France: left wing out in force and on the offensive at CGT Congress!

The 53rd Congress of the CGT, which was held at the end of March, marked a turning point in the history of this union confederation. The 942 delegates were polarised between a left and a right wing, which clashed over four days. Above all, the left wing appeared stronger and more on the offensive than ever, even if the right wing managed to retain control of the leadership and place one of its own, Sophie Binet, as general secretary.

On the first day of Congress – 27 March – many delegates used the podium to demand more democratic procedures than those proposed by the Congress officials. The tone was set. But a thunderbolt struck on the second day: after a very lively debate, the outgoing leadership’s ‘Activity Report’ – the document detailing its balance sheet of recent events – was rejected by 50.3 percent of the vote.

This is unprecedented and a huge rejection of outgoing general secretary Philippe Martinez and the entire outgoing leadership of the CGT. But it was above all a very clear warning to the incoming leadership, which does not fundamentally differ from the previous one. The internal polarisation of the CGT will not end anytime soon. On the contrary, it will intensify in the months and years to come, as it is a consequence of the growing class polarisation in society at large.

Strategic stalemate

The rejection of the outgoing leadership’s report is a confirmation of the fact that, with the exception of the fight against the ‘First Employment Contract’ in 2006, the CGT has only known defeats at the national level over the past 20 years. These defeats notably included the struggles against retirement age reforms in 2003; against pension reform in 2010 and 2014; against new labour laws in 2016 and 2017; and against cuts to rail workers’ rights in 2018.

Philippe Martinez Image Ricani16 Wikimedia CommonsThe congress was an unprecedented and huge rejection of outgoing general secretary Philippe Martinez and the entire outgoing leadership / Image: Ricani16, Wikimedia Commons

In 2020, it was the pandemic crisis – and not the actions of the CGT – that prevented Macron from implementing a ‘points-based’ system of retirement. The fight against this reform had clearly declined by January 2020, since the unlimited strike of the railway workers had remained isolated.

To explain this long series of defeats, the Activity Report complains of “trade union division”, deplores “the marginalisation and shattering of trade unionism” – and, in a nutshell, places full responsibility on the left wing of the CGT. In short, the CGT leadership shirks all responsibility, while the central problem is obviously far closer to home. In fact, it is the extreme moderation and the strategic impasse imposed by the CGT leadership on every major movement that is the problem.

Let us summarise this problem. In the context of the general crisis of world capitalism, French capitalism is experiencing its own relative decline, which has been impacting all sectors of the economy for many years. As a result, the French ruling class objectively needs drastic counter-reforms, such as the current pension sabotage. For this reason, the ruling class is not willing to back down when faced with mere ‘days of action’, no matter how massive.

Rolling back a major counter-reform will require a strong movement of indefinite strikes, embracing a growing number of key sectors of the economy. This is obvious. Unfortunately, this does not appear anywhere in the Activity Report and the Policy Document of the 53rd Congress of the CGT. The leadership prefers to talk about “trade union division”. On all other questions, the CGT leadership does not budge: we need big “days of action”, etc.

This strategic impasse is coupled with an extreme moderate programme. The national leadership of the CGT is not aiming for the overthrow of capitalism, but only “a different distribution of wealth… a fairer society, respectful of the environment and a world of peace.” 

The problem here is that on a capitalist basis, inequality can only increase, injustice worsens, the environmental crisis intensifies, and imperialist wars multiply. A growing number of CGT activists understand this and demand that their national leadership defend a much more radical programme of breaking with the established order. This was reflected at the Congress in amendments that sought to radicalise the Policy Document. A number of these amendments were adopted against the advice of the outgoing leadership.

‘Unité CGT’

As we have said, the left wing at the Congress was out in force and on the offensive. The first reason for this is the growing discontent among the rank-and-file of the CGT. But it is also linked to the fact that the left wing is getting more and more organised. Since December 2019, leading figures of this left wing – including Olivier Mateu, regional secretary for Bouches-du-Rhône; and Emmanuel Lépine, secretary of the chemical workers’ union, which is part of the CGT – have formed an organised tendency, ‘Unité CGT’.

Sophie Binet Image La CGT TwitterIn short: from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, the election of Sophie Binet is much better news than that of Olivier Mateu would have been / Image: La CGT, Twitter

Ahead of the Congress, Unité CGT defended the candidacy of Olivier Mateu for the post of Secretary General of the Confederation. They also supported a much more radical proposal than the outgoing leadership’s Policy Document. In particular, this defends the idea of a “dual task” facing the CGT, which “requires working on a daily basis to improve the lives of workers (working time, wages, working conditions, etc.) and, at the same time, linking this struggle to the emancipation of workers, through the expropriation of the capitalists.” This document specifies that it is necessary to fight for the nationalisation of several key sectors of the economy: “banks, transport, energy, the pharmaceutical industry and major industrial sectors”.

Last February, we published a critical commentary on this document. In particular, we underlined that the “two tasks” are not articulated clearly enough. Nevertheless, the comrades of Unité CGT have put the need to fight for the expropriation of the capitalists back on the agenda. This is a very positive and very important development for the future of the struggle. It is also remarkable that, on this basis, the candidacies of Olivier Mateu and Emmanuel Lépine for the CGT Executive Committee obtained 36.5 percent of the votes of the delegates at Congress. It was not enough to force the outgoing leadership to take these two comrades into the executive leadership, but it is an indication of the enormous potential of Unité CGT in the period to come.

The ‘feminist’ argument

Ahead of the Congress, comrades of Unité CGT organised more than a dozen debates across the country. Many union activists took part. Several of these debates were filmed and published by Unité CGT. We do not agree with all of the ideas defended by Olivier Mateu, but anyone who watches these debates will be able to see that they were of a good political level and focused on the substance of the matter. The same cannot be said for the arguments chosen by Philippe Martinez and the outgoing leadership to criticise the candidacy of Olivier Mateu and the Unité CGT comrades in general.

For months, Philippe Martinez and his entourage defended the candidacy of Marie Buisson – who was finally rejected in favour of Sophie Binet, during the Congress – by means of an argument repeated ad nauseum: “she is a woman”. They publicly accused Olivier Mateu and his comrades of neglecting the fight against the oppression of women. In short, the outgoing leadership of the CGT resorted to the worst argument possible, that has absolutely nothing to do with the fight against the oppression of women; an ‘argument’ that is in fact only a cynical manoeuvre aimed at cheaply discrediting the left wing in favour of the right wing – of which Marie Buisson is a part.

Many comrades, including a number of women, strongly protested against this manoeuvre. But it is a fact: once again, ‘feminist’ arguments have played a totally reactionary role within the labour movement. And unfortunately, part of the ‘radical left’ fell into the trap – starting, of course, with the NPA, which saw fit to denounce “the macho traditions of trade unionism”.

We now have a woman at the head of the CGT: Sophie Binet. Is this good news? Those who support Macron believe so – not because she is a woman, of course, but because she comes from the right wing of the CGT. Thus, in the wake of his election, the Macronist deputy Marc Ferracci saw in it “good news for social dialogue”. Understand: good news for the “negotiation” of the counter-reforms to come. Deputy Paul Christophe, also a Macronist, said for his part: “Nobody can hope that radicalism imposes itself on the CGT”, he specified. “We can only rejoice to see a reformist at the head of the CGT.” And so on.

In short: from the point of view of the bourgeoisie – which intends to continue its offensive against the working class, including working women – the election of Sophie Binet is much better news than that of Olivier Mateu would have been. From our point of view, it is the opposite. It’s not a question of gender, but of class.

Pension demo Image Unité CGT TwitterFor its part, Révolution will continue to participate, within the limits of our strength, in the struggle to give the CGT a revolutionary orientation / Image: Unité CGT, Twitter

Conclusion

For lack of space, we cannot address here the environmental question, which occupied an important place in the confrontation between the left and right wing during the Congress. We will come back to this later.

In the absence of an alternative, the Outgoing Management Orientation Document was adopted by 73 percent of the votes. But from the point of view of the balance of power within the CGT, the rejection of the Activity Report is much more significant. It also dealt the coup de grâce to the candidacy of Marie Buisson.

Incidentally, Olivier Mateu revealed, in the middle of Congress, that he had proposed an alliance with Céline Verzeletti three weeks ago, who presented herself as an alternative to Marie Buisson. This approach by Olivier Mateu took many comrades by surprise. Above all, it was not based on a concrete analysis of the position of Céline Verzeletti in the internal debates at the CGT. Moreover, she didn’t even respond to Olivier Mateu's proposal.

That being said, the main thing is that CGT Unité emerges considerably strengthened from this historic Congress. In this regard, it is remarkable that the overwhelming majority of ‘far left’ organisations in France do not comment on this event. This is a further illustration of the fact that the ‘far left’ in question is disconnected from the real labour movement.

For its part, Révolution will continue to participate, within the limits of our strength, in the struggle to give the CGT a revolutionary orientation. The future of the French labour movement and the success of the struggle to bring the workers to power in this country depend on it.

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