THERE'S NOTHING like a beef war to remind you just how stupid the British media and British politicians are. The idiotic jingoistic ranting at the French this past fortnight really has taken the biscuit. In fact, France is the most interesting country in Europe today. A huge wave of social struggles is sweeping French society. The farmers' protests are merely the tip of the iceberg. Barely a day seems to go by without some group or other demonstrating in Paris. High school students have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands twice over the past six months.
Contrary to the silly myth that prevails this side of the Channel, militancy is not somehow imprinted in French genes. For the 20 years before 1995 France was a miserable place politically. By the mid-1970s the hopes of radical change raised by the workers' and students' revolt in May 1968 had been disappointed. The resulting disillusionment was expressed by the so called 'new philosophers', who argued that Stalinism was an inevitable consequence of Marx's ideas.
The Socialist Party leader François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, but he soon tore up his election promises and embraced Thatcherite economics. The mass unemployment this produced provided favourable soil for Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front to sow its message of Nazi despair. Then in November 1995 everything changed. Mass strikes by public sector workers blew apart the attempt by the newly elected Tory president, Jacques Chirac, and his prime minister, Alain Juppé, to drive through a package of free market reforms.
As Jim Wolfreys shows in an excellent article in the current issue of the International Socialism journal, the effect was to push French society significantly to the left. Other groups of workers gained confidence from the strike. The National Front was thrown into crisis and split. By April 1997 the Parisian daily Liberation could report, 'Strikes are blossoming like mushrooms in the thunderstorm of the crisis.' That June a left wing coalition headed by the Socialist Party leader, Lionel Jospin, won the parliamentary elections.
Jospin has been forced to tack and turn under conflicting pressures. The 'plural left' over which he presides is deeply divided internally. A recent article in the left of centre daily Le Monde identified no less than four lefts, ranging from French Blairites to the far left. Strikes and other social struggles have continued under Jospin. For example, a wave of occupations by the unemployed in early 1998 forced his government onto the defensive.
Jospin has also come under increasing pressure from big business. The French bosses are particularly agitated about the government's main reform measure - the introduction of a 35 hour week to reduce unemployment. They took to the streets in protest in early October. Jospin has made many concessions to the bosses. According to the Financial Times, 'The Jospin government has been able to privatise more in two years than any of its predecessors.' The second version of the 35 hour bill introduced in the summer would actually help big companies to introduce more flexible working conditions.
But Jospin also has to respond to demands from his left. When Michelin announced 7,500 redundancies in September, he told a television interviewer that he could do nothing. 'One can't expect everything from the state,' he said. Within a fortnight the resulting furore within the working class movement forced Jospin to eat his words and declare that 'globalisation doesn't make states impotent'.
The Communist Party (CP) and the far left organised a demonstration of 60,000 on 16 October in response to Jospin's vacillations and the bosses' counter-offensive. The CP is engaged in manoeuvres of its own. It has ministers in the government but is trying to maintain its own credibility on the left. In the European elections in June the joint slate run by the far left Lutte Ouvriere and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire won 5 percent of the vote to the CP's just under 7 percent.
Meanwhile, left wing ideas are enjoying a renaissance. The leading sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has become a champion of the social movements of the past four years and a vehement critic of the market. The same stance is taken by the influential monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, which, like Bourdieu, strongly opposed the Balkan War. Out of this ferment can come a renewal of socialist politics - not just in France, but throughout Europe.
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