According to our rulers, the struggle between the working class and the bourgeoisie is an outmoded idea. So when workers, fed up with the continuing attack on their living standards, engage in strikes or demonstrations to defend themselves, they are invariably portrayed as narrow-minded, backward looking, and above all selfish interest groups who just don't understand the need for ‘reforms' such as extending everyone's working life by 3 or 5 years, asking us to pay for medical costs on top of deductions from our wages that were already in place, or making way for new technology or the closure of entire industries in the name of making business leaner and meaner.
The recent series of struggles by workers and students in France have been presented in exactly this way, not only in France, but internationally. The new President Sarkozy, we are told, has decided to ‘take on the unions' in order to push through long-needed ‘reforms' of the French economy that will bring it in line with other western countries, which have already advanced further on the road towards a more modern, business-oriented, ‘neo-liberal' economic model. In particular, Sarkozy has targeted the ‘privileged' pension rights of certain key sectors like transport, gas and electricity workers, with the aim of pushing through a more equitable and affordable retirement system that will apply to everyone. The unions have responded in their usual conservative way by calling out the troops in defence of their entrenched privileges; and in the case of the strikes on public transport, the media have been able to pour out a veritable flood of abuse, accusing them of holding millions of transport users to ransom and thus further playing up divisions between different parts of the working population. On the international arena, this version of the recent movements in France has been given an added twist of spice by the idea that the addiction of certain elements of French society to strikes and street protests is proof of an equally conservative nostalgia for the barricades and France's tattered tradition of revolution.
On the other hand, the reality of what has been happening in France is offered by the selection of articles from our French-language press and website that we have translated here. The first is a general statement on the situation produced for a supplement that was distributed at the demonstrations and assemblies held by various sectors of the working class. It rejects the line that workers fighting attacks on pension schemes are ‘privileged': on the contrary, their fight is of concern to all workers, because the attack on ‘special' pension systems is merely the first prong of an even wider attack on all pensions and all workers' living and working conditions; indeed this offensive has been deliberately devised as a way of sowing divisions between the allegedly ‘privileged' sectors and the rest of the working class. The title of the article - ‘Against the government attacks, we all have to fight together!' - clearly puts forward what the proletarian response to these sordid manoeuvres has to be.
All three articles also make it clear that the real conflict going on in France is not between the Sarkozy government and the unions, but between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; and that the unions, far from defending the needs of the latter, are in fact part of the bourgeoisie's strategy for controlling and dividing it. Playing on divisions between different union federations, keeping different sectors of workers separate ‘at the base', undermining the capacity of workers to discuss and take decisions through their own general assemblies, the articles provide some very concrete examples of the way that the trade unions line up against the workers in struggle.
At the same time, the articles show that, despite all the stratagems of the government and the unions, the seeds of class unity are gradually fermenting, putting forth small but significant shoots: the appearance of small groups of workers and students challenging the authority of the unions and leftists, the opening of general assemblies to workers from different sectors, a growing receptivity to the ideas of revolutionaries...
At the time of writing the dynamic of the class movement in France seems to be on the wane. Focus has temporarily shifted to the outburst of fury and violence in the Parisian ‘banlieux' following the killing of two immigrant teenagers in a collision with speeding cops, who are said to have run off and left the two boys to die. As in the country-wide explosion of 2005, these rebellions express the deep anger and frustration of a particularly oppressed sector of the proletariat, but the forms and methods they use - random violence directed not only against obvious symbols of state repression like police stations but also buses, schools, and other public buildings - do not offer a perspective for the building of class unity through self-organisation in the assemblies, discussion between different groups of workers, the raising of common demands, all the elements which we were beginning to see in the recent strike movement. The problem facing the working class is how to channel the rage in the ‘banlieux' towards this effort to build a new class unity in the face of capital and its state.