Above photo: Lews Joly/AP Photo.
Juan Chingo and Romaric Godin discuss the working-class struggle in France.
Its potential, and its weaknesses, as well as the strategic problems that it faces.
Romaric Godin is a journalist in the economics department of Mediapart (an independent French investigative newspaper) and author of La Guerre sociale en France — or The Social War in France — an analysis of the developments of French neoliberalism after the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Juan Chingo other is an editorialist and board member at Révolution Permanente, as well as the author of Gilets jaunes, le soulèvement — or Yellow Vests, The Uprising — an examination of the Yellow Vests movement and the contradictions of Macron’s reactionary presidency. Both closely follow the political situation and class struggles in France, particularly in recent years.
What motivates Macron’s staunch stance on this pension reform? Is his inflexibility simply the “hard line” of a president who knows that he cannot be re-elected anyway, or are there more structural reasons?
Romaric Godin: I’m not sure that the fact that he’s not running for re-election is a determining factor here. The stakes of what he has built for six years now go beyond him as president. I see two issues.
The first is economic. In my book, La guerre sociale en France, I try to explain precisely why there has been a strengthening of social movements since 2010. In 1986 and 1995, there were setbacks by the government. The pension reform in 2003 was relatively “moderate.” In 2010, the social movement was almost equivalent to what we know now, with 1.3 million people in the streets and blockading the streets, but the right-wing Fillon-Sarkozy government, which was in power from 2007 to 2012, was going strong. Between 1995 and 2010, what we saw was an evolution of French capitalism.
If we study the evolution of neoliberalism in France, we can distinguish two stages in its development. From 1983 onwards, during the so-called “austerity turn,” there were reforms that focused on the financial sphere and on privatizations, but which did not directly affect the world of work. However, from 2010 onwards, attacks on labor were direct, with pension and labor market reforms forced through in 2015, 2016, and 2017. This was done despite strong social mobilizations, with massive demonstrations and transport blockades. After the financial crisis of 2008, French and global capitalism entered a structural crisis. For the defenders of capital at this time, it was more difficult to agree to make concessions. Now, let’s be clear: there was no fundamental retreat of capitalists from labor in the previous decades! But, when faced with a social movement, they found different ways to act in order to sustain the rate of profit, which has been under very strong negative pressure for the last fifty years, linked to the structural decline in productivity.
The decline in productivity gains over the last fifty years is a fact, and an irrefutable one. Faced with this situation, capitalists do not have 150 solutions. First, there is fictitious capital, financialization, and debt, but the system itself reminded us in 2008 that it could not go any further. The growth of the financial sphere operates independently from the productive sphere and depends on monetary policies, which puts additional pressure on capital. There is also globalization, which is now running out of steam: China is trying to get out of the role that the international division of labor gave it in the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, there are the difficulties linked to the COVID pandemic. Increasing working hours is one solution. This can take the shape of an increase in daily working hours, an increase in lifetime working hours, an increase in the employment rate, and a decrease in the hourly working rate under pressure, among others. All of this affects the structure and regulation of the French labor market, and it is this that was under attack in 1993, with the Balladur reform. But it’s from 2010 onwards in particular that we enter an especially challenging period, and where the bourgeoisie no longer want to make concessions to the social movement.
Second, how were the governments of 1986 and 1995 able to compromise with the workers and accept defeat in the face of social movements? Well, even if it was largely fictitious, the threat of right/left alternation exerted pressure on the government in place, pushing them to consider the social movement as a threat to a future re-election — even if, more often than not, these concessions did not prevent electoral defeats.
Today, what gives Macron’s government its confidence, especially after fifteen years of crises and while the country is exhausted? Well, within the camp of capital, which is increasingly politically unified, there’s the idea, to use Edouard Philippe’s words, that “it passes.” But why is this passivity happening? Because at each election, being brought face-to-face with the extreme Right leads to the defense of democracy being brandished against it. Capital’s faction passes, by default, according to the principle of the lesser evil. This doesn’t explain 2010, but it does inform our understanding of the situation in 1986, 1995, and 2003: the supposed risk of left/right alternation more greatly brought the voice of the people into focus. But this is no longer the case.
Today, even when you’re in the supposed opposition, you can be easily recycled into the centrist majority — in this case, Macronism. This is how Olivier Dussopt came to bolster the centrist objective. He comes from a camp that was heavily defeated in 2012, so he simply shifted into Macron’s victorious party. This kind of centrality gives the assurance that discontent will always pass, while playing with the risk — which is no longer minor — that the extreme right comes to power. One of the novelties of the current political situation is that social movements are used to demonize everything to the left of Olivier Dussopt; it’s quite broad. Even the most reformist Left has been largely taken out of the running, which basically only allows the Macronists to come face-to-face with the Far Right. And this is the perfect situation for them. Every five years, it’s enough for them to present themselves for fifteen days as defenders of the republic, and this show goes on ad infinitum. Of course, there’s a risk that it’ll all go wrong, but it’s their strategy.
Juan Chingo: I agree with Romaric’s analysis. With the crisis of 2008 we are witnessing a radicalization of the bourgeois class in France. Whereas Chiraquism was synonymous with immobility and the absence of reforms for the most greedy sectors of the bourgeoisie, we can consider that the first moment of this economic rupture, and the turn towards a more Bonapartist regime, was Nicolas Sarkozy. This is what Stathis Kouvelakis shows in his book La France en révolte, mouvements sociaux et cycles politiques. The rupture was built there.
Despite this radicalization of the bourgeoisie, it should be noted that they have not yet managed to fully impose their neoliberal plan. The French bourgeoisie is hungry for more and sees itself as lagging behind other imperialist countries, especially Germany. In the context of a Bonapartist regime, it is no coincidence that one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first measures was to “regulate” the right to strike with the “minimum service” law. During Chirac’s presidency, in addition to the alternation that Romaric mentioned, the tendency to overflow that we had seen at work in 1995 or in 2006 with the Principal Educational Advisors (CPE), acted as a sort of reminder of the trauma of 1968. With the hardening of their stance, the bourgeoisie is not only taking the risk of the Extreme Right, but also that of greater violence between the classes. It’s no coincidence that there were the Yellow Vests, their radicalization, and their repression. If we look at 1968, there was still a fear of the street at that time. But by 2003, this was no longer the case, because the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) stopped the movement. This defeat cost the teachers a lot of money and they still talk about it. It’s fascinating to see that when Chirac died, everyone mourned this “sympathetic figure” of French capitalism. Even if he was corrupt and openly neoliberal, he still tended to keep social conflicts from getting out of hand. With Sarkozy, the neoliberal turn is harsher and more thorough. Raymond Soubie’s advice to Macron, based on his successful experience in 2010, is clear: you have to stand up to those in the streets.
As far as the current crisis is concerned, it’s taking place in an international context of greater competition, which puts French capitalism in difficulty. In this respect, I think that the war in Ukraine also plays a part in the hardening of the French bourgeoisie. Contrary to a previous period when there was the illusion of a peaceful development between imperialist powers, the increase of the defense budget shows that this is not really the case. This can be seen everywhere in Europe, including in Germany, and it increases the pressure on France. Thus, we are heading towards a capitalism that reinforces the already strong militarization in France, as shown, for example, by the implementation of the compulsory General National Service (SNU).
The economic and geopolitical context is changing. This is obviously present in the strategic thinking of the State, including from a financial point of view (it should be noted that France is a country with a large debt). France’s international status is linked to the question of whether or not it will reform. At a time of increased competition with Germany, which has recently also taken a military turn, the French bourgeoisie is destabilized internationally. These elements are important because they show that the radicalization of Macronism is not just an ideological issue. If it were, then there would be a possible compromise. Moreover, the union leaders think that it is still possible to negotiate in-depth on an issue like pensions, which is what justifies their pressure strategy, from their point of view. For my part, and I think that on this point we agree: I consider that the radicalization of power has structural causes and that we must draw the consequences from a strategic point of view.
Romaric Godin: Yes, if the bourgeois are radicalized, it is not because they have a madman at their helm. That’s not the question. The question is why those in power are radicalized and why they refuse any form of compromise or defeat. This is the difference seen in 1986, and in 1995: at that time in the economic and social history of France, compromises were still possible.
In your respective works, you both speak of a “strategic impasse” to characterize where the movement is now. Can you explain what you mean by this? And what do you think differentiates the current movement from the last experiences of the class struggle?
Juan Chingo: If we zoom out, we must remember that, since 1995, France has always been at the forefront of resistance to the neoliberal Thatcherite and Reaganite offensive. To this specificity of the French class struggle, we must add the recent radicalization of the bourgeoisie, which we have just mentioned and which makes the new cycle of class struggles beginning around 2016 particularly interesting. From 2016 to today, there have been very intriguing developments in terms of the repertoire of social movements in France, creating a veritable laboratory of class struggle, as it was in the 19th century and later. We can thus briefly trace the stages of this new cycle to understand how we arrive at the current situation:
- In 2016, with the Bastille-Nation demonstrations, we see the development of the leading processions stemming from a general feeling of being fed up. Nuit DeboutAs a result of demonstrations against the proposed labor changes of the El Khomri law, also known as the Loi travail, Nuit debout, a social movement in France, was born on March 31, 2016. It has been compared to both the Spanish 15-M or Indignados anti-austerity movement and the Occupy movement in the United States. calls for the people “not to go home,” and we see a kind of diffuse anti-capitalism taking shape. Anasse Kazib often speaks of how he became radicalized at that time, for example.
- In 2018, it’s the great battle of the railroad. I remember that there was a burst of enormous determination among the railroad workers, but the “slow strike,” a strategy proposed by the union leaderships and carried by Laurent Brun of the CGT Cheminots, led to defeat.
- In 2018-2019 we witnessed the Yellow Vest uprising. However, it was not a majority movement and the main battalions of the labor movement, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and CFDT, positioned themselves against this mobilization, even to the point of supporting the state against the Yellow Vests. The Yellow Vests movement was spontaneous and unframed, and the state responded to it in an ultra-violent manner which radicalized it, not only in its political consciousness but also in its methods of action. This specter is still present today, not only amongst the masses, but also for those in power who were seriously afraid of this uprising, to use the term in the title of my book.
- In 2019 we see some examples of “gilet-jaunization” of the working class: for example at the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP). It should be noted that it was the rank-and-file of the RATP that made December 5, 2019 the beginning of a reconductible strike that lasted several weeks. In the winter 2019-2020 pension battle, we saw some elements of self-organization like the RATP and Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF) coordination that notably allowed the movement to continue through the Christmas vacation, even in the face of the “truce” defended by the union leadership. But despite the historic duration and size of a renewable strike in the transport sector, the movement couldn’t expand to other significant sectors, with only a few exceptions.
- More recently, a series of strikes over wages has developed. These phenomena are important, continue to exist, and could be combined with the ongoing battle for pensions.
By retracing the thread of this cycle of struggles, we shed light on a process of layering and construction of a new worker subjectivity, at least as far as the methods of struggle are concerned. This is an enormous point of support that allows us to understand the determination that exists today, and the awareness that in order to win, we will have to “go for it.” The current mass movement draws, in a more or less conscious way, from the lessons of the movements of the last years. Moreover, it’s interesting to note that even if the government remains uncompromising after four days of historic mobilizations, there is no demoralization expressed, but rather the awareness that it’s necessary to up the ante. From this point of view, March 7 is a historic date.
The article you wrote on Mediapart is interesting because it shows that the perspective of the general strike is not only the subject of discussion between intellectuals or journalists, but that it emanates, first and foremost, from the movement itself. In a tortuous way and in spite of the weakness of the revolutionary Left, the mass movement draws lessons from the experiences of struggles of earlier years. This is surprising and full of potential. After March 7, we will see if the movement takes another step forward and if a new dynamic is set in motion.
Romaric Godin: I find it interesting to underline this evolution of mass movements as you do. As far as the novelty of this movement compared to past experiences is concerned, I think that the first element is the radicalization of power, as we said. In 2010 there were big demonstrations but there was no traction, it didn’t move — the reform passed and the movement stopped. Now we feel that there is something a little different. One might imagine that we are still hoping for a form of compromise as long as the reform is not adopted by the Parliament. But we can see that there is a natural hardening after a phase of massive mobilization. Moreover, I believe that we should not slight this first phase, as it was undoubtedly necessary for taking note of the mobilization of public opinion and translating this opinion into general opposition. Now, the feeling we have is that people have come to the conclusion that it was not enough and that something else has to be done. This is something quite new that comes within the framework of what you point out, Juan: that, since 2016, we are in this movement of “mass struggle,” as Rosa Luxemburg would say.
One of the interesting points is the organization of the social movement, i.e. the unions. They are the ones who have called for these mobilizations and workers are responding to these calls. And on this level, a big difference is this very strong union unity. Until now, when there was trade union unity, it wasn’t very clear. Now we can see that there is very little support for unions like the CFDT, but also the General Confederation of Executives (CGC), and the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), all of which are in the social movement, but also defend a form of hardening. One can interpret their line in different ways, and consider, for example, that they have no choice but to participate, because if they did not do so, they would be overwhelmed by their base. From this point of view, one cannot help but think of what happened during the last Christmas vacations: a wildcat strike by SNCF controllers that overwhelmed the trade unions and that the SNCF workers are keeping in mind.
In other words, there’s a fervor in this movement that prevents union organizations from giving up. This is very important to note. I’m not sure that the CFDT leadership agreed at the beginning of the movement to call for the halting of the country’s economy, but they were forced to do so by the internal dynamics of the movement. And since the government won’t compromise on anything, if you want to make them give in, you have to take things up a notch. We cannot make predictions from this as to what will happen in the end, but it is a particularity of this movement. Although, this is more understandable in light of what you said, particularly in relation to the Yellow Vests movement. At that time, the movement wasn’t necessarily about the organization of work or the wage-earner; but it did mark a point in the class struggle in France, because of the repression that it suffered, its organization, the level to which it politicized people, and because this movement had its own dynamics that frightened those in power. Social movements always contain a somewhat complex alchemy: people are marked by all the defeats of the past, but at the same time, the experience of the Yellow Vests shows that something is possible if we raise the tone.
The last point of specificity with today’s situation concerns the question of work. 2019 involved a workers’ struggle against broader pension reform; a struggle that, in some ways, was almost more violent than the current movement. The difference today is that, with two more years being added to the retirement age in this reform, the people are asking, “Why?” And that question leads to deeper reflection: “Why am I working? What’s the meaning of my work? How can I continue to work? How am I going to do it? I’m currently suffering at my job — will I be able to bear it for two more years?” And, with that, a kind of contagion takes place. This reform is setting the world on fire by inspiring questions about the global nature of paid work; questions which had completely disappeared. And behind those questions, if we push a little further, then the people may ask, “How do we produce? Why? And for whom?” And after that, even more questions can come up. The climate crisis, for example, is also a question of production. So this movement has the capacity to give rise to a much broader critique, rather than a simple defensive movement against an attack on the welfare state. What I find interesting today is the potential for expansion of the movement. This alchemy can take place with all the surprises that social movements can hold.
Juan Chingo: In fact, it’s important to notice that the radicalization of the bourgeoisie happens in response to the radicalization of the demonstrators. To build off what you said about the unions: it’s certainly not the first time that the CFDT is in an inter-union or Intersyndicale, but what is new is its centrality and its role as a quasi-kingmaker. This is rather revealing: the fact that a person like Laurent Berger — who is much more inclined toward social dialogue — could be pressured into calling for a shutdown of France, even for only 24 hours, says something about the situation. We must start here, and take this situation seriously, especially with regard to certain sectors, which have fought in the past and which may today be legitimately distrustful. I am thinking of the railway workers, the RATP, or the refiners, for example, who have been at the forefront of movements in recent years. On the plus side: they don’t want to be the only ones to go on strike. The negative side is that others have to have the determination to go. But the fact is that Berger and the Intersyndicale are forced to call for paralysis, forced from above because of the radicalization of Macron and the bourgeoisie, but also forced from below, by the pressure of the mass movement. This is the strongest, and at the same time, the weakest point of the movement. The fact is that a general strike requires, more than any other form of class struggle, a clear and determined leadership, or, to put it simply, a revolutionary leadership. For the moment, there is no trace of such a leadership in the French working class, and such a leadership will not be formed overnight.
After March 7, there will be strong pressure from the Intersyndicale — and in particular from Berger and the most conciliatory sectors — to slow down the movement’s progression through politicizing the issues, arguing against broadening demands, and confining themselves to simply advocating for the withdrawal of the reform, etc. The challenge will be to see if it is possible to overcome this situation. If we take Luxemburg’s example, the general strike cannot be decreed. It’s a historic moment and an explosion of the mass movement that waits for no one. In this sense, the specifics of today’s circumstances suggest that we could go toward a mass strike. But we have to remember that there are elements pushing against this dynamic. As the social movement develops, as civil society plays a more important role, the bureaucracy of the trade union organizations, despite the neoliberal offensive and the crisis of the intermediate bodies, can be an obstacle.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “politicization” of the current movement? And what conclusion do you draw from this, from a strategic point of view?
Juan Chingo: This is indeed a factor that is specific to the mobilizations. In the first article I wrote with Paul Morao on this subject, I underlined the political rather than the protest nature of this movement, which I believe offers great potential.
During the battle of the pensions of 2019—2020, it was difficult for the mobilized sectors to widen the fight to include those who were not directly impacted by the reforms. This is in fact a crucial question, which a certain number of movements have come up against up to now: how to build a broader front in terms of demands and mobilized sectors. It’s no coincidence that the Yellow Vests had lists of grievances.
Today, when we talk to the most precarious sectors, we realize that these workers oppose the increase of the retirement age, but they also talk about inflation, poverty wages, working conditions, etc. These issues are part and parcel of what many sectors are discussing. But it’s interesting, in contrast, to see the political treatment of these issues by the Intersyndicale. The latter uses inflation to say that the most impoverished sectors cannot go on strike, thereby proposing instead to hold demonstrations on Saturday. Still, I think this strategy is a mistake. The question should rather be how to broaden the demands and prepare for a mass strike by reaching out to everyone. If the current movement were to broaden to the question of wages, the proletarian front would be stronger. Why limit ourselves to the question of reform, and not take up the question of pay slips, which is the subject of many current wage conflicts? We can see that the potential for expansion exists and that some people are preparing to go on strike on March 7, demanding retirement at 60 for all, 55 for the hardest jobs, and adding sectoral demands on wages. This is, for example, what the garbage collectors of Sète or the workers of Roissy airport are saying.
To get out of a defensive movement requires a plan of struggle and broader demands to unify the class. But this is what the union leaderships want to avoid at all costs. Contrary to what Berger says, I think the most impoverished sectors of our class can go on strike, provided that they see something earnest and truly resolute at stake. If they see that there is even the beginning of a serious and organized push to change things, they could enter the battle and even go on strike. The low-paid, the hard working are not going to engage in timid movements, but they can enter into a great struggle and if they see a determination to really go for it. The strategic logic that I defend is therefore the opposite of that advocated by Berger and the Intersyndicale.
Romaric Godin: Indeed, this politicization is already there. Today, the question is not really about opposition to the reform, but how this movement will evolve and what we will do with it afterward. From this point of view, I tend to agree with you: the unions, for some reason — because some want to maintain union unity, because others are attached to the separation between social movement and politics — are committed to non-politicization. They’re concentrating on the pension reform alone. But they will have to be held accountable. If the demand remains withdrawing the reform and the reform is not withdrawn, they will have to explain how, with such a strong social movement, with a consciousness that’s spreading, as you have just explained — how with a movement that is mixed with the memories of the Yellow Vests, coupled with that of salaries — how with all of that, we get nothing. They are the ones leading this particular strategy. So at some point, the balance sheet should be drawn.
The difficulty of the current movement, unlike other great moments in the history of the workers’ movement, is that there is no party to organize the movement, to lead the masses politically, to force its expansion. In a sense, the social movement is left to itself, which can be a weakness. We know that we won’t defeat this reform simply by asking for its withdrawal. The bourgeois are so radicalized that they will not give in because there will be a loss of 0.2 points of GDP in the first quarter of 2023. That’s not how it is; that’s not how it goes anymore. The stakes are so high that the bourgeoisie is ready to lose these 0.2 points of GDP, even 0.3 or 0.5. Because there’s something much bigger that they’re after: to break down all forms of resistance and discipline the world of work, thereby gaining so much more and further cementing their power. This is what we have to recognize, and today, a growing number of people are starting to do so.
But if we are confronted with the issue of power, it is because we are faced with a political issue. The Intersyndicale is going to find itself grappling with the contradiction that we are fighting on a political issue, but without wanting to politicize the movement. So either we accept defeat, because we don’t want to go there, or we play the game — which, above all, aside from making conjectures about winning or losing, means that we can build something. The great difficulty is that this construction of the social movement must be done within the social movement itself. And we have come a long way: many of those who are ready to strike on March 7 were not ready in the previous social movements, or had become disillusioned. Some may have believed in François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, or even Nicolas Sarkozy. These people can learn on the ground and in the struggle, and it’s in this sense that the movement has so much potential. But we must give space for this struggle to grow. Because if there is just one day of mass demonstrations on March 7, then the movement will be limited. … The challenge is how to make it continue.
Both of you defend the general strike as a strategic method for winning. How does this perspective differ from proposals such as the “targeted, renewable strike” or calls for “blocking the economy”?
Romaric Godin: I think we have to put an end to the idea of strikes by proxy — that is to say, the logic in which it is up to the strategic sectors to strike and block the economy while others simply support them, watch them on TV, or pay into their strike fund. Our starting point is that of a population coming from almost nothing in terms of sentiment before this reform. Because of this, everything has to be built. The worst pitfall would be to keep large parts of the workforce in a passive position, where they just watch others strike for them. And many often support the strikers in opinion polls, but at some point, “they piss us off”: because we no longer have electricity, gasoline, trains, we can no longer go on vacation or take the subway. That’s the strategy of the old world.
Now, the question is: How do we build this subjectivity that Juan talks about, a social movement of scale that is not purely defensive? It’s by getting out of passivity, by being an active participant in the social movement and in the strike, and by thinking about what one does every day. There are those who are quick to denigrate a part of the workforce, saying that there are “bullshit jobs” that serve no purpose. Maybe, but these jobs have a value-producing function in the capitalist system. If people stop working, others are forced to think about their function in the global economy. As a result, we realize that it is not only the refiners or the railway workers who have a weight in the economy. Especially since the so-called essential sectors have an economic impact that can be overcome by the system. It is therefore necessary to broaden the movement within the workforce, to broaden the demands. We cannot afford the luxury of a strike by substitution.
What truly endangers the system is the question of power, not money. In the movement, this is an aspect that we often tell ourselves stories about. We ourselves are in this kind of economic fetishism that consists of saying, “If we stop the economy, then everything will stop.” But in March 2020, we stopped the economy, but nothing really stopped. When things started again, it all returned to how it was before. The power of the workers is a reality only if it becomes effective, and therefore free from the power of capital. Otherwise, we remain producers alienated from our own production. In doing so, we advance toward fundamental questions: the separation between the producer and his product. What does a strike allow? The potential for reconciliation, born from the reflection on the fundamental question of separation.
This type of movement is formidable because it allows us to respond to the radicalism of the camp on the other side. At the beginning of our discussion, you insisted on this: the general strike, the mass strike, is not the fruit of a whim; it is sparked by an objective reality, from a general discontent. The objective conditions of this social movement today have interesting potentialities for constructing something broader. Maybe this potential will not be realized in the current movement. In that case, this movement can be a first stone cast for the future, as long as we stop accepting the strategy of passivity that has been present in previous social movements.
Juan Chingo: I agree with you that we shouldn’t have a binary, all-or-nothing vision. With the current direction of the movement, we can’t bet on solving the contradictions of the mass movement in one go. But even supposing that the workers’ more immediate demands were defeated, this movement can still play a crucial role in the future, and that’s where we can play a role — I’m speaking from my position as a militant in a revolutionary political organization. We can play a role in the sense of developing the most determined elements of subjectivity as much as possible, so that they become concrete, even if this is only done in a few places. For example, organizing real general assemblies on March 7, so that the workers take over the strike and take back the decisions from the union leaderships. This can be a determining factor, especially since the current lack of self-organization is one of the main weaknesses of the movement.
It’s for these reasons that I, too, oppose the “strike-by-proxy”: in reality, the day when these impoverished sectors — those who are the most affected and oppressed by the capitalist system — start moving, then the political, and even potentially revolutionary, energy of the movement will necessarily be multiplied tenfold, by their rage and their creativity. This is a strategic problem not only for this strike but also for thinking about revolution in France. Neoliberal reforms and the strengthening of the ruling class over the last 30 years force us to “decompartmentalize” our approach. Today, railway workers represent, for example, 10 percent of freight. From this point of view, it is impossible, for example, to blockade the country without addressing truck drivers. Similarly, there is a lot of talk about the refiners, about their strategic role, which is real, but that is not enough, either from a political point of view or from a purely tactical and pragmatic point of view, if we really want to block the economy. Certain key sectors, moreover, such as the telecoms and the post office, which played key roles in 1995, are notably absent today. It’s a vital challenge to address them again.
For all these reasons, the “tactic” of the strike-by-proxy is dangerous for the movement’s future, not only because it is insufficient to really block the country — insofar as it is satisfied with the so-called traditional sectors and ignores others — but also because it’s insufficient in terms of mobilizing en masse, especially in an explosive way. To change the routine dynamics of the unions, we must look for new battalions of the working class, and in particular those who are the most exploited, contradicting the slogans of the union leaderships. There is a need for the most concentrated sectors of the proletariat to try to create links with these sectors. If they understand the importance of these links, the possibilities are enormous. In contrast, a general strike that does not go all the way and limits itself to a few sectors, even if it disturbs the normal functioning of the economy and has an impact on daily life, will be unable to achieve victory. Let’s not forget that, in 2010, the Intersyndicale did not oppose renewable strikes by sector. Instead, they simply let them take place without seeking to strengthen them, until, deprived of an alternative, they finally ran out of steam.
Consequently, the issue goes beyond the question of the mere “efficiency” of the strike: how, in terms of political strategy, do we involve the whole of the masses in order to make the state and the bosses bend? The general strike cannot rely only on a few battalions, especially when confronting a radicalized bourgeoisie. In class war, it is the mass that counts, and this mass is won by showing that this struggle can profoundly change the living and working conditions for all. Today, the conditions are right for a great movement to take place. But the question remains as to how far this great potential can be deployed with the current leadership, and given the weakness of the alternative leadership.
Romaric Godin: Indeed, the situation is particularly interesting to me precisely because the so-called strategic sectors do not want to stand alone, and the others, those who are subject to the most increased capitalist exploitation, cannot stand alone. In a way, this is an opportunity. In this context, the best way to break the movement would be to affirm that we need only a handful of sectors. Moreover, we must bear in mind that the French economy is largely tertiary and that most of these services are business services, i.e., they’re often relegated to the category of “bullshit jobs.” Yet the sector comprising business services, which is generally ignored when it comes to strikes, is in fact massively and even mainly involved in producing market value. We cannot therefore pretend that it doesn’t exist, and we must take into account these modifications in the contemporary organization of French capitalism. It is, I believe, by understanding the specificities of this organization, that we will most efficiently succeed in confronting capitalism.
Juan Chingo: I agree with you, but we mustn’t forget that a certain number of eminently strategic and industrial sectors have yet to be won in the struggle, such as Airbus, for example, and all the subcontractors of the big groups. It’s certainly not the Renault of the 1960s, but nevertheless, these sectors have a considerable weight that should not be neglected. Currently, the aeronautics sector is led by Force Ouvrière, which is almost an employers’ union. But if we could involve such sectors in the struggle, it would be another story. If Dassault, Safran, and the whole French aeronautical sector, the military complex, were to enter the battle, it would change the situation profoundly. I highlight this point to show that what we usually call the “strategic sectors” are, in fact, only two or three sectors (the refiners, the railway workers, and, less frequently but particularly strong in the current movement, the energy workers), among many others that are neglected and whose entry into the scene would constitute a real upheaval.
The refiners’ strike last autumn highlighted certain limitations that should be understood. Not all subcontractors, for example, went on strike, even though they are essentially part of the oil sector. Demands outside the refineries but within the production machine that is Total (in the commercial circuit, for example), were not associated with the strike either. But to make Total bend, all the subcontractors must be united, including both those internal and external to the refineries. The exact same problem exists at the SNCF, France’s national railway company, where only the “railway workers” are generally called to strike, and not the hundreds and thousands of subcontracted workers who work in the stations and on the railway network. But the strength of the proletariat always emerges when it manifests itself in its entirety, and in a noncorporate way.
How far do you think a mass strike dynamic could go?
Romaric Godin: What we are building today is, above all, an early moment of reconstruction after decades of systematic destruction. The situation should inspire us with a certain form of humility. I don’t see mass insurrection as the most likely outcome, even if the movement brings out its own potentialities, which may surprise us. What’s at stake is the creation of a sustainable and established social movement — one that comes out of its defensive position. And this is also why it’s not really the stopping of the economy, as such, that forms a movement that poses the question of economic power. From this point of view, I don’t share the anarcho-syndicalist view according to which the general strike would immediately and magically lead to the revolution, insofar as it is supposed to dispossess in one fell swoop the power of the bourgeoisie, which would “fall” after the universal stoppage of work.
Juan Chingo: The situation is not revolutionary. I agree with that. We are, however, on the eve of a potential mass strike. If this one materializes, despite the contradictions that we have mentioned, it would open up unprecedented revolutionary potentialities that we must take very seriously. Contrary to the conception drawn from revolutionary syndicalism, or to the memory of the general strike of 1968, which, in view of its magnitude, did not give such consequent results, a mass strike would be one of the most violent forms of the class struggle. I don’t know what the day of March 7 will give, but if the strike is generalized, we should seriously think about holding picket lines, for example. This is why we need to instill the idea of an active strike, and not of a “France at a standstill,” as Laurent Berger insists. For the moment, the government is unafraid, but that can be changed. If the general strike takes place, we cannot let the opportunity pass without going on the offensive. In any case, the potential is there, and we must therefore seek to deploy it fully.
Finally, could you share your thoughts on the distinction between the mass movement and parliamentary action? What did the debates in the National Assembly inspire you to do?
Romaric Godin: What the debates in the first reading showed in the Assembly is that nothing happens in the Hemicycle. This is why the National Assembly has become, strictly speaking, a circus — what takes place there is largely a spectacle without substance. The Left should reflect on the fact that Parliament has no power under this system. Even without an absolute majority, this doesn’t change anything, given the role of various constitutional articles, such as 49.3, which is used even in the context of amending a finance bill for social security, without any political consequences. Parliament is thus largely disqualified. Without going so far as to adopt a radical anti-parliamentary position, we can say that Parliament can be useful only by echoing the social movement. But even in this respect, we can see that it has a very demobilizing effect, insofar as it continues to make people believe that something is at stake. The government, in any case, is only really talking to the French Republican Party. Besides, the blocking amendments serve no purpose and even end up diverting attention from the real movement. Again, that’s not where it’s at.
There is still something interesting in that it allows us to explore the distinctions between the parliamentary Left and the social movement, but I am quite surprised to see that in such a deep and vast movement, we remain confined to the idea of parliamentary guerrilla warfare. From the beginning, the game is set: it will be a vote with the Republicans or a 49.3. So, what game is the parliamentary Left playing with the social movement when, from the outset, the deal is done? The vacuity of the parliamentary spectacle seems like a characteristic feature of the Fifth Republic, which insists on always pretending that something is going on there, when in reality, everything is played out in the office at 55 Boulevard Saint Honoré, where one guy alone makes all the decisions. That’s how it is, although the parliamentary Left likes to tell itself stories — since 1958, nobody’s ignored the fact that France is not a “great parliamentary democracy.” On the other hand, it’s necessary to be aware that, in a profound sense, something is happening in the streets. It’s not with amendments that we will advance on this ground. To claim the contrary is a mere diversion.
Juan Chingo: I agree with what Romaric just said. It’s obvious that Parliament is not the place for contestation. The situation that’s described is an opportunity to take up certain elements of a radical democratic program, such as the abolition of the Senate, or the abolition of the presidential function, and, more broadly, the overcoming of the Fifth Republic — not within the confines of the Mélenchonist goal of a Sixth Republic, but in a much more radical way, like the Paris Commune, for example. French history has shown forms of parliament that reflect the state of mind of the masses, like the early days of the Convention or, as I said, the Paris Commune, where parliamentarians were given a salary equivalent to that of a worker and were subject to control by the population.
In this respect, the comrades of La France Insoumise who are sincere in terms of their revolutionary aims would benefit from reconnecting with the best of the Jacobin revolutionary tradition or, better still, the Commune, to develop elements of such a democratic program, such as the creation of a single Assembly, both legislative and executive, rather than wasting time on a republican reform from above. All this would greatly help the mass movement to experiment with bourgeois representative democracy and develop the consciousness of self-organization, which I believe is the only viable democratic perspective. The social movement must express itself by and for itself, in its own organizations, rather than aspiring to exist in the Assembly through the disarming use of a representative, nor seeking a political but institutional outlet as Mélenchon proposes. The development of the general strike and the development of the self-organization of the masses thus point to the same conclusion: the development of an authentic counter-power to the power of the bourgeoisie.
Interview transcribed with the help of Marc Elba, Suzanne Icarie, and Dominique Valda.
Originally published in French on March 4 in Révolution Permanente.