Hope in a Cold Climate

By Singer, Daniel | The Nation, January 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Hope in a Cold Climate


Singer, Daniel, The Nation


"It's not a revolt, Sire, or a revolution; it's the beginning of the end of the reign of big business, of capital, over the minds of the people," a courtier might have told Jacques Chirac if, like Louis XVI, he had asked what was happening outside his palace as some 200,000 chanting marchers, joyful and determined, crossed the Place de la Bastille on December 12, the climax of this French crisis. There are tides that alter the whole landscape, and the wave of strikes that paralyzed France for more than three weeks was one of them, because it awakened people from their political slumber. Alain Juppe, the Prime Minister, who first played for time, was almost swept aside. He recovered only by yielding to the transport workers, the spearhead of the public employees' offensive. But he was not alone. Professional pundits were equally bewildered, as their usual incantation--it's irrational: Brussels, Washington, the I.M.E, will never understand--was dismissed with contempt. Behind their simple slogan--"All together! All together!"; "Social Security belongs to the workers; we fought to get it, we shall fight to keep it"--the demonstrators delivered a deeper message, one that had not been heard for years: If your system cannot give us and our children a decent life, then so much the worse for the system.

Each crisis has its own features. This time students were not the inspirers of the movement; perhaps they will be politicized by the strike. The opposition parties--above all, the Socialists, burdened by their "culture of govemment"--were passive bystanders. They could blame Juppe for clumsiness or undemocratic procedures, but they accepted the same rationale. The labor unions--or, to be precise, the two main unions, the Communist-dominated C.G.T. and its former enemy, founded with C.I.A. money, the F.O.--were more active. This, in a country where union participation has been dropping, and only 10 percent of the work force is organized. The striking rank and file of the third major union, the once radical C.F.D.T, were handicapped by the stand of their leader, Nicole Notat, who in the name of "modernity" acted as a blackleg and an undisguised servant of the establishment. (This crisis foreshadows a restructuring of French unionism.)

The C.G.T., the F.O. and the teachers who joined them did well because they had learned some lessons. Unlike the past, this time they backed the strikers from the start and allowed them to shape the union line in democratic fashion through daily assemblies, discussions and votes. Yet the most impressive feature of this exciting period, besides the incapacitating effect of the transport strike on usual business, was its impact on the political life of the country at large, illustrated by mass demonstrations that gathered momentum day after day in towns big and small: 150,000 people in Marseilles, nearly 100,000 in Toulouse and Bordeaux, but also 5,000 in towns of fewer than 50,000. …

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