Massive Strike Wave Sweeps France
Down With Vigipirate! Down With Racist Expulsions! For a Multiethnic Revolutionary Workers Party!

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 804, 23 May 2003.

MAY 19—A strike by up to two million workers last Tuesday brought France to a virtual halt as schools and government offices were closed and public transportation and air traffic were brought to a near standstill. French workers are fighting to beat back attempts by the government of conservative president Jacques Chirac to cut retirement benefits for public employees and increase their payments into the pension system. The union leaders meant the strike to be a one-day “show of force” to back up their negotiations with the government, but the workers were not following the bureaucrats’ script. Workers at many locations, voting daily in general assemblies on the shopfloor, continued the strikes, keeping the country largely tied up throughout the week.

There has been considerable public support for the strikes despite the disruption that accompanied them. Lines of tied-up traffic around Paris totaled an estimated 200 miles; the streets of the capital were filled with people walking, skating or cycling to their destinations. It is widely understood that attacks on state employees’ pensions are simply a prelude to attacks on everyone’s pensions and other social benefits. But leaders of the main trade-union federations, fearful of the explosive anger among the ranks, have tried to put a lid on the situation. Leaders of the Socialist Party-led CFDT trade-union federation broke the united front of all the major union federations by signing a deal with the government and then despicably engaging in active strikebreaking against the workers who continued to strike. The division of the proletariat into separate unions run as political fiefdoms weakens the workers’ struggles. Our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France fight for industrial unionism—one industry, one union—to maximize the workers’ unity against the employers and the capitalist state.

Today, hundreds of thousands of strikers—primarily teachers, hospital personnel and postal workers—braved heavy rain to march in Paris and other cities. However, while public transportation was shut down in Marseille, most railroad, subway and other public transportation workers, who were key in tying up the country last week, have returned to work. Calling for a nationwide demonstration on Sunday, May 25, the leaders of the Force Ouvrière and CGT union federations are cynically manipulating the combativity of the workers back into a parliamentary framework of “pressuring” the government.

While centered on public employees, last week’s strikes mobilized a significant component of workers from the private sector. In the industrial city of Lyon, fully one-half of the strikers were in private industry. This is significant because the strategic component of immigrant workers in the French industrial proletariat is entirely concentrated in the private sector (racist French law bans non-citizens from public sector jobs). “Left” and right-wing governments alike have used racist attacks on minorities to divide and demoralize the working class in France, from racist discrimination in hiring, education and housing to the Vigipirate campaign of military and police terror against immigrants and minorities. Seizing on the terror attacks in Morocco last week, the French government announced that it is raising the Vigipirate “anti-terrorism alert” to “Code Orange,” a threat not only to the country’s besieged minority communities but to striking workers as well.

We reprint below a 15 May leaflet issued by the LTF, section of the International Communist League.

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With the massive May 13 strikes and demonstrations, which continue today, the working class is ripping apart the reactionary national unity behind the Chirac government that was stitched together by the SP [Socialist Party], CP [Communist Party] and LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire) together with the trade-union bureaucrats. From their outright vote for Chirac last year “against Le Pen,” to heralding the French imperialists as a force for “peace” against U.S. imperialism’s colonial slaughter of Iraq, these traitors have done everything in their power to tie the working class to the class enemy. This strengthened the hand of the bourgeois state to launch a murderous rampage with thousands of soldiers in the Ivory Coast, troops Chirac now threatens to send to Congo. At home the government used national unity to increase its racist war on immigrants with the first “charter flights” of deportations in many years. Emboldened by its success in trampling over the rights of Africans at home and abroad, the capitalist ruling class now has the organized trade-union movement in its cross hairs.

This is the biggest strike wave in this country since the powerful December 1995 strike against the attack on pensions by the Gaullist government of Juppé. It is crucial that the working class draw the lessons of 1995. The strikes then did force the right-wing government to withdraw its attack, but this was channeled into bringing to power the Jospin popular front in 1997, where the CP and SP ruled in alliance with the capitalist Chevènementistes [followers of ultra-chauvinist politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement] and Greens. Like all popular fronts—governmental alliances between workers parties and capitalist parties which rule on behalf of capital—this one did its job in attacking the interests of the workers and serving those of the capitalists and in shifting the struggles from the factory to parliament. After five years of savage attacks and racist “security campaigns” under Jospin, Le Pen’s fascists got a massive vote and the Gaullists came back to power with a vengeance, and with an even more drastic assault on pensions.

Every gain the government wants to take back today is one the workers movement wrested through hard class struggle. It’s going to take more such struggle and a political fight to hold on to past conquests and win new ones. Against the sectarian division of the working class we need to unite all the workers as one solid fist: one industry, one union. We need solid industry-wide strikes which shut down production. The government’s challenge that our strikes are “illegal” is an ominous prelude to unleashing the forces of capitalist law and order against strikers and moving in scabs. We need picket lines which mean “don’t cross!” Government experts whine that we don’t understand the demographics and costs of the looming pension and social security crisis. We say, we’ve created the wealth of this society and we won’t pay for the crisis of the inherently unjust capitalist system. The owners who have made millions in profits off our sweat should pay. We demand a sliding scale of wages and hours: 30 hours work for 40 hours pay! To combat the “divide and conquer” schemes which pit older workers against youth and French-born against immigrant, we must organize the unorganized and the unemployed into the unions! The cutting edge of the government’s attempt to fracture the unity of the working class is the toxic anti-immigrant campaign. It is imperative that the union movement take up the defense of its most vulnerable sector, the immigrant workers. We demand: Stop the deportations! Vigipirate means racist state terror against immigrants! Down with Vigipirate! Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

The power of the French proletariat is demonstrated in these massive strikes which have brought France to a halt, paralyzing transportation and disrupting the flow of profits into the bosses’ coffers. Our class brothers and sisters in Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany and Britain have also engaged in powerful strikes to defend themselves from ruin. If militancy and self-sacrifice alone were sufficient to combat the injustices of the capitalist system, then all of Europe and indeed the whole world would be a society of justice and equality. Instead it’s a world of imperialist war, racism, sexism and attacks on the living standards of the working people by profit-gouging capitalists. The problem is essentially one of leadership. Even to secure the minimal needs of the workers posed by the strike (pensions, wages, employment), the point of departure is a clear understanding that the workers must stand politically independent from and in opposition to their class enemy. This demands a break from the treacherous misleaders who subordinate the workers’ interests to the French bourgeoisie, from the misleaders who exploited the unions as their springboard to support Jospin and Chirac. We need to forge a new, revolutionary, internationalist workers party. This is what we stand for, as the French section of the International Communist League.

It is not only the spectre of the December 1995 strikes which brought down the Juppé government that haunts the Chirac government. In its wholesale assaults against the teachers unions, the government and its minister of education, Ferry, have been on a rampage to eradicate the “spirit of May ’68” in the educational system. This is an ominous threat against women’s rights like co-education, abortion and divorce, which were gained in the turbulent years of class struggle that followed the May ’68 general strike. The sellout then by the French CP of the pre-revolutionary situation created by that strike immeasurably contributed to restabilizing the bourgeois order in West Europe in the early ’70s. This in turn helped open the way to the new cold war of the 1980s against the Soviet degenerated workers state, unleashing the forces of capitalist counterrevolution which finally destroyed the USSR in 1991-92. This catastrophic defeat for the world working class ushered in a new world order of interimperialist rivalries and neocolonial wars of depredation, in which the capitalist governments no longer feel constrained to maintain the “welfare state,” centrally pensions and health care. To sweep away this capitalist system and to eliminate racism and war, a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party must be built to link together all forms of resistance to immiseration and oppression and to create an egalitarian socialist society here and internationally.

It is notable that in contrast to the December 1995 strikes contingents from the private sector have already come out in protest. However, the strike has remained concentrated in the public sector where the workers have citizenship rights and more protection against layoffs and victimization. This underscores that to bring out the private sector it is vital for the whole proletariat to take up the defense of its more vulnerable class brothers and sisters and their children. That means opposing the racist cops who daily terrorize the ghettos, not having police “unions” obscenely parade in workers demonstrations, as they did on May 13. The cops are not workers but the guard dogs of capitalist private property against any encroachment by the workers on the capitalists’ rights to exploit us and oppress minorities. Cops, prison and security guards, out of the unions!

Although presently a small organization, the LTF has shown the way in exemplary actions in defense of immigrants. In a statement protesting the deportations, we warned that “this ‘war on terror’ is designed to marginalize the most vulnerable workers, to weaken the working class by dividing it between European and immigrant, the better to carry out assaults on the entire workers movement and its gains wrested through decades of class struggle.” We said that the government

“counts on the time-worn ‘divide and conquer’ scheme of racism. We better prove them wrong! The powerful trade unions across Europe should stand by their most vulnerable class brothers and sisters. Give every man and woman in the hellish detention centers and squats a union membership card and mobilize the power of the organized working class in their defense!”

Left groups like the LCR who were busy saluting the “antiwar” credentials of the Chirac government did nothing to mobilize against these deportations. Today they are cynically yelling “general strike.” A general strike, bringing the country to a grinding halt, poses the question of who shall rule: the workers or the capitalists. With their support for the Gaullist government these treacherous “leftists” have already cast their vote. In contrast, we have fought down the line against the reactionary “national unity” front. During the war we argued for mobilizing the working class in class struggle against the French imperialist rulers as the way to defend Iraq against the neocolonial U.S. imperialist slaughter. We fight to organize the workers movement in this country against the predatory imperialist schemes of this ruling class abroad. French troops out of Africa! U.S. and allied troops out of the Near East!

Workers must beware of their present struggles being derailed again into a new popular front. This is the political perspective of the LCR. Behind its calls for a general strike stand the LCR’s repeated statements that it is ready to be part of a so-called “government of the left,” i.e., a new bourgeois popular front. (Indeed their comrades in Brazil have already done so with their own minister in the Lula popular-front government—an alliance with the arch-capitalist and racist party of textile magnate José Alencar Gomes da Silva.) The LCR, which mobilized a goon squad to defend Chevènement against the indignation of undocumented immigrants and anarchists in the March 5 Paris antiwar demonstration, has already shown in action that they are willing to do the dirty work necessary for such governmental positions.

In contrast to the rest of the left, Lutte Ouvrière stood out for its refusal to call for a vote to Chirac during last year’s elections and also again during the war for not signing its name to chauvinist appeals to the Chirac government. But, as we noted during last year’s elections, LO’s opposition to both Jospin’s “plural left” and later to voting for Chirac was vitiated by its refusal to oppose Vigipirate and its explicit support for reactionary cop mobilizations in November 2001. Today, LO has a strong implantation among the teachers in the Seine Saint-Denis district, which is heavily immigrant. These teachers have been waging strike action for weeks against the government’s attacks on education, which if implemented would be particularly devastating for immigrant and minority youth. While LO argues that teachers must be mobilized against these attacks, it echoes the government as well as the SP and CP in their campaign to forcibly “assimilate” youth of immigrant origin by expelling young girls for wearing the hijab [Muslim headscarf] in public schools. One can hardly “assimilate” into a society that offers no jobs and only police repression!

The indifference of the French left and trade-union bureaucrats to racial oppression flows directly from their program of class collaboration. Despite its statements that workers’ emancipation will be the work of the workers themselves, LO, far from offering a program for the workers to emancipate themselves from their traitorous misleaders, simply calls on the workers to be more militant in order to make the bureaucrats fight, arguing that “if part of the workers who were mobilized on May 13 continued the next day, it would put pressure on the union federations to continue” (editorial in LO’s factory bulletins, 5 May).

Appealing to the justified anger of many workers against the reformist trade-union misleaders and their “far-left” supporters, the Confédération Nationale du Travail (CNT) claims to be building a new, “revolutionary” trade union. To substitute the idea of a “revolutionary union” or a “syndicalist party” only further fractures the labor movement. We need big, powerful, industry-wide unions which embrace the majority of the proletariat as a class. But to move beyond the framework of economic struggle at the shopfloor, to politically mobilize for the overturn of the inherently unjust capitalist order and to build a society where the workers rule requires forging a new and authentically communist party. The LTF is dedicated to building this party as a revolutionary tribune of the people which will fight every injustice, every act of discrimination, as part of a revolutionary internationalist struggle to bring the workers to power. Join us!

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