Resolution on the social situation in France

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We are publishing here the resolution on the social situation in France adopted at the 21st Congress of RI. This document goes back over our analysis of the balance of forces between the classes, with the aim of arriving at a better understanding of the underlying reasons for the relative social calm which has existed since the movement against pension reforms.

1.             The analysis of the class struggle in France, of the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat, can only be understood in the context of the current world situation, even if, of course, the proletariat in each country faces economic, political and ideological specificities. In his sense, it is necessary to analyse the broad lines of this world situation, in particular to understand the difficulties encountered by the proletariat in France in responding to the increasingly violent attacks coming from the ruling class.

2.             From September 1989, the ICC had been predicting that the collapse of the Stalinist regimes would strike a very heavy blow against the consciousness of the world proletariat:

“The disappearance of Stalinism is the disap­pearance of the symbol and spearhead of the most terrible counter-revolution in history.

But this does not mean that the development of the consciousness of the world proletariat will be facilitated by it. On the contrary. Even in its death throes, Stalinism is rendering a last service to the domination of capital; in decom­posing, its cadaver continues to pollute the at­mosphere that the proletariat breathes. For the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie, the final collapse of Stalinist ideology, the `democratic’, ‘liberal’ and nationalist movements which are sweeping the eastern countries, provide a golden opportunity to unleash and intensify their campaigns of mystification.

The identification which is systematically es­tablished between Stalinism and communism, the lie repeated a thousand times, and today being wielded more than ever, according to which the proletarian revolution can only end in disaster, will for a whole period gain an added impact within the ranks of the working class. We thus have to expect a momentary retreat in the con­sciousness of the proletariat…While the incessant and increasingly brutal attacks which capitalism can’t help but mount on the proletariat will oblige the workers to enter the struggle, in an initial period, this won’t result in a greater capacity in the class to develop its consciousness. In particular, re­formist ideology will weigh very heavily on the struggle in the period ahead, greatly facilitating the action of the unions” (‘Theses on the economic and political crisis in USSR and the eastern countries’, International Review 60[1]). 

The quarter of a century which has gone by since then has amply confirmed this prediction and, in particular has confirmed that there is a very heavy weight of democratic illusions and a strengthening of the grip of the unions, which had been more and more put into question during the workers’ struggles of the 80s. Thus, the strikes launched by the unions in the transport sectors in France, Belgium and Germany in 1995 had clearly resulted, as we said at the time, in a revival of the influence of these organs for controlling the working class. Furthermore, the retreat in class consciousness was also accompanied by a very marked retreat in its militancy and self-confidence, of the sense of class identity, a phenomenon aggravated by the disappearance of many large industrial sectors which had traditionally been among the most combative in many western European countries (for example, steel, engineering and cars). Finally, the difficulties met by the working class, both in the development of its consciousness and in its self-confidence, were also aggravated by the growing weight of the decomposition of capitalist society which has instilled in an increasingly damaging way the sentiment of despair, the feeling that there is no future, the flight into ‘everyman for himself’ and atomisation.

3.            In 1989 we also established that “the rhythm of the col­lapse of western capitalism… will constitute a de­cisive factor in establishing the moment when the proletariat will be able to resume its march towards revolutionary consciousness.

By sweeping away the illusions about the revival’ of the world economy, by exposing the lie which presents liberal’ capitalism as a solu­tion to the historic bankruptcy of the whole capitalist mode of production - and not only of its Stalinist incarnation - the intensification of the capitalist crisis will eventually push the proletariat to turn again towards the perspec­tive of a new society, to more and more inscribe this perspective onto its struggles” (ibid).

In effect, since 1989, the French bourgeoisie, like its European cohorts, has launched growing attacks on the working class, pushing the latter to resist and to throw off the dead weight that has been bearing down on it since the end of the 80s. One of the moments of this tendency for the proletariat to raise its head was constituted by the social movements which took place in 2003, in particular the struggles around the defence of pensions in France and Austria. These movements were marked by a revival of solidarity, especially in the car industry in Germany and in public transport in New York. These workers’ struggles were obviously only a small step, still very insufficient, in a dynamic towards overcoming the profound retreat suffered by the working class after 1989. The slow rhythm of this process of overcoming the reflux in the class struggle (there had been more than 13 years between the implosion of the eastern bloc and the strikes of spring 2003) can be explained to a large extent by the still slow rhythm of the development of the insurmountable crisis of the capitalist economy, in turn a result of the capacity of the bourgeoisie to hold back the historic collapse of its economic system. Furthermore, these social movements revealed the extreme skilfulness of the political and union apparatus of the bourgeois class, its capacity to push through attacks and to demoralise the working class, to drum into its head that “it’s not the street that governs” (as prime minister Raffarin put it in 2003) through a whole arsenal of sophisticated manoeuvres, based on a systematic division of labour and tight cooperation between the government which delivers the blows and the unions who sabotage the response of the working class.

Thus the strikes of spring 2003 in the public sector in France came up against a strategy of the ruling class which had been tried and tested in 1995: alongside a general attack on the whole working class, the bourgeoisie carried out a more specific assault on a particular sector which was thus destined to constitute a sort of ‘vanguard’ of the movement;

  • In 1995, the Juppé plan attacking social security for all wage earners was accompanied by a specific attack on the pension arrangements for the railway workers;
  • In 2003, the attack on pensions for the whole public sector was accompanied by a specific attack aimed at the workers of national education.

In the first case, after several weeks of complete blockage of transport and a succession of massive demonstrations, the government withdrew the measures aimed at the special retirement regime of the railway and RATP workers. With the return to work in these sectors, following a concession by the government which the unions presented as a ‘victory’, a fatal blow had been dealt to the dynamic of the movement, which enabled the Juppé government to push through the general attack on social security.

In the second case, the workers of national education, who had gone on strike massively and represented the ‘reference’ for the public sector, were led to carry on for weeks with a movement that had been exhausted in other sectors, and this with the encouragement of the most ‘radical’ unions. This produced a deep feeling of bitterness and discouragement, with a message for all workers: not only ‘it’s not the street that governs’ but also ‘there’s no point in struggling’.

4.             This feeling or powerlessness was however, overcome three years later, in the spring of 2006, in the massive mobilisation of the young generations of the working class against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE) introduced by the Villepin government. A mobilisation which, this time, was not planned in advance by the government and the unions. The latter had done the minimum possible to oppose a measure aimed at accentuating the precarious nature of employment for young proletarians (and which even the bosses thought was superfluous). It was the educated youth in the universities and high schools who embarked on the struggle, i.e. the huge mass of future unemployed and precarious workers. As we said at the time, this movement against the CPE was exemplary. It was able, thanks in particular to the daily general assemblies open to the whole working class, to massive street demonstrations which were not controlled by the unions, to deal with the different traps laid by the bourgeoisie. The movement threatened to draw in the employed workers, in particular those in industry. This is why, on the advice of Laurence Parisot (the boss of the bosses), the government ended up withdrawing the CPE. This retreat by the Villepin government was a striking refutation of Raffarin’s 2003 declaration because this time it was the street that had the last word. As well as the massive and sovereign general assemblies, this movement against the CPE highlighted another essential element of the proletarian struggle: solidarity between different sectors and generations of the exploited class. It was therefore imperative for the French bourgeoisie to wipe out all the lessons of this movement if it was to prepare the new attacks made necessary by the aggravation of the economic crisis.

5.            This process of wiping out the ‘bad example’ of the anti-CPE movement was composed of two decisive steps that accompanied the attack on pensions:

  • The strikes of autumn 2007 against the suppression of the special pension provisions;
  • The movement of autumn 2010 against postponing retirement age.

In the first case, the unions played to the hilt the card of division within the Intersyndicale, a card which had already been played (particularly in 1995 when the CFDT supported the Juppé Plan on social security). This time, we saw an out and out destruction of the movement: initially, the government, while maintaining the whole of the attack, gave in to the demands of the highly corporatist union of the train drivers, which had voted for a return to work. Then, it was the CFDT which called for a return to work, followed by the CGT (which resulted in Bernard Thibault, a former railway worker, being called a traitor by the CGT rank and file). As for FO and SUD, their role was to call for ‘continuing the fight’ in order to tire out the most militant workers. This defeat was a real blow for millions of workers because the movement had won the sympathy of many sectors of the working class (especially because the railway workers had called not only for maintaining the 37 and a half years as a requirement for their own pensions, but for all sectors). But the bourgeoisie had to pay a price for this victory and for getting the attack pushed through: a powerful distrust with the unions who were widely seen as being responsible for the defeat because of their divisions and quarrels in the meetings of the Intersyndicale.

The second step, the most decisive one, in wiping out the lessons of the CPE, was the decision of the Sarkozy government to attack one of the most significant ‘gains’ won during the years of the Union of the Left under Mitterand: retirement at 60. For the French bourgeoisie it was a question of ‘unlocking’ this symbolic figure and making up for the delay in following the example of other European bourgeoisies in their attacks against the class (mainly because of the fear of returning to a social situation comparable to May 1968). What’s more, the French bourgeoisie had to cut the deficits of the state, which, like everywhere else, had been severely aggravated by the measures required to prevent the collapse of the financial system in 2008 and to face up to the very strong recession which had got going since that year. For the French bourgeoisie there were thus both economic and political issues at stake. The tactic employed by the ruling class to push through the economic attack was different from that used on previous occasions. It was above all important that the workers should not come out of the conflict with even more distrust towards the unions. This is why the latter, including the managers’ union, the GCG, played up the theme of ‘trade union unity’, raising the slogan ‘all together, all together!’. At the same time, calling successive days of action throughout the autumn of 2010, they polarised attention on an essential theme: the participation of several million workers in the street demos. In the end, the bourgeoisie did not retreat: it was able to carry out the whole economic attack (exchanging a few small improvements for workers who had very taxing jobs) as well as the political and ideological attack, getting across two essential messages:

  • ‘it’s not the street that governs’
  • Struggle gets you nowhere, even when millions of workers are demonstrating and even when the unions are united.

This time, the unions succeeded in exhausting the militancy of the working class without losing any credibility. What’s more since even ‘struggling all together’ produced nothing, the very need for solidarity was put into question.

This was a heavy defeat at all levels for the working class in France at the end of 2010. The exhaustion of militancy and the demoralisation of the working class that followed this defeat partly explain the social calm of the last four years, and the very weak involvement of the young generation in France in the movement of the Indignados which took place a few months later in the whole of Spain and which also spread onto the international level.

Obviously, in this offensive against the working class in France, the bourgeoisie of this country was able to benefit from the full support of its European cohorts, particularly the German bourgeoisie, above all because they are all aware of the historic experience of the proletariat in France (June days of 1848, Paris Commune of 1871, and May 68).

6.             As we have often pointed out, the Indignados movement was the main proletarian reaction to the convulsions of the world capitalist economy after 2008. This reaction did not take the ‘classic’ form of workers’ strikes or even of street demonstrations, with the exception of the European countries most violently hit by the economic crisis, like Greece or Portugal. This brutal aggravation of the capitalist crisis has led to a dizzying rise in unemployment, which has continued to act as a factor paralysing the strike weapon: what’s the point of stopping work when the enterprise has shut down? Furthermore, the ideological campaigns which accompanied the ‘sub-primes’ crisis were another factor in confusing the exploited and increasing their feeling of powerlessness. In fact, the wave of panic about the financial crisis in 2008-9, widely stirred up by the media and fuelled by the discourse of the economic experts, had the consequence, even when it was not its direct aim, of making the working class feel dumbstruck. The essential message was this: ‘you have to tighten your belts, accept sacrifices, because that’s the only way out of the crisis’. This went along with the key message that the real responsibility for the crisis lay with ‘international finance’ and not the capitalist system itself. Président Hollande, shortly before his election, put it like this: “my main the world of finance” (speech at Bourget, 22/1/12). The Indignados movement, for all its democratic illusions and its confusions about the financial system being responsible for all evils, still contained within it a radical rejection of bankrupt capitalism and clearly raised the necessity to replace it with a new society (this is why the movement was prey to the ‘alternative world’ reformists like ATTAC with their mystifying slogan ‘another world is possible’). It expressed the fact that class consciousness and class identity are not exactly the same. The Indignados, with their call for another society, were not aware that this demand belongs to the only class capable of constructing this other society – the proletariat. The majority of them didn’t even feel that they belong to the working class. However, this movement was an important step on the road towards the world proletariat become conscious of itself, a step which has left traces in the minds of millions of young proletarians. And it was precisely this step which the proletariat in France was not able to take, given the defeat inflicted on it by the bourgeoisie and its unions through the days of actions and demonstrations in the autumn of 2010.

7.            At present, the attacks descending on the working class in France, which are now being directed by a left government, are encountering practically no resistance, despite the existence of a very strong social discontent. This is also the case in nearly all countries. For the moment, the bourgeoisie is managing to conserve a certain control both over its economic apparatus and over the social situation, thanks to the unions recovering their grip and imprisoning the workers in fake, insignificant and highly corporatist struggles (which are often even extremely unpopular since they set one group of workers of against another, as in the case of last June’s SNCF strike for the defence of the railway workers’ status). There will have to be a serious degradation of general living and working conditions for the working class to be able to overcome its paralysis. With the aggravation of the economic crisis, new attacks are inevitable and so are new reactions from the proletariat. The working class has to confront some major obstacles, which are posed on the scale of the historic stakes facing today’s society. It has to face a bourgeoisie which is very experienced in confronting the working class; it has to overcome the democratic illusions which are still very strong in the class despite the fact that the official institutions of bourgeois democracy have been profoundly discredited as can be seen, among other things, from the increasing rates of abstention at elections, the miniscule popularity of Président Hollande and the success of the Front National at the last European elections.

The success of the FN is one of the expressions of decomposition, of capitalist society rotting on its feet, which is an added difficulty the proletariat as to confront on the road to its emancipation. The future is not written in advance: despite the enormous difficulties facing the working class, in France as everywhere else, it has not suffered a decisive defeat like the one it went through after the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. Even if it is paralysed at the moment, it has not been dragooned behind bourgeois flags as it was in the 1930s when it marched under the banners of nationalism or antifascism. Furthermore, and more fundamentally, both the fight against the CPE and the Indignados movement have revealed that there is a process of reflection going on among the young generations of the working class, a maturation of consciousness about the failure of capitalism, which cannot offer them any perspective expect unemployment, the destruction of the environment, war and barbarism in all its forms. This reflection contains the search for another perspective for society, opening the way to the emergence of a revolutionary consciousness, even if the road ahead is still a long one.

Revolution Internationale


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Congress of the ICC's section in France