The French president is hoping to push through a series of Thatcherite reforms, but the workers are not going to lie down and take it, writes John Mullen
Oh so young, oh so modern, and neither right nor left: such was the image that Emmanuel Macron wanted to project as he became surprise winner of the French presidential elections last May. Five years ago, no one had heard of him, but, profiting from the deep crisis of traditional parliamentary parties of Left and Right, he came through with his newly invented party, La Republique en Marche, to take office.
To give readers an idea of just how modern a thinker Emmanuel Macron is, he is on record as saying that the French regret losing their King and that they need such a figure to look up to! As for “neither Left nor Right”, Macron chose as his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, active on the traditional Right since 2002, has openly expressed regret that France had never had a “Thatcherite revolution”, and has trundled out a series of “reforms” to make the rich richer and the workers weaker. No fewer than twelve of his ministers were invited to the summer school of the French bosses’ organization, the MEDEF. As one left-wing MP commented “It’s not really a government, more a board of directors”.
At the centre of Macron’s programme are tax cuts for the rich, and new laws to reduce the power of organized workers in every aspect of our working lives. In his new Labour law, which he has decided to push through without a debate in parliament, there are 36 “reforms”. Health and Safety Committees, including union reps, which have been obligatory in companies with over 50 employees since 1947, will see their powers vastly reduced. Compensation for unfair dismissal, decided by Industrial tribunals, will be capped: for example, if unfairly dismissed after 20 years working in a company, an employee will be awarded a minimum of three months’ pay and a maximum of 15 months’. Bosses in smaller companies will have far more freedom to ignore national minima concerning working hours or overtime pay. The number of union delegates in a company, and the paid facility time accorded to them will be slashed. Finally, limits on redundancies in multinational companies will be, in practice, abolished, since the company will not have to show that its international organization is losing money.
Macron is also pushing through public service cuts: 150 000 government-subsidized fixed term contract jobs in schools and public services have just been abolished, harming some schools so much that headmasters have refused to open them. And Macron intends, like Thatcher did, to crush left wing councils’ capacity to soften the impact of poverty and racism, by transforming local tax systems to give much more power to central government.
Because of his independence from the structures of traditional right-wing parties, he is able to propose some minor reforms which some feel make him look less right-wing (like community policing and smaller classes in primary schools in the poorest neighbourhoods), but he is a Thatcherite through and through. On tour in Greece this week, he assured his audience, “I am completely determined and will not back down because of the layabouts, the cynics and the extremists”.
The viciousness of his intentions is not in doubt, but Macron is not as strong as his considerable parliamentary majority makes him look. His movement, cobbled together from right wing Socialist Party members and traditional Conservatives, with a large number of MPs completely new to parliament, is not stable. Large numbers of confused small businessmen have become MPs behind Macron, and their incompetence is often clear. He has also made some rather odd proposals. He wanted his wife to have an official status as First Lady as is the tradition in the USA, a proposal which seemed to have practically no support either on the Left or the Right and had to be swiftly abandoned. We should remember that in the first round of the presidentials only around 19% of eligible voters chose Macron, and his approval ratings since the election have nose-dived. In early September 37% of those surveyed “trusted him” to run the country, as against 58% who “did not trust” him. There is no honeymoon period for Macron.
As we know only too well, unpopularity in itself is not enough to push back governments. So, what of the opposition, both industrial and political? On 12thSeptember, an initial day of action was called by the more left-wing unions, (the CGT, FSU and Sud). Though the national leadership of another major union confederation, Force Ouvrière, did not call to join the day of action, many local and regional federations from FO did so. The day of action was huge: mass strikes, and large demonstrations took place in over a hundred towns across France. Brest, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille…very multicultural, very working class, lots of home-made placards, lots of political leaflets. The day shows that the French working class still has a high level of political class consciousness, because, remember, this movement is not against any immediate wage cuts or job losses, but against changes in the law which put more weapons in the hands of bosses. Workers also understand that if Macron is not stopped on this, he will move on to his next obscenity (more massive reductions in pensions and more job cuts in public services).
As for political opposition and a left-wing political alternative, the situation is exciting. The traditional left Socialist Party collapsed in the legislative elections, losing 90% of its seats, moving from 295 MPs to only 29. The party’s own presidential candidate, Benoit Hamon, has recently left the Socialist Party and set up a mini-party which is having difficulty positioning itself on a busy political chessboard. This collapse presents an important opportunity for a fighting left alternative.
It is Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the France Insoumisemovement which is at the centre of political opposition to Macron, and its leadership declare that they want to “replace” the Socialist Party with a “real left” party aiming at government. Many commentators have focussed on the novelty of La France Insoumise, but in reality it is very close to Corbynism: a dynamic left reformist movement, drawing in very large numbers of new people. But La France Insoumise has grown up in a country where the left of the traditional social democratic party (the PS) did not have the strength to take over the leadership of that party (unlike in Britain). It is a country in which the neoliberal steamroller, crushing stable jobs, workers’ rights and public services, has been very much slowed by workers’ resistance these last thirty years, so much so that the elite are speaking now in 2017 of the need for “a Thatcherite revolution”. It is also a country in which forms of left patriotism have always been strong, and in which confusion (at best) about Islamophobia is generalized on the whole of the Left, and both of these elements influence La France Insoumise.
Fifty-eight percent of the population consider La France Insoumise to be the main opposition to Macron, and the 17 newly elected FI members of parliament have shown they know how to keep resistance in the newspapers even over the summer. When Macron announced there would be a reduction of 5 euros a month in housing benefits for students across the board, and some Macronite nonentity MP joked scornfully about “these young people who are moaning about five measly euros”, the FI MPs came into parliament for the debate carrying a shopping bag with what you can buy for five euros in a discount supermarket. This is what parliamentary politics should look like! The FI MPs also boycotted the splendiferous ceremonial meeting of parliament in Versailles to greet the new president. The establishment are scared: Christophe Barbier, top chic TV commentator, spoke recently of the danger of “Mélenchon and his henchmen”, whereas right-wing mag Le Point published a front page emblazoned “political violence from Robespierre to Mélenchon”. Meanwhile radio host (and author of a book entitled “My life as a reactionary”) Eric Brunet declared that the 19% who voted Mélenchon at the presidentials were “all morons”.
The France Insoumise local groups are bringing in large numbers of new activists. Local meetings are dynamic, breaking with the dusty tradition of far-left meetings here (including those of my own organization) and there will be a founding conference in December. Three thousand activists attended the FI summer school at the end of August in Marseille. Speeches called for FI groups to reach out to those who had lost interest in politics, and to be useful in direct action grassroots struggles over housing and public services. “Capital is good for nothing” summarized Mélenchon.
The France Insoumise has called, on its own initiative, a national demonstration for Saturday the 23rdSeptember against Macron’s attacks (against the “industrial coup d’état” as our slogan says). Benoit Hamon has since announced he will support the demonstration. The reason for the FI’s decision to call on its own initiative, and indeed the reason for the existence of La France Insoumise, is the very poor record over the last five years of attempts to work as a left bloc with the Communist Party and other groupings. The Communist party, (which now has 12 MPs and 1600 local councillors), proud of its real but limited anti-austerity work in local and regional councils, has insisted on maintaining “pragmatic” alliances with the Socialist Party at local and departmental level. Worried, too, about being replaced as visible left reformist campaigning party, sections of the CP are harshly dismissing the potential of the France Insoumise.
It is important to see, too, what the revolutionary Left is doing. Of course, any kind of reformist leader, however radical, will have 37 differences of viewpoint with revolutionaries. What one can make the state do, and what resistance the ruling class will put up to a pro working-class government are obvious points of disagreement. And Mélenchon feels that, correctly led, the French state could play a progressive role in international relations, and is not opposed in principle to France having nuclear weapons. He is no Marxist revolutionary.
However, a worrying large section of the revolutionary Left in France feels it is their job to count the disagreements, and work at inventing new ones, and a shopkeeper attitude to revolutionary groups is common (“Isn’t it dreadful that Mélenchon is selling so well! Don’t forget our products are more authentic!”). One anticapitalist party leader, Besancenot, interviewed on TV, actually denounced the 23 September march, since his group had not been consulted about the date. Some anticapitalists have even joined in the multiple slander campaigns against Mélenchon, declaring he is some sort of megalomaniac (in fact he was practically the only candidate who objected to crowds chanting his name during the election campaigns).
One of the roots of this sectarianism is a long-standing analysis among influential sections of French Trotskyism which considers that left reformism can no longer exist in today’s capitalism. Such an analysis obviously makes it difficult to deal with the real thing when it turns up on the stage of history. There are a number of possible pitfalls for revolutionaries when a new Left reformist movement grows up, but sectarianism is clearly the main one in France today. Fortunately, other sections of the revolutionary Left are helping build France Insoumise as well as putting their ideas forward within it, (for there can be no question but that a revolutionary voice will continue to be necessary).
Le Pen won eight MPs in the elections, the largest number of fascist MPs since the elections of 1986 (when a proportional representation electoral system was briefly in place). In the second round of the presidentials, Marine Le Pen got 10.6 million votes, four million more than the FN’s previous record. Although they have been out of the news this summer, the fascists are stronger than ever. They still have far more electoral support than they have activist structures on the ground: this is why Marine Le Pen had to hold her traditional autumn rally in a tiny village, and why her street demonstrations every May only attract a few thousand. The FN are determined to build a mass party. The supporters they have can only be encouraged by the endless series of Islamophobic campaigns being trundled out, sometimes by people who claim to be on the Left. Last year it was the moral panic about the so-called “burkini”, and this year, a retired headmaster is being feted in the media for his book about his “crusade against Islamic fundamentalism” in the secondary school he worked in. As is sadly to be expected in France, reactions from antiracists are tiny in scope, and la France Insoumise is no better than the rest of the Left on this (perhaps a little worse).
So, will the widespread anger against Macron build into a movement that can push him back? And will LaFrance Insoumise be able to stabilise a mass political movement against austerity and in favour of working class priorities? Both of these are possible, though no-one has a crystal ball. And whatever the speed of developments over the next year, building struggle alongside the new activists and maintaining spaces to put forward Marxist ideas will remain the two touchstones of anticapitalist activity.
John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.
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