French Workers and Students Show the Way


April 25, 2006 8:52 | by Steve McGiffen

Victory is sweet indeed...

It is also possible, and here in France, where I live, it has just been achieved. Building on the tremendous result of last May's referendum on the so-called "European Constitution", a movement embracing workers, students, school students and progressive political parties and social organisations has just forced the right-wing government into an embarrassing climb-down.

The victory was achieved in the face of media distortions, apparent government intransigence and police violence. The more the newspapers and broadcast media lied, the more the government refused to budge, and the more the police stuck the boot in, the more people took to the streets, the more universities and high schools were blockaded, and the more firmly the unity of the movement held.

It is a victory which should be studied carefully by the left in Britain and in every other member state of the European Union, for French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who put his political future on the line for the sake of the new "First Job Contract" law against which the protests were aimed, was doing the EU's bidding.

In the spring of 2002, heads of state and government from each EU country met in Lisbon, ostensibly to discuss how a 'social Europe' could be achieved in the face of the single European market. When the single market was planned in the 1980s, there was open recognition of the strains such a system might place on welfare states and public services, and promises that policies would be developed to address these problems. In this way, the centre-left was kept on board.

It is easy to forget, but it is not very long ago that mainstream economists offered a wide range of options as to how the capitalist system might best be managed, and political parties reflected these differences. As neoliberal ideology grew to consume all of its rivals, however, the idea that the 'free market' and a borderless EU would bring anything but untrammelled benefits became anathema. As there was no longer seen to be a problem, no more attention was given to possible solutions. Any disruption would be short-lived, overcome by the tremendous boost to growth which the single market would bring with it. Competitiveness must be enhanced at all costs, and welfare systems which were too 'generous' were incompatible with the goal of making 'Europe' the world's most competitive economy by 2010.

Here and there the old complaints were still heard: the single market exposed workers to economic pressures which would, if left unchecked, force down wages and undermine everything which had been achieved over a century or more of social progress. In France, the presence in the government at the beginning of the century of Communists and left social democrats forced these questions back on to the agenda. The Lisbon gathering was one result of this. At the time, moreover, eleven of the fifteen member states had nominally centre-left governments, so expectations were high that the meeting would at least come up with some palliative measures to soften the worst excesses produced by the single market process. Nothing of the kind occurred. France had introduced a 35-hour working week, but no limits on working hours were even discussed at Lisbon. Pensions were mentioned, but only to lament that people were retiring too young. As for addressing inequalities of income or wealth, precarious employment, inadequacies in social security systems, sickness and disability insurance, health care, or the creation of useful employment in the public sector, you could forget it.

Instead, the talk was all of ensuring the further retreat of the state from social provision or public service. Growth would bring jobs, and jobs would solve all problems. Growth would be encouraged not by public investment but by lower taxes and higher levels of employment. The state might fill in gaps, it might just maintain an interest in core aspects of health care and education, but other services - postal delivery, telecommunications, energy supply, public transport - should be left to market, which was inherently more efficient. Privatisation, deregulation, liberalisation, flexibility, these were the paving stones from which the road to prosperity would be constructed - by private contractors, of course.

It's important to remind ourselves that none of this has any basis in reality. Neoliberal economic theory is nonsense, and we should never give an inch to it. The whole concept of achieving 'competitiveness' by liberalising the economy lacks the slightest empirical basis, and it has been shown time and again that making jobs more precarious, which is what the 'Lisbon Agenda' demands and what de Villepin's law sought to deliver, does not increase employment in any sustainable way.

French workers and students have shown that the Lisbon Agenda can be stopped in its tracks. Not, unfortunately, by merely drawing attention to the consequences for everyone in society of anything which exacerbates its already grotesque inequalities, or appealing to concepts of justice, human dignity, or respect. Such arguments do have a role to play, of course: they helped to sustain the support of over two-thirds of the French population. But reasoned argument alone will not win: it must be backed by militancy, a high level of organisation, unity of purpose, clarity of goal, a belief in the possibility of victory and a determination that it will be achieved.

France has shown what must be done. Circumstances in different countries mean that the movement will take rather different forms elsewhere. Yet the enemy is everywhere the same. Guided by the European Union's centralised institutions, it wants to take away everything which we have built, everything which tames the jungle of an unregulated market economy.

We have to stop it. And we have seen, in the events in France over the last few weeks, that it can indeed be stopped.

Steve McGiffen is editor of spectrezine. This column has also appeared in the
Morning Star