France: Not Victorious, But Not Defeated

The vast movement against counter-reform of the pension system - Published on Global, by Murray Smith, December 17, 2010.

… Not Victorious, Not Defeated:

The movement was in the end not victorious. The government camped on its position, the law went through, the police broke the blockades of the refineries and imported oil from other countries. The movement began to lose impetus toward the end of October. But in the first place what happened was not inevitable. Even short of a full-scale general strike, a continuation of the movement at the level it had reached in mid-October could have made the economic and political price too high for the government to pay. And “not victorious” does not mean crushingly defeated. This was not Britain in 1985. Sarkozy may want to be France’s Thatcher but he certainly is not. This was a tactical defeat, which may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory for Sarkozy. It was not by any means the kind of defeat which demoralizes and deters people from fighting again. 

The strength of the movement is an indication of profound dissatisfaction with Sarkozy and his government. It crystallized around the issue of pensions, about which people have strong feelings. They think, entirely reasonably, that they have a right to retire on a decent pension at an age when they can still enjoy their retirement. But there are also other factors at work. There is a widespread feeling that this is one neoliberal measure too far, that after this there will be others, and that it has to stop somewhere. There is a questioning of what sort of society this is leading to. This is true even among young people. Probably many of the school students who demonstrated did not understand the fine details of the law on pensions. But they know they will have difficulty finding any kind of decent job, they wonder why people will have to work until they are 67 when there is so much youth unemployment, and in a more diffuse way they wonder what kind of society they are growing up into. There is also a widespread feeling, in France as in other countries, that it is ordinary people, workers, the poor, young people, who are being made to pay for the crisis, while bankers and brokers continue to rake in the money.

There has been resistance to neoliberalism in other countries and at present popular resistance against austerity is spreading across Europe. But it is certainly in France that resistance has been greatest over a long period. There is a long history of popular revolt in France, combined with deep-seated attachment to equality, solidarity, the defence of the “general interest” against particular interests, which flows from the French Revolution. The proclaimed aim of Sarkozy when he came to power in 2007 was to put a stop to this “French exception” and get France up to speed with its European partners. The progress that he has made has been in the face of considerable opposition and remains fragile. To this should be added the perception of Sarkozy himself.

Under neoliberalism, governments have tended increasingly to act not only as guarantors of the capitalist order in general but as direct servants of the rich and in particular of the sphere of finance. But up until now no French president has so blatantly and shamelessly paraded his links with the rich as Sarkozy. Indeed a recent book about him is simply entitled The President of the Rich. No further explanation is required. It is symptomatic of the Sarkozy regime that the minister who steered the pension reform through (and was dropped in the subsequent government reshuffle), Eric Woerth, is himself up to his eyes in a scandal centred on France’s richest woman, Liliane de Bettencourt. Another example is the fact that Guillaume Sarkozy, elder brother of the president and a prominent businessperson, planned to cash in on the reform by launching a private pension fund on January 1, in partnership with public financial institutions that are ultimately controlled by his brother. The plan appears to have been stymied for the moment, but its existence, over and above the family connection, illustrates the close links between the Elysee Palace and business circles.

What Now?

What is the situation now that the movement is effectively over? One striking feature of it was that in spite of massive rejection of Sarkozy there was no sign of a political alternative. The few calls that were made for a dissolution of parliament and new elections received little echo. That reflects the fact that at the moment the only alternative to Sarkozy and his Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, UMP) party is the Socialist Party. People may vote for it as a lesser evil than Sarkozy, but in most cases without great enthusiasm. The fact that the SP candidate in the 2012 presidential elections could well be IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn speaks volumes about the absence of any alternative to neoliberalism from that quarter.

All the political forces in France are now positioning themselves for 2012. The recent government reshuffle, the re-appointment of Francois Fillon as prime minister, the departure of most of the centrist and ex-left ministers and the realignment of the government on the UMP is a sign that Sarkozy is battening down the hatches and trying to mobilize the core vote of the traditional right.

After being united in the movement over pension reform, how the left, specifically the forces to the left of the Socialist Party, prepares future electoral confrontations will be of great importance. On that level, things will become clearer over the next few months.

But many things can happen between now and 2012. A British prime minister once said that a week is a long time in politics. In the present international social and economic climate, particularly in Europe, the period that separates us from the 2012 elections are an eternity. What is certain is that the combativeness and inventiveness that were demonstrated in the movement will be reflected in many partial, local struggles. Indeed they already are.

Whether we see a new generalized movement depends on many things: what measures the government dares to take, what miscalculations it may make, what is forced on it by, for example, the crisis of the eurozone.

Outside the arena of social struggles, and apart from elections, other political initiatives are possible. During the movement, calls were made for a referendum on pensions, in particular by Left Party leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. The idea did not really take off, perhaps it was not the right moment to raise it in the heat of the struggle. But it seems to be gathering some support now, and it could be one way of keeping the issue of pensions alive. There is a precedent in the success of the unofficial, popular referendum against the privatization of the Post Office in 2009.

Whatever the precise developments over the coming months, the forces that were brought into action over the last eight months will continue to manifest themselves, and the French working class will continue to be in the vanguard of resistance to neoliberalism and austerity in Europe. (full long text).

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