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French workers invite themselves into the presidential campaign

Marc Lasalle and Dave Stockton

Marc Lasalle and Dave Stockton

The steel workers of Florange, in the industrial region of Lorraine in eastern France, promised to be the nightmare of Nicolas Sarkozy and his government during the presidential elections. They have been as good as their word. In mid-March they invited themselves to the Sarkozy campaign HQ and were welcomed by police in riot gear with tear gas. Then they organised a « steel » march on Paris. As a result, their leader has become one of the most popular figures of this campaign.

The struggle of the Florange workers to prevent the closure of the ArcelorMittal plant has become emblematic of the economic crisis and its devastating effects on the working class. In 2007, Sarkozy had promised to keep the nearby Grandrange site in operation but this proved to be another of his empty promises. In March, he exited his HQ saying he was “too busy” to meet the steel workers.

Today, Florange is the symbol of French working class resisting the wave of factory closures and its consequences; unemployment and precarité – temporary, part time and low paid jobs replacing full time ones. Similar struggles are also taking place elsewhere: the workers in the factory producing tea bags in Fralib, near Marseille, are struggling against the giant corporation Unilever that plans to close the factory there despite the enormous profits they are making. In Aulnay, in the northern suburbs of Paris, thousands marched against a plan to close the Peugeot car factory, where workers are well organised and politically active too.

These struggles have had a clear impact on the campaign. While Sarkozy tried to steer the campaign towards the themes of immigration and personal security, especially after the shootings in Toulouse, these workers’ struggles brought right to the fore the problems and critical situation of millions of workers and their families, obliging most of the candidates to visit these factories and promise to support their struggles.

It is unprecedented that the major trade union the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) has kept mobilising throughout these months on around the slogan “get rid of Sarkozy”. Several days of action, mobilisations and demos clearly showed that the vanguard of the French workers’ movement has decided to stop Sarkozy being re-elected. Despite suffering defeat in the 2010 struggle against the Sarkozy pension reform, workers clearly want to hit back at him by all means available, including at the ballot box. This is completely correct, but it also contains a great danger that workers rely on reformist leaders as a lesser evil.

François Hollande, candidate for the Socialist Party, has definitely taken a turn to the left in his speeches. One of his clips shows images from the 1789 revolution, then workers on strike in 1936 and it concludes, “Change is now”. Of course, François Hollande will not deliver change or the equality that he promises, but another version of austerity and attacks, just as his “Socialist” friends Zapatero and Papandreou did in Spain and Greece.

The sensational rise of Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Mélenchon- candidate of the Left Front (Front de Gauche-FdG) is the real surprise of this campaign. Thanks to a very active campaign, with Communist Party members and CGT activists mobilising through their networks, all his meetings are mass events, mobilising tens of thousands of people (120,000 in Marseille last week), chanting “ Résistance! résistance !” Mélenchon offers radical speeches and radical slogans but, nevertheless, from a reformist point of view.

All his slogans, like his call for a “citizen’s revolution”, a “civic insurrection” and a “Sixth Republic” show the powerful imprint of last year’s Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados and US Occupy movements with their calls for real democracy and equality. Amongst the nine points that sum up his programme are ones addressed to the immediate economic needs of working people. They are aggressively redistributionist in a way not seen in most mainstream socialist election programmes since the 1970s and 80s. It begins;

“France has never been so wealthy but this wealth has never been so badly shared out. Our absolute priority is to eradicate poverty, precarious employment and get the economy going again by redistribution.

• Prohibit sackings and restore long term contracts (CDIs) as full-time as a standard employment contract.

• Bring the minimum wage up to a net 1,700 euros per month for 35 hours and establish a maximum salary range of from 1 to 20 for all businesses.

• Restore the right to retire at age 60 at the full pension rate, increasing the social minimum and creating an autonomous youth allowance of autonomy.

• Adopt a pact defending public services and developing new ones (health, housing, childcare …).”

These demands are, in themselves, good, but, under the complacent phrase “France has never been so wealthy” they ignore the fact that to take that wealth out of the hands of a tiny layer of millionaires, bankers and businessmen, will require more than taxation. To lay hold not just of their spending money but their investments, their factories, banks, retail chains, and use them for the good of all, entails expropriation. And this will require the mobilisation of the working class in a revolutionary movement. All actions short of this, any programme that rejects this, will simply lead to a flight of capital, to economic sabotage as well as the revolt of the state machine, the judiciary, the police, the army etc. against any serious inroads on their wealth and property.

Other sections of the programme summary are entitled “Regain power over the banks and financial markets”, “ Environmental Planning” and “a republic for real”. The programme does deal with the question raised so often in the occupied squares in 2011 – real democracy and how far the present system seems from it.

No 6 says “Convene a constituent assembly of the Sixth Republic” and talks of the need to “establish a true democracy, independent of the dominant powers of money”, “to give powers to the whole society, both citizens and employees”. It talks of “participatory democracy,” “fighting against presidentialism” and “restoring the primacy of parliament over the executive”.

All very radical and, indeed, supportable, demands but they ignore one crucial prerequisite – how to mobilise the forces needed to deprive the bosses and the bankers of their power – their control over the special bodies of armed men who constitute the bedrock of the state. Does any militant worker or young person who witnessed how the police and the CRS repressed the movements of the past decade seriously imagine that an electoral mandate alone will make them hold up their hands and surrender?

However, whatever its weaknesses, the popular success of Mélenchon’s verbal radicalism has had an impact on Hollande who, in turn, has radicalised his own slogans by calling for a 75 percent tax on anyone who makes more than one million euro a year. This has naturally enraged the media of the French capitalists, who have threatened a flight of capital if he wins.

Mélenchon’s real purpose, for all this revolutionary rhetoric, is to channel workers’ militancy safely within the bourgeois electoral system and its parliamentary parties. However, a high score for Mélenchon (he is credited with as much as 17 per cent in the recent polls) could open a phase in which it would be more difficult for a Socialist Party government to carry out austerity policies and where struggles could erupt from the mis-match between workers’ expectations and what the Socialist Party will actually carry out in government.

The NPA’s campaign – why it’s justified and what are its weaknesses

It is in this phase that the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) could also play an important rôle. Today, the fact that its candidate, Philippe Poutou, will be able to stand in the election is rightly seen as a victory for the activists who toured even the most isolated French villages in the quest for the signatures of 500 mayors, which are the precondition for being allowed to stand. Today, they have finally been able to turn to mass campaigning. Up to now, the media have been able to virtually blank out Poutou and the fact that he was indeed scoring very low figures in opinion polls allowed many, even in the NPA, to rubbish his campaign, even to suggest that it was “sectarian” for him to stand against Mélenchon.

In fact, the NPA candidate’s profile could not be more appropriate to the present situation. Philippe Poutou is a worker in the Ford Blanquefort factory, close to Bordeaux. He struggled for years to save his factory from closing. While he is not a professional politician or media personality, he has personal and political qualities that put him far ahead of such people in the eyes of many ordinary French workers. He thinks and speaks like them. He knows the life of millions working hard for a living or facing unemployment. In this way, he is rapidly gaining wider popularity and could become, like Olivier Besancenot before him, the voice of the masses of workers who have had enough of austerity and attacks from the government and the bosses.

Moreover, he correctly calls for a united mass struggle – “tous ensemble” against austerity, and raises important demands, like a 32 hour week, major wage increases, the expropriation of the banks, the phasing out of nuclear power and opening the borders to refugees and migrant workers.

The NPA could, and should, become the vital force needed to organise the resistance against austerity, whether this comes from Sarkozy or from Hollande. Potou’s candidacy is fully justified if it does this. It also pushes Mélenchon to the left, just as he in turn pushes Hollande in that direction. This is all raising the horizons of workers, youth, the migrant communities, encouraging them to demand radical change. Good!

But revolutionaries must build on this to create an independent class movement to enforce this. The danger is that Mélenchon will simply deliver his voters to Hollande, Hollande will, perhaps by giving Mélanchon and the Left Front some ministries, renege on all his promises, once safely in office. This has been the pattern of Socialist candidates before, remember Francois Mitterrand and Lionel Jospin.

Poutou has explained his differences with Mélenchon, responding to recent renewed calls from the right wing of the NPA to withdraw in favour of the candidate of the Left Front. Speaking in Paris on March 25, he said, “We have things to say which are different from what Mélenchon – a lifelong politician – is saying”. 
”Mélenchon and the Left Front think they can work with Hollande. Mélenchon is an anti-neoliberal. He thinks we should go after the financial sector. But we think you need to overthrow the capitalist system,” said the NPA candidate. Socialist parties across Europe are all practicing “austerity policies against the people” he added.

Poutou says he wants a government that is “really left, one based on the struggles that actually change things, not one based on a conning people. A government that makes the capitalists pay”.
He went on, ” We have to break from such deceptions, make fundamental policy choices that are anti-capitalist. It’s not just kicking out Sarkozy that will stop the neoliberal policy”. He has also said that the NPA intended to present candidates “everywhere” during the parliamentary elections in June. 
”We must be there (to) denounce capitalism” he concluded.

The programme of Philippe Poutou is certainly different from that of Mélenchon. It places an emphasis on the need to break with the capitalist system itself and stresses that electing a left government within the framework of parliamentary institutions will not be sufficient even to gain the most burning necessities for workers today. He stresses the need for a workers’ government to be based on a mass social movement – indeed a general strike by millions of workers – events like the great wave of factory occupations in France in 1936 and 1968. He emphasises, too, the need to expropriate the banks and the big corporations. In short, there are important elements of a revolutionary programme in Poutou’s manifesto.

But there are also vital things missing, which makes the programme less than revolutionary, that is, that make it centrist. These include the failure to include the need for a seizure of power from the ruling class, a revolution. Nor is there any clear recognition that the reformists not only let workers down when in office, when they carry out the austerity measures that the capitalists demand of them, but that they and the trade union leaders betray the workers’ struggles like those in 36, 68, and 2010. He does not say that in the midst of these struggles the duty of revolutionaries is to warn against these betrayers and give a lead to creating organs of rank and file democracy that can either control or remove such leaders.

Although the NPA manifesto does call for a general strike, it does not link this to building organising centres – coordinations, delegate-based councils of action. These should not be seen as just an auxiliary factor, extra parliamentary support for an elected workers’ government, but the decisive instruments to break up and destroy the capitalist state with its repressive apparatus and bureaucracy.

In short, these institutions of workers’ struggle must become, in the course of a social revolution, a seizure of power from the bosses, the basis for a workers’ state. Since workers desperately need an alternative leadership to the likes of Hollande, Mélenchon, and the leaders of the unions, it is clear that it is vital to build and strengthen the NPA as a revolutionary party. It fully justifies the party standing in the presidential and parliamentary elections rather than tailing Mélenchon but it clearly also means a struggle within the NPA to take up the dropped discussion on the party’s strategy, its programme and an immediate action programme to foment a mass social resistance movement against austerity, whichever president or government imposes it.

Whatever the outcomes of the presidential and parliamentary polls in May and June are – a Sarkozy or a Hollande government – it is plain from Hollande’s left manoeuvres and the enthusiastic support for Mélenchon, that French workers are ready for a counteroffensive against the bosses, ready for raising radical demands not only on the bosses but on the state. A militant upsurge, like the historic eruptions in 1936 and 1968 that both Mélenchon and Poutou recalled in their campaigns, is no pipe dream. Revolutionaries should do all they can to realise this perspective by vigorous agitation for a new wave of mass struggle – strikes, social movements, all forms of direct action, a general strike.

But, this time, the reformist leaders and the trade union bureaucrats must not be allowed to sell the movement out. It will need to be controlled by strike committees and councils of action, fighting for a real workers’ government. For this, the NPA has to embody such a revolutionary strategy in an action programme and struggle for the leadership of the workers’ movement. If it does not do this, it could be convulsed by factional infighting with its pro-Mélenchon right wing. This would be a terrible waste of all the potential unleashed in 2009 when the NPA was formed. A turn to the working class in the workplaces, the communities, to the youth and the immigrants, is what revolutionaries in the NPA must fight for in the months ahead.

Excerpts from Philippe Poutou’s programme

Emergency measures

1. A shield against the social crisis: a rise in wages and minimum social benefits: 300 euros for all; a minimum wage of 1600 euros! A ban on sackings, restoration of public services by massive job creation in education and health, a return to retirement at 60 on a full pension.

2. Funding these measures by making the capitalists pay. The cancellation of debt and interest repayments. A moratorium on the basis of an audit under popular control. Stop tax breaks for the wealthy and big business and increase their tax.

3. Seizure of banks and their unification under the control of public and workers.

4. Getting out of nuclear power, developing renewable energy, especially wind, by reorganising a public energy service, transport and housing under planning that is democratic, social and ecological.

To carry out this programme we will not hesitate to attack the very logic of the capitalist system and the power of big business and bankers. These four measures are the first to be applied by a workers’ government serving the interests of the majority.

These are the key to our campaign but also a programme of struggle against the capitalist crisis, a programme for millions of people outraged today who reject austerity, whether from the Right or the Left.

For a socialism of the Twenty First Century


That’s why we are anticapitalists and defend the project of an alternative society, socialism. This has nothing to do with the bureaucratic dictatorships which usurped the name in the USSR and elsewhere. It means, on the contrary, the possibility for the population to take its affairs into its own hands, a genuine democracy which does not stop at the workplace gates but includes the sphere of economic decision making, what where and how to produce and for what purpose, and which allows for the collective appropriation of resources and wealth. The emergency measures against the crisis and a plan for the defence of wage levels, which we propose, are no more than one step on the road to such a social and ecological transformation.

(. . . )

We fight for a government of the workers and ordinary people which won’t hold back from attacking the capitalist interests; raising wages, creating jobs, defending public services, canceling the illegitimate debt and seizing the banks. Such a transformation cannot be carried out within the framework of our existing institutions. A workers’ government will never see the light of day unless there are powerful mobilisations, unless workers and young people are acting and organising for themselves. A government will not defend our interests unless it is based upon these mobilised workers; otherwise it will not be able to do anything, or worse it would betray us, as the traditional Left did in the past. It is clear that to implement the measures we are calling for will require mobilisation of a magnitude similar to 1936 or 1968 … like those (in 2010) against raising the retirement age but going all the way, right up to a general strike. All our rights, be they political or social ones, were won by huge mobilisations or revolutions: the right to vote, paid holidays, social security. Demands vital to the whole labour movement such as an increase of 300 euros ,for the return to 37.5 years of pension contributions, or a ban on all sackings, these cannot be wrenched from the bosses except by a struggle by everyone. But a general strike won’t drop out of the sky. It needs be prepared, starting by linking up our ongoing struggles.


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