Lessons of a Left Victory in France

France’s leading bureaucrats, from President Jacques Chirac on down, have been defeated.  French neo-liberalism — the dismantling of its welfare state in favor of business —  has suffered a serious blow.  A powerful alliance of high-school and university students and of organized labor achieved the victory against the government’s law that undercut job security for workers under 26 years of age.  The alliance forced Chirac to annul the law — exactly what he and the other current leaders had said was absolutely illegal and impossible.  Now what matters most is how everyone in France and beyond — business and political conservatives, on one side, and students, labor unions, and the left, on the other side — will understand what has happened.  Their different understandings will shape how both sides adjust their respective organizations, strategies, and tactics.

No doubt, the French right and its big business base will try hard to rebuild their organizations and their damaged popular standing . Likewise, they will resume, albeit in other ways, their long-term goal of “reforming” labor laws and conditions to the advantage of business.  The lessons they will draw from their defeat is how to avoid any more political defeats along the way.  They will need to split the left opposition better than they did this time.  They will need to disguise their projects much better as driven by “national” or “economic” or “security” interests that “everyone in France” shares.  Big money will be made by the political and business “consultants,” “think tanks,” and academic “advisors” brought in to repackage the French right’s program.

On the other side, the French left and left forces elsewhere facing comparable enemies — that is, the global left — will need to draw the very different lessons from their victory.  And the lessons are many.  First, a badly disunited left — divided along age, gender, income, immigrant, educational, ethnic, and other lines — found it possible as well as necessary to unite.  The unifying focus was on their common relation to the security and conditions of labor.  Second, the power of this particular focus undermined the French government’s repeated efforts to split the better-paid from the less-well-paid workers, the immigrant from the non-immigrant, the young from the older, and the more from the less-educated.  Third, the government’s effort to invoke “the law” as expressing the “democratic will of the people” failed to dissuade a mass movement that believed it represented the people far better and far more genuinely.  A kind of dual power situation emerged — a formal versus an informal government — that helped millions of French men and women to see through the formal government’s appeals to “national unity.”  French nationalism failed to overcome the opposition’s appeal to the interests of workers and students against the other, different part of French society.  The concept of society as a site of struggle between basically opposed social forces became common sense on the left and for the solid majority of French “public opinion” that consistently backed the demonstrators against the government.  Finally and perhaps most importantly, the alliance of students and workers confronts the lesson that unified, mass, direct political action can win battles.

The lessons for the French are also lessons for the rest of us.  A major battle was won, but the war continues, in France as elsewhere.  Businesses will continue to press governments for laws and regulations favoring their needs for profits, rich executive pay packages, and corporate expansion.  They will continue to seek advantages in global competition by demanding concessions from workers, consumers, and students.   They will pour ever more resources into publicity campaigns, politicians, and “research” that aim to convince people that meeting business needs is what will bring reform, modernization, prosperity, and democracy to everyone.  They are gearing up for future battles.

The workers, students, and consumers will face again, in France as elsewhere, the question of whether and how they can unify and mobilize to win those future battles.  But sooner or later, they will have to resolve the following key questions that had already been raised during the demonstrations before Chirac accepted defeat and that continue to agitate the student demonstrations on related issues.  Do we wait for the next neo-liberal attack and fight again to repel it or do we fight this war in another way by challenging the very economic structure that pits employers against employees in endless battles?   Might our best strategy be to mobilize all the energy and unity revealed in France this March and April to struggle for a basic change in the organization of production so that workers become their own bosses?  Is the cooperative enterprise rather than the capitalist enterprise the way forward to an economic future without endless battles pitting the corporations’ alliances against the worker-student-consumer alliances?

A lesson about the US mass media also deserves to be drawn yet again.  They mostly ignored the momentous events in France.  Some found good copy in wildly exaggerating the scattered violence whose minimal scope and impact actually attested to the mass demonstrations’ remarkable organization, discipline, and solidarity.  A few took seriously the French government’s effort to paint its anti-worker law as motivated by a desire to provide jobs for impoverished immigrant youth whose needs they have systematically ignored.  Explicitly or implicitly, most news stories and analyses lectured “the French” on their failure to “modernize” their economy in the neo-liberal manner of the US, UK, and other “forward-looking” economies.  With few exceptions, the private mass media dutifully did their part to prevent any contagion from the remarkable French spring of 2006.

Rick WolffRick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).