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France: Deep malaise marks 'la rentrée'
A fighting, working class left remains to be built
Clare Doyle (CWI Secretariat) and Leila Messaoudi (Gauche Révolutionnaire, CWI in France)
The return to work after the summer holidays in France, as in other southern European countries, is often seen as a time when the struggle of workers and students will be renewed, even taken up a level from the previous year. Not in 2013! This year's 'rentrée' has been characterised by a deep malaise.
As September started, the financial press in France was delighting in a 'reprieve' for the economy - growth of 0.5% at the most! Another piece of 'good' news was a lower monthly figure for unemployment.
In fact, only a new way of calculating unemployment resulted in a lower figure! It remains at over 10% and for young people between 15% and 24%.
New job cuts have been announced in every sector of the economy - Air France, Michelin, Danfoss, Technibel...
Nearly three million children in France are living in poverty and yet the Socialist Party (PS) government is launching a new attack on allowances for families with children at school.
Budget cuts of €14 billion are on the agenda for 2014. In September, the cost of food and of electricity went up by 11%.
In the countryside poverty is palpable; uprooted vines lie in piles at abandoned vineyards, villages are deserted as young people leave in search of an income.
The retirement reform that is presented as a 'mini-reform' is in fact a severe blow for present wage-earners and pensioners.
It means a rise in contributions, taxation on what we pay into the scheme and an increase in the age at which you can leave work with the full pension - probably to 67 for those born after 1973 who have jobs.
The government's approach gives the impression of having no choice but to make the majority of the population pay for the crisis.
But the facts suggest otherwise: the finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, has announced a lightening of the tax burden - compensation to the bosses in exchange for a tiny increase in their contributions, which they do not pay from their own pockets anyway.
Gone into oblivion are Hollande's election scare stories about 75% taxation of big fortunes, gone is the talk of nationalisation for companies like Petroplus and Arcelor Mittal.
In the face of a lowering of conditions at work and of living standards, there is action being taken by workers affected; sporadic and sometimes longer action is taken, but separate from each other.
The 'Days of Action' called by the CGT (major trade union federation) against the retirement legislation started with 10 September, which was too soon after the rentrée to be mobilised for.
Then a week of action was announced for 7 October and again very little was done. On the final 'Day of Action' in this round - 15 October - only the most battle-hardened workers took strike action and went on local demonstrations with little hope of affecting the legislation which has now gone through parliament.
Many people will be wondering what use it is to be on strike, to lose a day's pay, if it changes nothing.
To be on strike, in view of the low wages and precarious jobs, must serve some purpose, either in gaining something in the workplace or in a broader sense.
A genuine one-day general strike is needed to confront the government and the plans of the big bosses to throw people out of work.
At present, no left party or trade union is taking up a serious fight against the bosses or the government.
The government's attacks on workers are still moderate compared with other countries; the fear of provoking a generalised confrontation between the classes is ever present in France.
With the exception of the National Front (FN), now with a local byelection victory in Brignoles (South-East) under its belt, none of the main political parties is confident of its future.
The government of president Francois Hollande and prime minister Jean Marc Ayrault is not carrying out policies fundamentally different from right-wing ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and his UMP party.
Hollande is doing nothing decisive to show even the slightest opposition to big business. The 'socialists', in spite of their crippling unpopularity, may still be the best option for the capitalist class to push through their 'reforms'.
The National Front
The right is in disarray and is having difficulty recovering from the blow inflicted on Sarkozy through the ballot box by the majority of workers and young people.
In fact, at bottom, the UMP has difficulties because, apart from its style of government, very little separates it from the policy of the PS-Green government.
In this context, the FN presents itself as the only party in opposition to the PS and UMP. It has had this approach for 40 years but what is different today - after the left governments under Mitterand, Jospin and now Hollande - is that the 'left' in government is not pretending its policies are pro-worker.
Their open anti-worker politics are accompanied by a justification that is racist. The PS no longer says the problems are the fault of the big bosses.
The interior minister, Valls, has adopted outright racist language in relation to the Roma in France.
This approach has been highlighted by the deportation last week of a Roma school student, Leonarda. When she was taken off a school bus to be deported to Kosovo with her family, big protests and school student strikes erupted demanding she be returned to France.
Hollande, aiming to pacify the protests, said the girl could return to finish her studies, but without her family - only leading to further outrage against the president and his government.
Real opposition needed
This absence of a stand against capitalism and racism by the PS benefits the FN. It can falsely present itself as a party of opposition while it is against workers - for retirement at 67, for example - and fundamentally for capitalism.
It is in this way that it can continue to profit from this political vacuum particularly at the time of the next elections.
Those who are fighting the closure of their workplace or against a PSE ("Plan to Save Jobs") or fighting for better wages, have to be able to take up the struggle immediately and cannot count on this government to defend them.
Against redundancy plans, against the destruction of retirement rights, against the deterioration of our living conditions, our working conditions and our education rights.
In the face of racism and islamaphobia, workers, young people and pensioners must be able to make their voices heard.
We need a real opposition of the left against the government and the bosses which draws together all those who want to struggle.
Who is fighting for these interests at the moment? To the left of the PS there are several political forces.
In 2012, the candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon for the Left Front, was widely supported and a whole section of the population still looks on him positively.
Today, if the Left Front wants to put up real opposition to current policies, it should take advantage of its position and appeal to all those who want to oppose the government to fight and make a broad call for organising and building the struggles.
But the Front de Gauche (Left Front) is under severe pressure. As local and European elections approach in the spring of next year, the Left Party and the Communist Party are divided on important issues.
The Communist Party justifies the idea of an electoral alliance with the ruling Socialist Party (in Paris, for example) by saying they aim to push the SP back to the left.
But if the latter could go back, it would only be under pressure from mass mobilisations, not under the impact of an election result.
Among the population, a large number of people reject this society of precarious jobs, of poverty, which leaves more than 25% of its young people unemployed and also dictates how to dress, who to love, what to think, while it is not even capable of providing the basic necessities of subsistence: work and shelter.
The causes of all this are exploitation, the rule of profit, it is in the foundations of the capitalist system. The struggle for a different society - a socialist society - is necessary.
In The Socialist 23 October 2013:
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