Why are Britain and France so different? This question is back in the air. Trade union officials have been complaining that Britain’s flexible labour laws made it easier for Peugeot bosses to shut down their car plant at Ryton rather than any of its French counterparts.
Meanwhile activists have been comparing, sometimes despairingly, the successful struggle by French students and trade unionists against the CPE law that would have made it easier to sack young workers with the shameful cave-in of British union leaders over local government pensions.
There are real differences, though they shouldn’t be exaggerated. The most important economic difference is that Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s abandoned any systematic attempt to shore up the international competitiveness of British industrial firms.
This policy – continued by Tony Blair – marked a break with the strategy still pursued by other leading capitalist states, that of ensuring they have locally controlled producers in key industrial sectors. This helps explain why car production in Britain is now controlled by foreign multinationals.
It has meant that Britain has gone further than other advanced economies in reducing the share of output devoted to producing goods compared to the share taken by services.
This economic difference probably has some effect on British workers’ confidence in their ability to resist plant closures. They must be aware of successive governments’ record of letting manufacturing industry go to the wall. All the same, French trade unionists would be quick to point out the closures they have suffered at the hands of both local and foreign firms.
But the bigger question concerns workers’ combativity. Trade union membership is actually a lot lower in France. In 2003 the proportion of trade union members in the workforce was 29.3 percent in Britain and only 8.3 percent in France.
These figures can be misleading, since French unions bargain for 95 percent of the workforce, while in Britain union agreements only cover 35 percent. This is related to the fact that collective bargaining is much more centralised in France.
One effect is that trade unions in France act as the public representatives of workers, organised and unorganised, far more than they do in Britain. The general secretaries of the three main union federations are much better known in France than the anonymous Brendan Barber of the TUC is here.
But the similarities are important as well. In both countries, the defeats workers have suffered since the 1980s have increased the power of the full time union officials over rank and file trade unionists.
The last real burst of industrial militancy in France, in defence of pensions in May-June 2003, was dissipated by the leadership, especially of the most left wing federation, the CGT, into a series of one-day strikes that wore workers down.
But if the French unions are led by sell out merchants little different from their British counterparts, the relative weakness of union organisation makes it easier to bypass them. Small radical unions such as the SUD organisations have been able to act as ginger groups.
More important in the case of the revolt against the CPE was the fact that it was started by students occupying their campuses. The student movement acted as a militant driving force that made it hard for union leaders to take control and sell the struggle out as they did in 2003.
Neither breakaway unions nor student militancy can in the long term substitute for the hard task, in both countries, of building within the existing unions rank and file organisations that can act independently of the full time officials.
But the most important lesson of the struggle against the CPE was that it developed as a visceral revolt against neo-liberalism, beginning among university students but spreading both to organised workers and to the unemployed youth of the suburbs.
This kind of political impulse, welling from a revulsion against the way in which free market capitalism is changing our lives for the worse, is likely to play an essential role in rebuilding workers’ confidence in their ability to fight, not just in Britain and France, but right around the world.