France 1995…Society shaken by workers
What a difference that year’s made
By Paul McGarr
MANY SOCIALIST Worker readers will have heard, or thought, “Why isn’t Britain more like France?”
Truckers block the road. There seem to be mass demonstrations all the time. It is true that politics is different in France. But it is nothing to do with British press stereotypes of the “Gallic spirit” or the “hot blooded” French. The transformation of French politics is only five years old. In 1995 a sudden massive strike by public sector workers paralysed the country for several weeks. It was a turning point.
Before then the country’s Tory parties had an enormous parliamentary majority. The Socialist Party, equivalent to Britain’s Labour Party, had collapsed catastrophically. Its supporters were deeply demoralised. On top of that the Nazi National Front routinely won some 15 percent of the vote, had around 1,000 local councillors and controlled several local councils. The trade unions were in a dire situation too. Fewer than one in ten workers were in a union and the level of strikes was as low as in Britain.
So when in the autumn of 1995 prime minister Alain Jupp put forward a package of welfare cuts and privatisation he was confident of pushing it through. Union leaders felt impelled to call action in response to the Jupp plan, but many expected this would quickly fizzle out. Within days it became clear that something different was happening. On Friday 24 November some half a million people joined protests around the country.
The mainstream French paper Le Monde said, “What was to have been a day of protest turned into a gigantic cry of discontent.” Over the next three weeks massive demonstrations swept the country every few days.
Rail workers struck. Public transport workers in Paris struck. Postal workers in the main sorting offices struck. Electricity workers struck. Students and teachers joined in. Others stopped work to join the twice-weekly demonstrations which involved over two million people at their height. Stunned, the government began to retreat, abandoning key parts of its offensive. Union leaders moved to end the struggle, fearing things were going way beyond their control.
But when the struggles finally subsided, the guts had been ripped out of the Tory government and the entire political landscape was transformed. As one commentator put it last year, “In France there’s something that complicates everything, the legacy of the 1995 strikes.”
In 1997 the huge Tory parliamentary majority was swept away as the Socialist Party, in coalition with the more left wing Communist Party and the Greens, swept to office. The new government has since sought to cosy up to France’s bosses. But it has also had to bend to the continuing pressure from below.
It has implemented a 35-hour working week law. Earlier this year it made major concessions on health spending in the face of protests by health workers. And a few months ago a wave of protest by teachers forced the sacking of the education minister and a major increase in education spending. The shift since 1995 has marked every area of society. Twice in the last two years hundreds of thousands of school students have taken to the streets.
The unemployed too have launched waves of struggle, occupying dole offices demanding better benefits. In Paris groups marched into posh restaurants and demanded to be fed for free. Restaurant owners complied, and stunned well-heeled diners had to put up with the unemployed seated in their midst enjoying a decent meal.
What is most remarkable to a British visitor is the utter confidence of those involved in such fights that protest is possible and can win. A small sign of that came during the teachers’ revolt earlier this year. People in the Mediterranean town of Marseilles faced the problem of getting to Paris, hundreds of miles away, for a national demonstration. Their answer? Some 3,000 teachers, students and parents marched to the railway station, occupied the tracks and demanded the train company laid on trains to take them to the capital-and they got them.
One of the most significant consequences of 1995 was the revival of mass anti-racist movements which have turned the tide against the National Front. In 1997 tens of thousands marched against the National Front congress in Strasbourg.
In town after town angry protests began to confront Nazi meetings. Huge numbers of young people joined these vibrant protests. The Nazis eventually cracked under the pressure, splitting into warring factions.
Intellectual debate has also shifted. It had been dominated by miserable right wing ideas. Books and newspapers said class struggle and socialism were dead. Prominent authors published bestselling books comparing socialism to fascism. The left and anti-racists were defensive.
Now things could not be more different. Left wing writers and intellectuals are influential. The most prominent intellectual in France is now Pierre Bourdieu, a left wing sociologist who has written a series of books railing against capitalism. Viviane Forrester’s passionate attack on what capitalism does to people’s lives, Economic Horror, has sold huge numbers.
A poll this year found that 54 percent of people in France now see “communism” as “an idea with a future” and one which could “be realised”. The press, TV and radio have shifted too. The mainstream Le Monde, for instance, routinely carries long reports on strikes and demonstrations, and on the debates in left wing political organisations. The circulation of the left wing monthly Le Monde Diplomatique has soared to almost 300,000.
The paper now shapes much political and intellectual discussion in France and has also shaped the ATTAC movement, tens of thousands strong, which demands the taxing of financial speculators. French cinema has reflected the new mood too, with a wave of films which put class centre stage.
The most easily available is It All Starts Today, a brilliant portrayal of the way people’s lives and society are torn apart by capitalism, but one which celebrates the importance of fighting back. A new expression of the shift left will come in a few weeks in the small town of Millau.
On 30 June tens of thousands of students, workers and small farmers will converge on the town for two days of protest. The protest is in support of the left wing farmers’ leader Jose Bove and others who are on trial for dismantling the local McDonald’s last year in protest at the multinational corporations.
The theme of the protest will be “The world is not a commodity”. Socialist forces and ideas have gained a widespread hearing in this climate. France’s bosses are now consciously preparing a counter-offensive. They are demanding the government stands firm against workers’ demands, and many suspect they are preparing a showdown with a key group of workers in the way Thatcher did with Britain’s miners in the 1980s.
In that situation the left faces the challenge of building a powerful enough current to ensure such battles end in victory for our side. But the most important lesson for Britain is how suddenly and dramatically the whole of politics and society can be transformed.
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