consciousness and class organization – the strike wave in France
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
been your impression of the movement?
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
of actions were on week days. On the 28th october there were 266 demos
France! I used to live until recently in Agen which has a population of
there were 8 000 people on the demonstration! It’s not just another
strikes, it’s really going to change the unions and the left and how
looking at the world.
second thing is the movement’s been immensely popular; there was a
which the majority of the
population, not just the workers, the entire population, was hoping it
up to a general strike. Two weeks ago, 71% of the population was saying
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
keep your pensions but look at the debt of the country" and so on.
are just not taking it. Even a significant number of right-wing voters
like it. At one point you had almost a quarter of right -wing voters
the movement. It’s very impressive.
been impressive also are the rank and file mobilisations. The union
organised the big days of action (and really pushed for them, all of
federations together, which is a new thing, including the so-called
like the CFDT) but they weren't happy to see the renewable strikes
days of action. They didn't necessarily oppose them, that wouldn't have
possible, but they did nothing at all for them. The union leaders’
really weak. For example, the lead banner at the demonstration last
was decided by the union leaders, said “Pensions, jobs and wages are
to society”. Which, firstly is true, but secondly is not particularly
And this was a demonstration where there were thousands of people
strike!”. But the union leaders were not there at all.
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
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
dynamic and have carried out a whole load of imaginative actions. For
turning up at the oil depots which were blocked by the oil workers, and
to stop the riot police from coming and breaking the blockade, blocking
motorways, bricking up the doors of offices of the bosses’
so on. You could find a lot more examples in the left-wing press. I
50 impressive examples. My favourite one was when a committee of
teachers in Lille set up a collection for oil workers on strike. There
something symbolic about that.
the interpro could have developed into some kind of committee of action
serve to bring together workers from local communities, those that are
unions for example?
did this in quite a number of places. One of the things I think that my
the NPA, did right was to really push these interpros and build them
it was possible. This weekend there is a national meeting of interpros
delegates from 25 towns- I don't think such a national delegate-based
has ever happened before. The NPA is declaring its support for it,
are also aware that it is embyronic, we are not going to pretend that
represents the whole movement. The building of class consciousness has
very important. Among students today for example, it’s easy to talk
struggle and class war among a vaguely left milieu, which it didn't
used to be.
think this movement is going to lead a rebuilding of the left, and a
generation of left activists. All the cards are being redealt and we're
to see which organisations are on the ball or not. Its moments like
organisations will pay for mistakes, too.
compare today’s movement to movements in the recent past such as 1995
think the unity between young people and workers is unheard of. In
were lorry drivers and high school students together blocking the bus
The police attacked them with tear gas and accidently gassed a whole
bus drivers who promptly came out on strike. Certainly the unity
old and the young is stronger than I have seen before.
reason is that university students these days are so often also
because they need to pay for their studies or because their course
paid or unpaid work experience. It’s not so much students in solidarity
workers as it used to be, it’s more a class unity which is a positive
university is not in the vanguard. Nonetheless on the last two days of
the majority of my colleagues were on strike. University lecturers in
have not been proletarianised as they have in Britain. It’s started,
nothing like in Britain. They are a bit where university lecturers in
were 20 years ago where strikes would be really quite rare. The strike
university lecturers in 2009, to defend working conditions was the
national lecturer strike for nearly forty years. It lasted three months
managed to stop the government doing half of what it wanted to do.
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.
seeing the beginnings of class consciousness even in the dusty
lecturer staff rooms, and they are pretty dusty sometimes.
the unity between public and private sector workers was stronger than
about about the unions, their strategies, the differences between them?
there is a big difference between the union leaders and the rank and
Sarkozy absolutely refused to discuss with the union leaders about the
Certainly the CFDT leaders would have happily not supported the strikes
return for a bit of negotiation on secondary issues, but Sarkozy made
that he didn’t want to talk to them. And so the CFDT was obliged to
the other unions. This unity was very
important for the rank and file from the point of view of legitimacy.
course, the union leaders wanted the days of action to be massive. They
professional negotiators, they need to show the government that
with them has got to be done. On the other hand, they did absolutely
get the renewable strikes going. You might think that when the majority
population say they hope there will be a general strike then the union
might call a general strike. But they don't think like that.
leaders were fearful of the movment?
If the movement takes off from rank and file initiatives, their job as
professional negotiators is not important anymore. It’s not about them
individually bastards - some of them are, some of them aren't, like
teachers or bus drivers. It’s really
about their role, its like MP's who just can't think that anything can
important as a parliamentary debate. In the same way union leaders
that anything can be as important as negotiating. In a way, it’s quite
think the media changes the world, and teachers think it’s education!
more serious in this case because union leaders really make or put
the movement in a big way.
essence, what we have is a situation where the union leaders don't
the rank and file. There have been thousands of initiatives that they
control. But there has been no alternative leadership. If the union
weren't there, there wouldn't be a movement but if we follow the union
think is needed to bring about that alternative leadership within the
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
currents” inside all the unions. Now what that means on the ground can
varied and sometimes it’s excellent and sometimes it’s not really so
impressive. I'm not very clear on that question but certainly
anti-capitalist activists have had an important effect during these
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
they can where it isn't, where they are in a minority.
political organisations intervening in the movement. The
Gauche, for example?
PdG were very much supporting the strikes. However, they have a line
that political parties and trade unions have very different roles and
it was not up to them to call for a general strike. Their leader,
Mélenchon was asked on prime time TV if he was in favour of a
and he avoided the question by saying it was a problem for the unions.
PdG activists in some places were encouraging the generalisation of
the same time they had a parallel campaign demanding a referendum on
pension issue, even if they put this more on the backburner as the
rose. It was a very silly idea because if you had the balance of forces
force Sarkozy to call a referendum, that would be enough to force him
his law in the bin. So what was the meaning of this campaign from the
view of the Parti de Gauche? It meant obviously that the mass of the
respect constitutional forms , so you could get more of them with you
used consitutional arguments. I think that’s wrong but that's what it’s
Certainly the PdG is going to profit quite a bit from this movement;
calling for a
referendum found little echo amongst those involved in the movement?
probably had quite a good echo amongst voters and left people in
rather less amongst the people who were actually on strike, but then
not be their priority. I don't think they would lose electoral support
calling for a referendum. Obviously they annoy people on the far left
don't think that worries them. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader, has just
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
about building the social struggles, but at the end of the day calling
parliament to make big changes. But he does talk about big changes:
salary twenty times the minimum wage; very tough laws about finance;
through parliament but based on a very active dynamic social and
movement outside of parliament?
I think he massively overestimates how much the state would let us do,
ideas also include a lot of “Left nationalist” nonsense about the
progressive rôle the French state can play in world affairs and
so on. But his arguments on the welfare
important and he will get tremendous support for them.
Certainly revolutionaries and
anti-capitalists have to take his arguments very seriously and answer
not just say "Oh well he used to be in the socialist party, he must be
bastard", an attitude which unfortunately is not uncommon on the
weak in comparison to the influence they used to have. Are they
their alliance with the PdG?
from an electoral point of view. Though, in places like the oil
among the dockers, where the Communist Party members of the CGT are
they have a real base. Otherwise PCF sections were active collecting
organizing demos; Communist mayors were collecting money and taking it
picket lines. Of course the PCF is weaker than it used to be but it was
player in the movement.
Communist Party relies tremendously on its elected councillors and
regional councillors. The recent PCF conference was fundamentally a
turn to the
right, despite resistance from a significant Left minority; and the
leadership is now talking much more in terms of when they will be able
with the PS again. This is not on the cards immediately, but there is a
the right going on in the Communist Party.
they talk about at the moment is partly just you wait until 2012 for
presidential elections but also very importantly they raise the idea of
alternative reforms. Their latest leaflet says the reform of pensions
“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
system it is possible to do things differently. So they talk about
poison within our economy” which
financial capital represents. This is an old and incorrect PCF idea,
is a huge difference between productive capital and finance capital. So
very much left reformism.
members have been building the demonstrations certainly. In some areas
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
get people who are building the class struggle every time they can and
people ... well there are a lot of tired bureaucrats around. But in a
places people were happy that the Communist Party was around when
are presumably trying to make political capital out of the movement,
they support many aspects of the pension reform?
is a genuine left wing in the PS. I think it’s important for British
to understand that it is not a Blairite party, although there is a
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
party and so on. At their Summer school, the Left of the Socialist
Besancenot to debate in public with them. It’s not just a little
current but a significant left wing in the PS who have been delighted
involved in the movement. These would tend to be people who believe
have to frighten Sarkozy to win, and that reforms are possible if you
PS in power. They would like the socialist party to stay on the left,
left of the PS is much more interested in mobilising than it used to
only are they saying that we need to get the PS in but that we have to
sure they stay left.
don't have any detailed information of how much the PS were involved in
mobilisations, but the two people I know who are in the Socialist
been very much involved in the struggle.
terms of the
far left, how has Lutte Ouvrière been involved in the movement?
are a couple of things that have happened to Lutte Ouvrière over
twenty years. In 1986, when there were big strikes the influence of LO
ground in some industries was stunning. They would get one factory out
strike, they would march to the next factory to get them out on strike
continue. They don't have that influence any more. There are a few
this. First of all, they have been rather pessimistic about the strikes
ways because they consider the real working class to be the factory
perhaps the railway workers and so on, and not, for example, the office
or teachers or school canteen workers.
They support these other
on strike but they don't feel their “real” working class moving.
have also lost a lot of support because they just didn't care at all
whole load of issues which have really moved people. For
when Le Pen got through to the second round of the elections in 2002
millions were on the streets, LO refused to get involved. Another
the social forums which were denounced en bloc by LO rather than taken
kind of radicalisation with lots of contradictions. To give another
recently, two or three years ago, LO said “of course we are in favour
rights for homosexuals”, however they hadn't seen it necessary in the
forty years to mention this in their paper!
are also weak on the question of islamophobia?
they probably didn't lose support
by being completely indifferent to islamophobia at best. It’s that bad
Left on this issue.
enough, LO news papers during the strike have not been calling for a
strike. They have more been commenting that “ a wide explosive movement
needed”, but not specifically calling
for a general strike. It sounded more than a little abstract.
have also lost members over the last few years. There have been a
splits off from LO of some of the best people. They remain as an
of very dedicated people but let's say very workerist, very
really been a
in the movement?
don't think so, no. For example, when there is a town committee to
pensions which brings in the Communist Party and the Left Party and the
and, sometimes the SP as well if it’s a left wing branch, LO will
to be been very active in the movement, despite recent problems in
divisions and losing members?
the organisation really moved into action when the level of class
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
workers. You've got the whole range of the working class. You just sit
taking notes. You learn so much. It’s very good from that point of
I think the party was right on a number of things. First of all, to
for the general strike and renewable strikes on the front page of the
in every leaflet. It was really the only organisation which did. I
to say that we are with the only organisation because that means the
is awful. But the Parti de Gauche did not call for a general strike.
Ouvrière didn’t. The PCF certainly did not.
thing, I think the NPA was right to be putting forward the slogan
“Sarkozy out now!”, whereas the union
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
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
not fundamental but it shows that the party is chirpy and sharp. So I
that a lot of the activity with the Interpro, and a lot of the
“get him out now” and some criticism of the union leadership, that was
I think was weak...I think we could have been harder on the union
I wonder if it was possible to have a rally in front of the meeting of
intersyndicale which was the national meeting between union leaders, on
days when they were taking key decisions about the future of the
is not necessarily an easy thing to do, since you have a problem with
the left denouncing unions in general, but I wondered whether there
a way at least of getting leaflets out on the day of the meeting saying
had to go further. Not denouncing them as bastards, but saying you have
go further, that now is the time for a general strike. I thought that
should have been much sharper on that. The attitude of the union
the key reason the movement didn’t go further, and although NPA members
this it was not said sufficiently clearly in public leaflets or in the
appearances of Besancenot. There is the fear of appearing to be
also think that the party is slow off the mark in organising public
leaving them to a couple of weeks or three weeks’ time in the future. I
from a tradition where when things move you get meetings the same week.
been a little bit disappointed on that.
it’s all rather difficult because the NPA is very divided. It’s an
different perspectives which can be rather difficult to handle. Certain
can paralyse the organisation. In many ways it’s a network of
activists more than it is a party. It’s
very different from town to town. It’s a very federal organisation. So
be hard. I'm very happy with what the NPA did during the strike but I
there are serious weaknesses which need to be pushed forward. The
February will be looking at how we did in the movement and what to do
How do you think
the rank and file of unions can increase their influence over the next
really need to rebuild the unions. The level of unionisation is under
is not only a weakness but also it can mean that union members can have
bunkered-in or sectarian attitude,
partly because they get a lot of criticism from people who won't even
union. I've been in mass meetings where you get people standing up
the unions and they're not even a member. So there are a lot of
issues around that.
there should be some way of getting rank and file pressure up.
worked to some extent given that all the union leaders called seven
action within two months, which is absolutely unheard of. The typical
have been the one we saw at the beginning of 2010
- a day of action every six weeks..
they have been under one whole load of pressure, that’s for sure. Now
come back now. I don't know. I find it very difficult to know what’s
happen next. I'd like the NPA to be saying much more loudly rebuild the
recruit to the unions and obviously build an alternative leadership to
union leaders. Otherwise, if we don't do that we'll leave quite a lot
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
have only pure left-wing people in them. We want unions which have a
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
really have liked SUD to stay inside one of the bigger confederations
Nevertheless in some industries it’s now a real trade union and not
just a red