France: A tale of two General Strikes

The growing world-wide storm of resistance by workers that raised its banner in Greece in response to the swingeing attacks on the living standards of the working class, coupled with the police murder of a young protester, is sparking confrontation in the centres of imperialism and third world towns alike as a major crisis of overproduction rocks the world’s capitalist economies.

In France where ‘Thatcherite’ President Sarkozy had earlier this year promised, along with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to lead the way to a more ‘moral’ form of capitalism, a general strike, with events in 77 towns, was called in response to his austerity measures for workers – measures coinciding with policies of pouring public money into keeping the banks afloat (a major pastime in imperialist countries these days it seems).  The one-day strike of public and private sector workers was, according to a poll by CSA-Opinion for newspaper Le Parisien, supported by 69% of the French population.  ‘Black Thursday’, as the day came to be known, was unprecedented in that the eight major trade unions in France had come together to call it with the active backing of many political parties.

Sarkozy, who had bragged just a year ago that “Now when people go on strike nobody notices”, saw France brought to a virtual standstill.  Many of the banners and chants of the strikers made reference to those earlier boastful words of the President with one in particular reading “Hey, Sarkozy, now can you see the strike?”

Many of those who were out on the streets, estimated at between 1 million and nearly 3 million, were indignant that the French Government was intending to cut the real wages, jobs and services for workers while paying public money to bale out banks.  The main demand on the street was (a) for workers’ spending power to be increased by raising wages and lowering prices to get the country out of the recession it is in, (b) to reverse the cuts and closures that have been visited on France’s major industries including steel manufacturing and car-making and (c) to bring down the unemployment rate of 9.8% (expected to rise to 10.6% next year).  These demands show the extent to which Social-Democracy still controls the organisations of the working class in France, for while they are prepared to go on strike and actively take to the streets in protest against their bourgeoisie they are still essentially looking for answers within capitalism and show a lack of understanding of the need to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a socialist system.  However, that said, the very act of pushing for these demands will bring them face to face with the un-workability of capitalism and the glaring need to create/support a party of the working class based soundly on Marxist-Leninist principles to lead them on to the road of socialist revolution and real freedom from exploitation.

Sarkozy has promised to listen to the voice of workers but there is little he can do to alleviate their pains within the boundaries of capitalism or to stave off further crisis and more intensified class confrontation. 

Indeed the Sarkozy Government has not only failed to put an end to the problems within France proper: it has further problems within its ‘territories’ across the seas in the Caribbean.

Guadeloupe and Martinique (both French ‘overseas departments’) have also seen militant working class action arising from the world-wide capitalist crisis.  Workers in Guadeloupe went on general strike for over four weeks and were making similar demands to workers on ‘mainland’ France, calling for a 200 Euro increase in monthly salaries.  The strike later spread to Martinique where it severely affected tourism.  An added twist to the struggle in Guadeloupe is that the population is overwhelmingly black. Only the ruling families (these families can trace their rule back to the colonial landlords and slave-owners of the 17th-18th century), the police and administrators are white.  Wages are lower than on the mainland with prices kept artificially high as the ruling families not only own 90% of the island’s wealth and most of the land but also all the shops and food distribution facilities.  They also control all imports.

The first response of the French Government to the strike was to send more police and, after one clash between some youths at a barricade where buckshot was reportedly fired at police, without any injuries, to shoot dead a union organiser.  Police said that the union activist, Jacques Bino, was caught in crossfire while driving near a road-block in the capital Pointe-a-Pitre.

One of the members of the ruling families, Alain Huyghues-Despointes, infuriated strikers early on in the dispute by publicly condemning ‘mixed-marriages’ and calling for the “preservation of the race”.   In these circumstances it is not surprising that the leaders of the strike, the LKP (a coalition of unions and left parties) accused the French government of wanting to “break the negro”. A black minister in the Sarkozy Government, Rachida Data,  admitted, with breath-taking understatement, that Guadeloupe was suffering from “a problem with the distribution of wealth”.  The French Government has made some concessions to the financial demands of the strikers but in reality this just means paying an increased subsidy to the monopolist ruling families.  Thus the underlying cause is not resolved as any increase in workers’ wages can be countered by increased prices over which the black workers have no control.  This problem festers on to re-ignite at some future date.

The Guadeloupe workers are, however, learning the lessons of standing together against their enemies. Ideological understanding and clarity concerning the real causes of their misery alone will ensure a brighter future for these and other workers.

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