October 22, 2010

France: Workers and Students

Filed under: Civil Disobedience, Neo-feudalism — Tags: — Russ @ 2:17 am


Strikes and protests continue as Sarkozy’s austerity government pushes ahead with its plan to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, and for the partial pension from 60 to 62. This is standard “austerity” – the bank bailout is accompanied by deficit fearmongering and the looting of public property in the form of gutting democratically established worker compensation. It’s absurd on its face that France “can’t afford” these pensions. Just restitute what the banksters stole, and make the parasite rich pull their weight, and there would be far more than enough money.

For some the economic crisis has reinforced common French misgivings about capitalism. In this view bosses and workers are engaged in an endless, antagonistic tug-of-war.

Beyond the political fault lines of left and right, for many French youth companies and the market cannot be trusted. Any measure that benefits them necessarily hurts employees.

In contrast to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the “visible hand” in this world is the state, or the “public powers” to use the French term, whose role is to tame companies, protect workers and hold sway over economic growth with public spending.

Back in Nanterre, during a meeting of the “mobilization committee,” Vanessa Ronchini, 24, put it this way: “This is about redistribution. If bosses pay more, then we could afford the retirement system. It’s not true that we don’t have a choice.”

And of course every cent of this wealth was produced by the workers themselves, so they’re certainly entitled to distribute it among themselves in this way. The elites never had a right to one cent or one crumb.
But Sarkozy’s government is not a democratic, public interest government. It’s a neoliberal gang, dedicated to looting as fast and furiously as possible. In recent days the government has moved to get the vote done. They pulled a parliamentary maneuver to cut off debate, and now the vote is expected sometime next week. Meanwhile Sarkozy and his cronies have been fulminating against the strikers and protestors, calling them every name in the book and issuing vague but grim threats to “track down” and punish dissenters. The incoherence is manifest – it takes a special kind of boorishness for a government official to condemn democratic protestors as “anti-democratic”, and in the same speech to say “we’re gonna hunt you down”. It sounds like the bluster of weakness and incipient panic, if the protest movement can continue.
The unions have called for two further National Days of Action, on Thursday the 28th and Saturday November 6th. (Is Saturday a good day for such a thing in France? Maybe if it’s more a matter of blocking roads than shutting down workplaces.)
Government attempts to keep the fuel flowing are having mixed results. They’ve reopened some depots and prevented the blockage of others, and some distribution seems to be occurring. (They’re apparently also importing more gasoline and electricity. It would be nice to see solidarity among energy workers in all the countries.)
But many gas stations remain low on fuel or empty. Meanwhile transportation remains blocked in many places, and slowdowns and stoppages are common on the highways. One participant gives his account here.
He says there’s debate among the rank and file strikers as to whether to seek an “open-ended” strike or instead to have a revolving strike with 15% of the workers going out every day. He also says the workers are only beginning to debate whether they really want to go all the way to managing their own industries, or whether they only want to block “austerity” within the social democratic context.

And yes, we have to really start talking about the logical implications of what we’ve been doing over the past six days, i.e. refusing to obey and actively fighting the government and the bosses. Although everybody is saying that the bourgeoisie-backed government is illegitimate, few are actually saying that workers “should” start taking steps towards managing things themselves. At the moment, the aim is to force Sarkozy to back down, and yet we all know that the anger and frustration that is fueling this strike runs far deeper than a simple political exercise.

One of the most promising signs is the activism of students, who recognize that this fight is over their own future. They also recognize that raising the retirement age will only make the already-difficult task of new entrants finding a job even harder. (In safety net states like France getting a job in the first place is difficult because the rentiers, who must of course extract their god-given portion of the social wealth, thereby render a significant part of the surplus uninvestable, so there’s a dearth of new jobs created. This is also an intentionally, politically created scarcity, by which they hope to gain traction for their lies about how the safety net itself stifles job creation.)
Perhaps most alien of all from the American point of view, in France there’s actually a tradition of teaching the young that protest is their birthright.

France’s tradition of youthful rebellion has its roots not just in the now almost mythical student movement of 1968 but ultimately the French Revolution itself.

It has practically become a rite of passage for a generation to be initiated into political life through protesting. Many of the young people marching Thursday said they have often been told nostalgic tales by their parents and teachers who had taken to the street before them. And some of those parents and teachers marched with them on Thursday.

“This tradition of protest is a marvelous specificity of French culture and a very good political education,” said Pascal Boldini, 51, a mathematics professor at the Sorbonne who still fondly recalls his first demonstration in 1972. He was 15 at the time. “It’s a tradition that is handed down from generation to generation.”

With that tradition come rituals that have barely changed over time.

Leaders shout slogans into bullhorns, and a delirious mass of students responds in rehearsed unison.

High schools and universities call “general assemblies,” where students vote on whether to continue the movement. Perhaps most importantly, the mood is powerfully convivial, accompanied by music, tasty food and, often, bottles of red wine.

But what is profoundly different today compared with the 1960s, Mr. Cohn-Bendit said, is that French youths now, faced with chronically high unemployment rates, are much more pessimistic about the future.

What is not so different is that French students, like their parents and teachers, still subscribe to economic concepts that no longer make sense to people in most other Western countries. From President François Mitterrand, who lowered the retirement age in 1982, to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who introduced the 35-hour week in 2000, Socialist leaders have done much to ingrain the idea that the pool of labor is fixed and needs to be shared.

It is an argument that was repeatedly made among the marchers on Thursday.

By contrast, in America we’re taught that protest and rebellion were once heroic, but have long since won all the necessary victories already, and that’s why we now live in the perfect society. Implicit in that, and wherever necessary stated explicitly, is the notion that dissent and protest are no longer historically constructive, but by now are just the province of malcontents and troublemakers. But the people are finally starting to learn otherwise.
In the meantime, there’s yet another reason to keep our children out of the corporate “public” schools.
So we’re going to see what happens when in 2010 the people of a Western country do rouse themselves to mass protest against a specific government action but stop short of seizing the power themselves. (That’s how things look right now.) Sarkozy has staked the fate of his personal career, and perhaps of Austerity itself, on this fight.
The people face several possibilities. This action can continue as is, and they may force the government to cave in. That would validate mass protest within the social democratic framework for their own country, for the time being. Or they can fail, and draw the lesson that nothing works, and give up. Or they can fail and draw the conclusion that their own leaders misled them, and they need far more radical action. Or, seeing legislative defeat looming, they could resolve now to escalate the action, since it’s clear this government is not democratic and holds the will of the people in contempt.
Here in America more and more people have come to know that’s the case with our own kleptocracy.


  1. For the unions to take power wouldn’t they need a military force? Are the criminal elites as you call them really just going to hand over power like that? Now sure, if the leader of these was on the left and it was someone on the right pointing a gun at their heads they might, but as you well know there is a right wing government in charge of France! The unions are going to have to do a lot more than say “boo” to wrestle power out of the hands of your French criminal elites.

    The last “revolution” in France was in 1958 during the Algerian War and should serve as an example of the challenges facing any union leaders considering an armed struggle. The generals in Algeria were pissed off about what they considered an effete left wing governments lack of spine in executing the war. So they sent very discreetly sent paratroopers into into Paris and gave the squabbling leaders (they were in between governments at the time) an ultimatum to step down and let Charles de Gaulle take over. Being leftist they quickly agreed to these terms and De Gaulle stepped in, created the Fifth Republic, and then stabbed the General in the back by withdrawing from Algeria! The Generals in return tried another coup,created a right wing terrorist group called the OAS, and tried repeatedly to kill De Gaulle over the next several years. In the end things didn’t work out so well for the revolutionaries.

    So that is one historic example for potential French union leaders taking power. The other I suppose is Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge were able to organize a military force powerful enough to destroy their elite and take all the wealth that rightfully belonged to the people and gave it back to the people. Sure you can’t cook an omelet without breaking a few eggs but whatever. But of course, a couple years later, their better organized and therefore more powerful neighbour betrayed the Cambodian revolution by invading and reinstalling their own puppet elite to run Cambodia.

    I suppose the successful model would be the French Revolution but those condition hardly exist today and it really only took off due to the military brilliance of Napoleon.

    If you were advising the French unions, which historic model would you have them follow in order to overthrow their criminal elites?

    Comment by Kevin de Bruxelles — October 22, 2010 @ 3:49 am

    • I seem to have exasperated you.

      But who said anything about armed struggle? If there was a critical mass of workers willing to stage a general strike (sitting down at the critical points so they don’t get locked out), form worker councils, use their putative control of production and distribution to induce lower-level governments to de facto recognize the councils as authoritative, use that to call upon the people in general to form community councils (perhaps advertised at first as just liaisons with the worker councils, but really intended to grow into democratic political bodies), and spread those facts on the ground federally in that manner, it could work. The central government could have its power simply sapped out from under it.

      That’s the anarcho-syndicalist game plan.

      It depends on the will of the workers to follow through, and on the central government to refrain from using extreme violence to repress it. Now of course the latter is no guarantee, but in this example it is a nominally democratic French government, not Hitler.

      And as for the former, you said that will isn’t really there for now, and according to the articles it may exist to some extent among some of the strikers.

      So maybe that’s not what’s happening right now. I didn’t say it was, only said it could happen and, yes, ought to be tried.

      So that’s what I would suggest if I were involved in such a large-scale strike where there seemed to be any chance at all of mustering that will.

      Comment by Russ — October 22, 2010 @ 6:37 am

      • Naw, you don’t exasperate me at all, I just find you critiques very interesting but your solutions super vague. Your explanation here is at least clearer. I like to hear solutions so I can have something to chew on.

        You are a very good critic of the system. But a truly great thinker is able to turn his own sword against his own solutions. In the end this makes them stronger.

        It’s arguable whether workers control production any more in a globalized world but they certainly do have to ability to stop distribution. The unions in France could indeed fairly easily shut down the distribution of all petrol and food. In the meantime they could organize all the councils they want, but in the end, when people start starving, force will be used against the unions, if not by the central authorities, then by the people whose children face starvation. I can assure you there are enough weapons in France that after a few days of empty supermarket shelves, the people themselves would go to the barricades and start massacring striking workers. The criminal elites (this is redundant, no?) would then be the heroes, trucking in relief food to the people starving at the hands of the unions. This would be Sarkozy’s wet dream as the unions would be discredited and probably disbanded forever.

        Or am I missing something? How do we go from general strike to elite surrender? This part is horribly vague. You are well aware how ruthless and greedy elites are both suddenly when faced by a general strike they will melt into putty? How do the unions avoid causing mass starvation of the people? All the central government has to do is hold out, they have plenty of food stocked away, until the people start screaming for intervention.

        The Achilles heal of anarcho-syndicalism is its refusal to recognize the reality of force. It attempts to grab power but refuses to acquire the force necessary to do so. So it might last a few months but sooner or later someone with a gun shuts it down. As an anti-elite system paradoxically it can only work if protected from above by a benevolent elite (this is a contradiction, no?). Yes its a great system, far better than what we have now, right up until the day some other elite arrays superior force against it and re-enslaves the people again. There is a reason that just about the whole world is dominated by criminal elites; they got that way through the use of force. Human nature is not about to change any time soon.

        Non-violence on the other hand is a very useful strategy for several reasons but the goals of it are incremental change, not power.

        You had a good comment yesterday on NC about the Cold War being a helpful thing for western workers. This is indeed correct but we have to ask ourselves why? One of the best ways the people can manipulate their elite is to threaten to be loyal to a rival elite. Western elites were horrified by what happened in Russia and the threat of it happening to them made them give their people an extra good deal (with the addition of cheap oil like you said).

        The huge problem the French have is their elite is one of the most generous in the whole world. They have no leverage to threaten to be loyal to another elite. The Chinese? The Russians? Islam? Worse yet, the Americans? None of those alternatives is really scaring the French leadership.

        The best the French strikers can do I suppose, if Sarkozy doesn’t back down, is use this to propel the Socialists to power in the elections in 2012 on a platform to overturn the retirement bill. Of course, the cynic in me could see the Socialists winning and then doing an Obama on the French unions by not overturning the bill in the end!

        Comment by Kevin de Bruxelles — October 22, 2010 @ 9:06 am

      • Well, it seems like we have a fundamental difference in mindset on this subject. You seem invested in the idea that somehow, some way there have to be elites. I’m convinced there don’t have to be, in principle. I grant that the practical obstacles are formidable, and perhaps you’re right that they’re insuperable for the time being.

        But are you sure your objection isn’t based on principle as well, rather than just alleged practicality? Some of your objections seem like grasping to make up stuff.

        The general strike would of course endeavor to deliver the food itself. That’s an essential part of the workers resuming production under their own self-direction, isn’t it?

        And you’re picturing a father intentionally starving his children to the point that they “massacre” him? What melodrama…These people are of course the strikers themselves and their families. No one’s going to let anyone starve. And assuming the process lasted into spring, or was beginning in spring, I assume there would be extensive gardens and small farms started everywhere possible. I’d sure call for that. The whole concept doesn’t make sense if the people wouldn’t totally decentralize and take food production into their own hands. So I just don’t follow your emphasis on there still being this total reliance on some industrial food vault somewhere, with elites holding the key. If the transformation were done right, such a thing wouldn’t be a problem for long.

        As for the violence, I already said it depends in the end upon the soldiers not being willing to fire upon the populace when ordered to do so. If they’re willing to obey that order, it probably doesn’t work. If they refuse to obey, like in Petrograd in February 1917, it can. If there are sufficient professional military or paramilitary forces that obey, like the Freikorps in January 1919 in Berlin, it can’t.

        And that assumes the order to fire is given. It wasn’t given in 1920 in Italy, although there other kinds of system pressure as well as irresolution from within ended up defeating the strike.

        Comment by Russ — October 22, 2010 @ 11:48 am

      • [Russ here, taking the liberty of reposting Kevin’s comment here, since I think he mistakenly posted it to the other France thread, or else there was a glitch.]


        I’m basing my scenario on the 2000 petrol strikes in England the strikers went far enough to force the supermarkets to ration food. This is the basis of the French strategy but for obvious reasons (like causing mass starvation) they cannot go full out for which you seem to be not happy. I obviously need to read more on anarcho-syndicalism because I just don’t get it!

        Comment by Kevin — October 22, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

      • I think I get what you’re saying. An initial tactic is for the producer to make the consumer feel the pinch intending for that to put pressure on the government to make concessions to the strikers.

        That depends upon enough consumers feeling enough solidarity that they’re willing to not consider the “privation” to really be a privation, at least where it comes to luxuries.

        The Non-Importation boycott was a spectacularly successful tactic for the American revolutionaries. It depended upon a critical mass of colonial consumers to willingly observe the boycott.

        But if you embark upon that tactic, that’s a different tactic from the full general strike, or else the one evolves into the other under the force of circumstances.

        I’ll grant that expecting today’s consumers to forego anything for very long sounds dubious. Although the poll results I saw showed solid majorities supporting the French strikes.

        If you want to read about anarchism, I highly recommend the Anarchist FAQ.


        As its name implies, this extremely long collaborative document endeavors to answer at length just about any question one can come up with.

        Comment by Russ — October 22, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  2. A problem with all this austerity is it’s based on driving down wages. That can’t work globally , as we are seeing with the low level currency war being waged.

    As for retirement ages, it’s fairly obvious that a way to reduce youth unemployment – a large problem in the United States as well – would be lower pension ages, not increase them.

    Any elite requires an increasing standard of living in order to maintain power, short of force. The former is not longer happening in the bulk of the developed world, which means the latter – and institutions of democracy – will be increasingly weak and meaningless.

    Comment by purple — October 22, 2010 @ 6:29 am

    • Every now and then I see Medicare expansion downward agewise advocated as a means of helping to open up jobs for the young.

      But that sure runs against our whole trend of raising retirement and eligibility ages for everything.

      (Characteristically, liberals prefer not to fight the age hikes but for age discrimination laws instead.

      Nobody should face discrimination on account of age, but still the real fight here is to preserve the safety net. As usual, a liberal cares about your right not to be discriminated against, but not your right to choose whether or not you have to keep slaving after already doing so for close to fifty years or more. Even though, as the woman in the quote correctly said, the society is more than rich enough to afford it, and retirement at a decent age is still only that worker taking back what he already contributed.)

      Comment by Russ — October 22, 2010 @ 6:50 am

  3. Another outstanding entry. I will happily print this out and distribute to shut down the nonsensical comments from co-workers who have been stating things like “those French don’t know how good they have it”.

    Frankly these people have worn me down and you’ve written another logical, insightful post which I will joyously force them to read!

    Comment by Kathleen — October 22, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    • Thanks Kathleen. Tell them they could have it that good if they wanted it and were willing to fight for it.

      But maybe they’re too “cool” for that…..

      Comment by Russ — October 22, 2010 @ 11:51 am

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