Rebuilding class consciousness and class organization – the strike wave in France


This interview was published in the magazine “Permanent Revolution” in December 2010


John  Mullen is a lecturer in Paris, a member of the SNESUP trade union and an activist in the New Anticapitalist Party


PR: What has been your impression of the movement?

 JM: It’s been tremendously impressive to see the number of people involved.There have  been seven days of action in the space of two months and every one with millions on the streets, even though most of the days of actions were on week days. On the 28th october there were 266 demos around France! I used to live until recently in Agen which has a population of 30 000, there were 8 000 people on the demonstration! It’s not just another wave of strikes, it’s really going to change the unions and the left and how people are looking at the world.

 The second thing is the movement’s been immensely popular; there was a point at which the majority of the population, not just the workers, the entire population, was hoping it would go up to a general strike. Two weeks ago, 71% of the population was saying “yes we support the movement”.  And this was after the government had gone through its whole thing of "there's no alternative, we're living longer, we've got to work longer, we'd love you to keep your pensions but look at the debt of the country" and so on. People are just not taking it. Even a significant number of right-wing voters don't like it. At one point you had almost a quarter of right -wing voters supporting the movement. It’s very impressive.

 What's been impressive also are the rank and file mobilisations. The union leaders organised the big days of action (and really pushed for them, all of the union federations together, which is a new thing, including the so-called moderates like the CFDT) but they weren't happy to see the renewable strikes between the days of action. They didn't necessarily oppose them, that wouldn't have been possible, but they did nothing at all for them. The union leaders’ slogans were really weak. For example, the lead banner at the demonstration last week, which was decided by the union leaders, said “Pensions, jobs and wages are important to society”. Which, firstly is true, but secondly is not particularly combative! And this was a demonstration where there were thousands of people chanting “General strike!”. But the union leaders were not there at all.

 So the rank and file initiatives were very important. In a lot of towns, the interpro or informal strike committee brought together different groups of workers. For example in Montreuil (suburb of Paris - Ed), there were teachers, council workers, creche workers and a few people from the private sector. In Nanterre there were theatre workers, teachers and high school students. The interpros were embryonic organisations, not representative as such but have been very dynamic and have carried out a whole load of imaginative actions. For example, turning up at the oil depots which were blocked by the oil workers, and trying to stop the riot police from coming and breaking the blockade, blocking motorways, bricking up the doors of offices of the bosses’ organizations, and so on. You could find a lot more examples in the left-wing press. I could give 50 impressive examples. My favourite one was when a committee of philosophy teachers in Lille set up a collection for oil workers on strike. There is something symbolic about that.

 PR: Do you think the interpro could have developed into some kind of committee of action to serve to bring together workers from local communities, those that are not in unions for example?

 They did this in quite a number of places. One of the things I think that my party, the NPA, did right was to really push these interpros and build them everywhere it was possible. This weekend there is a national meeting of interpros regrouping delegates from 25 towns- I don't think such a national delegate-based meeting has ever happened before. The NPA is declaring its support for it, although we are also aware that it is embyronic, we are not going to pretend that it represents the whole movement. The building of class consciousness has been very important. Among students today for example, it’s easy to talk about class struggle and class war among a vaguely left milieu, which it didn't used to be.

 I think this movement is going to lead a rebuilding of the left, and a whole new generation of left activists. All the cards are being redealt and we're going to see which organisations are on the ball or not. Its moments like this when organisations will pay for mistakes, too.

 How would you compare today’s movement to movements in the recent past such as 1995 or 2006?

 I think the unity between young people and workers is unheard of. In Rennes there were lorry drivers and high school students together blocking the bus depots. The police attacked them with tear gas and accidently gassed a whole load of bus drivers who promptly came out on strike. Certainly the unity between the old and the young is stronger than I have seen before.

 One reason is that university students these days are so often also workers, either because they need to pay for their studies or because their course involvse paid or unpaid work experience. It’s not so much students in solidarity with workers as it used to be, it’s more a class unity which is a positive develeopment.

 My university is not in the vanguard. Nonetheless on the last two days of action the majority of my colleagues were on strike. University lecturers in France have not been proletarianised as they have in Britain. It’s started, but nothing like in Britain. They are a bit where university lecturers in Britain were 20 years ago where strikes would be really quite rare. The strike of university lecturers in 2009, to defend working conditions was the first national lecturer strike for nearly forty years. It lasted three months and managed to stop the government doing half of what it wanted to do.

 This time on the pension issue, not only did they go on strike but also there was a lot of liaising with the students and admin staff. One of my colleagues proposed a collection for striking street cleaners that were on strike. We’re seeing the beginnings of class consciousness even in the dusty university lecturer staff rooms, and they are pretty dusty sometimes.

 Also, the unity between public and private sector workers was stronger than it has been.

 Can you talk about about the unions, their strategies, the differences between them?

 First, there is a big difference between the union leaders and the rank and file. Sarkozy absolutely refused to discuss with the union leaders about the reform. Certainly the CFDT leaders would have happily not supported the strikes in return for a bit of negotiation on secondary issues, but Sarkozy made it clear that he didn’t want to talk to them. And so the CFDT was obliged to unite with the other unions.  This unity was very important for the rank and file from the point of view of legitimacy. Of course, the union leaders wanted the days of action to be massive. They are professional negotiators, they need to show the government that negotiating with them has got to be done. On the other hand, they did absolutely nothing to get the renewable strikes going. You might think that when the majority of the population say they hope there will be a general strike then the union leaders might call a general strike. But they don't think like that.

 The union leaders were fearful of the movment?

Definitely. If the movement takes off from rank and file initiatives, their job as professional negotiators is not important anymore. It’s not about them being individually bastards - some of them are, some of them aren't, like university teachers or bus drivers.  It’s really about their role, its like MP's who just can't think that anything can be as important as a parliamentary debate. In the same way union leaders can't think that anything can be as important as negotiating. In a way, it’s quite human: journalists think the media changes the world, and teachers think it’s education! But it’s more serious in this case because union leaders really make or put brakes on the movement in a big way.

In essence, what we have is a situation where the union leaders don't really control the rank and file. There have been thousands of initiatives that they didn’t control. But there has been no alternative leadership. If the union leaders weren't there, there wouldn't be a movement but if we follow the union leaders we'll lose.

 What do you think is needed to bring about that alternative leadership within the unions?

 Well. I'm not sure. First of all. I think the Interpro is a great step forward. The line of the NPA is to build “class struggle currents” inside all the unions. Now what that means on the ground can be quite varied and sometimes it’s excellent and sometimes it’s not really so impressive. I'm not very clear on that question but certainly revolutionary and anti-capitalist activists have had an important effect during these strikes. I've been very impressed with the implantation and the activity of NPA activists pushing for renewable strikes where it’s possible or going as far as they can where it isn't, where they are in a minority.

 How are political organisations intervening in the movement. The Parti de Gauche, for example?

 The PdG were very much supporting the strikes. However, they have a line which is that political parties and trade unions have very different roles and so that it was not up to them to call for a general strike. Their leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was asked on prime time TV if he was in favour of a general strike, and he avoided the question by saying it was a problem for the unions. Nevertheless PdG activists in some places were encouraging the generalisation of strikes. At the same time they had a parallel campaign demanding a referendum on the pension issue, even if they put this more on the backburner as the struggle rose. It was a very silly idea because if you had the balance of forces to force Sarkozy to call a referendum, that would be enough to force him to throw his law in the bin. So what was the meaning of this campaign from the point of view of the Parti de Gauche? It meant obviously that the mass of the people respect constitutional forms , so you could get more of them with you if you used consitutional arguments. I think that’s wrong but that's what it’s about. Certainly the PdG is going to profit quite a bit from this movement;


So calling for a referendum found little echo amongst those involved in the movement?

 It probably had quite a good echo amongst voters and left people in general and rather less amongst the people who were actually on strike, but then that may not be their priority. I don't think they would lose electoral support by calling for a referendum. Obviously they annoy people on the far left but I don't think that worries them. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader, has just brought a new book which is called "Lets get rid of all them all". It is very left, “We need a citizen's revolution” is the slogan, and it generally talks about building the social struggles, but at the end of the day calling on parliament to make big changes. But he does talk about big changes: Maximum salary twenty times the minimum wage; very tough laws about finance; much more welfare state.

 So big changes through parliament but based on a very active dynamic social and political movement outside of parliament?

 Yes. I think he massively overestimates how much the state would let us do, and his ideas also include a lot of “Left nationalist” nonsense about the wonderful progressive rôle the French state can play in world affairs and so on.  But his arguments on the welfare state are important and he will get tremendous support for them.  Certainly revolutionaries and anti-capitalists have to take his arguments very seriously and answer them, and not just say "Oh well he used to be in the socialist party, he must be a bastard", an attitude which unfortunately is not uncommon on the radical Left.

 The PCF are very weak in comparison to the influence they used to have. Are they focusing on their alliance with the PdG?

 Certainly from an electoral point of view. Though, in places like the oil refineries, or among the dockers, where the Communist Party members of the CGT are very strong, they have a real base. Otherwise PCF sections were active collecting money and organizing demos; Communist mayors were collecting money and taking it to the picket lines. Of course the PCF is weaker than it used to be but it was a major player in the movement.

 The Communist Party relies tremendously on its elected councillors and elected regional councillors. The recent PCF conference was fundamentally a turn to the right, despite resistance from a significant Left minority; and the party leadership is now talking much more in terms of when they will be able to ally with the PS again. This is not on the cards immediately, but there is a turn to the right going on in the Communist Party.

 What they talk about at the moment is partly just you wait until 2012 for the presidential elections but also very importantly they raise the idea of alternative reforms. Their latest leaflet says the reform of pensions should be “negotiated again from zero” with the unions but on another basis.  “Another reform of pensions is possible”. To be fair they do  say  60 years old is the right age to retire and on 75 % of final wages but the idea is very much to show how within the present system it is possible to do things differently. So they talk about “killing the poison within our economy”  which financial capital represents. This is an old and incorrect PCF idea, that there is a huge difference between productive capital and finance capital. So it’s very much left reformism.

 PCF members have been building the demonstrations certainly. In some areas they were not building the renewable strikes but it’s hard to get reliable information on that. You get a lot of different sorts of people in the PCF. You get people who are building the class struggle every time they can and other people ... well there are a lot of tired bureaucrats around. But in a lot of places people were happy that the Communist Party was around when things happened.

 And the PS. They are presumably trying to make political capital out of the movement, though they support many aspects of the pension reform?

 There is a genuine left wing in the PS. I think it’s important for British comrades to understand that it is not a Blairite party, although there is a Blairite wing. You will see the left wing of the Parti socialiste in the united meetings, on the platform with Besancenot from the NPA, with the Communist party and so on. At their Summer school, the Left of the Socialist Party invited Besancenot to debate in public with them. It’s not just a little Trotskyist current but a significant left wing in the PS who have been delighted to get involved in the movement. These would tend to be people who believe that we have to frighten Sarkozy to win, and that reforms are possible if you get the PS in power. They would like the socialist party to stay on the left, so the left of the PS is much more interested in mobilising than it used to be. Not only are they saying that we need to get the PS in but that we have to make sure they stay left.

 I don't have any detailed information of how much the PS were involved in the mobilisations, but the two people I know who are in the Socialist `party have been very much involved in the struggle.

 In terms of the far left, how has Lutte Ouvrière been involved in the movement?

 There are a couple of things that have happened to Lutte Ouvrière over the past twenty years. In 1986, when there were big strikes the influence of LO on the ground in some industries was stunning. They would get one factory out on strike, they would march to the next factory to get them out on strike and continue. They don't have that influence any more. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, they have been rather pessimistic about the strikes in many ways because they consider the real working class to be the factory workers and perhaps the railway workers and so on, and not, for example, the office workers or teachers or  school canteen workers. They support these other groups on strike but they don't feel their “real” working class moving.

 They have also lost a lot of support because they just didn't care at all about a whole load of issues which have really moved people. For example,anti-fascism : when Le Pen got through to the second round of the elections in 2002 and millions were on the streets, LO refused to get involved. Another example is the social forums which were denounced en bloc by LO rather than taken as a kind of radicalisation with lots of contradictions. To give another example, very recently, two or three years ago, LO said “of course we are in favour of equal rights for homosexuals”, however they hadn't seen it necessary in the last forty years to mention this in their paper!

And presumably they are also weak on the question of islamophobia?

 Sadly they probably didn't lose support by being completely indifferent to islamophobia at best. It’s that bad on the Left on this issue.

 Bizarrely enough, LO news papers during the strike have not been calling for a general strike. They have more been commenting that “ a wide explosive movement is needed”, but not specifically calling  for a general strike. It sounded more than a little abstract.

 They have also lost members over the last few years. There have been a couple of splits off from LO of some of the best people. They remain as an organisation of very dedicated people but let's say very workerist, very anti-theoretical, anti-intellectual.

 So they have not really been a major player in the movement?

 I don't think so, no. For example, when there is a town committee to defend pensions which brings in the Communist Party and the Left Party and the NPA and, sometimes the SP as well if it’s a left wing branch, LO will typically not take part.

The NPA appear to be been very active in the movement, despite recent problems in terms of divisions and losing members?

 Yes, the organisation really moved into action when the level of class struggle rose. At national meetings in the headquarters, you’ll find a couple of train drivers, a couple of nurses, a couple of canteen workers, a couple of bank workers. You've got the whole range of the working class. You just sit there taking notes. You learn so much. It’s very good from that point of view.

 Also I think the party was right on a number of things. First of all, to really push for the general strike and renewable strikes on the front page of the paper and in every leaflet. It was really the only organisation which did. I always hate to say that we are with the only organisation because that means the situation is awful. But the Parti de Gauche did not call for a general strike. Lutte Ouvrière didn’t. The PCF certainly did not.

 Second thing, I think the NPA was right to be putting forward the slogan “Sarkozy  out now!”, whereas the union leaders were saying “It mustn't be a political crisis.....we don't want a political crisis.... it’s not political”. We also did a rather neat little thing with leaflets in the shape of 500 Euro notes with Sarkozy's head on them, and on the back saying “get him out now”. “Make yourself rich, get Sarkozy out now!”. It’s not fundamental but it shows that the party is chirpy and sharp. So I think that a lot of the activity with the Interpro, and a lot of the propaganda like “get him out now” and some criticism of the union leadership, that was good.

 What I think was weak...I think we could have been harder on the union leaderships. I wonder if it was possible to have a rally in front of the meeting of the intersyndicale which was the national meeting between union leaders, on the days when they were taking key decisions about the future of the movement. This is not necessarily an easy thing to do, since you have a problem with people on the left denouncing unions in general, but I wondered whether there wouldn't be a way at least of getting leaflets out on the day of the meeting saying they had to go further. Not denouncing them as bastards, but saying you have got to go further, that now is the time for a general strike. I thought that the party should have been much sharper on that. The attitude of the union leaders was the key reason the movement didn’t go further, and although NPA members know this it was not said sufficiently clearly in public leaflets or in the many TV appearances of Besancenot. There is the fear of appearing to be divisive.

 I also think that the party is slow off the mark in organising public meetings, leaving them to a couple of weeks or three weeks’ time in the future. I come from a tradition where when things move you get meetings the same week. So I've been a little bit disappointed on that.

 Now it’s all rather difficult because the NPA is very divided. It’s an alliance of different perspectives which can be rather difficult to handle. Certain issues can paralyse the organisation. In many ways it’s a network of anticapitalist activists more than it is a party.  It’s very different from town to town. It’s a very federal organisation. So it can be hard. I'm very happy with what the NPA did during the strike but I think there are serious weaknesses which need to be pushed forward. The conference in February will be looking at how we did in the movement and what to do next.

How do you think the rank and file of unions can increase their influence over the next course of events?

 We really need to rebuild the unions. The level of unionisation is under 10% which is not only a weakness but also it can mean that union members can have a bunkered-in  or sectarian attitude, partly because they get a lot of criticism from people who won't even join the union. I've been in mass meetings where you get people standing up denouncing the unions and they're not even a member. So there are a lot of difficult issues around that.

 But there should be some way of getting rank and file pressure up. Obviously, it worked to some extent given that all the union leaders called seven days of action within two months, which is absolutely unheard of. The typical strategy would have been the one we saw at the beginning of  2010 - a day of action every six weeks..

 So they have been under one whole load of pressure, that’s for sure. Now will it come back now. I don't know. I find it very difficult to know what’s going to happen next. I'd like the NPA to be saying much more loudly rebuild the unions, recruit to the unions and obviously build an alternative leadership to the union leaders. Otherwise, if we don't do that we'll leave quite a lot of space available for a lot of people on the Left in France who defend vaguely anarchist theories. We need to get people in - we don't want unions which only have only pure left-wing people in them. We want unions which have a lot of people who aren't sure about a lot of issues and that can be difficult especially with the particular history of SUD, the left-wing union. I would really have liked SUD to stay inside one of the bigger confederations to fight. Nevertheless in some industries it’s now a real trade union and not just a red trade union.


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