January-February 1997
From Railroad Workers in 1995 to Immigrants, Truckers in 1996
Workers Struggles Shake Chirac-Juppé Government

Among the several explosions of social unrest that have punctured the myth of a "New World Order" following the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and the East European bureaucratically deformed workers states, the most dramatic was the November-December 1995 strike movement by French workers. It was the largest and most sustained outpouring of militant working-class action in France since May 1968. While it was eventually called off by reformist bureaucrats scared to death that the mobilizations would break out of their control and spark a genuine general strike, going beyond day-long parades to a showdown between labor and capital, the rail workers and allied public sector workers (postal, public transportation) managed to beat back the plans by the conservative Gaullist RPR government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who were seeking to push the retirement age up to 65, after 40 years on the job.

While they breathed easier for a few months, the bourgeoisie and the bureaucrats have been unable to break the combative spirit of November-December 1995 or lock it into tightly controlled, secure channels. Barely a year later, a militant strike by French truck drivers broke out following a national labor demonstration on November 19. Quickly spreading throughout the country, the truckers set up more than 250 blockades, pulling their trailers across the autoroutes (superhighways) and parking them at key junctions, blocking off entrances to all 13 oil refineries in France as well as many of the 342 fuel depots, sealing off the borders, shutting down deliveries to wholesale markets. The truckers\' action was massively popular: an IFOP (French Institute of Public Opinion) survey reported that 75 percent of the population supported the strike, and 87 percent approved of their demands. And the strike soon began to strangle all sorts of industries, from Christmastime deliveries of chocolates to production of automobiles and trucks.

Although the French truckers strike was a continuation of the labor unrest of 1995 (and the 1993-94 struggles against privatization of Air France and the 1994 mobilization against Juppé's plans to introduce a sub-minimum wage for youth), it also represented an important shift. Where previous actions were overwhelmingly of public sector workers, who have a higher rate of unionization, the road haulage drivers are in the private sector. Moreover, while European workers' struggles in recent years have been overwhelmingly defensive in character­in response to attacks on the scala mobile (sliding scale of wages, an inflation adjustor) in Italy, on health insurance in Germany, on pensions just about everywhere­the truckers' action was an offensive strike by a relatively lower-paid sector seeking to win new gains.

After 12 days on strike, the drivers were able to win the right to retirement at age 55, after 25 years of work. In addition, the government promised to issue a decree to pay truckers for "dead time" (the hours spent waiting to be dispatched, between runs, and for loading and unloading). The settlement was by no means a complete success. Union leaders declared victory and called off the action without winning any wage increase (the trucking companies had offered an insulting 1 percent), although drivers will receive a bonus of 3,000 francs (about $500). This is not a minor matter in an industry where many drivers make little more than the minimum wage for a workweek averaging up to 60 hours. But in achieving significant gains on the key question of pension rights, the truckers will inspire other workers to fight for the same. After eight days on strike, public transport workers in Toulouse won a 35-hour workweek and retirement at age 55, as public transport workers in Rouen struck for the same demands. If this continues, the Chirac-Juppé "reforms" to social security would end up in the dustbin, and Juppé could be out of a job.

These are important achievements, but they are at best temporary. The attacks on social welfare programs are international in scope. Now that the capitalist rulers feel they no longer have to ward off a "communist threat," and facing intensified competition between competing imperialist trade blocs, the bourgeoisie worldwide is trying to loot pension plans, push costs of medical services onto the workers, and slash wages and job protection in the name of "labor flexibility." Workers in Germany and Italy are facing the same assault on social benefits as French workers, as part of the conditions for the introduction of a common European currency in 1999. As a result of the tight monetary "discipline" imposed by the German Bundesbank, requiring that budget deficits be no more than 3 percent of gross national product, unemployment is kept in double digits, with over 20 percent jobless in Spain and Greece. To fight this concerted bourgeois onslaught will require a united working-class counteroffensive.

The French truckers' strikes showed the workers have a tremendous willingness to fight. The highway blockades were solid: at most, private cars were allowed to snake their way through. Some blockades, as at Caen, had up to 1,000 rigs­--it would have taken the army to clear the roads (and defense minister Hernu threatened to bring out tanks to do so). Nothing moved out of the refineries: within days, dozens of service stations were shutting down and local officials were rationing fuel. In a couple of instances where a British and a German driver tried to bust through, they ended up in the hospital. Yet the action was not marked by nationalist chauvinism. On the contrary, the French strikers spent the duration of the strike together with the drivers from various European countries who were caught in the blockades, sharing food, swapping stories. While the media spread sob stories about foreign truckers "held hostage," more far-sighted bourgeois figures are worried that the "hostages" could spread the "bacillus" of militant labor action.

European capitalists collectively shuddered at the dramatic impact of the truckers' action. The London Financial Times (4 December) went further:

"It's not just the French truck drivers' strike, though that was bad enough. The government's craven and incompetent handling of the truckers' disruptive industrial action, and its virtual capitulation before most of their demands, amounts to an alarming failure of nerve on the part of the political authorities and an open invitation to other interest groups to try their luck by similar strong-arm methods."

The German news weekly Focus (2 December) denounced the strike as "Extortion on Wheels." Auto manufactuers were particulary hard hit: Volkswagen was waiting for sheet metal parts, Audi for air conditioning and heating units, BMW for gearboxes and windshield wiper assemblies. Having introduced Japanese-style "just in time" production methods, which cut costs by slashing inventories, the bosses are belatedly discovering that the system of rapid deliveries depends on the absence of strikes. With suppliers distributed throughout the contient, a strike at any key plant could bring the entire chain to a grinding halt.

The French truckers' strike also gives the lie to the labor bureaucrats' lament that "globalization" makes strikes obsolete. On the contrary, it makes international labor action all the more effective. Yet the reformist union tops, whose "maximum program" is for a nationally limited "welfare state," are incapable of waging such a class war that surges over national boundaries. That "social state" was above all a weapon of the bourgeoisies and their social-democratic labor lieutenants in the anti-Soviet Cold War. Once the spectre of a "red menace" was gone, the capitalist rulers quickly abandoned any pretense of providing a social "safety net." So far, the European bourgeoisies have talked tough and then backed down in the face of resistance. But feeling pressure to jack up their profit rates by increasing the rate of exploitation, and to increase "competitiveness" against lower-cost producers amid the burgeoning of world trade, they are gearing up for a showdown. The working class needs a leadership that can successfully wage the coming battles, and it will not come from the social democrats and ex-Stalinists who are irrevocably wedded to class collaboration with "their" bourgeoisie. What is required above all is the forging of a genuinely communist, working-class vanguard party based on the Bolshevik program of Lenin and Trotsky for world socialist revolution.

"We're All In the Galley Together"

Among the French working people, the truckers' strike inspired an outpouring of solidarity action. Many people showed up at the blockades to donate food. The town of Cahors opened up a swimming pool to let the drivers shower, collected wood to be burned in the oil drums at the blockades to warm the strikers, and offered a giant paella. Near Bordeaux, whose mayor is Prime Minister Juppé, farmers organized a "solidarity barbecue." In the small town of Saint-André-de-Cubzac in the Gironde region, halfway between Nantes and Bayonne, food collected by unions was cooked in municipal kitchens, and a hairdresser spent the week shampooing the drivers' hair for free. "It's not exactly their style, beauty salons," she remarked, but added, "We're all in the galley together, so we should help each other out a bit" (Libération, 28 November 1995).

In addition to the spontaneous sympathy, there was a great opportunity for the road haulage strike to spread. On November 27 and 28, the flight personnel of all the French airline companies struck, cutting domestic and inter-European air traffic by one-half to three-quarters. On the 26th, the railroad workers at the Sotteville-lès-Rouen voted to strike and occupied a bridge at the entrance to the city, cutting off rail traffic between Paris, Rouen and the port of Le Havre. However, the obvious possibility of and urgent need for a total transportation strike was sabotaged by the union bureaucrats. Nicole Notat, head of the social-democratic CFDT labor federation whose backstabbing opposition to last year's public workers strike was rewarded by the government with positions in the state social security system, denounced as a "farce" any extension of the strike to other sectors. This, despite the fact that the CFDT transport federation is the strongest of the several unions among the truckers. (It also leads opposition to Notat within the CFDT.)

Louis Viannet, head of the CGT federation historically associated with the Communist Party, took a more militant pose, talking of the "possibility" of "enlarging the action." But the previously scheduled union "day of action" on November 27 went nowhere, because it was given no clear marching orders: the CGT brass only said that their call to action would not exclude walkouts! Even the teachers of the FSU federation and the SUD-Rail union, whose leaders include numerous present and former supporters of Alain Krivine's Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), didn't go beyond vague calls for "concrete" but unspecified solidarity action. For the most part, this amounted to bringing food and showing up at the highway blockades. A nice gesture, but hardly what was needed to win the stunning victory that could have been achieved.

A crucial opportunity for extending the strike to other sectors was with the Rouen railroad workers, who voted to strike on the 26th. The depot and yards at Sotteville-lès-Rouen were a key bastion of militancy in the 1995 rail strike. Yet the rail union leaders went out of their way to separate the two-day walkout this time from the truckers strike. A CGT delegate pointedly said: "Attention! This is not a struggle to support the truckers, not even some kind of solidarity, merely a convergence of struggles" (Le Monde, 27 November). This can be ascribed to the ex-Stalinists, long practiced in keeping struggles separate, the better to sell them out (recall PCF leader Maurice Thorez' famous slogan in 1936, "It's necessary to know how to end a strike"). In this case, at the end of the truckers' strike, the CGT leadership didn't sign the accord (although expressing a "positive appreciation" of it), obviously fearing it would be caught out in case of a rank-and-file revolt against the extremely vague settlement. But the fact that the struggle did not expand beyond narrow trade-union limits was in good part due to the action and inaction of the "far-leftists" of yesterday, who today are a big chunk of the mid-level and even upper-level union leaderships.

"As during the social movement of November and December 1995, no coordinating body appeared to supplant the union organizations," astutely noted Le Monde. What was urgently needed was elected strike committees, recallable at any time, to place control of the strike in the hands of the ranks, and to enable strikers to overcome the crippling effects of union divisions and reach out to include the vast mass of non-unionized workers (90 percent among the truck drivers, even more in the rest of private industry) and "immigrant" workers. There are six different railway worker union federations, divided by political tendency. Elected strike committees could become the nucleus for workers councils, drawing in the unemployed and other oppressed sectors, should the struggle expand to a broader social confrontation. And they could lay the basis for genuine industrial unions, by providing a concrete experience of militant, united action. The "coordinating committees" that appeared in the 1986 strike, largely the work of the pseudo-Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and LCR, were a poor excuse for strike committees, but they did briefly go beyond traditional union boundaries. However, now that the LCR and LO supporters have moved up in the union bureaucracies, they see no need to go around them. So today these ex-"far leftists" oppose such formations.

Build a Trotskyist Party!

There is a burning need to build an authentically Trotskyist party in France. Such a party would intervene in the potentially explosive workers' struggles which have followed one upon another over the last several years (Air France, 1993-94; student-youth sub-minimum wage, 1994; railroad and public workers, 1995; truck drivers, 1996), raising demands and calls to action that underline the need to break out of the constraints imposed by the reformist party/union leaderships and to embark on a course toward a struggle for power. The November-December 1995 strike movement showed how quickly events will escalate to a fight over "who shall be master in the house," the working class or the bourgeoisie. And in order to lead the workers to a consciousness of their own class interests and a struggle for power­to transform the proletariat, in Karl Marx's expression, from a class in itself into a class for itself­a revolutionary party must be forged that puts forward a transitional program leading to workers revolution. As Leon Trotsky wrote in the founding program of the Fourth International:

"It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat."

­-The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (The Transitional Program)

A central question facing all European workers at present is the phenomenon of mass unemployment. The official jobless total in France hit a record 12.6 percent last September. The striking truckers showed an awareness of this in demanding and winning agreement that for every driver who retired, a new full-time job will be created. This awareness must be generalized into an attack on the capitalist system which has produced unemployment for millions of workers. Even some bourgeois economists are advocating a reduced workweek in order to create more jobs, but the proposals for a 37.5-hour, 35-hour or 32-hour workweek put forward by various centrists and reformists, including the various left-wing union federations, are hopeless schemes to reform capitalism. Full employment is impossible short of socialist revolution. Thus the Trotskyist demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours, to shorten the workweek with no loss in pay to provide jobs with union-scale wages for all, is a transitional demand pointing to the need for a socialist planned economy. It also lays the basis for uniting employed workers with the unemployed.

A revolutionary workers party must drive home the fundamental lesson that the fight for the emancipation of the working class cannot be a narrow union action, but must include and champion the cause of all the oppressed. In particular, any serious struggle against the all-sided offensive of capital and its "executive committee," the bourgeois state, must defend and include in its ranks the several million immigrants who are currently under massive attack, along with the many youth of North African and African origin born in France, who are commonly (and wrongly) included under the term "immigrants," both by the bourgeoisie and the reformists. A disproportionate number of "immigrant" youth in the working-class suburbs are unemployed. Furthermore, since most public sector jobs require citizenship papers, immigrant workers are concentrated in the private sector. These divisions played an important role in the November-December 1995 strike actions, as private sector workers stayed on the margins of the struggle which focused on the issue of pensions and health care for government employees.

Beyond demands for jobs, pensions and free, socialized health care for all, class-conscious workers must explicitly take up the fight to defend immigrants against the government's program of mass expulsions. Since January 1994, under the vicious Pasqua Laws, children born in France to non-citizens are not themselves guaranteed the right to citizenship. Seeking to raise its 20-percent ratings in the opinion polls by competing with Le Pen and his fascist National Front in immigrant-bashing, the Chirac-Juppé government has sought to complement its economic program of mass unemployment with mass expulsions of immigrants. And contrary to the orchestrated uproar over "illegal" immigration, many if not most of those who today are in the movement of the sans-papiers (those without documents) are former legal residents whose papers were cancelled by government fiat. This fight came to a head last August with the government raid on the St.-Bernard church in Paris to remove the more than 200 predominantly black African undocumented workers who had sought refuge there.

The church occupation had been going on since late June and was a focus of public attention. In the days leading up to the government's August 23 raid, prominent human rights advocates, political personalities and even film stars flocked to the church as a show of solidarity with the sans-papiers, ten of whom had been on hunger strike for seven weeks to publicize their desperate situation. This didn't stop Chirac-Juppé, who sent in the CRS riot police with batons swinging, dispatched the hunger strikers to a military hospital, sent the women to the armory in Vincennes and tried to put many of the single men along with scores of other deportees onto chartered planes for Africa. The brutal police assault stirred up a hornet's nest. More than 10,000 demonstrated that afternoon in protest in the Place de la République, including a sizeable contingent of CGT unionists. Four days later, 15,000 marched, including Communist and Socialist party leaders, to protest the "shame" of the anti-immigrant raid and deportations. But it was a demonstration of impotence.

The French working class, including its substantial immigrant component, has the power to halt these deportations­what it is urgently needed is a revolutionary leadership to mobilize that power. Instead of a handful of movie stars like Emmanuelle Béart and Miou-Miou expressing their concern, there should have been sizable worker-immigrant defense guards at the church, with plans to mobilize hundreds of unionists on a moment's notice. If the "forces of order" had been surrounded and unable to move, there could have been a militant mass mobilization in response to the raid. As it was, the government had a hard time finding pilots to fly its deportation charters, and it had to use a military plane because ground crews refused to service them. On September 6, transport workers unions demonstrated against the deportations outside the Air France offices on Champs-Elysée. But instead of leaving the question up to the initiative of individual crews, the unions should have ordered ground crews, pilots and air controllers to refuse to handle them. This would have laid the basis for unity in action with workers in Senegal and Mali, where airport personnel refused to touch the planes as thousands flocked to the airports in solidarity with the deportees.

But to carry out such class-struggle actions, leading to a showdown with the unpopular government, requires a leadership and a party with a program for a fight for power. While the CGT and other unions marched in opposition to the deportations, and the SUD federation influenced by the pseudo-Trotskyist LCR gave the sans-papiers lodging in its offices, there was no mass militant working-class mobilization in defense of the immigrants. To do so would have meant repudiating the chauvinist policies of the union and party leaderships, both Socialist (PS) and especially Communist (PCF). For years the reformists have shown their loyalty to French capitalism with slogans such as "produce French" and disgusting chauvinist acts such as sending bulldozers to tear down an immigrant hostel in the PCF-governed suburb of Vitry on the eve of the 1981 election that brought into office the popular-front Union of the Left led by social democrat Mitterrand. In justification of their viciously anti-immigrant policies, Chirac and Juppé could point to the fact that Mitterrand and "the left" had also victimized immigrants during their years in office.

If today, according to a late August poll published by Le Monde (27 August), some 50 percent of those who support the Communist Party approved of the deportations, it is due to the PCF's own policies of imperialist national chauvinism. Their policies laid the basis for Le Pen's increased support in the former "red belt" of working-class suburbs around the capital. (Yet despite their leaders' despicable line towards immigrants in recent years, in the same polls 64 percent of PCF supporters express sympathy for the sans papiers.) While the PS, PCF and various "far leftists" of yesteryear call for "Down with the Pasqua Laws," they do not raise any positive demands. And they certainly do not raise the elementary call for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, for everyone living in the country.

Social democrats, ex-Stalinists and pseudo-Trotskyists in France all push one or another reform program as a diversion from the struggle for working-class state power. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the wake of the destruction of the Soviet Union, removing the last vestige of justification for the separate existence of the long-since reformist PCF, various schemes have been percolating on the French left for a new "project" of "unity." Right-wing Socialists dream of creating a French version of Clinton's Democratic Party, dropping any reference to the workers movement. Communist Party leader Robert Hue wants a new edition of the Union of the Left, this time with formal PCF participation in the government. Alain Krivine's LCR, meanwhile, is placing its bets on "the construction of a new party, whose strategic choices will be unfinished." And while Krivine hails his meeting with Hue at PCF headquarters in Place Colonel-Fabien last year as a great victory, the PCF continues to pursue its policies of "constructive opposition" to Chirac-Juppé (in reality, support with "constructive" criticisms).

What about those who claim to stand to the left of the reformists? Internationally, various centrists limited themselves to praising uncritically the militancy of the truckers. Jorge Altamira's Partido Obrero in Argentina simply proclaimed "Workers Victory in France" (Prensa Obrera, 5 December), and the following week quoted Libération's editorial comment that "Struggle Pays." The French affiliate of the British-based Workers Power group likewise hailed the "Victory of the Truckers" (Pouvoir Ouvrier, December 1996), saying that this showed that strikes work and it was possible to go on the offensive. But how, and for what goals? The maximum program of these pretenders to the mantle of Trotskyism is for "a new 'All Out Together' (tous ensemble)." A Pouvoir Ouvrier leaflet for the 17 October 1996 "day of action" called by the social-democratic FO union federation called for an "unlimited general strike in the public sector." In December 1995, the strike movement in France was rapidly developing toward an all-out general strike, which was certainly on the order of the day. But a general strike only poses the fundamental question of a struggle for power. To resolve this, the urgent need is for a Trotskyist party to lead the fight to victory. On this question of questions, these centrists are silent.

The weakness of the Chirac-Juppé regime is evident. But this conservative government, which was elected on the promise of providing jobs, only exists because of the prostration of the reformist social-democratic and ex-Stalinist left, worn out by years in office loyally administering French capitalism for the bosses. Yet the ambition of various pseudo-Trotskyists is to be the left tail of a new popular front, or even brokers for a new "unfinished" French labor party. But the central lesson of the French workers struggles of 1995 and 1996 is precisely the indispensability of an authentically Leninist party that can intervene in the explosive mass struggles to lead them toward a fight for a workers government.

The International Communist League and its French section, the Ligue Trotskyste (LTF) correctly stated, in articles on France in Workers Vanguard Nos. 652 and 657 (27 September and 6 December 1996), that "Revolutionary Leadership Is Key." What does that revolutionary leadership consist of? The articles call for worker/immigrant mobilizations to stop racist terror, full citizenship rights for immigrants, a single industrial union of truck drivers and defense of fired truckers. But they stop short of raising a program of transitional demands, making no mention of how to fight mass unemployment, or about how to generalize the struggles leading toward a fight for working-class power. And but for the mention of a motion by a supporter in an assembly of CGT and SUD postal unions in August, calling on the unions to mobilize to stop the deportations, there is no mention of intervention in these struggles by the LTF. In effect, the ICL shares with centrists like Workers Power and Altamira's Partido Obrero the conception that these struggles are necessarily limited to the capitalist framework.

A genuinely Bolshevik party must be built through patient propaganda, systematic education of cadres and also through intervention where the working masses are fighting to defend their interests, in order to lead those struggles toward a revolutionary fight for power. The "Theses on Tactics" of the Third Congress of the Comintern (1921) were emphatic on this score:

"The Communist Parties can only develop through struggle. Even the smallest parties should not limit themselves to propaganda and agitation. The Communists must act as the vanguard in every mass organization....

" In the place of the minimum programme of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship."

Here is the core of the conception of the transitional program later elaborated by Trotsky in the 1930's, another period characterized both by historic defeats for the proletariat (Nazis coming to power in Germany in 1933, Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War) and by tumultous workers' struggles, from general strikes in France to the organization of the CIO in the United States

The French strikes of 1995 and 1996 were fueled by a deep-seated anger and malaise among French working people, who have endured more than a decade and a half of mounting unemployment and deteriorating conditions under governments of both left and right. (In fact, the truckers were striking against regulations decreed in 1983 by PCF transport minister Fiterman which provided only partial pay for loading time.) A unionist in Caen remarked at a solidarity demonstration that "ultimately it is the same anger as in December 1995," calling it a "revolt" against "15 years of rigueur" (the French code word for austerity). The awareness of many workers that the popular front in power was no better than the Chiraquie presents an important opportunity for revolutionaries. Yet the absence of a revolutionary opposition played a major role in the ability of the bureaucrats to call off the strike. At the same time as he noted that "militancy pays," business consultant and sociologist Henri Vacquin commented: "Because there is no political alternative, with a continuation of the strike one had to fear for social and democratic stability.... Since neither the democratic right nor the left have alternative social projects, a social destabilization would have been very dangerous and can aid the crazies like the National Front" (Die Tageszeitung, 7 December).

The fear that only the fascists would profit from "social destabilization" speaks volumes about the evident bankruptcy of the reformist left. What's needed is a struggle pointing to a revolutionary workers government, breaking through the popular-front roadblock of class collaboration to an open fight against the system which means unemployment for millions, racist attacks on immigrants, and a dismantling of even the minimal social "safety net" now considered a drain on profits. It is the task of those who continue on the road of Lenin and Trotsky to build the genuinely communist party which can provide that leadership in struggle, not only in the "hexagon" (France) but also beyond the Rhine, the Alps and the Channel. Against the Europe of the bosses, it is necessary to reforge the Fourth International in the struggle for a Socialist United States of Europe. n