Thursday, 28 October 2010

Reflections on the situation in France

It's not time for a post-mortem just yet, but the protest movement in
France is winding down.

"Only" 2 million people took to the streets on Thursday, as opposed to 3.5
million two weeks ago. 

The bosses are still in a state of shock though. They revealed on Wednesday
that for the last two weeks, 50% of French industry had been halted
because of a lack of raw materials and fuel. Today, Thursday, 25% of
factories were still "experiencing major production delays and were
unable to keep shipment deadlines, causing even more losses through
contract-clause related penalties". As many trade unionists
commented :"when they start talking about losses, that means we are on
the verge of winning".

And strikes are still ongoing in most French refineries. Despite
Government propaganda that announced that five out of twelve refineries
were now running, it appears that this is yet another lie. Seven
refineries are on strike until Saturday, two refineries are shut down
and in a state of lock out, three refineries voted to resume work (after
management offered them a pay increase and the payment of all their days
of strike) but are unable to process anything as the pipelines from the
oil terminals in the ports of Marseille and Le Havre are still blocked
by striking dockers. So actually, not a single litre of petrol is coming
out of any of the twelve refineries right now.

But the mood is undeniably pessimistic, especially after the betrayal of
the CFDT and certain segments of the CGT. The CFDT has accepted to meet
the bosses to discuss "unemployment and wages". A clear indication that
the time has come for a sell-out (sigh, another one).

As I said, the time for forensic examination of living labour has not
yet come. However, analyses (plural of analysis, just checking) of the
10/10 events are beginning to circulate.

Some characteristics of the "pension revolt" have been pointed out by
most commentators on the left :
- strikers were from "old heavy-industry" : railways, steel workers,
auto workers, transport, energy or "intellectual workers" : teachers,
health workers, bank employees, students. That is, workers employed in
businesses with over 50 employees. People working in small (under 50
employees) businesses just couldn't organize. Neither could workers
working in shopping malls, supermarkerts, telemarketing, services, etc.
(commerce, services and information technologies industries).
Wherever casualization of the working force was most prominent, people
COULD NOT AFFORD (in their own words) to strike, because they feared for
their livelihoods.
- this situation led to what "Mouvement Communiste" in their analysis of
the French strikes (published in France and in English on Libcom.org)
called "strike by proxy schizophrenia". Instead of going on strike
themselves, 2/3rds of the working class applauded while a minority went
on strike. "Strike by proxy is a great danger for the working class".
There are many points in "Mouvement Communiste"'s paper that I, and many
workers on the road blocks, find debatable. They are far too pessimistic and
tend to impose their own brand of Autonomous Marxism on a complex situation.
- It was always clear that "pension reform" was just one of the reasons
why people went on strike anyway. Actually, most workers talked about
feelings of rage and frustration, feelings of powerlessness in the face
of a Leviathan that any spark would ignite.
-The union bureaucracy and left-wing parties (especially the NPA and
LEft Party) initially played a major role in organizing the general
strike. However, the movement rapidly became truly inter-sectorial and
saw workers from very different industries unite in collectively
blocking the economy. In every city and neighbourhood, workers began
blocking fuel depots and major highways leading to industrial parks.
This will remain one of the highlights of 10/10. From the very
beginning, it was all about shutting down production and consumption and
hitting the bourgeoisie hard, and all those who participated were
conscious of the need to bring the country to a standstill and happy to
see production stop and Capitalist profits decline (be it for 17 days).
-In many cities (Perpignan, Rennes, some Paris "arrondissements"),
though not in my hometown, General Meetings of all striking workers were
convened daily and organized road blocks and many other protests. These
protests included (depending on the region): toll-free highways during
the mid-term vacations, collecting refuse with the help of striking
garbage collectors and dumping it in front of the homes of leading
business people, university cafeteria workers providing free meals for
students, shutting down of tax office buildings  (which surprisingly
turned out to be quite unpopular, people late in paying their taxes were
close to panic when they heard that they couldn't enter the tax office
buildings), etc.
- A very considerable amount of money was collected all over the country
to support the striking refinery workers. Again, "strike by proxy" as
some would say.
- However, the "General Meetings of all striking workers" did not
include some sectors of heavy industry who were highly unionized and
where the union bureaucracy scorned such initiatives preferring to let
"the unions do their job of co-ordinating protests". In most cities,
including my own "heavy industry red redoubt", unions simply did not
care for the idea of "Workers' councils". Nonetheless, striking workers
from different industries quickly came to befriend each other, exchanged
e-mails, cell phone numbers and facebook pages. Even "Mouvement
Communiste" admits that "these inter-sector contacts will serve in the
future".
- The Union bureaucracy predictably "betrayed" the movement. The funny
thing is, all the workers I talked to were fully expecting this and
showed no surprise when the CFDT offered a truce.
"They always do that. They've been doing that for forty years. 
Urge people to go on strike, wave red flags and then negotiate with the
bosses. But who gives a damn about the union bureaucrats ? It's not
about them, is it ? At least we're fighting and that's all that counts.
Won't be a revolution, but it might be the only chance we will get for a
long time to show them what we think. So we can't be too picky, see what
I mean ?" was the sentiment I got again and again from auto workers,
truckers and railway workers.

So I don't think workers and students were really "fooled" by the union
bureaucracies, because they knew exactly what to expect from the
beginning. Even young workers in their 20s. 

The fact is that despite all the rejoicing, it was felt that there was
an iron weight weighing on the working class : people need a paycheck
and a majority of the working class is angry but just doesn't believe
that change is possible.
A worker on his way home from work
stopped to chat with us at a road block. He told us : : "The supervisor
came to the workshop. He saw we were all kind of idle because no
deliveries had come in for three days. He said to me : 'Go out with one
of the truck and try and get some supplies from the storage facility'. I
said to him : 'Excuse me sir, but I'm not a strike-breaker. If you send
me out, I'll just stop the truck on the highway and join the strikers,
so you'd better give me something else to do'. And I think it's a bloody
shame. It's a shame that we didn't go out on strike in my factory, it's
a shame that the oil workers are striking for the rest of us, whereas we
should all of us be out demonstrating. You know ... So I know this
movement won't succeed. Because most of us are just too afraid to
strike..."

And you know what, I don't find this statement pessimistic. Working
class consciousness in France has received a tremendous boost from the
events from October 11th onwards. All the arrogant journalists from
Liberation, TF1, Le Monde, etc. have been forced to recognize that
something has changed in France, although on the surface nothing has
changed. Events didn't unfold in the Senate, they unfolded on the
streets. 
So now what ? Of course, Unions have vowed "to continue the protests"
but at the same time, they are talking about engaging in talks with
business leaders on "a broad range of issues including unemployment,
youth and pay".
New (or rather old) forms of protest have emerged : blocking the
economy, hitting the bourgeoisie's wallet, inter-sectorial solidarity.
This time, workers didn't just block their own work places : they went
out and collectively helped block the whole production and consumption
system. The government contend this is a sign of weakness on the part of
the working class ("unions are no longer capable of calling for a real
general strike, they just call out the most radical elements from
different sectors to block the economy. It is a case of increased
radicalism compensating for a fall in the number of unionized workers
over the last twenty years").
But it could also be regarded as a sign of strength, especially given
the fact that for 17 days, 71% of the working class approved of blocking
the economy according to polls.

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