France witnessed a wave of intense class struggle earlier this year with the strikes and mass protests against the government’s new law on labour relations. The movement later died down, but now the working class and youth is preparing to move from the trade union front to the political. Fred Weston and Jérôme Métellus discuss the growing contradictions within French class society.
France witnessed a wave of intense class struggle earlier this year with the strikes and mass protests against the government’s new law on labour relations. The law was eventually passed in July and the movement died down, but now the working class and youth is preparing to move from the trade union front to the political.
This year witnessed two big movements that highlight the growing class conflict in France, the huge strikes against the Loi Travail (the new labour law), and the Nuits Debout mass gatherings in Paris’s Place de la République and in other cities. All this, combined with the general economic crisis explains the growing instability, which is a reflection of the social and political polarisation taking place in French society.
The Loi Travail, also known as the El Khomri law, after the name of the Minister of Labour who presented it in the French parliament on 17 February, was eventually approved by parliament in July. The law introduced significant changes to France’s Labour Code, rendering working conditions more “flexible”, making it easier to sack workers, but also introducing cuts to overtime pay and redundancy payments. The law also replaced national labour contracts with local agreements, clearly designed to divide the working class.
This provoked the wrath of the French workers which was expressed clearly on March 9, when half a million workers and youth took part in demonstrations all over the country followed by further demonstrations on the 17th [See Massive general strike being prepared in France] and again on March 31 [See March 31st – General strike stops France!].
Arising out of the March 31 protests we also saw the emergence of the spontaneous “Nuits debout” movement aimed at blocking the Loi Travail, but which went beyond that, becoming a movement that has been compared to the Occupy Wall Street in the USA and the Indignados movement in Spain.
It arose out of a group of protestors deciding not to leave Place de la République in Paris at the end of the March 31 trade union demonstration, but to hold public debates on the issues affecting the movement. There were similar occupations of city squares in other cities.
An article, Nuit debout protesters occupy French cities in revolutionary call for change, that appeared in The Guardian on April 8th gives a taste of the mood:
“As night fell over Paris, thousands of people sat cross-legged in the vast square at Place de la République, taking turns to pass round a microphone and denounce everything from the dominance of Google to tax evasion or inequality on housing estates.
“The debating continued into the early hours of the morning, with soup and sandwiches on hand in the canteen tent and a protest choir singing revolutionary songs. A handful of protesters in tents then bedded down to ‘occupy’ the square for the night before being asked to move on by police just before dawn. But the next morning they returned to set up their protest camp again.
“For more than a week, these vast nocturnal protest gatherings – from parents with babies to students, workers, artists and pensioners – have spread across France, rising in number, and are beginning to panic the government.”
Michel, a 60-year old former delivery driver, is reported as explaining that, “There’s something here that I’ve never seen before in France – all these people converge here each night of their own accord to talk and debate ideas – from housing to the universal wages, refugees, any topic they like. No one has told them to, no unions are pushing them on – they’re coming of their own accord.” Another indication of the mood was the “génération révolution” slogan scrawled on the pavement in the square in Paris.
Government hard line
In spite of this widespread opposition movement, the government dug its heels in and pushed for the law to be passed. The protests continued, but the trade union leaders, while expressing support for the movement and promoting days of action, did not attempt to widen it out and bring in other layers to increase the pressure on the government. [See France: The Movement Against the El Khomri Labour Law – How to Move Forward? for an analysis of the role of the trade union leaders and what they should have done].
Faced with the mass protests on the streets, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, on May 10th announced that his “Socialist” government would be forcing the law through parliament, invoking article 49.3 of the Constitution which allows for an acceleration of parliamentary procedure. This was combined with brutal police repression of the worker demonstrations.
In spite of this continued hard-line position of the government, the union leaders did not escalate the strikes and street protests. In effect, they allowed the movement to be dragged out without any perspective of an escalation and therefore of success. And eventually on July 21st parliament passed the new law and the movement died down.
Crisis facing France
How do we explain these attacks on workers’ rights? It has become very popular on the left to explain them as being of an “ideological” nature. What is meant by this is that they aren’t really necessary and that a “fairer” more “just” way of running society can be found without doing away with capitalism. It is a fundamentally reformist outlook and it is also utterly false, because it ignores completely the real relations between the classes and also between competing companies and countries within the logic of the “market economy”, i.e. capitalism.
The world economy is facing a serious downturn and it is in these conditions that we need to look at the real concrete situation faced by French capitalism. The French economy inevitably moves in line with the developments in the world economy. It is a major economic power, one of the top six in the world, and it needs to export on a large scale in order to survive. And in spite of all attempts to prettify the situation by the government, there are no signs of the beginning of a recovery in the global economy.
The World Trade Organisation predicts that growth in world trade for 2016 will end with a figure of 1.7%, the lowest since the beginning of the crisis. In this context, the IMF has revised down growth for the French economy to 1.25%, and may even have to further revise this downwards as the second quarter  figures that have recently been released and indicate a risk of recession with -0.1% fall in GDP. Figures for French unemployment show a growth of 50,000 more jobless. Three million people are unemployed, 10.6% – a 180-year high – compared to 4.3% in Germany, placing France much closer to Italy than its northern neighbours when it comes to the jobless.
In 2015 industrial production grew by less than 2% and investments were at a standstill with 0% growth. Since 2004, the country has been running trade deficits as its export-oriented industries have weakened. Over 800 factories have closed in France since 2012, and nearly one million industrial jobs have been lost since 2001. This represents a colossal cutback in industry, and is a reflection of the falling competitiveness of French industry in the face of far more powerful and productive countries such as Germany and China.
France also has one of the biggest national debts in the European Union and it has been growing over the past few years. In 2006 it was 64.4% of GDP, but by 2015 – in just nine years – it had shot up to 96.1% (around $2400bn) and is expected to reach close to 99% by the end of this year. The growth of the debt accelerated after the 2008 crisis, and it is destined to grow even more over the next few years, reaching close to $2700bn by the year 2020. With the present slowdown in the economy, that means its overall public debt will go well above the level of 100% of GDP.
The fact is that France has been falling behind its main competitor in Europe, Germany, for the past decade. Prior to that France was holding up, but since 2008 the French economy has only grown by around 3 per cent, compared to Germany’s 6 per cent, not to mention the US’s 10% in the same period.
The traditions of the French working class
All these facts are concentrating the minds of the French bourgeoisie. The truth is that the French bosses have delayed taking the necessary – from their point of view – anti-working class measures that other countries adopted long ago.
There is a good reason for that: the strong militant traditions of the French working class going back decades to the 1968 movement and even further back. The French bourgeois knows how the workers of France can react. Sarkozy during his presidency (2007-12) did push through cuts in the pension system and in public spending, but he held back from tackling the question of changing French labour laws and making drastic cuts to France’s benefits system. During the movement against the Loi Travail all the opinion polls revealed that more than 70% of the population wanted the law to be withdrawn, showing the depth of opposition to the plans of the government.
The unions, although they organise less than 10% of the workforce, remain powerful organisations and in the past – through very militant class struggle – had achieved important conditions in terms of job protection and wage levels. They also made it difficult for the bosses to fire workers. Compared to Germany, French workers have a shorter working week and a lower age of retirement.
What permitted the French bosses to live with this situation was the relatively high level of labour productivity of French workers thanks to high levels of investments in technology and infrastructure until a few years ago. That has now changed, as the dramatic fall in France’s manufacturing exports demonstrates.
Thus, it is not a question of “ideological cuts” being demanded by the bourgeoisie. They are forced to go onto the offensive by the world situation and their own declining position within the world market. They either attack the working class or sink.
The German model
Bourgeois commentators, both internationally and in France, have been quoting the infamous “Hartz reforms” introduced in Germany over ten years ago. Productivity in the previous period (1980s to the 1990s) had been growing at a lower rate than wages. This is what forced the German bosses to go onto the offensive with a series of measures aimed at cutting production costs and increasing productivity.
The “Hartz reforms” were a major restructuring of the benefits system in Germany, with big cuts in what the unemployed were entitled to. This was considered as necessary to give the jobless an “incentive” to look for work, in effect forcing them to take any job, however low the wages were. And if they did not actively seek work their benefits would be further cut. The “flexibility” introduced by these so-called reforms, meant that it became easier to hire and fire workers in accordance with the ups and downs of the market.
Due to all these measures, in the period 1997-2010 real wages in Germany went down by 10% and hourly productivity went up by 8%. The overall result was a reduction of around 25% in the unitary cost of labour. This made German industry much more competitive.
It was, however, the working class that paid for this “success story”, as an OECD report of April 2012 clearly outlines: “Germany is the only [EU] country that has seen an increase in labour earnings inequality from the mid-1990s to the end 2000s driven by increasing inequality in the bottom half of the distribution.”
Just as today it is the French Socialist Party that has launched the offensive against the working class, so in Germany it was the SPD under Schroeder that introduced the Hartz reforms. The SPD paid for this in electoral terms, and prepared the ground for the right wing. From its 40.9% in the 1998 elections, the SPD went down to 34.2% in 2005 and 23% in 2009, losing over nine million votes and preparing the conditions for the CDU/CSU to dominate German politics under Merkel. To this day the SPD has not recovered from that experience.
Hollande prepares ground for victory of the right
Now Hollande is preparing the ground for a similar return of the right to power in France. In fact, the general economic decline outlined above, together with the constant attacks on working conditions and on welfare, has led to the government’s popularity plummeting. The PS (Socialist Party) will pay a heavy price at the next election, where they are destined to face their worst electoral defeat, even worse than that of Jospin in 2002. In the popularity ratings, Hollande has suffered a huge collapse since he was elected in 2012.
The betrayal on the part of the Socialist Party leaders is preparing the return to government of the right, as the most likely scenario. The French Socialist Party risks a scenario like that of the PASOK, or at least of the PSOE in Spain, which after governing prepared the ground for the victory of the Popular Party.
The tragedy of the situation is that the right-wing parties of France are not exactly riding on a wave of popularity. It is a case of no other credible alternative being offered by the official left. That explains why over past decades the trend has been for growing levels of abstentions, particularly in the legislative elections.
In present-day conditions, according to the polls, it is highly unlikely that a “centre-left” Socialist Party candidate would be able to reach the second round of the French presidential election in 2017, no matter who that may be.
Hollande would get 11% to 15% depending on who the other candidates are, but he has yet to state whether he will stand or not. Some polls seem to indicate that Socialist former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron – who is considering standing – might do better than Hollande, but he would still not get through to the second round, not going beyond the 20% mark.
It is highly unlikely that a PS candidate would get through to the second. Although it cannot be completely ruled out, it would have to be a candidate of the left of the party who would have a big job on his hands regaining all the ground lost under Hollande. The problem with this perspective is that the right wing controls the Socialist Party firmly, and even the so-called “left” has an extremely moderate programme, that is practically indistinguishable from the Hollande leadership. It would therefore take major events to shake up the PS.
Prospects for the right wing
Marine Le Pen of the Front National, on the other hand, is running high in the polls and she would go through to the first round, and would face either Sarkozy or Juppé – whichever of the two wins the primaries of Les Républicains (LR) – in the second round.
The majority of the ruling class would prefer Juppé, as they consider him to be less discredited, less unpredictable, and less of a provocation to the masses than Sarkozy. Juppé is also much more popular in the opinion polls than Sarkozy, who has been plagued by a series of scandals that have reduced his support.
According to opinion polls, Juppé would pick up 33% and Le Pen 29% in one first-round scenario. In another, Sarkozy would reap 27% and Le Pen 29%. The choice in the second round would thus be between two right-wing bourgeois candidates.
Although Le Pen has a serious chance of getting through to the second round, she is most unlikely to win the presidency. All opinion polls indicate that in a second round between either Sarkozy or Juppe against Le Pen, the vote would divide roughly two to one against Le Pen, as many people would rally against Le Pen.
The fact is that the main wing of the French ruling class does not want Le Pen as President and we can be sure that in the second round they would rally around either Sarkozy or Juppé, as would the leaders of the PS and other parties.
Unless something dramatic happens between now and next year’s presidential elections, it seems therefore most likely that a candidate of Les Républicains will be the next President of France. There would also be over 30% of the electorate that would not vote for either of the two bourgeois candidates in the second round.
The growing popularity of Mélenchon
From a Marxist point of view, however, what is more important is what is developing on the left around Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He was a member of the PS and a Minister in 2000-02, but left the party in 2008 to set up the Left Party (Parti de Gauche) which then went on to become a part of the Left Front together with the Communist Party in 2009.
In the 2012 presidential elections he won just over 11% of the vote, standing as the candidate of the Left Front. Since then the Left Front has broken up, with the Communist Party seeking agreements with the PS purely on the basis of getting its candidates elected on joint lists. The Left Party, on the other hand, sought deals with the Greens – who were also a party of government in a coalition with the PS. By behaving in this manner, the potential expressed for the Left Front back in 2012 was dissipated.
However, in the recent period Mélenchon has been rising in popularity. Paris Match published a recent popularity rating of the top 50 French political personalities, and had this to say about Mélenchon:
“Fourth in the presidential election in 2012, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has become one of the top five personalities most appreciated by the French, according to Ifop-Fiducial poll carried out for Paris Match and Sud-Radio. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy finds himself at his lowest level since 2012. (…)
“Jean-Luc Mélenchon was the surprise; going from eleventh to fifth place (…) Never has a leader of the ultra-left risen so high. By increasing by two points, the former head of the Left Party has avoided the almost universal unpopularity that this month has affected 43 of the top 50 politicians in the Ifop poll.” (Paris Match, 11 October 2016).
Some recent polls indicate that Mélenchon could win between 12 and 15% in the first round, which could see him coming third, ahead of a Socialist Party candidate. In October 2011 opinion polls gave him 6%, but he ended up winning 11%. This time something similar could happen on a higher level.
Crisis in the Communist Party
The emergence of Mélenchon as the only real left alternative has provoked crisis inside the Communist Party. We are in fact witnessing a new stage in the historical decline of the PCF leadership, and one of the most serious crises in the history of the party. It has already been weakened for its joint electoral lists with the Socialist Party in the recent period, being thus tinged with the austerity measures imposed by the government.
Mélenchon realises that he is really the only show in town when it comes to a left candidate in next year’s presidential elections. That explains also his break with the Communist Party. He feels he does not need them, and is aiming to further weaken the PCF.
In fact, he has also broken with his own party, the Left Party. He is determined to run his own show, as he knows that he can build on the previous 2012 success. That explains why he has launched his own movement, “La France insoumise” [Rebellious France].
This has provoked confusion in the ranks of the Communist Party. Some of its activists and leaders, among them former National Secretary Marie-George Buffet, are in favour of the party forming an alliance with Mélenchon, while the majority of the leadership call for a candidate that could unite everybody “standing to the left of Hollande”. But all this is just an excuse not to support Mélenchon. This explains why the party still has not stated what it is going to do, and will only decide on November 5 at a national party conference. At this stage, it is not clear which position will emerge from that conference, but if they do not support Mélenchon this could result in the complete marginalisation of the party, and would provoke further crises and internal conflicts.
The fact is that many rank and file members of the Communist Party have already declared their support for Mélenchon and are participating in his movement. If the Communist Party leaders refuse to support Mélenchon, it will serve to further deepen the crisis the party is facing and lead to a further decline in its fortunes, for alone it cannot win any elected positions and with the Socialist Party it would be signing its own death sentence!
Mélenchon connects with radical mood
The most likely outcome is that Mélenchon could come third, but it is not completely excluded that he could make it into the second round. Whichever of these perspectives emerges, it is clear that he is positioning himself on the left as the only viable candidate that can express the radicalisation to the left that has been developing in France. It is clear that the conditions are more favourable than ever for the development of a mass movement to the left of the PS.
The reason why Mélenchon is becoming so popular among a significant layer of workers and youth is that he stands out from the other candidates for his opposition to austerity, precisely at a moment when masses of working people have been fighting the cuts imposed by the present government. Having failed to stop this government, the idea is developing that it is not enough to go on strike and organise demonstrations, but what is required is a change at the top, a different government, one that reflects the interests of the workers.
“La France insoumise”, in these conditions, has the potential to become a mass movement, similar to the rise of Podemos in Spain, or to SYRIZA before it reneged on its programme after the July 2015 referendum.
Mélenchon’s programme includes the call for free health care, the building of a million council homes, an increase in the minimum wage, etc. If he were to carry out the social measures in his programme this would radically and positively transform the lives of the mass of the population.
Marxists support these measures and will support Mélenchon in next year’s presidential elections, but they will also insist that his programme should be a fully worked out socialist programme. Much of what he says we can support, but unless he draws the logical conclusion that in order to carry out the reforms he promises he would have to proceed to nationalise the major monopolies and banks, then he risks being pushed in the direction of Tsipras at a later stage.
France is moving in a similar direction to Spain and Greece in the recent period. The radicalisation we are seeing around La France insoumise and Mélenchon is a product of the relative decline of French capitalism. Similar conditions produce similar phenomena. We can look with confidence to the growing class struggle and political radicalisation in France today. And once the French workers move this will give a huge impetus to the revolutionary process underway across the whole of Europe, as it did in the past with the movement of May 1968, but on a much higher level given the acuteness of the crisis gripping world capitalism today.