April 2006   
No New Popular Front of Class Collaboration –
For a Revolutionary-Internationalist Workers Party!

French Government Forced to
Back Down on Youth Jobs Laws

Youth occupy rail yards at Paris’ Gare du Nord station, March 30.  (Photo: Christophe Ena/AP)

After ten weeks of massive demonstrations followed by escalating road and rail blockages, on April 10 French president Jacques Chirac was finally forced to annul the “first job contract” (CPE) which set off the worker-youth revolt that convulsed France from north to south. It was a humiliating retreat for Chirac, with his majestic airs, his haughty aristocratic prime minister Dominique de Villepin and hard-line interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy. In particular, it was a heavy blow to the presidential ambitions of Chirac’s dauphin (anointed successor) de Villepin, who had vowed not to retreat or even substantially modify the widely hated law. But the government sought to limit the damage by only withdrawing one article of the egregiously misnamed “equal opportunity” law and rushing through a clause for “youth access to active life in the enterprises.”

The union bureaucrats and their counterparts in the parliamentary left, notably the Socialist (PS) and Communist (PCF) parties, cried victory. After several years of defeats, their aim was limited to knocking a hole in the regime’s shield of seeming invincibility. The reformists’ real aim was to prepare the way for an electoral victory for a new “popular front” coalition in the upcoming 2007 legislative and presidential elections. The students and youth were less effusive, vowing to continue the struggle to get rid of the entire youth jobs law, which includes clauses authorizing apprenticeship beginning at age 14 and night work from age 15; and to overturn the “new job contract” (CNE) passed last summer, which essentially gave small business owners the same right to fire young workers without cause for up to two years. But without the backing of the union and left parties, the youth protests and university strikes fizzled out.

The protests were the largest since 1968, larger even than the 1995 mobilizations against pension “reforms.” According to the union count, 1.8 million demonstrators came out on March 19 to protest the CPE; 2.6 million on March 28; and 3.1 million on April 4. As the government and opinion pollsters took almost daily surveys to gauge the pulse of the nation, two-thirds of the public disapproved of the government’s handling of the affair and found its explanations “unconvincing” while almost as many supported the protests. So when students blocked highways leading south out of Paris, police were stupefied when many of the stranded motorists applauded and raised their fists in solidarity. One truck driver said, “I understand them… I encouraged my son to go on strike – it’s his future, after all” (Le Parisien, 1 April).

During the mass marches, most banners were home-made. There were endless word plays on the initials CPE (“first swindling contract,” “first screwing contract,” “contract for slavery,” etc.). With the pervasive talk of a general strike (grève générale), the most popular sticker on March 28 was “rêve générale” (general dream), in imitation of the lyrical slogans raised by students in 1968.  People sang “le printemps sera chaud, chaud, chaud” (this Spring will be hot, hot, hot), the anthem of ’68. But politically, the dominant tone was the call to return the left to office. As marchers passed by the La Santé jail March 19, prisoners called out, “Chirac to prison, Villepin to the dungeon, Sarkozy in solidarity, the left to power!” (And, they added, “general amnesty in 2007,” when elections are to be held.)

The youth showed plenty of determination. When students occupied the Sorbonne, France’s premier university, on March 9, it took a veritable street battle for the cops to retake the installation two days later. The government thereupon locked out the students, erecting huge solid steel barricades in the surrounding streets. But imagination and determination are not enough to win a hard battle against the capitalist state. It was necessary to mobilize the working class, which has the power to cripple the bourgeois system. Hundreds of thousands of workers did indeed march in the protests, although union leaders went all out to prevent a general strike. But above all, what was needed was a revolutionary program and leadership that would take the struggle beyond the initial battle over the youth jobs law and broaden it into a struggle against capitalism.

While three-quarters of France’s universities were on strike at one point, it was not just university and secondary school students who walked out. During the several mass marches, many unionized sections of the working class struck as well. On March 28, this included not only the public sector, such as the railroads (SNCF), Air France, Paris metro (RATP), teachers, state radio, post office and even the Eiffel Tower and the Opera at the Bastille, but also many in the private sector, including half the Total oil refineries, more than half the workforce of France Télécom, Alcatel electronics plants, Renault and Peugeot. In 1995, only public sector workers struck.

The widespread support for the protests is partly due to the fact that the already-massive youth unemployment and lack of job security affect not only the working class but also large sectors of middle-class youth and their parents. Official statistics reported in the Nouvel Observateur (30 March) show that the number of youth between the age 15 and 24 who are married has fallen from 23.5 percent in 1975 to 2.3 percent in 2003; and that 65 percent of young men over the age of 24 still live with their parents! Even without the CPE, almost all young workers only have temporary job contracts, and the new law would have made it far easier to fire them. Under the CNE, there were reports of young women being fired for becoming pregnant and workers losing their jobs for refusing overtime.

Another factor in the broad scope of the revolt was the division within the governing troika of Chirac-Villepin-Sarkozy and the conservative majority in parliament. At one point, the Paris daily Libération ran a psychoanalysis of the prime minister concluding he was a narcissistic egomaniac with Napoleonic pretensions. When Villepin refused to submit to questions in the National Assembly, François Bayrou, leader of the UDF, one of the smaller bourgeois parties that had been part of the government, stomped out of the chamber complaining, “You can’t run a country with sheer obstinacy, above all when there are hundreds of thousands of people in the street.” Foreign minister Hervé de Charette reportedly asked at a meeting of the ruling UMP (Union for a Progressive Movement): “Is the President of the Republic really deaf and the Prime Minister really crazy?”

Ex-Far Left in the Popular Front Swamp

During the protests, the various components of what is conventionally known as the “far left” were active, although most of their members marched with union or student contingents. This was a deliberate tactic to counter accusations of trying to take over the movement. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) issued a special issue of its newspaper Rouge for the March 28 demonstration. Unlike its earlier leaflets, which just called to withdraw the CPE, this supplement added a series of reform demands (ban layoffs, monthly stipends for student youth of 800 euros, end “social segregation” by stopping the dismantling of social services, etc.). It included an article, titled “Strike, Strike, General Strike,” calling for a general strike to “put a stop to the liberal offensive” – i.e., to put the parliamentary “left” back into office, nothing about a fight for workers power.

But the LCR’s real message was in the front page headline, “Dehors!” (Get Out), calling to turn the “social crisis” into a “political crisis,” by demanding the “departure of an illegitimate team,” Chirac, Villepin and Sarkozy. No mention, of course, that the LCR voted for the conservative president in the 2002 elections, as did almost the entire left. Chirac went from 18 percent on the first round of voting to 82 percent in the runoff, and the right’s absolute majority in parliament is largely due to the left’s support for Chirac against the fascist Le Pen. The government has charged ahead as if it had a real mandate for its rightist agenda, but it keeps running up against massive resistance. Now the LCR, like the PS and PCF, wants to use the government’s defeat over the CPE to prepare the way for a “left” bourgeois government in 2007, a new popular front.

Lutte Ouvrière (LO) pushed the same utopian reformist notion of demanding that the bosses apply their profits to security jobs rather than paying dividends to stockholders. As we noted in our leaflet, “France: Workers Beat Back Attack on the Youth,” page 6), this won’t happen under capitalism, which is based on production for profit. But LO is more than just cock-eyed economism, it has a pronounced streak of populist chauvinism running through its politics. Thus in a special issue of Lutte Ouvrière for the April 4 demonstration, one article sharply criticized “radical” actions by the youth such as “blocking highways, railroads – even whole city centers.” Horrors! While these may be spectacular, LO argued, they could annoy train passengers. “Don’t become unpopular,” was its sage reformist advice.

Worse yet was a second article calling for “Defense Groups for Self-Protection.” Against what? The police? No, against “thugs” (voyous) the very word Sarkozy used to smear ghetto youth. LO cynically pretends that they are talking about all sorts of thugs, including skinheads, undercover police provocateurs, right-wing militants. But in reality, it was a call for vigilante squads against gangs who would “steal cellphones” from demonstrators. Talking of keeping out “people who have no business being there,” LO joined the outcry from the bourgeois media and capitalist politicians against casseurs (hooligans) in the demonstrations, making a big deal about very little. This is the same racist refrain taken up by the PCF and the reformist union tops who beat up minority youth and turned them over to the cops (see “Paris Demonstrators Demand: ‘Free Our Comrades!’). It is the police who have brutally beaten demonstrators and arrested thousands of youth over the last two months.

The Ligue Trotskyste de France (LTF, part of the International Communist League [ICL]), for its part, distributed a March 15 leaflet whose main headline simply calls, like the rest of the left, for “Down with the CPE!” and the “equal opportunity law.” While it did call for defense of ghetto youth, in contrast to the overtly chauvinist LO, the LTF leaflet presented no program for revolutionary struggle except for the call for a sliding scale of work hours. Instead it had a lengthy explanation that “Today we are not in 1968.” This is explained by the ICL’s refrain that counterrevolution in the ex-USSR led to “an enormous political demoralization among the workers,” so that “the working class at this time does not see revolutionary socialism as a viable alternative to capitalism.”

So, later for the revolution, dixit the ICL, which holds that the crisis of revolutionary leadership is no longer key but rather, “the working class must again understand and make Marxism its own.” (As if prior to 1989 the mass of French workers, supporters of the reformist PCF and PS, saw revolutionary socialism as a viable alternative to capitalism!) So now the left centrists of the ICL content themselves with proclaiming “down with” this and “down with” that, without a revolutionary subject (having written off the demoralized working class) and sans transitional program to lead from the present struggles to the “new October Revolutions”  which it talks of in the abstract.

The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and restoration of capitalism throughout East Europe is indeed behind the onslaught against workers’ living standards and social gains in West Europe and throughout the world. Reckoning that it no longer has to stave off a “communist threat,” the imperialist bourgeoisies have sought to roll back social programs with a vengeance, jacking up their profits as they intensify the drive to global war. The answer is not to proclaim that “we are not in 1968” and preach to the working class that, alas, it is no longer socialist. Rather, what’s called for is a fight by a genuine Trotskyist vanguard against the misleaders to bring socialist consciousness to the working class in the course of the class struggle. We need to prepare the way “For a new May ’68 that goes all the way! For workers revolution!” as the League for the Fourth International called for in our leaflet put out for the March 28 demonstration in Paris.

In France in particular, the capitalists have periodically run up against resistance from the working class, despite the weakened condition of the unions, in 1995 and again today. But instead of leading to broader class struggle, that resistance has been channeled into the dead-end of class collaboration by the reformist Socialist and Communist parties as well as the major components of the (not very) “far left,” which after the experience of the Mitterrand popular fronts of the 1980s and ’90s have long since become housebroken parliamentary and union reformists. Whether modeled on Mitterrand’s “Union of the Left,” Jospin’s “Plural Left” or some other variant going back to the 1930s, such popular fronts with sections of the bourgeoisie will only serve as roadblocks to revolution.

While there may be red flags in the recent French demonstrations, these struggles have in fact reawakened radical strivings among the youth. On the night of March 31, as Chirac announced his promulgation of the CPE (two weeks before he was forced to rescind it), thousands gathered in the Place de la Bastille to hear his talk. After loudly booing the president-who-would-be-king, columns of marchers took off for the Elysée presidential palace, the National Assembly and City Hall, only to be blocked by cordons of police. Passing the Palace of Justice, they chanted “Free our comrades.” At the Opera, they cried out to attendees in formal attire, “The penguins are with us!” Finally they headed up to the Montmartre Heights, the cradle of the Paris Commune, where in 1871 the workers revolt was drowned in blood. And there they joined in singing, at 4 a.m., the Internationale.

To achieve a real victory, the combativity and élan shown in the recent revolt must be led by a conscious vanguard to become a struggle leading toward workers revolution. This includes raising demands for workers action against layoffs, union control of hiring and union training and jobs programs for groups subject to discrimination. Against Sarkozy’s new immigration law, which would let France dispose of “surplus” immigrant workers just as Villepin’s CPE would let employers dispose of young workers “like Kleenex,” it is necessary to fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Real workers self-defense groups should be formed in the course of defending the besieged residents of the suburban ghettos from police assault.

The struggles of youth and workers in France must be joined with those of working people throughout Europe. On the same day as 700,000 people marched in Paris on March 28, 1.5 million British workers struck over attempts by Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government to gut their pensions, while German public workers have been on strike for weeks. Workers and youth throughout Europe must take up the struggle against the police-state measures of their rulers, who want to put the whole of society under 24-hour video surveillance. The fight over jobs must be part of a struggle to defeat the imperialist war drive, not only the U.S./British-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, but also the colonial occupation of Afghanistan and of Bosnia and Kosovo, in which all the NATO imperialists are involved.

Above all what’s needed, in France and everywhere, is an authentic Bolshevik-Leninist vanguard nucleus, key to building a revolutionary-internationalist workers party in the struggle to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. n

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com