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François Chesnais: The tide is turning against neo-liberalism

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François Chesnais, an associate professor at Paris-Nord university and a founder of the Marxist journal Carré Rouge, spoke to Socialist Worker about the background and future of the struggles in France and Europe
Issue 1995
Protesting against the CPE labour laws in Paris last month Pic: Guy Smallman
Protesting against the CPE labour laws in Paris last month Pic: Guy Smallman

Many people have noted that the movement in France today is in the vanguard of a growing consensus that neo-liberal capitalism cannot be left to dominate the world. This is related to the fact that France has a particular history of struggle which has never been wiped out.

Every 20 or 30 years, something happens in France that awakens all the memories. This goes back to the 19th century, and even to the end of the 18th century—to the way in which this nation and state was politically built out of a genuine revolution.

Compromise came later and with great difficulty. It caused splits even inside the ruling class, and was never really accepted by the emerging proletariat.

Thus we’ve had the Paris Commune of 1871, the anarcho-syndicalist movement around the Charter of Amiens in 1906, and so on. There’s always been a deep anti-capitalist mood in France, an education passed from one generation to the next—through political organisations, but also through families and discussions within the working class.

This legacy means that if there were to be a really concerted battle strategy by the European ruling class, it would be necessary to defeat France first—because it’s the backbone of European resistance.

That’s why the struggles around the CPE labour laws are being watched so attentively. If you read the European press, there’s this deep dismay over how badly the French right governs, how it cannot seem to explain that “there is no alternative”, as Margaret Thatcher managed to do in Britain.

France’s right wing has never been able to get that message across because it has always been afraid. It’s a regime that survived after May 1968, but it never overcame the fact that Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic, had to face a general strike and a student rebellion, and that a year later he had to go.

Deep down, they have never really thought they were capable of doing anything like Thatcher and Blair have done in Britain.

The neo-liberal offensive across Europe has been going on for years. But it received a huge political defeat last May when the French voted no to the European Union constitution.

If the constitution had gone through, the siutation across Europe would have been completely different.

Instead we now see, at different speeds and rhythms, how workers and sections of young people in a whole number of countries are slowly deciding that they have to stand up and fight. I think that the tide has turned.

There are problems, of course. One of them is that the British working class movement basically shares the views of the dominant class about Europe—it has never considered itself part of the European working class. If this were to change, it would be a huge step forwards.

Events here in France are already starting to have a big impact across Europe—in Spain, for instance, or in Belgium, which is a small country but a symbolically important one, since it is the headquarters of many European institutions.

Germany is also on the list of countries that are sensitive to events in France. The victory of the French no campaign helped the radical left Linkspartei enormously, as Oskar Lafontaine, one of its leading figures, has said on several occasions. Both left and right in Germany are watching France again today.

We must get the message across that capitalism can only be beaten through an alliance of workers across several major European countries. We cannot wait for everyone to be on board—the ones that are ready must decide to engage in that fight together.

A basic idea of this battle is that the means of life, the means of production, are social. They are the product of everyone, not that of capital or shareholders.

It’s about the everyday life of everyone who makes things work or uses them. This idea of creating an international alliance of workers to take control over everyday life has to be explained in very simple language.

Also, it’s not just about being against neo-liberalism—we have to be for something, for reclaiming the right to be the ones that decide. We have lived through shareholders making all the decisions for 30 years now—we can see what it means when a minority decides.

So this project has to be related to democracy. And that means genuine majority decisions over things that really matter—it’s not a question of just going to the ballot box every few years.

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