France Matters Here Too

Rick Wolff

For many weeks now, the historic social change sweeping across France has drawn increasing attention globally. It should. A genuine, mass democratic upsurge has surprised all those who thought, hoped, or feared that such things could no longer happen in countries like France or the US. Millions of French people — in left political parties, church, and student groups — have accepted and cheered on the leadership of a unified trade union movement. They have recomposed and reinserted a powerful left into French politics. They are profoundly challenging President Sarkozy, his conservative political allies in both houses of the French legislature, and the entire twenty-five-year neo-liberal drift of economics and politics in France. Along the way, they have demonstrated a strength and cohesion that renders the existing French right an annoying small noise in comparison.

Depending on who counts, the French left has repeatedly mobilized between 1.3 and 2.9 million people into action in over 240 cities and towns across the country. Given that the US has five times the total population of France, the equivalent mass mobilization in the US would entail between 6.5 and 14.4 million. No political movement in US history has so far come close to such numbers of mobilized, active participants. This truly mass mobilization in France began with the general strike on September 7. That action garnered a public opinion poll of 70 per cent either “supporting” or “sympathetic to” the strike movement. That level of public opinion favoring the French strikers and demonstrators has held constant to this day despite escalating government and corporate threats, intimidations, and a defiant Sarkozy’s barking about never compromising. France’s “silent majority” is no longer quiet, thereby exposing the regime as a minority in power that seeks to maintain and exploit its self-serving political and economic positions.

The tension mounts with each passing week. So do the stakes. Behind the intense dispute over details of retirement eligibility, the government’s austerity program, etc., there looms the more basic question of whether France’s majority will continue to absorb the instabilities, inefficiencies, immense costs, and injustice of the country’s capitalist economic system.

The relevance of all this to everyone in this country should be clear. Average working people in the US have suffered since the crisis began in 2007 much as their French counterparts did; indeed, it hit harder here than there. The same issues that concern the French (unemployment, precarious jobs, declining benefits, huge government bailouts of the rich and well-connected, etc.) likewise agitate most people here. France’s experience suggests the potential in other countries for the parallel emergence there of huge left movements opposing policies that burden average citizens with the costs of capitalism’s crisis and of bailouts rewarding the same enterprises that contributed to the crisis. France today suggests that when you further push a population to suffer reduced public payrolls and thus government services (in “austerity” programs to pay for overcoming the crisis), you risk provoking a mass left upheaval into the political, cultural, and ideological life of a country. France will not be the same in the future, no matter how this crisis ends.

The French strikes and demonstrations are coalescing around some basic demands that go far beyond the rejection of Sarkozy’s demand for a two-year postponement of retirements for French workers. Contrary to so many US media reports, that particular issue was never what brought out millions of demonstrators and strikers; that was the bare tip of an iceberg. The issue that mobilizes the French is the basic question of who is to pay for (1) the collapse of global capitalism in 2008 and 2009, (2) the ongoing social and personal costs of high unemployment, loss of homes, reduction of job benefits, and the general assault on most citizens’ standards of living, and (3) the costs of ending the crisis. The French masses have already absorbed and suffered the costs of (1) and (2). They have drawn the line at (3). That they now refuse.

Instead, they demand that the costs of fixing capitalism’s crisis be borne chiefly by taxes on the banks, large corporations, and the wealthy. Those groups are declared to be (1) those most able to pay, (2) those who benefited most from speculations and stock market booms before the crisis began in 2007, (3) those whose investment and business activities were key causes of the crisis, and (4) those who got the biggest, earliest bailouts from governments subservient to them. As the Sarkozy government becomes increasingly isolated and reviled, the French capitalist elite — known there as the “patronat” — must begin to worry. That elite wants Sarkozy to preside effectively over a peaceful, docile, and profitable France, not one convulsed by such powerful oppositions. For them, he is not doing his job well.

Meanwhile, French workers re-learn — and remind everyone else — that, without their work, the economy stops. Corporate executives and politicians bark orders, but nothing happens unless and until workers comply. In their solidarity, the French rediscover the taproots of their political power. And their rediscovery ramifies everywhere, including among US workers, students, and others eager for a mass movement against capitalism’s crisis and the social costs it imposes. US citizens are seeking ways to articulate an attractive left economic and political criticism of the crisis and of the government’s response, and they are seeking a left alternative program to propose. France matters because it suggests a concrete form and substance for what such US citizens seek. Perhaps the best way to undercut the appeal and influence of the Tea Party Right in the US would be, as in France, the upsurge of a comparable left alternative.

Rick Wolff is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York.   He is the author of New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006) has a film on the crisism, Capitalism Hits the Fan, and a related book Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It.


This entry was posted in Protest and mobilisation, The crisis beyond the Hexagon, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to France Matters Here Too

  1. Kirk says:

    Aside from your superannuated cut-and-paste rhetoric, this article shows that you know very little about what’s happening in France. You say:

    “The issue that mobilizes the French is the basic question of who is to pay for (1) the collapse of global capitalism in 2008 and 2009, (2) the ongoing social and personal costs of high unemployment, loss of homes, reduction of job benefits, and the general assault on most citizens’ standards of living, and (3) the costs of ending the crisis. The French masses have already absorbed and suffered the costs of (1) and (2). They have drawn the line at (3). That they now refuse.”

    This is so wrong that it’s almost laughable. These demonstrations were about raising the early retirement age to 62 from 60 and the normal retirement age from 65 to 67. Since the average retirement age is just below 63, the change wouldn’t even touch most people. (Though there are still many protected groups that can retire at 50; though they didn’t say this, even as they demonstrated.)

    You also have absolutely no understanding about how the French demonstrate at the drop of a hat – or, more correctly, at the drop of a call from the unions.

    Some of the things you say are actually disturbing – you’re a professor emiritus, and you talk about “the entire twenty-five-year neo-liberal drift of economics and politics in France.” The current government would be Democrats in the US, and in that 25 years you cite there were about ten years with a Socialist president, and several other periods with a Socialist prime minister.

    It’s very hard to see anything here other than your Marxist propaganda, and an attempt to apply your ideas to a situation that you simply don’t understand.

    • Rick Wolff says:

      Setting aside the comment’s overheated tone and tired Cold War rhetoric, let me respond briefly as follows. Millions of people, French or other, do not mobilize repeatedly in strikes, general strikes, and mass demonstrations over relatively “small” issues like the Sarkozy retirement postponement. They do that because those small issues have come to symbolize an entire social situation. And nothing better summarizes that social situation in France than the neo-liberal drift of politics – especially including so large a portion of the Socialist Party – that generated and is the target of the current mass mobilization.
      French union leaders, like their counterparts everywhere else, know and agonize over calling most strikes, let alone general strikes. The risks and stakes are huge. The organizers of the September 7 general strike debated for months about whether to do that. They organized carefully, and were still as amazed by the size and strength of the response of their members and of French public opinion as the French right was struck by shock and awe. Moreover, any knowledge of the real history of relations among France’s many trade union federations and between them and left political formations and student groups would recognize that their remarkable solidarity in these sequential mobilizations could only occur when deeply-rooted and deeply-felt social conditions were generating a major social movement. In that light, dismissals of such a movement couched in the facile terms of “French dispositions to demonstrate/strike” say nothing about their object and everything about the speaker’s hostility.
      The movement in France is now becoming major news and inspiration in the US where parallel social conditions provoke parallel mass movement. However, here we lack the organizations on the left to mobilize the kind of movement France has achieved. Thus here we watch as the enduring economic crisis drives an enraged population into the Tea Parties and toward the absurd decision to vote back in the Republicans since that population lacks any other form in which to express its rage.

      • Kirk says:

        First, regarding my “overheated tone and tired Cold War rhetoric,” you, sir, are the one using terms like “twenty-five-year neo-liberal drift of economics and politics,” and “Corporate executives and politicians bark orders, but nothing happens unless and until workers comply.” The former shows your lack of familiarity with French politics, and the latter your ideology. Especially regarding the former, I would expect someone who is a professor to look up the recent history of France to know what types of administrations this country has seen in the past 25 years…

        Demonstrations and strikes are, to the French, a way to spend a nice day outside in the fall. They happen very often; pretty much every year at this time. The French even have an expression for this period: “la rentrée sociale.” If it’s not one issue, then it’s another. The French thrive on conflict – they don’t want to negotiate, and they demonstrate for small issues often. They see this as a way of showing that they are politically involved, whereas, in most cases, the majority of the demonstrators are no more involved than for the time of their demonstrations. (Union membereship, for example, is lower in France than in almost any EU country, and lower than in the US.) That you may not be aware of this is understandable, not being in France.

        As for the unions and the mobilisation, it’s not that surprising, because they presented the issue as one affecting people directly, which is often not as simple when they organize large demonstrations. And the “people” fell for it, not realizing that the cost of retirements has increased greatly because of demographics. If it were so cut and dried, the Socialist opposition party would have taken a stand much earlier, and taken a more clear stand. As it is, they hummed and hawed for quite some time, realizing that this increase in retirement age is unavoidable. What stuns me most is the lack of solidarity with the children and grandchildren who would have to pay more if the retirement age were not pushed back. Another thing you may not know is that the unions are the ones who actually run the different pension plans, and they are well aware of the financial situations that are approaching.

        The conditions in the US are not at all similar. Tea party protesters are complaining about the government spending _too much_, not about any cutbacks or decreases in entitlements. Quite the contrary – they’re against any kind of social safety net. The parallel is incorrect. That tea party protesters are being manipulated by groups who have an interest in fomenting such demonstrations is certainly the only parallel between the two.

        It’s also worth pointing out that the French work the shortest amount of time (in hours per year) of any EU country, and tend to retire earlier than many of those in other EU countries (the best comparison). Yet they feel that they should be entitled to a retirement at an early age, regardless of the overall social costs. There are still special groups of workers eligible for retirement at age 50 (notable train workers), yet they avoid telling the general public about their special circumstances.

        It’s very easy to claim to see parallels from afar, but you truly don’t understand the way politics in France works, nor how such issues play out in this country.

  2. Kirk says:

    BTW, let me just point out, regarding my comment above, that I live in France, unlike the author…

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