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On the Uprisings in France

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Paris.

At the beginning of March, France’s now ultra-liberal Socialist Party (PS) government officially revealed a labour reforms bill whose objective was to promote the competitiveness of businesses operating in France. The bill, commonly referred to as the El Khomri (the country’s Labour Minister) law, was instantly perceived by most leftist factions as a fundamental attack on workers rights and a downright sabotage of the French Labour Code (“Code du Travail”), considered one of Europe’s most progressive. The law allows for companies to reach “agreements” with its staff over working conditions without the need to negotiate with trade unions, subjecting workers to employers’ arbitrary decisions (in regards to longer hours and lower overtime pay) without any legal protection. It also facilitates mass sackings and individual lay-offs by relaxing French law’s constraint on firing and hiring, and casts aside the sacrosanct 35-hour work week in favor of a lengthened, more “flexible” one.

Following the announcement of the reform, an online petition concocted by opposing leftist factions garnered unprecedented support by workers and students. Hostility towards said reform – and the Socialist Party government in general – culminated in nationwide strikes and mass protests. Most notable were those held on March 9th (attended by 250,000), March 31st (attended by more than a million) and April 9th (attended by less than 200,000).

On all occasions, left-leaning trade unions and political parties called for their constituents and supporters to take to the streets against the ruling PS. Mobilized trade unions included Solidaires (SUD, closely allied with the New Anticapitalist Party), the National Confederation of Labour (CNT-F, considered an “anarcho-syndicalist” group), Workers’ Force (FO) and the General Confederation of Labour (CGT, once allied with the French Communist Party), whereas mobilized political parties included the French Communist Party (PCF), the Left Party (PG, Melenchon’s ecosocialist party), the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA, formerly known as the Communist Revolutionary League), Workers’ Struggle (LO, a Trotskyist party) and Libertarian Alternative (AL, an anarcho-communist micro-party). It is important to mention, before we focus on these political parties’ conflicting demands, that efforts – for lack of a better word – made on the left to construct a considerable counter-hegemonic movement failed miserably in the past couple of years. In the past, coalitions were made on – for instance, the post-Stalinist French Communist Party and Melenchon’s Left Party merged into a single body under the Left Front (FdG), in 2008 – but the French left has proven inefficient in opposing the PS government’s consistently rightist positions on security, economic austerity, workers’ rights and immigration through unified protests. The fact that they have brought together their supporters – even if unintentionally – to contest the labour law reform is being hailed as a relative success, and rightfully so. But it remains that these parties still need to address their ideological fragmentation and the potential it has of pulverizing their fragile unified front. Both the dusty French Communist Party’s and the Left Party’s increasingly nationalist discourse, coupled with Melenchon’s constant need to create a cult of personality around himself, are threatening to re-Stalinize the same French far-left that has fought long and hard to rid itself of its Stalinist demons. Parties such as Workers’ Struggle – whose spokeswoman Nathalie Arthaud has yet to expose its supporters’ to the party’s clear strategy – and Libertarian Alternative – who have been fighting for workers’ self-management since their inception – are too numerically insignificant to take part in the French left’s debate on how to define and where to navigate the current uprisings.

This leaves us with the once promising New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), a political party founded in 2009 that brought members of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League together with anti-globalization and identity-based militants. In a 2015 publication entitled Revolutionary Affinities: Our Red and Black Stars, Olivier Besancenot, the “unofficial” spokesperson for the NPA, embarked on a tricky mission to reconcile anarchist and Marxist militants in order to tend to the French radical left’s fragmentation. His strategy consisted in exposing the many alliances that were made between European anarchists and Marxists throughout the (late) 19th and 20th century by recounting instances of solidarity that shaped historical events such as the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1936 Spanish revolution. Besancenot also chose to stress on Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay “Critique of Violence”, in which the esteemed German philosopher asserts that a “proletarian general strike is precisely what suspends the violence of the political state through the anarchist-revolutionary withdrawal of labour”. If we are to believe that Revolutionary Affinities’ raison d’être is to serve as the NPA’s “manifesto” (instead of being a mere critique of Stalin’s Anarchism or Socialism?), what has the party been waiting for to act on its promise to promote mass strikes as a process of revolutionary action? It would be dishonest to describe the recent strikes ordered by trade unions including the CGT and Solidaires as anything but unavailing. Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “it is absurd to think of the mass strike as one act, one isolated action. The mass strike is rather the indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades”. Both the NPA and the trade unions failed to grasp the revolutionary character of mass strikes. They opted instead for what Luxembourg called exclusively “political” mass strikes, a “single grand rising of the industrial proletariat springing from some political motive of the highest importance, and undertaken on the basis of an opportune and mutual understanding on the part of the controlling authorities of the party and of the trade unions, and carried through in the spirit of party discipline and in perfect order”. Instead of pressuring Solidaires – the trade union they’re closely allied with – to “upgrade” the general strikes they’ve called upon their constituents from their purely demonstrative aspect to one that could truly perturb (therefore halt) the production process, the NPA chose to prioritize the street protests that were being carried out by their working class supporters on an almost weekly basis.

The economistic nature of French working class politics has become undeniable, as exemplified by the course of action being currently taken by leftist political parties through trade union militantism. The many political methods of struggle necessary to carry on the workers’ fight against the state and for the eventual overthrow of capitalism are being falsely utilized – in their domesticized forms – to push for economic reforms addressing immediate interests.

Another aspect of the uprisings that needs to be tackled is the balance of power that is taking place on the ground during organized protests. Some trade unions such as the CGT – who have grown increasingly anti-communist as a result of many of their members quitting over successive negotiation failures – have been caught making deals with the French riot police during recent protests to prevent their protesters from getting hurt. This comes at the expense of youths that the CGT and other trade unions/political parties (such as Melenchon’s Left Party) are helping to demonize so that said youths can serve as scapegoats. The French riot police has been savagely assaulting student protesters since the beginning of the uprising. Unlike unionized working class folk, student protesters are offered zero legal protection from institutional bodies that shelter them from police brutality and arbitrary arrests. The ruling PS, through its repressive security apparatus, has made active efforts to separate the youths from the workers – a textbook “divide-and-conquer” strategy that has proven quite effective. As a result of it, the uprisings were disjointed into two very distinct currents: one identified by the bureaucratic, reformist character of the trade unions and political parties that lead it, and the other solely composed of depoliticized youths – in the context of a representative democracy – who rely on a spontaneous approach in regards to political mobilization but face a dangerously militarized police force. This way, trade unions get to police workers themselves, which reflects the primacy of their material interests that lie in the protection of huge subsidies they receive from the French state. Workers are then made to believe that they are given an autonomous platform to voice their opposition without state repression, while the French police are granted carte blanche to lash it out on the defenseless youths.

Lastly, we needn’t forget the #NuitDebout (“night on our feet” in English) movement, perhaps the most interesting phenomenon that stemmed from the current uprisings.

The movement, born on March 31st, is an extension of the protests that we’ve described above – only it consists in occupying Paris’ Place de la République and engaging in a democratic exercise where decisions are approved by a permanent general assembly. The #NuitDebout movement models itself on both the Occupy and Indignados movements – both of which failed, even though some might argue that the latter allowed for Podemos to prosper in Spain. Organizers of #NuitDebout have urged participants to work on the “convergence” of struggles in order help build a systematic discourse that openly refuses to base itself on the tired tropes that have constituted the entirety of the mainstream left’s rhetoric. Some political parties, such as NPA and Melenchon’s Left Front, have expressed support for the movement, but its organizers have stressed on shielding the movement from any political recuperation. However, it would be foolish to automatically assume that #NuitDebout militants are actively trying to adopt more “radical” solutions than the ones suggested by the old political guard. Marxist theory is unanimously rejected in favor of more liberal-leaning approaches to feminism and immigration; talks around the economy are rooted in Keynesian reasoning – which begs us to ask the question: what makes the #NuitDebout movement so different than the French political parties its organizers are desperately trying to break free from? Their “multifaceted” approach and refusal to subscribe to an ideological current might seem “fresh” to some participants but it’s ultimately proof that most are ignorant of the power structures that pave way to the many forms of oppression they’re decrying – in both different shades of anger and hierarchal orders of importance. For the time being, the only French intellectual who has been warmly greeted by the movement is none other than economist and social philosopher Frederic Lordon, who was quick to notice #NuitDebout’s (many) flaws. He voiced his critique at Place de la République on April 9, saying: “a movement that sets itself no political objective will rapidly fizzle out. Either because it will exhaust the joy of our being together, or because it will again be buried beneath the electoral game”. During that speech, he also emphasized on the importance of general strikes, a revolutionary act both political parties (as described above) and #NuitDebout militants seem to have invalidated: “recall the immense virtues of the general strike. It means the whole country stopping – as they put it, the country is being shut down. But in truth, the exact opposite is the case: the moment that they say everything has been shut down is the moment when everything opens up: politics – true politics – speech, action, and even the relations among people. And then, the future itself opens up”. Another major issue facing the #NuitDebout movement is its inability to attract disenfranchised youths – non-whites in particular – from the banlieues (suburbs). Some argue that the reason for this rejection is due to the French left’s dismissal of the banlieues uprisings back in 2005, causing banlieues residents to detach themselves from the current uprisings.

This explanation is not entirely wrong, but it is superficial at best. #NuitDebout militants have yet to give the racialisation of the French proletariat the political weight it deserves, choosing instead to relegate structural oppression facing French nationals of immigrant descent and undocumented migrants to a second-tier “issue”. The process of racialisation in France is deeply rooted in the country’s education system in urban areas, which are generally inhabited by non-whites as a result of years of ghettoizing practices by the French government: public schools are purposely weakened – through drastic budget cuts – as to automatically push non-white students to “specialize” in fields related to manual work. Later on, most non-white workers fail to get unionized as a consequence of trade unions’ stubborn refusal to fight against racism and Islamophobia in the workplace. The movement’s understanding of the question of race – and how it is inherently intertwined with that of class – remains expectedly problematic. This is part of the reason why France’s only decolonial party, The Republic’s Natives (PIR), and anti-racist collectives such as the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade (BAN), have refused to join the movement. #NuitDebout, and the French left in general, need to adopt a historically and sociologically conscious discourse in regards to France’s post-colonial entities all the while addressing workers’ support for the neo-fascist National Front party – they accounted for 57% of the votes in the last elections – if they truly aim to seize power in the near future.

 

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Edwin Nasr is a student organiser and leftist militant from Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, France (MA in Political Sociology) who has been active in the French left for over 5 years.  

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