An evaluation, written in late November by the editorial collective of Incendo, on the movement against pension reform in France, which had taken place in the autumn of 2010. We believe this is published online in English here for the first time.
It was not the October revolution, but nevertheless France has just had one of the most important movements of revolt in recent years. Despite the fact that the strike was really followed in only certain sectors (in refineries, railroads, once more a strike “by proxy”) and despite the relatively low number of workers on strike1 we must take into account the surprising and impressive turnout on the days of demonstrations (whatever we may think of these demonstrations and whatever the demonstrators themselves may think) as well as the determined atmosphere which reigned there.
If we take into account the official demands it can be said that the movement has ended in failure. Union leaders begging for negotiations know very well that apart from a few “improvements” there was nothing to be negotiated: French capital needs this reform2. But we can ask ourselves how many of those active in the movement really thought they could force the State to back down on this project and how many others kept up the struggle anyway. The movement in the streets went beyond this demand very quickly. What was at stake was something quite different as can be seen in the slogan “Of that society we want no part”.
The retirement reform concerned all proletarians. But it was above all a spark which set off an explosion of rage, disgust, and being fed up. Their “That’s enough! We’ve had it up to here!” wasn’t very surprising, as for months we had been hearing people constantly saying “That’s enough. The situation is going to blow up.” It is class rage that was being expressed. Try as they may, weekly demonstrations, symbolic actions, riot police, demonstration security, and leftist parties were not enough to channel and recuperate this rage, which goes well beyond the question of retirement. We already have to work 40 years in the hopes of surviving not too badly…So when we are told that we are going to have to work two years more and get even less money well then it’s really those 40 years which are shoved in our faces (whether we’re conscious of it or not)! All of this life lost in the name of earning a living3! So it’s too much. Things fall apart. They explode. Not as much as some might wish, but enough to surprise a lot of us, including those who expressed their anger. This anger is too often simplistically focused against “Sarkozy”, the caricatured personification of a system for which he is but a marionette: capitalism. For the bourgeoisie he serves first and foremost as a very convenient punching ball.
The major unions started the movement and on the whole remained in control all the way to the end which they orchestrated4. Various elements inspired their positions, most notably their will to remain respectable, the preservation of the façade of union unity (defending the weakest positions so as to please everybody and ensure large mobilization), electoral aims (due to new rules concerning representation), and rivalry (including the internal rivalry within the CGT between the Thibault majority and its opponents). Because they are more anxious to continue dialogue between labor and employers than to engage in a power struggle, what mattered the most for them in the movement was the possibility to show off their strength, their capacity to rally workers, so as to have a better bargaining position in future negotiations. Their plans for a quick return to normalcy were disrupted by the scale of the movement, making them make call after call for a final demonstration. President Sarkozy acknowledged their “responsible” behaviour (11-17-10).
Because the unions wanted to manage the movement and keep it under control, calling for a general strike was out of the question (the success of such a call would have been very uncertain, as would have been control of events if it had succeeded. The union heads went no further than calling for grand days of peaceful demonstrations on a fairly regular basis. The rest of the dissent was delegated to federations, UD, UL, or local interunion groups (in which the CGT holds a lot of weight). That left the options for action up to the general assembly of each sector…this at least had the merit of showing that there was no real support from the unions at a national level (take for example the interunion releases in which the word “strike” was mostly avoided). So the struggle became democratic, and we know what that means in practice – workers’ meetings in each sector, where voting by secret ballot is encouraged (instructions of the rail workers’ branch of the CGT) and in which every kind of dirty trick is possible (union reps monopolizing and dominating speeches)5. In fact there is nothing new about this way of keeping loose control over the strikers. The problem is that it worked, and there is no point in denouncing the so-called betrayal of workers by the unions6. At demonstrations, picket lines, and actions, part of the rank-and-file voiced their dissatisfaction with the management of the movement more or less openly (notably the call for demonstrations every few days or for purely symbolic actions). Despite this, the majority of struggling proletarians followed the unions’ instructions. Only a small fringe chose to organize and struggle in other ways, notably in autonomous general assemblies. These assemblies could be found in many cities. They are clearly one of the characteristics of this movement (differing from other strikes such as the one in 1995): workers (whether or not on strike), students, people on the dole all getting together on a local level within collectives, inter-industry assemblies, general assemblies in struggle, struggling general assemblies, etc. Although we may see this as a sign of radicalization, it remained fairly marginal (seemingly not comparable to the workers’ collectives of the 80s) and did not cause the unions to be overwhelmed. In some towns, the unions participated in general assemblies. The history of class struggle shows that when proletarians want to (is it really a question of will?) they can overwhelm and cast aside cops in whatever form they may be. This was not the case here. On the whole they were content to wait and hope for the unions to call for the movement to get tougher or even turn into a general strike.
The October movement conserved the characteristics of classical past movements (strike, national strike day, national demonstration day) but there were also a number of local actions aimed at blockading the economy. Of course this reminds one of the “anti-CPE” movement during which this idea had been elaborated. Except this time most of those involved were workers and not students. In different cities throughout the country a lot of things were blockaded and not just anything: refineries, stocks of fuel, intersections, highways, train stations, railroad tracks, airports, ports, industrial parks, shopping centers, distribution and logistics centers, companies, bus stations, etc. Autonomous general assemblies decided upon and then carried out these actions. But this was also often the case for local level interunions. Thus this was the case for the CGT because it was necessary to keep the most up in arms of the rank-n-file busy so that they wouldn’t be tempted to do things on their own. This was no longer just a picket outside of a company. This initiative consisted of “flying pickets” made up of striking and non-striking workers, people on the dole, students, etc. They would give a hand to strikers from other sectors by blocking those who couldn’t go on strike or else by trying to have an immediate effect on the economy by aiming at strategic points. Although it must be said that sometimes these actions were purely symbolic7. In some cities the same group of picketers could block different spots in the same day. But to the best of our knowledge no blockade was able to maintain itself when faced with determined cops. Generally the blockade was ended as soon as the cops arrived.
We may also note the appearance of solidarity fighting funds as well as various actions carried out in support of the strikers. In the refineries money was collected to pay the equivalent of weeks of wages. But this never became widespread in other sectors. Another initiative was the making of local struggle newspapers. These were sometimes sold in support of the strikers.
The violence and confrontation with the cops which marked many of the demonstrations and blockings may also be seen as a sign of radicalization, as well as the violent police and judicial repression. Violence is not an end in itself. It is only a means used sometimes by proletarians and lumpenproletarians, although in our Western policed states this fact has been blacked out and forgotten. A movement’s revolutionary nature cannot be measured by the number of windows broken or the number of riot cops wounded (however enjoyable it may be). It is when movements become more radical and dangerous for State and capital that one is compelled to resort to violence. In order to go “farther” one must get past the riot cops and if we go too far the State must carry out repression. Violence is not what makes something radical but rather the other way around.
Just as usual, both the left and the right voiced hostility towards “hooligans”. Of course, they did their very best to maintain this hostility in order to better distinguish between good and bad demonstrators – divide and manage. This was all reinforced by the rumors about cop-hooligans according to which some hooligans were actually cops as well as the stench of racism because for many people a hooligan can only be – euphemism – “a youth from the projects”8. We may nevertheless wonder if the reproof was as strong in the past and if the violence was perceived as something “exterior”9. Perhaps this was due to the greater police repression and to the implication of fiery and hard to control high school students in the movement (especially in technical training schools)10. Violent actions were also carried out by both high school students and by more classical “radical” groups (anarchists, autonomists, etc.). But what was most outstanding was that the movement was marked by episodes in which part of the rank-and-file demonstrators, with or without union cards, came together with violence (like in Montélimar, Lorient, Lyons, Avignon, etc.). People didn’t always back down when the cops forbade them to go down a street although we have to admit this reaction was exceptional.
But the characteristics of this movement may also be seen as a sign of weakness: the blockade actions replacing the more classical methods which don’t work anymore. It’s probably an adaptation of methods of struggle to the changes in society and in the wageforce. The public sector is no longer so strong. There are no longer any workers’ strongholds. Large companies have been broken down into many small companies, causing some of the later to disappear altogether. Production is organized by just in time. There is also the role of transportation as well as the lack of job security. It also has to do with the obstacles the struggle has encountered (reduced right to strike, obligation to carry out minimum service, requisitions, etc.)11. This is a sort of “workers’ guerrilla [war]” exposing the system’s weaknesses. But the movement showed that the effectiveness of these new types of action is wholly conditioned by the persistency of the strike, especially in strategic sectors (railways, refineries, etc.).
So this has been a strange movement. It has hardly broken with the classical framework. But it has many aspects which may predict very cool perspectives for struggle. That’s what is often said at the end of a movement. But we’ll end up seeing if next time, for real, “we don’t give up”.
1Even if only 30% of SNCF railroad workers are enough to paralyze part of the traffic if they should happen to be drivers and technicians.
2What is at stake is important for the French economy (that is for the employers’ wallets) because this is about the question of working time (two more years) and wages (retirement is nothing but deferred wages). Not to mention that the pension contributions treasure will be gradually handed over to the private sector or the importance of keeping international rating agencies satisfied.
3It’s mistaken to believe the strikers, blockers, and demonstrators defend “social benefits” -or a legitimate right to rest after a life of hard work and respectability. Proles were in the street because they’re fed up. The wording they give to this anger is not what really counts (besides, capitalism will not be abolished when a majority of people come to analyze the world in Marxist or anarchist terms).
4We can see a caricature of this in the made up numbers of demonstrators. In Avignon the October 28th and the November 6th approximately 4,000 to 5,000 (according to unofficial statistics) people participated in the marches. But the unions announced 20,000 at the first march and 15,000 at the second, thus showing how the movement had allegedly become weaker.
5For a more general critique of democracy and general assemblies, see the French blog leondemattis.net [Note - there is a tradition in certain sections of the French ultra-left of identifying "democracy" with excessive formalism and bureaucratic decision making methods which diffuse anger and divide militants. The positive aspects of collective decision making are referred to in other terms - note added by The Commune]
6This would imply that unions could be “set back on track“, “have a good leadership“, etc. Unions do not betray the workers. They just do their job as an intermediary between capital and labor: negotiating the price of labor power within the capitalist mode of production.
7Around Avignon the UD-CGT84 (Thibault backers) initiated actions which alternated between real blockading and a purely symbolic sort for purposes of “increasing public awareness“. The greatest caricature of all was no doubt when they got hundreds of people out of bed at 5 a.m. so that they could make two TGV fast trains ten minutes late. It was quite clear that the UD-CGT never tried to rally beyond its usual militants.
8A fine example of this racist vision can be found in the ugly prose of the Sunday edition of the French Communist Party newspaper L”Humanité Dimanche (Oct. 21st-27th 2010, page 9) in which the alleged cop-hooligans were unmasked because they “looked European” and were not wearing “the kind of clothes people wear in the projects“! Regarding the alleged “cop-hooligans” you’re better off reading the French article “Soutien au “camarade ninja” et autres considérations” at http:\\dndf.org/?p=8212.
9In Lyons railworkers demonstrated in front of the courthouse where “hooligans” were on trial after they had been arrested the day before.
10In Avignon the high school blockades and wildcat demonstrations tended early on to be unruly. This was less the case when high school students participated in previous movements.
11We may wonder if many people have resorted to sabotage. We have found no information on this subject except for the national railway SNCF’s protest against the number of “malicious incidents” along railroad tracks.