The neoliberal government of French president Nicolas Sarkozy has confronted the economic crisis with a mixture of denial, hypocrisy and above all a determination to make workers pay.
Sarkozy’s government has claimed that France is not in recession, despite recent figures showing that the economy has shrunk by 0.3 percent over the past three months.
The consumer affairs minister argues that the slowdown makes the need for “reform” even more pressing. So far these “reforms” have included plans to privatise part of the post office and the railways, cut 13,500 jobs in primary and secondary education, continue raising the retirement age and impose the “right to work” on Sundays.
With two million people officially unemployed, Sarkozy is also set to intensify job insecurity by increasing the number of fixed-term and part-time posts.
Attacks on immigrants have also been carried out in the name of a policy of “chosen immigration” which involves meeting quotas of tens of thousands of deportations of “illegal” immigrants.
Sarkozy has claimed that the current crisis is due to “finance capital” imposing its logic on the economy. He told the United Nations in September that world leaders needed to punish those responsible for the crisis.
This comes from the man who gave massive tax breaks to the rich when he became president. During his election campaign, Sarkozy argued that credit for home loans should be made more widely available, complaining that levels of debt in France were “insufficiently low” and an indication that people had no confidence in the future.
Sarkozy has been able to pursue his agenda largely because of the lamentable state of the main opposition party, the Socialist Party (PS).
The incapacity of the PS to offer any serious alternative to Sarkozy was underlined at its disastrous congress last month.
On the face of it, the narrow victory of Martine Aubry in the leadership election, ahead of the party’s 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, may seem like a shift to the left.
Royal declared last month that “social democracy is out of date”. She wants to turn the party into a French version of the US Democratic Party, making alliances with the centre-right and embracing the market.
But the economic crisis has pushed the party into adopting more radical rhetoric. So Aubry spoke of the need for the PS to remain a party of the left, to avoid alliances with the centre-right and to stay “loyal to the labour movement”.
But this is just rhetoric. As mayor of Lille she governs in alliance with the centre-right MoDem party – exactly what Royal is proposing nationally.
Aubry, and those who backed her campaign, have been wedded to a social-liberal project for years. They accept the free market and the neoliberal Lisbon treaty – the reworked version of the European Union (EU) constitution that French voters rejected in 2005.
In reality the PS no longer offers support to the labour movement. It is disconnected from the struggles that have led resistance to Sarkozy’s offensive because it has nothing to offer those who oppose the market.
One of the few leading Socialists to take an active part in the campaign against the EU constitution, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left the PS last month in order to “follow in the footsteps” of Oskar Lafontaine, the former German social democratic finance minister who now leads the country’s anti-neoliberal Left Party.
Lafontaine was present at the recent launch of Mélenchon’s own Left Party. The test for Mélenchon’s organisation will be whether it can establish itself as an independent current outside the orbit of the PS.
Mélenchon has contacted the Communist Party and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) with a proposal to form a joint slate for next summer’s European elections. This may provoke splits in the Communist Party, which in the long term is unlikely to risk losing the elected positions delivered by its own electoral agreements with the Socialists.
The recomposition of the left as a whole has accelerated in recent weeks.
The most dynamic element in the recomposition is the NPA, which has attracted support two or three times greater than the activist base of the far-left Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, which helped initiate the NPA. The scale of the task before it has been underlined by recent events.
Huge numbers of redundancies have been announced over the past few weeks, including several thousand in the car industry.
The same period has seen strikes by Air France pilots against the raising of their retirement age and by France Television workers against cuts in funding to the state TV channel.
In the wake of the financial crisis, the government has postponed plans to privatise the postal service but the threat of cuts in the service remain.
Over a hundred separate mobilisations took place across France on 22 November in defence of the postal service.
On the railways, strikes by train drivers against longer working hours and the privatisation of freight services were called off last month when hints of a climbdown by the government managed to split first the CFDT and then the CGT unions from the more combative SUD union.
Action did go ahead in schools, where over 50 percent of secondary teachers and nearly three quarters of primary teachers went on strike on 20 November. In many towns, teachers’ demonstrations were on a scale not seen since the huge strikes of 2003.
Sarkozy is aware that the movements against his neoliberal offensive pose the biggest challenge to his presidency. He wants to score major victories against it.
Meanwhile, unemployment is set to grow against a backdrop of wage freezes and the rising cost of living.
Despite the recession, recent protests show that workers refuse to pay for the crisis. But anger against the government has not yet found a focus enabling it to pull together the diverse campaigns and movements that are underway.
In particular, public sector workers suffer from the weakness of the trade union leadership.
Their strategy of single days of action has failed in the past, dissipating resistance.
The decline of the two major parties of the French left, the PS and the Communist Party, has several consequences.
In the unions it means that their political dominance, although intact, is weakened, opening up the potential for more inventive and radical forms of struggle.
But union organisation has also suffered over the past two decades, and the government has been able to play on historic divisions among the unions.
The development of united rank and file organisation, capable of overcoming the divisions at the top and making links with other groups of workers and local associations, has been crucial to all effective struggles over the past decade.
This has been underlined by the struggles of the past year. In Carhaix, a small town in Britanny, virtually the entire population was mobilised in May and June to prevent the closure of their hospital.
Links between the CGT union and the networks supporting immigrants denied residence papers (known as “sans papiers”) produced a series of strikes and occupations in Parisian restaurants and employment agencies.
Several hundred sans papiers joined the action with a small but significant number gaining work permits.
The strength of recent postal workers’ mobilisations has been due to the way workers have involved wider layers of the population in local collectives to organise the protests.
In the education sector, mass meetings in some areas have voted to continue the strike action rather than wait for the next national demonstration.
The involvement of parent-teacher associations and school and university students in the last demonstration offers the potential to widen the struggle.
The formation of the New Anti-Captialist Party comes at a crucial time. With the PS in disarray, millions are looking for decisive and uncompromising leadership in the fight against Sarkozy’s offensive.
Jim Wolfreys is the co-author of The Politics of Racism in France, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848