Rank-and-File Workers in France Organize to Continue the Strike — Interview with Daniela Cobet

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France is experiencing the longest strike since 1968. The union bureaucracies are trying to end the strike — but rank-and-file workers are getting organized, with the support of revolutionaries. Our sister site in Argentina spoke with Daniela Cobet, a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Current (CCR) in France.

Graphic: Ideas de Izquierda

We publish here an interview with Daniela Cobet, leader of the Revolutionary Communist Current (CCR), the revolutionary tendency within the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France. It was conducted by Ideas de Izquierda Semanario. The CCR publishes the newspaper Révolution Permanente (Permanent Revolution), which is part of the La Izquierda Diario International Network, and is a member of the international Trotskyist Faction–Fourth International (FT–CI).1

The French working class is today leading one of the most significant struggles in the world. What activity has the CCR been developing in this scenario?

Cobet: The working class has been making a tremendous show of force. The birth of the current movement was influenced by the radicalism shown by the Yellow Vests beginning at the end of 2018 and throughout 2019. Today, we are in the midst of the longest strike in France since May 1968. The massive day of action on Thursday, January 9, showed the determination of the sectors that remain on strike, despite a long truce agreed to by all the trade union leaderships, including those that lay claim to being militant.

We have been stressing the importance of the strike unfolding as a truly popular movement and remaining under the control of the strikers themselves through assemblies, strike committees, and coordinating groups, which in turn can guarantee the stoppages and organize self-defense. And we believe that we’ve contributed to this, to the extent of our forces.

The year-end holidays were a very difficult stage of the strike. Some workers returned to work, leaving a hard core in the SNCF [railway company] and above all in the RATP [the subway and buses]. In the subways, buses, and commuter trains, the percentage of workers on strike continues to be greater than 90%.

We’ve been promoting the coordinating group in Paris with bus workers, subway workers, and commuter rail and other railway workers. After the initial discussions involving these strikers, the meetings have been opened to other sectors, such as teachers, students, Yellow Vests, and others. The group became a central one and was a determining factor in maintaining the strike—despite the more or less open call for a truce on the part of the union bureaucracy. The coordinator group succeeded in bringing together more than 100 representatives from 14 of the 21 bus terminals, from three subway lines, and from two commuter rail lines, as well as from some stations and SNCF technical centers. A truly militant core of the coordinating group emerged, especially in the RATP—which is clearly the vanguard of the strike.

There is a particular sector of comrades influenced by an independent union created in 2014 in the RATP, as part of a reorganization, with a strong anti-bureaucratic character and a kind of “grassroots unionism.” They are mostly workers under the age of 40, many of immigrant origin, who against all odds—they had the bureaucracy of all the unions and company management against them—managed to establish themselves over the years as the third-largest union in the company, with nearly 17% of the votes. It is the most militant sector of the coordinating group, with which we are closest politically in this struggle.

Through the coordinating group we’ve managed to put forth an entire agenda for the strikers. There have been some very successful actions that have been widely reported in the media, such as an action against repression of the strikers that took place outside the RATP headquarters and that was transformed into an occupation of the Lyon Station. That paralyzed the running of two subway lines that had been able to function during the strike only because they are automated. We also held a big march on December 26 that drew about 3,000 people against the calls by the bureaucracies for passivity and a truce (see video 2). In addition, we held a press conference in which the strikers made a year-end counter-statement in response to Macron’s call to abandon the strike. Delegations were also empowered to make direct contact with workers at large private companies such as Total and Peugeot.

As part of these actions, and to keep things from being restored to “normalcy” during the holiday period, we organized—together with the local CGT2—a big New Year’s Eve party at the Flanders bus depot in Pantin in the Paris suburbs. That’s the location of one of the pickets in which we had intervened from the beginning of the strike. It was an important event, and even Philippe Martinez, the CGT general-secretary, had to participate. Anasse Kazib, a railway worker and CCR leader, took advantage of the event and was able to confront Martinez with a whole series of the strikers’ deeply felt demands (see video 3).

You mentioned the pickets. They’ve played an important role in the strike …

Cobet: Yes, particularly in the bus sector, where the RATP management has relied on the most precarious workers to try to break the strike. That’s why picketing, with the participation of students and teachers in solidarity, has since December 5 been key to preventing—or at least limiting—the movement of buses. During the year-end holidays, a difficult moment for the strike, we organized from the Paris coordinating group an entire system of rotating pickets to go out every day and reinforce two different areas—one in the north and the other in the south of the Paris region. The results were inspiring. On several occasions, we managed to achieve our objectives for several hours, despite the strong police presence. And later, after the repression was unleashed, non-striking drivers declared they were “reserving their rights” and stopped driving their buses, which also achieved our objective.

The activity of the coordinating group was key to all of this. As an important RATP trade unionist and member of the coordinating group put it, with the group the unions would have been free to call for the resumption of work through the summer holidays, which would have sparked a conflict.

In the march on January 9, we constituted a massive column of strikers at the head of the crowd (See video 4). More generally, the action of the coordinating group gives visibility to an emerging grassroots of the very workers who will prevent the trade union leaderships from easily putting an end to this strike—which makes the current process completely different from social movements of the last decades. [Video 4: embed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUSb62vvMW0]

You mentioned comrade Anasse Kazib arguing with Philippe Martinez. He seems to be emerging as one of the strike’s main spokespersons …

Cobet: Anasse has become one of the leaders of this movement, not only in the struggle but also in the media and in the debates. At first, the media almost exclusively invited the national union bureaucracies to the television debates, but given the development of the movement and the weight of the most determined sectors, they’ve had to start inviting someone who can talk about these actions while having nothing to do with the agenda of the official leaderships. So, Anasse appears as the main spokesperson for the grassroots. 

Anasse has shown himself to be a great polemicist when confronting deputies from the government majority. Often, he clearly wins the debate and frequently makes fools of his opponents, which has aroused widespread approval among many workers who see the media trying to silence what the strike’s supporters really think. This was the case when Anasse argued with the transport minister on a popular TV show and exposed the government’s hypocrisy. It had quite an impact: the Macronist deputy became very defensive as Anasse showed that she herself didn’t even understand the reform she was defending. She ended up accusing Anasse of “verbal terrorism.” Anasse had good instincts; he got up and left (the program was about to end), stating that such an argument made it impossible to have a discussion and that it was an insult to the victims of actual terrorism. He won a lot of support in social media.

It is a reflection of the times that a revolutionary workers’ leader such as Anasse should emerge as the main figure in the strike. This has been pointed out by publications such as Le Parisien and Arrêt sur Images (see in this issue of IdZ: xx), which has a more intellectual audience, close to that of Le Monde Diplomatique, as well as by Libération It is also seen in the many invitations he has received from the press. The other side of the coin is that the emergence of a figure from the Arab-Muslim labor movement is driving the xenophobic extreme Right crazy. Every other day they publish a new article on him, with such pleasant titles—like “Anasse Kazib, between trade unionism and communitarianism”3 and “Anasse Kazib and the salafization of the social movement.”4  

Having come through the holiday period with the movement still in motion, as we saw on January 9 and now with Macron’s latest maneuvers, what is the current situation? 

Cobet: It’s a difficult situation. After more than 40 days of strikes in the transport sector, and despite the partial participation by workers in the refineries and other less strategic sectors, there is no clear perspective for generalizing the strike. That creates pressure to go back to work in some sectors, although the strike remains strong in the subway and commuter rail. 

Within this framework, the government—while sticking to its plan—is dealing with major contradictions as it confronts a movement that resisted through the year-end holidays and that enjoys the support of the majority of France’s population. Meanwhile, the government’s popularity continues to fall. It is in this context that Macron decided to accept the proposal of the CFDT5 for an ultra-one-sided retreat on the issue of an immediate increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64, to see whether it succeeds in demoralizing the strikers and reversing public opinion. This maneuver was not accepted by the rank and file; in fact, people who were going to return to work continued with the strike for an additional week, and several strikers have told us that the maneuver had nothing to do with their return. Rather, there was just a sense of exhaustion after so many days of striking.

The government is being called into question quite seriously—even more so after unleashing more repression in the second week of January. There was the police intervention to prevent actions by striking lawyers, but above all was the repression of the march on Thursday, January 5, during which police cracked the head of a subway conductor (see video 5), threw a flash-ball at a demonstrator less than two meters away (which is prohibited), and jailed several strikers. An editorial in Le Monde wrote, for the first time of “police violence”—in quotes. All these elements forced Macron and his Interior Minister this week to change their tone, an expression of an uptick in the loss of police legitimacy in sectors of the population that go beyond the Left. We organized a press conference by the coordinating group, along with several political and social organizations and some deputies and senators from Europe Ecology–The Greens and La France Insoumise,6 So, while the general dynamic of the strike is downward, we cannot exclude that gaps may open that we can take advantage of.

Last Friday we organized with the coordinating group an event at the CFDT local to reaffirm that they do not speak on behalf of the strikers. The hostile reaction from the entire trade union bureaucracy (including the “contentious” CGT and FO7), but also from the entire establishment, with former President François Hollande and Macron himself speaking out against the action, is an indication of the role that same bureaucracy plays as supporters of the regime. Contradictorily, this led to the first mention of the full name of the coordinating group in the national media, and many militants and intermediate union structures that had separated themselves from the position of their leaderships expressed their solidarity with the action.

What perspective do you see for the Left in this situation?

Cobet: The development of this workers’ vanguard that has been putting its body on the line through more than 40 days of the strike is huge news for what the French call the “extreme Left.” Or at least it should be. This whole new layer of workers who have undertaken an enormous experience in the class struggle could give real substance to the objective of establishing a revolutionary socialist party in France—if the Left had that objective. The very development of the strike, its confrontations with the government and the police, and the attitude of the bureaucracy makes abundantly clear the need for such a party.

We of the CCR have been fighting for this perspective within the NPA—not only now, of course, but since its very founding. At the last Congress of the party in early 2018, we got almost 11% of the votes with Platform Z for that perspective.8 We need a revolutionary working class party. We believe, and we have been arguing, that both the NPA and the other historic extreme Left party, Lutte Ouvrière (LO), should push forward a unified revolutionary party that will will create a nucleus, around a revolutionary program and strategy, of the new layer of workers who are leading the current hard-fought battles.

On the picket lines, we have found ourselves getting closer to Olivier Besancenot, a main figure in the extreme Left and leader of the NPA’s majority current. His rather radical positions and his militant attitude in the strike show that what’s been happening in the class struggle in France, at least since the Yellow Vests revolt began, is having an impact on him. We could say that Besancenot sees the importance of these two great events and that they could change the state of affairs for the extreme Left. We agree on this—despite our other big differences. As I said, we put forward the proposal for a unified revolutionary party—and whatever we can do in common in that regard, whatever steps we can take, even if only partial, we want to push forward.

We recently got a small sample of the influence such a party could have, when Anasse and Besancenot participated in a debate a few days ago, together with Eric Drouet [a leading figure among the Yellow Vests], on the inaugural program of a leftist channel directed by a well-known journalist.

Finally, we wanted to ask your evaluation of the CCR’s intervention in the process thus far?

Cobet: As far as our forces are concerned, we believe we’ve been playing a role in the current process linked to the most advanced sectors of the movement, both by promoting the coordinating group, such as on the picket lines, and by carrying the voices of the strikers such as Anasse. Our newspaper Révolution Permanente—which in 2018 had already become a reference point during the Yellow Vest movement with more than 2 million visits per month—is again playing an important role. At its peak, Révolution Permanente surpassed the audience of long-established newspapers such as L’Humanité, which is linked to the French Communist Party.

The work the CCR has been doing is very much appreciated, especially given the strong politicization and emergence of a new class-consciousness that is taking place. It has led to discussions with many comrades we want to move forward by winning them as militants. We’ve been organizing Révolution Permanente Committees in both the north and south of the Paris region, with dozens of RATP strikers, where the vanguard of the movement is most concentrated, as well as several SNCF strikers, teachers, and students. In Toulouse and Bordeaux, we’ve been holding open meetings with dozens of comrades who are coming closer to the CCR as a result of our intervention.

Modestly speaking, we believe that if the entire extreme Left, with all its militancy, participated in the movement the way the CCR has with our limited forces, working for coordinating groups, for the strike, and so on, we would be much stronger. The very prospect of twisting the government’s arm would be stronger, as would the possibility of establishing a revolutionary party in France. I think that’s a very important sense we have about why the CCR exists: to show that you can do something else, that you can go beyond the electoral and trade union routine that is a cancer on the Left—and not only in France, of course.

First published in Spanish on January 20 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation: Scott Cooper

Notes   [ + ]

1. The FT–CI includes the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS, Party of Socialist Workers) in Argentina; the Movimento Revolucionário de Trabalhadores (MRT, Revolutionary Workers Movement) in Brazil; the Partido de Trabajadores Revolucionario (PTR, Revolutionary Workers Party) in Chile; the Movimiento de los Trabajadores Socialistas (MTS, Workers Movement for Socialism) in Mexico; the Liga Obrera Revolucionaria por la Cuarta Internacional (LOR–CI, Revolutionary Workers League – Fourth International) in Bolivia; the Revolutionary Workers Current (CRT) in the Spanish State; the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (CCR, Revolutionary Communist Current) that is part of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, New Anticapitalist Party) in France; the Revolutionäre Internationalistische Organisation (RIO, Revolutionary Internationalist Organization) in Germany; comrades of Left Voice in the United States; the Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (LTS, Workers League for Socialism) in Venezuela; and the Corriente de Trabajadores Socialistas (CTS, Socialist Workers Current) in Uruguay. Sympathizing organizations include the Frazione Internazionalista Rivoluzionaria (FIR, Revolutionary Internationalist Fraction) in Italy; the Corriente Socialistas de las y los Trabajadores (CST, Socialist Workers Current) in Peru; and the Organización Socialista (Socialist Organization) in Costa Rica.
2. Translator’s note: The Confédération générale du travail (General Confederation of Labor) is one of France’s two largest trade union federations.
3. Translator’s note: “Communitarianism” maintains that our social identities and even our personalities are shaped in large part by our community relationships, and puts far less emphasis on individualism.
4. Translator’s note: The term salafization refers to a movement advocating a return to the purity of the practices of the first Muslims, and is often used by the European Right to characterize Islamist organizations accused of being “terrorist.”
5. Translator’s note: The Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) is the other of France’s two largest trade union federations, led by one of the most pro-employer bureaucracies.
6. Translator’s note: La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) is a social-democratic political party that focuses on a so-called “ecosocialist” program.
7. Translator’s note: Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Force), is France’s third-largest trade union federation.
8. Translator’s note: That proportion affords the CCR representation on the leadership body of the NPA.

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