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Prospects of the General Strike in France

The success of the December 5 national strike and its continuation, as well as the renewal of the strike in several strategic sectors such as transportation, show a qualitative leap in the class struggle in France and perhaps even globally.

Juan Chingo

December 30, 2019
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This article was first published on our sister site Révolution Permanente on December 8. 

A series of social processes, initiated by the Yellow Vest uprising more than a year ago, have subsequently spread from Hong Kong to Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan, and, most recently, to Latin America with elements of counter-revolutionary reversal, as in Bolivia, and advanced points, as in Chile. In contrast to the “citizen” character of these social processes, today in France, it is strategic sectors of the proletariat that have set themselves in motion with their own methods of struggle: the paralysis of production and transport. This is a unique development. Recent social movements have been more dominated by “days of action” and calls for one-off strikes by the unions. In contrast, strategic sectors of the proletariat in France are fighting as workers with working class methods .

On Thursday December 5, the RATP (Pairs Autonomous Transport Authority) strike was huge, as were strikes in other urban and national transport companies in major cities, including a strike by SNCF (national train service) workers, which directly affected all professions. Air France, EasyJet, and other airlines were also affected and cancelled many of their flights. For their part, refiners paralyzed seven of the eight refineries in France. In Marseille, the petrochemical sector in the Etang de Berre area has recorded strike rates not seen since the 1970s. The greatest surprise for the government was the strike in the national education sector: the strike rate was 78% in Paris at primary level and 55% in the rest of the country, with a large majority of schools closed in the capital, and another 100 on December 6. Another surprise was the scale of the demonstrations not only in Paris but also in the provinces. Finally, the strike also affected the private sector, with the participation of small and medium-sized companies, a development that is often foreign to this type of movement. They participated individually or collectively. As we can see, the uprising of the Yellow Vests did not take place in vain. It has not only given confidence to strategic sectors of the labor movement, but has also encouraged combativeness and traditional methods of action among new sectors of workers abandoned by union leaders.

Betrayal of the Union Leadership

It is clear that we are not only facing a “pressure strike.” It is much more than an attempt to gain minor concessions from Macron through continued demonstrations. The workers’ base has become disenchanted with the method of “days of action” and the resounding failure of the slowdown put forward by SNCF’s trade union leaders, which sought to inconvenience capital rather than halt it. Following this disenchantment, the workers’ base is now imposing other methods. They have been inspired by the Yellow Vests revolt, following the massive 24-hour RATP strike on 13 September and the wave of SNCF wildcat strikes this autumn.

But is it already a general strike? As Léon Trotsky wrote in 1935

“The fundamental importance of the general strike, independent of the partial successes which it may and then again may not provide, lies in the fact that it poses the question of power in a revolutionary manner. By shutting down the factories, transport, generally all the means of communication, power stations, etc., the proletariat by this very act paralyses not only production but also the government. The state power remains suspended in mid-air. It must either subjugate the proletariat by famine and force and constrain it, to set the apparatus of the bourgeois state once again in motion, or retreat before the proletariat. Whatever may be the slogans and the motive for which the general strike is initiated, if it includes the genuine masses, and if these masses are quite resolved to struggle, the general strike inevitably poses before all the classes in the nation the question: Who will be the master of the house?” 

We are not there yet, of course. But there is no doubt that this potential exists. The current frustration of the working classes goes beyond the pension issue alone and is directed at the government as a whole. The fact that 70% of the public support the strike illustrates this well. In the face of this situation, however, the trade union leaders—who have negotiated a step back on each of the workers’ conquests in recent years and who have opposed the Yellow Vests movement, particularly at its most intense moment, in December 2018—are not in a position to stop the movement. They are not  leading the strike and are trying to limit its scale by all the means at their disposal.

The Intersyndicale (union federations front led by the CGT), met on Friday December 6. It called for a new day of multi-sector strikes for Tuesday, the 10th. However, despite their “combative” initiatives, union leaders are careful not to call for an indefinite general strike. The argument put forward is that they leave the responsibility and choice of renewal, on a case-by-case and local basis, to the workers. This really just leaves the union leadership free to continue negotiating with the government. Although it may seem incredible, at no time have the union leaders, including the most combative, stopped going to the negotiations, which have been going on for months, even though the workers reject this reform as a whole. Thus, on Monday 9, despite the impact of the December 5 strike, the CGT’s leadership went to meet the Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn. But how is it possible to defeat this reform if we continue to negotiate with the government? The CGT supports the idea of a different reform. But who imagines that any kind of progressive pension and social security reform can be achieved without confronting Macron and his neoliberalism?

That is why the first of the union leaders’ demands should be the one raised by the Yellow Vests on the street last year: “Macron, resign!” But the CGT’s leadership is reluctant to take up this perspective because it would mean consciously placing the strike at the level of a political general strike. It is for this reason, and in no way on the basis of any democratic desire and respect for grassroots decisions, that the CGT leadership is not calling for an indefinite general strike that could encourage hesitant sectors to join the mobilisation. An indefinite general strike could give more guarantees to workers in small and medium businesses (SMEs) who are isolated and without a trade union section or tradition of struggle, but who show that they want to fight. With good reason, this contingent can fear employer reprisals. The indefinite general strike would also be a way of broadening the demands to include all the suffering that characterises employment in large industrial and service companies where low wages and employer despotism are the norm, from Amazon to PSA, from large supermarkets to industrial areas with a high concentration of workers such as Vendée and elsewhere, which could give the leading private sector industries additional reasons to join the movement. All this would make it possible to extend the strike and effectively transform it into a general strike.

A leadership that truly wishes to win cannot place its confidence solely in the idea, which the CGT leadership tends to defend, that demonstrations and strikes, if they continue, will alone generate a dynamic of extension to other categories, such as private sector employees or young people. A real “general staff” of the strike should draw up a precise plan to achieve this objective. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1906, in contrast to the strategy of attrition defended by the leaders of the German social democracy, “The plan of undertaking mass strikes as a serious political class action with organized workers only is absolutely hopeless. If the mass strike, or rather, mass strikes, and the mass struggle are to be successful they must become a real people’s movement, that is, the widest sections of the proletariat must be drawn into the fight.” She also insisted that “it is not permissible to visualise the class movement of the proletariat as a movement of the organized minority. Every real, great class struggle must rest upon the support and cooperation of the widest masses, and a strategy of class struggle which does not reckon with this cooperation, which is based upon the idea of the finely stage-managed march out of the small, well-trained part of the proletariat is foredoomed to be a miserable fiasco.” The Yellow Vests uprising, which embodies one of the poorest fringes of the proletariat, reminds us of this. For employers, the threat would be even greater if the anger on the streets were expressed in the companies themselves. This is underlined by the latest report of Entreprise & Personnel, a human resources consulting organisation which has been monitoring the social climate among its members for half a century and which asks, precisely: “What if the Yellow Vest movement were to leave the roundabouts and find a foothold in companies?” 

However, this is not the objective of the CGT leadership. For them, it is not a question of unleashing the present or latent revolutionary energies of the broadest layers of the proletariat through the use of all the class’ central strategic reserves to win. In reality, the CGT leadership is only seeking to reposition itself as a pillar of the French-style “social dialogue” in the face of the policy of forced transition, leaving aside the intermediate bodies, which characterizes the weak macronist bonapartism. To do this, the CGT relies on the historical mobilization that we are witnessing and, for the moment, is content to accompany the movement in order to frame and channel it.

Worse yet. In the immediate future, the danger that lies ahead is that, given the scale of December 5 and its aftermath, some union leaders will choose to engage in corporatist negotiations on the basis of the false concessions that the government would be prepared to make to save (by paying a high price) the bulk of its reform. In this sense, the coming week will be decisive in determining whether or not strikers are able to overcome the first major obstacle in their path, by reaffirming the dynamics of the strike and its scope.

Strike Committees and General Assemblies 

Unlike the slowdown strike which had liquidated the role of the assemblies, this time at the SNCF (and to a lesser extent in the RATP centres) the general assemblies were numerous. However, in many cases, the assemblies have been limited to simply a position or speech by trade union leaders, thus becoming purely informative or consultative assemblies and not genuine sovereign and decision-making assemblies. For the time being, the formation of strike committees is also in the minority. From the organizational point of view, the entry into the teachers’ struggle has given rise to the emergence of city assemblies that have brought together dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of teachers. This was the case in Paris, in several cities on the outskirts of the capital, notably in Montreuil, but also in Toulouse and Marseille. The old networks of multi-sector assemblies have also been reactivated in both the Paris region and the provinces. A new element was the meeting of the striking sectors called by SNCF and RATP railway workers in Saint-Lazare on December 6. This meeting incorporated other sectors such as teachers and Yellow Vests which, while organizing the most determined sectors of the vanguard, in some cases mandated by their base assemblies, also try to modify the general balance of forces in the situation. These organizational elements in the workplaces could become complementary if the beginning of the strike eventually reactivates the Yellow Vests’ struggle with a resumption of the organization and assemblies at the roundabouts.

The struggle for workers democracy is not only a democratic desire. It emerges organically as a result of the needs of the action. Workers democracy is necessary to organize self-defense, to set up picket lines not only to convince but also to be effective against strikebreakers, to organize alternative transport for strikers, to organize collective childcare facilities in view of the school strike, and, at the same time, to monitor union leaders with a view of overtaking them in the direction of the strike.

In a more advanced class struggle situation, with fascistic elements, as in the 1930s, Trotsky explained the dialectic between the development of the strike and the need for self-organization. Thus he stressed how 

“Such tasks as the creation of workers’ militia, the arming of the workers, the preparation of a general strike, will remain on paper if the struggling masses themselves, through their authoritative organs, do not occupy themselves with these tasks. Only Committees of Action born in the struggle can assure a real militia numbering fighters not by the thousand but the tens of thousands. Only Committees of Action embracing the most important centres of the country will be able to choose the moment for transition to more decisive methods of struggle, the leadership of which will be rightly theirs.”

The current movement, if it wants to win, must break the conservative resistance of the trade union bureaucracy to any grassroots self-activity. But it must also break with the refusal—as it was possible to express, to a certain extent, during the Yellow Vests movement—of any delegation of representativeness that prevents a centralization and coordination of strikers, a central issue in determining the way forward. Such delegation should be under the control of the base and therefore under its mandate and revocable. Sovereign assemblies, strike committees, and the effective coordination of the struggling masses are the life-blood of the strike.

Towards a Revolutionary Party 

It will be possible to overcome all the obstacles and develop all the potential of the strike if the new generation that is emerging takes the strike in its hands and makes it its own. In the strikes of June 1936, Trotsky saw the emergence of the future generals of the army of the proletariat: “That leaders have come forward in the industries and in the factories is the foremost conquest of the first wave,” he wrote in “The French revolution has begun.” 

“The elements of local and regional staffs have been created. The masses know them. They know one another. Real revolutionists will seek contact with them. Thus the first self-mobilization of the masses has outlined and in part brought forwards the first elements of revolutionary leadership. The strike has stirred, revitalized, and regenerated the whole colossal class organism. The old organizational shell has by no means dropped away. On the contrary, it still retains its hold quite stubbornly. But under it the new skin is already visible.”

December 5 is not comparable to the June 1936 strike. The workers’ movement today is less advanced, after years of decline in terms of organization and consciousness. But the new generation will have to play a decisive role, even as a result of the current crisis of French trade unionism, which is no longer even a shadow of what trade unions or reformist parties like the Socialist Party (SFIO) or the Communist Party (PCF) were in 1936 or, later, in 1968. To use Trotsky’s expression, the workers’ movement in France is undergoing a makeover.

It is no coincidence that Les Echos is sounding the alarm about new trends in the world of labor. In an article entitled “December 5 pension strike: strikers and Yellow Vests the new generation of rebels,” the employers’ newspaper illustrates in its own way what we emphasize: 

“This confirms the story of Adel Gouabsia, Unsa union delegate and RER driver on line A: ‘In the method, there is a “giletjaunization”—a “Yellow Vest Effect”—of our strike: it starts from the base and it has strength. We decide for ourselves. No one else decides for us.’ Forty-nine years old, having spent nineteen of those years at RATP, ‘2,500 euros per month including bonuses,’ he wore a yellow vest last year like other colleagues living in the suburbs: ‘When you start at 4:30 in the morning, you only have your car to get to work.’ Today, he uses his days off to attend public meetings at work exchanges or universities—‘we need to break down barriers,’ he says. And before leaving us, he would like to stress: ‘There is a desire for self-organization.’”

Far from being an isolated case, this example highlights a change in mindset and values among a new generation of workers. The article goes on to highlight how, according to trade unionists, “newcomers are again interested in getting involved. ‘Ten years ago, we knew the “me first” generation, but in the last four or five years, that has changed,’ says the delegates at Unsa-traction, where they state that ‘50% of union delegates are under the age of 35.’ Often with less status than the older generations, this generation has an increased sensitivity to injustices but no collective code of action, and they want to have a say on everything.” 

This new layer of young leaders is called upon to play a central role in the coming confrontation and in the historical period of sharpening class struggle that began with the Yellow Vest uprising in November 2018 and is now reaffirmed by this general strike in strategic sectors of the working class. 

As Révolution Permanente, a revolutionary tendency of the NPA, we believe that the actors that should be organized into a unified revolutionary workers party are there. It is time for the leaders of the main far-left organizations to assume their responsibilities and devote all their energy to this objective, on which not only the evolution of the current struggle but also the future of proletarian revolution in France depends.

Translation: Tatum Regan

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Juan Chingo

Juan is an editor of our French sister site Révolution Permanente.



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