France: Unemployed fight back
Last weekend’s Paris demonstration showed that the mass movement in France for unemployed workers’ rights has not been suppressed despite the violent break-up of employment centre occupations by state forces.
Although there were only around 10,000 demonstrators, this continued the trend of relatively few workers participating directly in militant action, but those actions having nevertheless the support of millions.
The present campaign began at the beginning of December with the first occupations by supporters of unemployed action groups. They quickly spread to take in more than 30 assedics - employment centres - within days. A welcome feature was the close cooperation of the three main organisations - previously renowned for going their own way. One of these groups is the Comité de Chomeurs (Committee of Unemployed Workers), sponsored by the large communist-led Confédération Générale du Travail trade union centre. Despite the continuing social-democratisation of the Parti Communiste Français (Communist Party of France) and its participation in the rightwing Socialist Party government, PCF militants are still capable of leading such militant direct actions.
The two other organisations are the Action Chomage (whose initials sound out assez, the French for ‘enough’) and the APES. Both contain members of left and revolutionary groups.
Several thousand workers played some direct part in the sit-ins, which enjoyed the support of the majority of the population - opinion polls showed 60-70% sympathising with their actions. This support was given concrete form in the shape of solidarity visits and donations of food, blankets and cash. There were hundreds of meetings, marches and demonstrations, as well as symbolic occupations of Socialist Party offices, town halls and plush restaurants, all over the country. The assedic occupations continued for five weeks until the CRS riot police broke them up earlier this month.
There are approximately seven million unemployed in France - although, thanks to government massaging of the figures similar to the British practice, official statistics show around half that total. The real figure includes millions of sans droits, who receive no benefits at all. A senior government official was recently fired for admitting the true extent of French unemployment.
Although benefits for the short-term unemployed are relatively high compared to those in Britain, long-term benefits drop to sub-poverty level. The occupiers were demanding an immediate increase of 1,500 francs (£150) a month on the minimum long-term rate and the reinstatement of the 3,000-franc Christmas ‘bonus’ withdrawn by the previous administration of Alain Juppé. The call is for the right to work or decent benefits.
Although the Jospin government used the heavy hand of the CRS to end the occupations, it felt obliged to make concessions too. It announced a package worth around one billion francs (£100 million) for the long-term unemployed and offered to negotiate with representatives of the main unemployed organisations. Previously Lionel Jospin had ruled out any such increased spending as jeopardising French participation in the European single currency. Nevertheless the package represents a pittance compared to the real needs of the unemployed - and to the 560 billion francs paid out in company takeovers in 1997, or the 150 billion rescue of the Crédit Lyonnais bank.
While the campaign of the unemployed continues, there are signs of other workers moving into action. Miners are resisting plans for pit closures and teachers have just launched a series of one-day strikes and demonstrations. Calls have been made for the coordination of all these struggles.
There are deep divisions and growing tensions within the Parti Communiste Français and the CGT. On the one side of the class divide, PCF leaders are loyal members of a government which is continuing the ruling class offensive against welfare spending. On the other, PCF members are amongst the leaders of the militant fightback.
PCF leaders say that the Socialist Party-led government now needs a “fresh start” after a “positive” beginning. In contrast René Barthes, a leading supporter of Coordination Communiste, a left opposition group within the PCF, told me: “For the first time we have communists in a rightwing, Blair-type government. They are following the Plan Juppé aimed at meeting the Maastricht criteria. The policy of privatisation and the anti-immigrant Pasqua-Debré laws remain in place. But the Jospin government is really being challenged after only seven months in office.”
A feature of the assedic occupations was the tremendous comradely and optimistic atmosphere. The militants adapted old calls to arms from the Resistance in their songs of solidarity. This time however the enemy is not German imperialism, but French capital and their ‘own’ government.
The movement in France to win real advance for the unemployed provides a stark contrast to the present inaction of British workers, where new assaults by the Blair government have not yet provoked action capable of successfully defending even the gains of the past.