Very good comments by Robert McCabe (20 October) on social unrest in France, but I would not be so quick to pronounce the end of social unrest in Paris until we see everything that Sarkozy has in store for labor and the middle class. My reading from various sources is that indeed the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) is the main force behind the strikes. Just to clear the record, in 1995 the CGT broke from the Communist-oriented World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and eventually joined the European Trade Union Confederation, officially sanctioned by the EU and European Free Trade Association. In short, the CGT is not some Stalinist entity determined to bring down the bourgeois state through strikes and revolution. And what exactly does it mean to be a French Communist in 2010 when the Communist bloc is no more, when the EU enjoys such immense power as a pillar of finance capitalism, when trade unions are so weak, when the middle class lacks organization either in a political movement or political party? Are there not varieties of Communists, many with much in common as far as their aims as many Socialists and centrists?
Now I understand that it seems difficult to understand why the French are protesting raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, given that people today live longer than they did half a century ago, given that EU has a problem with low birth rates and that means young workers are paying more for the current generation of retirees, and other countries are increasing retirement age and trimming benefits; so why should France be any different. But is French social unrest limited to the small Communist party and the syndicalist working class? And is social unrest in Paris isolated from the rest of European and global social and economic developments?
First, European countries have had social unrest linked directly to the fact that the state is weakening the welfare state in order to strengthen corporate welfare, and keep a strong defense sector. Second, French social unrest from what I have seen involves the middle class as it does the working class. Indeed, it is the middle class that is more vocal and adamant about protecting its social status and that of its children than workers who know their limits because the establishment has beaten them down so hard for so long they only dare reach so far and no more. Third, for a year the French have been watching with a great deal of apprehension developments in Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Greece, and they fear of falling into the same fate of IMF-austerity style measures that would erode their incomes and benefits. Fourth, it is correct that the capitalist state has enormous power, it marginalizes and criminalizes protesters, whether in Paris or any other European capital, and it presents specific strikers and demonstrators as “narrow interest groups” disrupting the rest of the country and the general welfare–truckers vs. the nation or railroad workers vs. passengers, etc. This corporatist approach that is propagated through the mainstream media works to persuade many in the general public to agree with the government. Le Figaro’s perspective of what is taking place reflects the government’s policies that it presents as what the economy needs, while the welfare state is archaic that prevents healthy competition and is an obstacle to growth. In one article, the paper states that 75% of the French went to work and 64% do not feel that strikes and demonstrations impact their work. Of course if 50% or more of the workforce hits the streets, that would be an ominous development and a signal of something more significant than a demonstration against pro-business anti-labor policies; a signal of systemic change in the social order. I will not refer to what l’Humanite is publishing these days about social unrest and the government’s liberalization measures designed to debilitate labor and the middle class, but there are many centrist sources for the Liberal (Le Monde) among others. Finally, I agree with Robert that what is happening in Paris this week is not the start of an uprising. It is not a sign that majority wishes to start a revolution, it is not even a precursor to a labor-middle class movement with the potential of a future uprising. However, it is still early and much depends on how far the state rolls back the welfare state to strengthen corporate welfare, whether in France, UK, or anywhere else in Europe. If the process of weakening labor and the middle class continues and socioeconomic polarization becomes more pronounced, eventually it could lead to the mobilization of the masses and an uprising.