bitter strikes in Marseille and elsewhere, and the revolt of the estates in November last year, the massive mobilisation of youth and workers against the CPE constitutes new evidence that France has entered an era of great social and political instability. The underlying causes of this instability were analysed in our document De l’impasse capitaliste à la révolution socialiste, published in October 2005. They are based on the inability of French capitalism to develop the economy – the annual growth rate of which has fluctuated between 0% and 2% for several years – and on the economic, diplomatic and military decline of French imperialism. The national debt of the French state, which exceeds more than 1,100 billion Euros, 65% of the GDP, is an expression of the bankruptcy of the system as a whole.
Capitalism at an impasse
Far from being able to guarantee any “social progress”, the capitalist system can no longer sustain itself without taking back the social gains of the past. There is not one single field of economical and social life in France where any progress is being made. On the contrary, we are seeing a total social regression, be it in the field of employment, wages, accommodation, social security, public health, education, the rights and working conditions of the workers etc.
No society can continue on such a downward slope indefinitely. Marxism explains that when a given social order becomes a fetter on the development of the productive forces and can only exist at the expense of the interests of the mass of the population, then we enter an era of revolution. True, strictly speaking, France is not experiencing a revolution yet. But a revolution is not a single act starting from nowhere. It is a process that can stretch out over several years and which is punctuated by turning points and decisive events. A revolution is characterised first and foremost by the entry of the masses, who are normally passive, onto the stage of history. From this point of view, the social turbulence France has experienced since 1995, which featured millions of inactive youth and workers coming into action, is only the first tremor of a revolutionary volcano that will erupt in the coming years.
There is no solution to the serious social and economic problems created by capitalism on the basis of this very system. The interests of the capitalist class have become completely incompatible with the great social achievements of the working class. In these circumstances, the social gains and the resistance against the continuous attacks of the bosses and the government must be linked with the overthrow of the capitalist order and its replacement with socialism.
Have the workers and youth drawn the same conclusion? Some have. And their number is growing. After an experience like the struggle against the CPE, many youth and workers are drawing revolutionary conclusions. True, at this stage the vast majority of workers and youth have not yet come to these conclusions. But in the end they will – not on the basis of theoretical study, but on the basis of their own harsh, collective experience: that of the struggle against the permanent social deterioration imposed by capitalism. The struggle against the CPE is part of this learning process. And it is in effect full of valuable lessons.
A definitive answer to the sceptics
The mobilisation against the CPE is a terrific illustration not only of the determination, the political intelligence and the great organisational capabilities of the youth and workers, but also and in particular of the enormous potential power of our class. It is a definitive answer to the sceptics and petty bourgeois chatterboxes who claim that the workers and youth are apolitical, powerless, gullible, manipulated, passive – in one word, good for nothing. And we have to recognise that even in the CGT and PCF it is not unusual to meet activists who, while being workers themselves, have lost confidence in the fighting spirit of the workers and youth.
Today's wage labourers have an enormous power. They provide absolutely all essential functions of the social organism. Without workers, nothing gets done. For a long time, and even in the fight against the CPE, they have not thrown their real weight into the balance, but the day they do, the whole capitalist class, its whole state apparatus and its precious “institutions” will find themselves completely powerless, hanging in the air, without any real support in society. As soon as the masses become conscious of their colossal power, the possibility will open up to finish off capitalism and to take control over the economy, the government and the state.
The general strike
From the beginning, the threat of a general strike hung over the struggle against the CPE. The trade union leaders, anxious to keep the protests within certain limits, did not dare to raise the demand for a “general strike”. But the accumulation of injustice, discrimination, insecurity and poverty has created a potentially explosive social situation. In these circumstances an unlimited general strike could have developed independently of the demands put forward by the trade union leadership. In 1968 the demands of the unions did not go further than a 24-hour general strike. It was the workers themselves who transformed it in an indefinite strike. During the struggle against the CPE the possibility of an “escalation” of this sort was taken very seriously by the government and the MEDEF because behind the arrogance and the façade of the capitalists and their representatives, the more intelligent amongst them understand that a genuine general strike would pose a potentially mortal threat to their system.
If a general strike starts off as a limited protest strike, it can always be transformed into an unlimited general strike, as the example of May 1968 shows. A strike of this type completely paralyses not only the national economy but also, very quickly, the functioning of the state and the government. The workers then start to realise that they are in charge of all the wheels of society and that at the end of the day, despite that bourgeois “society” looks down upon and denigrates them, they are society. As in a passage in The Internationale: “We are nothing, let's be everything!” As soon as the working class gets hold of such an idea, it becomes a material force with an enormous power, which opens up the perspective of the overthrow of capitalism, regardless of the initial demands that started the process. That is why the stubbornness of Villepin has caused panic in the capitalist class and the right-wing parties.
Preserving the authority of the state
Under the pressure of the streets, the leaders of the PS publicly declared that the CPE and the CNE would be immediately abrogated by the next socialist government. Therefore, facing this massive wave of demonstrations and the risks that this includes, the question is posed from the point of view of capitalist class; why were they so determined to implement the CPE which would only be in force for less than one year. Was it really worth all the effort? At first glance, it seems incomprehensible that de Villepin and Chirac would bring these risks to the ruling class – but only at first glance.
After the demonstration of March 28, Chirac and de Villepin certainly understood that it would be better to withdraw the CPE. And yet, in his televised address on March 31, Chirac attempted to maintain the law while at the same time make a few absolutely derisory concessions. In fact, by this time, what was at stake in the conflict had largely gone beyond the question of the CPE. It touched the very foundations of the Republic.
Prestige occupies a very important place in bourgeois politics. This is true for the prestige of individuals – Chirac, de Villepin, Sarkozy, etc. – but above all for the prestige of the institutions of the state. This is not by chance. These institutions and all the pomp and ceremony are aimed at intimidating the working class – from the architecture of the official buildings to the pompous rituals of the state, including the exorbitant lifestyle of its representatives. The capitalist state must appear powerful, inviolable, and sacred. Some UMP representatives declared that if “the street” or the “ultimatums of the trade unions” achieved the withdrawal of the CPE, there would “no longer be a state”, and that this would announce the “end of the (capitalist) Republic”. There is an element of truth in this. It is indeed very dangerous from the point of view of the defenders of capitalism that the youth and the workers understand that the state is not all-powerful, and that a few weeks of demonstrations and blockades and occupations of high schools and universities is enough to create an “atmosphere of collapse”.
It was in order to present a semblance of institutional stability, and in order to save the “authority of the state”, that Chirac wanted to keep de Villepin at his post, event though his defeat was at least as serious, for the right wing, as the victory of the “no” in the referendum of May 29, which led to the departure of Raffarin. It was also done to keep up appearances, to save face, and to win time to manage the Sarkozy-de Villepin conflict which we were treated to from April 5-8 over three days of “consultations” with the leaders of the trade unions – who should have refused to take part in this little game.
The “moderates” under pressure
Faced with the unwavering determination of the youth and extraordinary power of the mobilisation on the ground, even the more “moderate” leaders of the trade unions had no choice but to insist on the withdrawal, pure and simple, of the CPE. How else does one explain that François Chérèque - who we must remember cynically betrayed the struggle against the “reform” of pensions – insisted so firmly on the withdrawal of the CPE? By conviction? He took the introduction of the CNE calmly. No, it is above all fear that forced Chérèque to move – fear that if the government refused to budge that the movement would reach much greater proportions.
All throughout the conflict, Chérèque wore the downcast expression of a profoundly anxious man. After his meeting with de Villepin on March 24, exasperated by the intransigence of the Prime Minister as the mobilisations grew in size and scope each day, Chérèque declared: “We have already explained very clearly to the government the situation we find ourselves in”. In effect, the movement against the CPE – and the possibility that it could transform into a class confrontation comparable to May 1968 – constituted an extremely serious potential danger in the eyes of all the supporters of capitalism, including those in the leadership of the trade unions.
What applied to Chérèque also applied to the leader of the FO, Jean-Claude Mailly. Instead of seeing the struggle against the CPE as a springboard for the development of a general struggle against capitalism, these so-called leaders were permanently concerned with “restoring calm”, by going back first to the proposals of de Villepin, then of Chirac, and finally of Nicolas Sarkozay – “the only worthwhile representative of the government”, to quote the expression of Chérèque on April 4. Bernard Thibault and the national leadership of the CGT also showed too much indulgence towards the government. It was not only the abrogation of the CPE that they should have demanded, but the entire “Equality of Opportunities” law.
This willingness to limit the size and scope of the actions and the range of the demands was also true for the leadership of the Socialist Party. François Holland and Chérèque are cut from the same cloth. The leadership of the PS did not demand the dissolution of the National Assembly. They had no desire to come to power in the context of a social mobilisation of such size. They were content to demand the withdrawal of the CPE in order to restore calm. Such was the content of the “solemn” appeal of March 31 for the intervention of the head of state: thanks to the withdrawal of the CPE, said this appeal to Chirac, it will be possible to put an end to the “harmful climate” in the country and to put the handling of the crisis back into the hands of the National Assemby – dominated by the right wing. Above all “the institutions of the state must not be shaken”. Unfortunately, the leaders of the PCF did not at all distinguish themselves from the line of the PS on this question. And finally in must be noted that the LCR, which never ceases to urge the leadership of the PCF to break off all relations with the Socialist Party, also signed the appeal written by those it qualifies as “social-liberals”.
The struggle for socialism
The withdrawal of the CPE is a very important victory. It reinforces the morale and the fighting spirit of the workers and youth. It will contribute to the forging of a new generation of militants against capitalism. However, the achievements of the movement are less than what could have been achieved. The CNE still stands, as well as the articles allowing those as young as 14 to work, night shift work for those starting at 15 years of age, and precarious contracts for the elderly – amongst others. We must demand the abrogation of the entire reactionary law, and not simply article 8. Furthermore, if the leaders of the left had demanded the immediate calling of presidential and legislative elections, it would have been massively supported.
The government has been weakened, but before being swept into the dustbin of history in 2007, it will certainly attempt, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, to launch new attacks against the working class and the youth. The victory against the CPE, like the victory against the European Constitution last May, should not blind us to the particularly grim future capitalism has reserved for us. Even without the CPE, precariousness and unemployment with will get worse, and along with them misery and despair. Social and racial discrimination, which were at the heart of the revolt of the estates, will also continue to persist.
The left will return to power in 2007: it is almost certain. But if the socialist and communist leaders content themselves with an abrogation here and there and other superficial measures, all the while leaving intact the domination of the economy in the hands of the capitalist minority, they will prove themselves incapable of solving the increasingly serious problems wearing down French society, which condemn the vast majority of youth and workers to unbearable conditions of life. In order that the end of the CPE does not become a Pyrrhic victory, it is absolutely necessary to connect the struggle against exploitation and against all the injustices of capitalism with the struggle for a new society, a socialist society, in which control over the economy will be firmly in the hands of the workers themselves.
- France: A week of struggle in Toulouse (April 7, 2006)
- Interview with Stephen Bouquin on the movement in France (April 6, 2006)
- France: after the success of the April 4th day of action, what next? (April 5, 2006)
- Stop Press! April 4: an even bigger mobilisation of French workers and youth (April 4, 2006)
- After the intervention of Chirac: April 4 must be a general strike! (April 3, 2006)
- France prepares for a massive mobilisation on April 4 by our correspondent in Paris (April 3, 2006)
- France: Faced with the arrogance of the government and the bosses, workers and youth take to the streets! by Mikael Duthu (March 30, 2006)
- March 28th 2006: French workers and youth mobilise on a scale never seen since 1968 by Greg Oxley (March 28, 2006)
- France - Faced with the intransigence of the government: for immediate presidential and legislative elections! (March 28, 2006)
- Mass protests and strikes in France: the dawning of a new era by Greg Oxley (March 21, 2006)
- Audio interview with Greg Oxley on the protests in France (March 20, 2006)
- French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts by Mikael Duthu (March 16, 2006)