Today, the crisis hasn’t hit France like it has Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, etc. That doesn’t mean it won’t. But for now austerity programs haven’t halved salaries and the state still provides a certain degree of social protection to the population (social security [healthcare], family allocations, unemployment benefits, RSA [allocations paid to people with zero income; this allocation is distinct from unemployment benefits, which are based on the previous salary and temporary in nature], housing assistance…)
Why hasn’t the crisis hit us full on? A few clues—
Let’s keep in mind that France is one of the top ten economic powers worldwide. That it was one of the founding countries of the European Union and of the Euro Zone, and that it benefited from the EU common market. That it was a colonial empire, and that it continues to profit from its colonial heritage. In short, France has a privileged place on the global chessboard.
France enjoyed general growth between 1945 and 1973. Its businesses prospered during these “thirty glorious years” [“les trente glorieuses”] thanks to a proletariat at optimal productivity, educated, trained, and kept in good health by a strong welfare state, with a steadily growing standard of living.
Let’s also remember that, at the end of the Second World War, very large public enterprises were founded in France (like Agence France Presse [equivalent of Reuters]) and other big businesses were nationalized (Renault); these events, added to the nationalizations of 1936, contributed to a pool of public enterprises of great consequence and profit.
Then there’s what is generally referred to as the “Fordist compromise”: raise salaries in exchange for increased productivity and intensified consumption (the art of giving more to take more). This worked well in France, where collective accords are negotiated at a national level by unions and bosses in concert. In these negotiations, the unions always were always the partners of the patronat [ordinarily the management, but here as a global concept, the “boss-iarchy”], co-managing labor forces and containing conflicts [or “struggles”].
Finally, the French state is particularly well endowed for maintaining a situation like this one: centralized since the 16th century, it has outfitted itself with a strong administration and constructed an effective police network throughout its territory, with know-how and state-of-the-art material. All that, while remaining a social welfare state.
Nevertheless, France isn’t the village of Astérix, and it hasn’t escaped the general crisis of capital or the processes of restructuring that have been its consequence since the 1970s. Businesses are offshored, others scaled down in staff or closed; 9.5% of the active (and declared) job force was unemployed at the end of 2011, the cost of living is rising much faster than salaries, while indirect revenues issuing from social programs have receded progressively—putting an end to the Fordist compromise.
Public companies have been privatized and public sectors are run more and more for profit.
And so since the 80s, struggles in France have become more and more defensive: one hardly ever fights for a pay raise, but just to keep one’s job, one’s standard of living, or to obtain better conditions of severance [e.g. severance packages].
Parallel to these union struggles (negotiations with the patronat and/or the state), another phenomenon has begun to develop: the urban revolts, the riots of “the suburbs [banlieue]” which exploded in 2005 more or less everywhere in the country, with daily confrontations with the police, attacks on business, the destruction [saccages et incendies] of public buildings.
Thus, the proletariat struggles at different levels, making defensive demands on one level, and on another demanding nothing at all and confronting the police and the infrastructures of the state directly, pillaging and destroying the commodities which ordinarily it could hardly afford.
The most emblematic of these defensive struggles are those that take place before the closing of a factory, e.g. the workers at Cellatex in 2000. These latter threatened to blow up their factory and to dump thousands of liters of sulphuric acid in the river nearby to obtain a special compensation for their severance, more than 22000 Euros, and certain guarantees pertaining to the repurposing of the factory site.
This means of exerting pressure, which was ubiquitous in the following decade, may seem somewhat spectacular. But, aside from the fact that this kind of action is in direct relationship to the violence of capitalist attacks, it must also be located in the context of a history of militant syndicalism and of practices of direct action.
The unions, though they knew how to play these practices to their own advantage, weren’t always able to master the actions of the workers, for example, the practice of taking managers hostage, of violently occupying workplaces, of destroying merchandise and equipment—actions undertaken by an “out-of-control” [déchaînée] base, practices that have multiplied in the last years as workplaces close. Hence the numerous conflicts we have seen between unions and their base.
The motor of the capitalist mode of production is the constant increase of profits. To secure such growth in a crisis situation, it is necessary to diminish the global cost of work (increasing productivity, creating geographic tax havens [zones franches], lowering taxes and social fees…), and, to this end, to make labor more and more flexible and precarious (hours subject to arbitrary changes, contracts whose duration the employer can modify at will, temporary work, outsourcing of elements of the production line, forcing workers into freelance…)
In consequence, the political leaders in France have undertaken to reform the work contract [contrat de travail refers here to regulations and guarantees pertaining to work in general] and to diminish any spending tied to the reproduction of the labor force (health, education, retirement and various social aids).
With regard to the contrat de travail, one of the most important reforms had to do with the conditions of retirement.
These reforms, begun in 1993, provoked resistance [lutte] movements in Fall 2010. Since the end of March, unions had already organized 7 days of action and protest against this reform. In October a series of renewable strikes began (in no particular order: transit workers, truck drivers, oil refineries, garbage men, city workers, dining hall workers, day cares and bus drivers in Marseille, high schools and universities…) which lasted until the end of November.
These contestations ended [se solde par] in total failure and the reform followed its course inexorably. For the first time, the French state refused to make any concessions, and showed that no demands would be heard—whereas previous reforms of the contrat de travail had been modified or annulled under pressure (for example the Juppé plan of 1995, or the First Employment Contract of 2006.)
Having failed in terms of the “political objectives” envisioned by the unions (which managed nonetheless to exhaust these struggles by declaring 14 days of action and protest in 8 months!), the movement made evident the weakness of this level of struggle in view of the violence of an attack sharpened by the crisis and in view of a relation of force quite neatly in favor of capital.
Nonetheless, the movement also witnessed a development of tactics of struggle [pratiques de luttes] well beyond the context of the refusal of the reform of the retirement system, because this reform, like the retirement system itself, has its condition of possibility in the fact that the purchasing of labor power contains in itself the costs of keeping labor productive, the costs of its survival and the survival of the household, and not just the market price of the worker. In this way, the proletariat, in a broad sensewas implicated, beyond the working class and beyond categories of age or activities directly concerned by the reform.
The growing obstacles to the strike as a tactic—and even more, of a strike plus occupation—(in particular, the loss of income of the participants which is impossible in the present situation, fear of losing one’s job or of endangering the business on which it depends, restrictions on the right to strike in certain sectors, as well as the fact that workers at the same business are often quite isolated from each other…) and the impossibility for a non-negligable portion of the population of participting in strikes (the unemployed, temps, the precarious, assistés sociux, black-market works, sans papiers…) have favored the following development:
– The practice of “blocking,” beyond the workplace, for example:
o Blocking refineries and trash incineration sites at every entry (without, alas, being able to stop the incinerators completely because doing so would have necessitated a costly effort to start them up again that the unions were vigilant in avoiding)
o Blocking, as did municipal workers in other sectors, a trash incinerator whose personnel were not themselves declared in favor of strike
o Calling for outside individuals and groups to join in such actions.
These practices may potentially permit strikes and actions of blocking to be dissociated from one another, or associated with some degree of freedom, and may make it possible to open workplaces and collectives of struggle to all, knowing that even the most “inviting” [inviteurs] unions have kept an watchful and vigilant eye on such participation!
o Holding “interprofessional general assemblies”, anti- or para-syndical instances that integrate workers that are unionized as well as those that are not, that integrate the unemployed, the recarious, the retired, students, those who receive the RSA or other minima, etc. … These GAs attempt to coordinate directly on a global principle rather than on the basis of a profession, a craft, a sector, a business. Unfortunately, they are often saturated with [investi par] groups of the extreme left, which give them an organizational and avant-gardiste direction [sens].
And, to these two phenomena, another must be added:
– The fact that this movement has entered into synergy with a series of prior and/or parallel conflicts pertaining to wages or working conditions, especially in oil refineries and public or parapublic enterprises (the Parisian hospitals, the Louvre, the national archives, the trash collectors, the port workers of Marseille…)
– The strong mobilization of high schoolers, who are not yet integrated into the world of labor but have reacted to their future exploitation, with violence if necessary (the destructions in the centre-ville of Lyon and at the Tribunal de commerce of Nanterre)
In this context, one understands why slogans like “Block the economy” [bloquons l’économie] have appeared. Even if this slogan is no more “revolutionary” (it isn’t “destroy the economy”) than it is effective (the least one can say is that the French economy hasn’t been more than very moderately “blocked”!!!), it has the interest of escaping the sphere of partial demands and taking on the economy itself, directly.
From the point of view of the reproduction of the labor forces, the reforms pertaining to the reduction of spending in health and education and, more generally, the various strategies whose goal is to make public services cost effective [rentabilisation], the increase in payments [cotisations] for social services and the increase in taxes [we are talking about taxes, similar to payroll taxes, exacted from the proletariat], the reductions and suppressions of minimas sociaux [for example the RSA, mentioned above]… If such reforms have been put in place progressively since the 80s, they were emboldened and accentuated after the crisis in 2008, making survival more and more difficult for the majority of the population, so much the more so for precarious workers, the “reserve army” of labor, and for surplus workers [surnuméraires] for whom capital no longer has any use. These latter find employment only in the informal economy, which belongs nonetheless, in reality, to the global economy.
This situation implies a growing social control on the part of the state effected by an escalating repressive force: closing borders, hunting sans-papiers, tyrannical conditions for obtaining or keeping unemployment benefits and minima sociaux [RSA, etc.], cutting gas or electricity, expulsions in all seasons, locking up young deviants etc… these tactics are becoming our everyday landscape and regularly provoke resistance and revolts among the proletarians who are suffering from the metastasis of their financial difficulties and a repressive government more and more present…