What’s Happening in France?

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Sophie Béroud, Pierre Cours-Salies, Patrick Le Tréhondat and Patrick Silberstein

“Social evolution is desperately slow, isn’t it, my dear?” –Jack London, The Iron Heel

SIX YEARS AFTER the massive social protest of the winter of 1995, four years after the electoral victory of the Broad Left [the election of the government headed by Lionel Jospin — ed.], and some months before the next presidential elections of 2002, we will to try to enlighten the opportunities and obstacles that have arisen for the French left.

From 1995 to 2001, French society was shaken by different struggles led by activists and organizations which were more or less radical: the undocumented, the homeless, the unemployed, those fighting for gender equality, resistance to globalization (Attac), etc.

The workers used the political tools they had at their disposal in the spring of 1997 in order to reject neoliberal policies: They gave the Broad Left(1) a parliamentary majority. Yet the governmental coalition of the Broad Left1 endured in March 2001 an electoral defeat, with the right wing carrying the majority of votes.

1) The Broad Left.

It’s necessary to recall that the left victory in the 1997 legislative elections was due both to a certain resurgence of those on the left who usually abstain, who wanted to punish Juppé’s government [which had imposed severe budget cuts –ed.], and to the polling method. In reality, the Broad Left only had 42.3% of the electorate, where the right and the extreme right had 51.2%.(2)

In 2001, triumphing in Paris and Lyon, the left nevertheless controls only 107 large towns as opposed to 130 before. These elections thus reveal a tenuous but overall continued balance of forces between the right and the left, but also point to a serious realignment of power within each camp. Above all, the elections reveal the clear absence of a political dynamic on the part of the Broad Left.

2) The French Communist Party (PCF) has entered a new stage in its fundamental crisis.

It now governs only seven towns with more than 30,000 people and lost elections in more than thirty-six towns. To the clear abstention of working people and of the formerly reliable Communist electorate must be added the effect of a strong competition from the Greens and a shift to the revolutionary and Alternative lists.

The journal of the Refoundation Communists sounded the alarm on the party’s loss of political autonomy: “The PCF seems more and more to rely on the life support offered by the Socialist oxygen tent.” The PCF seems on the verge of imploding, especially given the reactions of some of its most “conservative” sectors, while the presidential polls predict a very small result for it.

3) The parliamentary right carried these elections despite a deep internal crisis.

Since 1997, the year [conservative President] Jacques Chirac had decided to call the elections, which were then lost by the right, they have not succeeded in putting together a united leadership or a coherent program of exercising the power.

The unending crisis of Gaullism [the post-World War II French nationalism rep<->resented by Charles de Gaulle, which claimed to uphold specific French interests as against American and British capital –ed.] has not been resolved by the advocates of neoliberalism.

Chirac’s victory in 1995 relied on a Bonapartist posture against “social breakdown,” which was immediately abandoned in favor of classic neoliberal policies. This reversal was one of the sparks which set off the strikes of December 1995.

The industrial and financial bourgeoisie’s fundamental need to dismantle the social gains of the working class ever faster drives the whole right, including the most modernist sectors. The presidential election of 2002 will be a test of the balance of forces between these different components.

Despite his involvement in the fraudulent financing of his party, once more Jacques Chirac may be able to stand out as the unifying candidate and win the presidential election. He might juggle both with a populist attitude and an alignment with the policies of the employers’ organization.

4) An extreme right on the defensive, but still on the scene.

After weighing heavily on French political life for the past fifteen years, the fascist right lost its nuisance value once it split into two parties in 1998. One result of this split was its disappearance from town councils in many of the largest cities, although the extreme right still polls 20% in many cities.

Of the four cities governed by the far right since 1995, it has only lost one. Reelected in Vitrolles, Catherine Mégret openly campaigned for a sort of “segregated development,” proposing that native born French people be moved and rehoused in different neighborhoods than those inhabited by the immigrants.

One sign of the weakening of the far right is the smaller number of slates it put forward, compared to 1995. In 1995, 234 of the fascist slates made it to the second round in municipal elections, but there were only seventy-eight that did so this year. Obviously this vacuum has favored the classic right, which, in winning back their “lost voters” has also retaken many of the cities lost in 1995.

After the 11th of September, however, polls showed a substantial rise of the average of voters intending to give their vote to the far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen (12%).

5) The Greens.

The Green Party is one of the few parties to see its numbers of voters grow, despite internal squabbles whose political causes are hard for non-members to understand. However, the current paradox is that although France has confronted several ecological crises (oil spill by TotalFina, major risk to food safety), the environmental movement has never been at a lower ebb, at least in terms of a social movement.

Politically unprepared for a situation where they had to be an ally of the Socialist Party (PS) while continuing to be a party which challenged the status quo, the Greens’ rapid growth within state institutions has weakened their ability to actually intervene or initiate grassroots mobilizations.

Nonetheless, the Greens do stand for an environmental and democratic critique of the system, and they have a real influence among citizens who are worried about global development, who are sensitive to lifestyle questions, and who care about questions of local democracy. The Greens, for example, are active in the civil rights campaign for immigrant workers. The Green electorate, which remains quite volatile, seems to be waiting to see what the Greens are able to do now that they are at the heart of the system.

The Greens initially selected appointed Alain Lipietz, more or less the representative of the left wing of the party, as their candidate for the presidential election. After the apparatus and the media both rejected him, a new internal discussion was organized and the party members favored a new candidate (Noël Mamère).

This tangled quarrel increased the internal party dissension and disturbed the electorate. Very aggressive in opposing Chirac, Noël Mamère can carry out very positively some campaign themes (environment, immigrant rights), but without any doubt he represents the right wing of the Greens.

6) The Situation of the Unions.

Coming out of the social upheaval of Autumn 1995, there seemed to be a reconfiguration of the union landscape, with on one side a pole bringing together the [traditionally Communist-led] CGT, Force Ouvrière, SUD-PTT or FSU4, the minority current within the CFDT, and on the other side, a so-called “reformist” pole with the CFDT, the managerial federation and the Christian federation.

Between 1995 and 1998, movements like the one around unemployment or the truck drivers’ strike showed the potential of such a radical union pole, energized by struggles and by some kind of an alliance with the unemployed organizations and also aware of the need to take into account the necessary European dimension of opposition to neoliberal policies.

This union regroupment’s ability to intervene depended heavily on the fact that its anchor was still the CGT, the federation whose influence has undoubtedly declined, but which remains, with the CFDT, the largest French union. The CGT’s involvement with this gathering of unions relies, in turn, on the continuing process of self-redefinition underway within the federation since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, the CGT rode the coattails of the 1995 strikes more than it led them. Its general goal of rebuilding the union movement and the need to join the European Confederation of Trade Unions caused the CGT to cement an official rapprochement with the CFDT in 1998. Three years after the battle against Juppé, when the two union federations found themselves in opposite “camps,” might these two strategies be converging?

The CGT made unity in action with the other confederations one of its main priorities, but has neglected to clarify exactly what that might mean. As a result, the CFDT has appeared to be the only union force with a clear project: that of openly adapting itself and the workforce to the demands of neoliberalism.

When the employers’ organization (Medef) decided to launch an open attack on the current system of contract negotiations, with the aim of completing the dismantling the labor regulations already under siege and of completely removing the right of the state to intervene, the CFDT clearly supported this attack.

This attitude has led to yet more militants quitting, even whole unions. These departures represent the heart of the left opposition in the CFDT, which, knowing that the internal battle has been lost, has no other solution but leaving. However, the CGT is not really ready to welcome them, since its public alliance with the CFDT limits its room to maneuver.

Within the Group of Ten or the FSU, both of which have taken in these CFDT refugees, some see today the possibility of building a new grand confederation, with a more radical base. However, with French trade unionism already terribly fragmented and weaker than ever (organizing only 8-9% of the working population), this vision would appear to face a number of difficult hurdles.

7) The Left in Motion.

The municipal elections showed a significant growth in support for the radical and alternative left, opening a large space for something which has been absent for a long time: support for a vision which is to the left of the traditional left.

Far left slates got 7.14% of the vote compared to only 5.27% in 1995. This shift is largely due to disaffection with the French Communist party and an increase in abstention.

To this must be added the positive results for those slates dubbed “citizen slates,” which revealed an electorate in search of an alternative.

The strong vote in favor of these slates indicates both a new political layer intent on civil demands at the local level and a growing impatience. While being careful not to confuse the significance of votes for the revolutionary left and votes for these alternative citizens’ slates, one can note the opening of a new potential space for “a political perspective to the left of an increasingly neoliberal social democracy.” (Patrick Braouazec)

Special mention should be made of the Motivated slate from Toulouse, the roots of which go back to a political/cultural group born in the “hard neighborhoods.” Their slate got 12.3% of the vote and was allied with the Broad Left for the second round.  [This is the runoff between the top candidates in the French electoral system –ed.] In order to fight this new kind of coalition, the local right worked all out to mobilize 13,000 abstentionist voters between the two rounds.

8) Radicalism and Unity.

A poll gives us some idea of the space available for the construction of a critical left: 27% of the voters believe that the government should be leaning further left; 18% think it is too far to the left already; 46% believe that the government’s direction is fine as it is.

Seventy-one percent of those who voted for the PCF and 41% of Socialist voters think that the government should shift further left. As for the Green voters, only 26% wanted more of a left turn. This poll also revealed some other interesting facts: 37% of those who identified themselves as supporters of the Broad Left abstained, as opposed to only 28% of those supporting the right.

Thirty-five percent of white-collar workers and 40% of blue-collar workers did not vote. Other significant abstentions included 36% of those with an annual income lower than 15000 euros, 53% of those under 25 years old, and 39% of those from 25 to 39 years old.

These figures reflect a slow but heavy shift since the 1980s.

Many voters have stopped going to the ballot except for what are perceived as “big occasions,” for instance against “the worse evil,” as for the unexpected legislative elections of 1997 where people got the opportunity to get rid of a right government weakened by the social protest of 1995.

The levels of abstention in these municipal elections thus raises an important political question: many of the “none-of-the-above” voters of around 35 years old are those from poor areas who watched their parents’ weakening support for the left all along the past twenty years.

If this generational process continues, will we see in France the same relationship between the masses of people and the Democratic Party which already exists in the United States?

To this heavy tendency must be added the poor transfer from Green and far left votes to the Broad Left lists in the second round. This is a tactical fact which we must record and above all handle with the greatest care in order to sketch an electoral tactic for the left of the left.

As far as we see, in fact, such a grouping would have to address both those radical layers who are already “breaking with the traditional Left” (Daniel Bensaïd) and the working-class voters for whom a vote for social-democrats still represents resistance.(3)

9) Back to the Past.

The strikes and the various movements in struggle which have taken place in France since the upheaval of 1995 have opened a window on a certain political and strategic reorientation. It can be seen in movements as diverse as the struggles around austerity demands, the defense of the public sector and social services, the rejection of underemployment, the search for a citizen-based politics which intervenes on behalf of a deeper and more real democracy.

One incontrovertible sign of the changes in French society: the new mayor of Paris publicly announced his homosexuality, while homosexual couples have been legally recognized. The day after the elections, the new mayor of Paris declared that “There must not be any second-class citizens.”

An advisory group for aliens will be attached to the Paris City Council, which will function “until their right to vote in local elections is guaranteed. And the sooner, the better.” We’ll see what happens in practice.

However, this powerful new movement has neither solved the crisis of trade unions nor, it must be said, created a unified political perspective. On this matter, an author like Fran<135>ois Dubet, however close to the ideas of Alain Touraine,(4) could justly write:

“This movement threw into question a ruling class which could neither offer an acceptable future nor create a viable political perspective. But the opposition was not united by any one project, either . . . . This aspect of the movement did not benefit by any interface whatsoever with unions or a coherent politics.”

This reality is therefore one of the central questions which we must answer.

After a very short “honeymoon” period with the Broad Left government elected in 1997, a loud critique of that government’s policies emerged and led to broad social struggles, especially around the 35-hour week. The March 2001 election results thus showed a calculated rebuke inflicted on those whose mandate had been to organize a resistance to neoliberalism.

We saw some massive struggles (hospital workers, finance sector, teachers…) openly confront the official policies. Recently, despite the short-lived economic brighter period,(5) some industries which have benefitted (Michelin, Danone) have increased plans for layoffs while others planned closures (Cellatex, Moulinex), leading to strikes, factory occupations and boycotts, even sabotage, all of which are creating a somewhat synergistic movement.

Each of the movements described above has some elements that could become a coherent alternative. However, the inability of the CGT to build a coherent strategy, and its hostility towards new union forces (like SUD), weigh negatively on the potential dynamic of these tough struggles which in fact remain isolated.

Two of these struggles (teachers and finance workers) even led to the resignations of two social-democrat ministers in the spring of 2000 because of their involvement with planned “modernizations,” and in some cases led also to the creation of public jobs. This is not a small political victory.

There are therefore some key elements that can contribute to a unified political perspective. Workers have signaled their main demands to the government: for ending the hiring freeze in state services, for a different share of this so called “return to prosperity.”

Other struggles have also seen huge mobilizations in the last few years, especially with regional situations where the companies paid no attention to local needs, subservient to their distant financial masters. Sometimes these difficult circumstances have mobilized unexpected groups, as when <169>high tech<170> workers at Elf turned their computers against their management, in order to fight a “performance plan” which would have meant losing jobs.

The power is there, if what we’re talking about is replacing the “constraints of the economy” with very different necessities and management goals. It would be important to debate all of the ideas which are emerging from these conflicts, and to spark such debates at large among the working class, possibly by means of union leadership, or political leadership, as long as either organizing force focuses on the need to reconstruct a perspective.

10) The Key Question: a Political Project.

It would be completely illusory to believe that all these different strands of movement will converge automatically. Observers speak too quickly of a “social movement,” when the truth is that there are several different movements.

The fragmented nature of these movements means they are sometimes juxtaposed to one another, narrowly channeled, without real continuity or a real dynamic in common. Each separate struggle is rooted in its individual problem — social prejudice, loss of social services or benefits, and so forth — focuses on the immediate demands of that fight, often a defensive one, and often limited to the particular job at stake (nurses, midwives, some judges).

Some analysts have spoken of a “creeping `95” underway during 1999-2000, where the movement spread from one pocket of struggle to another — reflected in the rise in strike statistics — without ever really being perceived as such. In all of this, the coordination of these different struggles has been very weak.

Without the construction of a political alternative, it will be difficult to link movements of the unemployed and the underemployed to those of illegal immigrants. More generally, it will be impossible to create a vision which can appeal, on the one hand, to those who’ve been left out of the economic equation and the more radical movements, and on the other hand to those layers of workers who, while still exploited and oppressed, can still be considered more or less “protected.”

The simple mathematical addition of strikes to mass movements will not be enough to unify a social movement. Making a laundry list of all the different demands will not create a political counterproject, either. Seeing where mobilizations overlap and consciously developing solidarity between the popular movements is obviously desirable, but it, too, will not be enough to recreate a new, unifying vision.

Despite these limitations, it makes sense to think that France has entered a new phase of (re)mobilization and political rearmament, even if the forms this takes are still embryonic and often mutated.

At certain moments, when they seize the opportunity, workers can move into action swiftly and massively, especially around the rejection of “economical constraints.” But it is important not to forget the disunited and non-continuous nature of these different “popular movements” which have arisen time and again since 1995.

Various ideas for rebuilding a new perspective have emerged; but there has not been one social movement whose dynamic has been capable of bringing everyone together, without a clarification of the basic ideas needed for a transformation of social relations and the forms of political life.

It is not enough to reject the demands of bankers and finance. It is necessary to do so, of course. But a simple return to semi-Keynesianism will not be enough to ensure the right to a job for all, to a job and to a life that is interesting and worth living — and it is no longer enough to propose economically and socially radical answers without opening a real discussion on the kind of democracy we need to remake.

At this point, we need to escape from the steel-toothed trap we ourselves fell in: on the one hand, the sterile revolutionary slogans which are satisfied with protest and being “right,” and on the other, a sterile reformism “without reforms,” as Pierre Mauroy (the former Social-Democrat Prime Minister, 1981-1983) put it: “We must understand that for people, the social is always more important than the societal.”

Pierre Mauroy summed up in a few words then what the original social-democracy is still proposing: a “social-democratic social-democracy” as opposed to a “social-liberal social-democracy,” which only covered French society wounds with bandaids, rather than assaulting its basic structure.

The way forward is through live debate among militant activists, associations, militant unions, critical intellectuals, political groups and currents. In this space, which is opening to the left of the left, the question is: How can we have more of the social at the same time that we demand more of the societal; how can we build a social and political alliance that can weigh in on the huge decisions which lie before us in political, economic, social, environmental, and societal matters? How can we build a politics which expresses this?

The desire for a different form of democracy, for secure and enlarged individual rights, as they were affirmed in 1968 and all through the `70s, concerns all of society. It means rejecting poverty and injustice, fighting inequality with a fundamentally transformative (class, race, gender . . . ) vision and not only worrying about immediate demands.

This vision cannot be contained within the pathetically emaciated form of “democracy” doled out by the government, nor, on the other hand, the empty form of stronger demands which remain isolated and often limited by the “reality” which soon confronts each of these different social movements, one after the other.

Without a properly political effort to create such a vision, the singular phenomena of each mobilization will never succeed in producing a united dynamic; such a situation cannot last too long without producing terrible strains. Any economic “recovery” which would allow the unemployed, underemployed and any other group of have-nots to subsist, barely, would provide ample openings for deep divisions, falterings, and in general a stabilization of new forms of capitalist domination.

Once more we are at a crossroads. Two dead ends and one possible exit lie before us.

The first dead end: Let the “Red Left” exhaust itself in the splendid isolation of its rejection, denunciation, and radical protest, which will in turn reinforce the Socialist Party and those within it who no longer feel that they have to account to their social base.

Dead end number two: be satisfied with tail-ending the Broad Left — which is to say, the political line of the Socialist Party — criticizing it from the sidelines while nonetheless accepting its general line, and there you have it: the abandonment and political disappearance of a radical current (the way chosen by the PCF leadership).

The way out? Choose a different orientation — radical, creative, alternative and unified — which, though aware of the many difficulties inherent in it, at least creates the possibility of going forward with the refoundation of an emancipatory project and the making of a real force able to make a difference.

For now the most important question remains the gap between the clear rejection of neoliberalism on the part of trade unions and political groups in the absence of an anti-capitalist political project, even when we can see the immense militant potential in all those who are trying to bridge this gap in their very practice.

We must begin to lay out, step by step and experience by experience the major lines of a societal project which can challenge and go beyond capitalism.


  1. Broad Left (“gauche plurielle”): a governmental coalition bringing together the Socialist Party (PS), the Communist Party (PCF), the Greens and the MDC (which supports the government but no longer is a part of it after the resignation of J.-P. Chevénement). The later is now the champion of a very French kind of “left-wing chauvinism.”
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  2. Despite a high level of abstention (32% and 4.9% blank or spoiled ballots), the left made a spectacular recovery in 1997, winning 12.25 million votes, versus 8.37 million in 1993.
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  3. [The complex tactical differences among groupings of the French far left in relation to voting for reformist left parties in the second round are beyond the scope of this survey article –ed.]
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  4. Alain Touraine, a left sociologist who was part of the current opposing the strikes of December 1995.
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  5. Economic growth returned for a while but even when unemployment fell, the popular perception does not reflect this statistical fact. Thus, according to a report by INSEE, the poverty level did not change between 1997 and 2000 despite the creation of 1.5 million jobs. And if France has a million fewer unemployed workers than three years ago, virtually all the jobs created in the private sector since 1997 pay less than 1.3 times the level of unemployment compensation itself (the SMIC), while 40% of all private sector jobs are under that 1.3 SMIC level. (Since the time the main part of this article was written, the unemployment rates are growing again.)
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from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)