Any socialist with blood in their veins must be inspired by the fightback in France. Inspired enough perhaps to say to friends and workmates, “We need to do the same.”
But most of us will also have met the argument that “it would be nice, but it won’t happen here”.
A string of commentators (and some British trade union leaders) agree that there is something fundamentally different about workers on different sides of the Channel.
The French are portrayed as ready to build barricades at the slightest excuse, while the British are pitiable dupes who will suffer any insult.
So it’s probably a surprise to most people that union membership is in fact much lower in France (at 8 percent) than in Britain (27 percent). That fact prompts some to say that we would be better off if the unions were weaker, because the bureaucracy couldn’t get in the way of angry workers.
But some 95 percent of French workers are covered by collective bargaining arrangements, even for those outside the union—which see unions negotiate for them. Only 34 percent of British workers are in collective agreements.
So France is well ahead in one measure, Britain in the other. They just about cancel each other out in terms of making a fight possible.
Perhaps it’s the quality of union leadership. We’ve got the likes of Brendan Barber and Derek Simpson—maybe the French have some pack of fire-breathing agitators? Except they haven’t.
There are differences in degree, but not in essentials. Bernard Thibault, the leader of France’s main CGT union federation, has had to be pushed from below at every critical moment during the pensions fightback.
What about history? Most French workers will be at least vaguely aware of the country’s revolutionary tradition. But Britain also has a history of revolution, king-chopping, the first general strike in the world and much more.
So what are the differences? French workers and students look back at the last 25 years and, although there have been defeats and setbacks, there have been notable victories.
In 1995, mass strikes and demonstrations brought down the prime minister Alain Juppe. And the urban revolt of 2005 flowed into the strikes and student protests in 2006 that destroyed the hated CPE employment law.
The clear message is that protest works—and the more militant the better.
In Britain we can point to the great poll tax rebellion of 1990, which defeated a key plank of Tory policy and spelt the end for prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
And there was the anti-war movement, one of the biggest in the world.
But there is still the dreaded hangover from the defeat of the miners in 1984–5. That shattering reverse (and the defeats, anti-union laws and strengthening of bosses that followed) have not been completely exorcised.
Of course, the miners did not lose because they were British. They lost because of the failures of the union and Labour leaders.
British unions, and even big sections of the rank and file, remain uncertain and unconfident—especially when their leaders encourage retreat.
But this can change, and quickly. The high level of fightback in France is the culmination of a process. It began with quite a low level of confidence and a generalised cynicism towards the motives of the union leaders.
But activists used the gaps provided by the official call to build strikes and protests that then snowballed. Rank and file confidence grew as workers realised a mass movement was possible.
It is not a matter of passively waiting for British workers to “go French”. We need to argue for it, organise for it, struggle against the school of surrender in the labour movement and show by example that fighting back works. Confidence in resistance is contagious.
The London firefighters’ picket lines last Saturday (see page 3) were as ferocious, militant and defiant as any in France during the last few months.
That fight—and others—are a reminder of the deep anger that exists within the British working class. Potentially, this anger can encourage French-style resistance—and more.