The Class Struggle in France During the Pandemic

International Revolutionary Convergence V.1, Aug. 2020

[this article has been translated from French]

Now that life seems to be returning to “normal” (or rather “abnormal,” as many workers call it), a new generalized offensive is being launched against the working class. The bosses, who did not wait for the end of quarantine to get rid of temporary workers, are announcing their first avalanche of layoffs. Far from opposing it, the Macron government intends to support this offensive with a series of attacks on the rights of workers. But far from people being resigned, the loosening of restrictions was marked by outbursts of anger from young people against the police (following the murder of George Floyd), from hospital staff against the government, and from workers reacting to a new wave of layoffs.

I — The pandemic — exposing and deepening social inequalities

On March 13, the Macron government imposed confinement to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They believed that this would finally give them a break. After almost a year of weekly mobilizations of the Yellow Vests, then a winter strike against the pension reform, the government hoped the health emergency would freeze any possibility of protest. It put the Macron government in a position to summon their parliamentary opponents to support them in the name of a “sacred union” against the epidemic. The entire institutional political spectrum, from the left to the right, voted together in parliament to adopt a series of exceptional measures and massive aid to big business. Subsequently, the left-wing parliamentary parties — the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the other reformist political party, the France Insoumise — all in opposition, disassociated themselves from the government. The government’s management of the health crisis made it unpopular once again, but only against its political methods — there was no denouncing its aid to business.

The French government now prides itself on having managed the pandemic well. Its leaders were certainly no worse than Trump or Bolsonaro. However, it went far from doing all that was in its power to protect the population; it just temporarily and partially put the economy on hold. But even more, the 30,000 dead from COVID-19 should be blamed on the policies the health system carried out for the several decades prior: closing beds and hospitals, reducing staff and hospital management, policies that Macron has pursued methodically since 2017. As a result, France had around 7,000 intensive care beds — compared to 20,000 in Germany!

A majority of the population has become aware of all this — but how long will this last? That’s another question. Also, as a sign of support for hospital workers, many people would spontaneously applause every evening at 8 p.m. The government tried to co-opt this solidarity to avoid giving anything other than medals to “our heroes.” But here and there, balconies have blossomed with banners featuring different messaging — so much so that the police have intervened to take some of them down that clearly denounce the government.

The government initially planned to close only schools, some public services and stores, and recreational facilities. At the Post Office and in logistics and metal companies, workers — fearing for their health, their lives, and the lives of their relatives — forced the bosses to cut back on production. They did this by declaring their right to stop work (in the face of a safety problem), but also, when they did not feel up to challenging their bosses, by taking a medical leave of absence or childcare leave. The rift between the top administration allowed to work remotely, sometimes even weeks before the confinement, and those forced to take risks and go to work, became unbearable for the workers. In the construction industry, many small bosses shut down construction sites as soon as the government started talking about compensating technical unemployment. They had no more desire than their employees to be contaminated by contact with customers or suppliers.

Only the government and the Medef, the union of big business bosses, insisted on the need to continue to fight the “production battle” against all odds — all from the comfortable confinement of their villas or palaces of the republic.

In fact, as everywhere else in the world, confinement was experienced in diametrically opposed ways, depending on whether one was crammed into a small, poorly soundproofed or even unhealthy apartment, or in a second home in the green countryside, or even just a dull pavilion with a piece of garden.

II — The state to the rescue of capital

In April, according to the Bank of France, the industrial capacity utilization rate (the percent of industrial capacity being utilized) dropped to 47%. The reopening of many plants in May only raised it to 61%. Today, reopening is almost normal in France. Cinemas and casinos have been allowed to be open since June 22. Stadiums followed in mid-July. Limitations on daycare and school attendance have been lifted. Nightclubs, fairs, and festivals remained closed at least until September. However, economic activity remains twelve percent lower than before the epidemic.

Many small shops, cafés, restaurants, small businesses, and small companies in tourism and culture, with little support from government aid plans, could disappear or be absorbed by bigger ones. Especially since even though the banks have been granted guarantees on their loans by the state, they prefer to reserve these loans for their larger and more secure customers. Potential small capitalists receiving guaranteed loans will in any case have to pay a larger share of their profits to the banks. The petty bourgeoisie is threatened with a serious drop in income. Its wealthiest part is especially at risk of being thrown out of the market, and their employees, after the temporary unemployment during the lockdown, are being threatened with permanent unemployment. There is already concern about the increase in the demand for Active Solidarity Income (a sort of minimum income guarantee), especially from self-employed people sunk by the crisis, who are precarious workers in disguise that get excluded from unemployment figures.

During the confinement, the state provided compensation for short-time work, both from its own funds and from the unemployment funds, at 84% of net salary. This possibility existed in France before the epidemic, but here everything was paid for by the state, and bosses had a lot of freedom to make massive use of it without costing them anything, including those sitting on a comfortable stock of cash. This certainly saved 13 million workers from a brutal plunge into misery. But on the one hand, the 16% cut in income was not painless for all workers. After all, who ever saves such a large part of their income every month? On the other hand, the Social Security funds have had a deficit of €57 billion for this year, or more than 10% of its budget, mainly due to the system of work stoppages due to lack of childcare, which was also all the more generously opened up because the bosses had nothing to pay out. In the end, it is the workers who will foot the bill in the future through higher taxes or the deterioration of public services.

Ultimately, 500,000 jobs disappeared in the first two weeks of March, two-thirds of which were filled by temporary workers. The Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, recently estimated that 800,000 jobs are threatened with disappearing in the coming months. In fact, redundancy plans are multiplying. However, many of them were already in the process of being drawn up, or even finalized, before the explosion of the epidemic in March. For example, the furniture store chain Conforama, unable to obtain a state-guaranteed loan from banks, decided to let itself be bought out by its main competitor, BUT France. The first action of the new boss will be to finance the social plan agreed upon a year ago to layoff 1,500 of Conforama’s 8,000 employees. Renault’s new CEO, Jean-Dominique Senard, decided in February to cut 4,600 jobs and close four sites in France. He is blaming COVID-19 less than the industrial strategy of his predecessor Carlos Ghosn.

Pending the resumption of international trade and a revival of the economy, capitalists are reorganizing to be as competitive as possible. The €5 billion in loans obtained by Renault must be used to finance layoffs, but also to equip itself to produce a growing share of electric cars. While reorganizing its flight plans and preparing for 8,000 job cuts, the airline company Air France is liquidating its A380 aircraft two years ahead of schedule. Its profitability has been deemed insufficient, so they’re favoring a newer, less fuel-consuming aircraft. And the aircraft manufacturer Airbus is cutting 15,000 jobs while waiting until they see a clear picture of the revival of air transport. Thus the pandemic is part of a general reshuffling of the cards between the various players in the capitalist economy, with the aim of turning towards so-called “green” profits for some, and towards a phase of capital concentration which will eliminate the “lame ducks” in the sector for others, or both at the same time.

The government is accompanying this large-scale restructuring by putting a total of nearly €500 billion on the table, ranging from direct aid to bank loan guarantees. This is a much larger plan than the one that followed the subprime crisis in 2008-2009. On June 14, in a speech with a military tone, Macron called for “more work,” even as plans for layoffs and job cuts multiplied. Above all, it was an announcement that French working time regulations were being called into question. Already, the bosses of certain sectors have been authorized, as part of their efforts to make up for lost profits, to allow employees to work up to 60 hours a week and to reduce the number of days off. And they are attacking wages, among other things, through Collective Performance Agreements, which are multiplying. Like all workers in Europe, those in France should pay attention to how the Greeks have been paying the lion’s share of the price of capitalist austerity since 2011. French leaders might well be tempted to draw inspiration from this “experiment.” But the so-called “rethinking” of workers’ rights is part of the general restructuring of capitalist firms so that they will be in the best possible situation when the economy starts to recover, and they will have to fight for their share of the market.

III — Easing the lockdown of struggles: neither explosion nor resignation

Starting on May 11, reopening gradually took place. The relief it brought, along with the fear of a resumption of the epidemic hampered the first demonstrations. In the senior care centers and hospitals, employees were exhausted. Elsewhere, it was the worry of seeing one’s company and therefore one’s job threatened that dominated. But the anger is still there, perceptible in discussions with coworkers, relatives, and neighbors.

The reactions to the announcement of the layoffs at Renault bear witness to this. Admittedly, they are not yet developed enough to make the management retreat. But it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a factory go on strike a week after the announcement of its closure, like at Fonderies de Bretagne, a subsidiary that was outsourced for a while and whose employees had fought to rejoin the Renault group. Their strike forced management to pretend to back down. Did management do this only to better strike back more strongly later? The future will tell. The Maubeuge plant (in the north of the country) was threatened with seeing its workload transferred to another site, and the strike broke out a few days later, before a demonstration brought together more than 5,000 people — a success, because the plant has 2,100 employees, including temporary workers. The announcement of its closure caused a stir in the town and beyond on Saturday, May 30, with the presence of delegations of workers from factories in the region. Those from Choisy-le-Roi, in the Paris suburbs, did the same the following week, on their smaller scale (400 employees, a thousand demonstrators on Saturday, June 6).

As for the healthcare workers, they have multiplied the gatherings in front of their workplaces. The Paris region was more visible and heard, no doubt because it was more affected by the pandemic than many other regions. Elsewhere, anger was expressed in different ways. On the other hand, the national hospital mobilization day on June 16 was a success almost everywhere, both in terms of the size of the demonstrations and the proportion of health care workers in them. It had been a long time since they had hit the pavement in such numbers, with several tens of thousands throughout France.

For the moment, the unions are not overpowered by the workers’ anger and are trying to divert the workers into dead-end policies. At Renault, the CGT limits itself to proposing an alternative industrial project to management. Engineers who are members of the union want to be better capitalist managers than their bosses, going so far as to propose a new “popular” model of car that would ensure the maintenance of jobs — and Renault’s profits! Management, of course, has dismissed this “advice” because, once again, they don’t know what the market will look like tomorrow, and especially since they know quite well that the working classes might not be able to afford a new car, even if it were “popular”!

In the health sector, the unions were content to use the success of the June 16 demonstrations to try to exert greater influence on the arbitration in the negotiations opened with the government in early June, which were expected to last until mid-July. Representatives of all categories of hospital personnel, including the medical corps, are supposed to find the holy grail that will liquidate the great misery of the hospitals — by pursuing budget cuts! The figure of €6 billion released by the minister after the June 16 mobilization, intended for all public and private health enterprises, including senior facilities, is already proving to be an optical illusion. A CGT leader has moreover estimated that €32 billion is the amount needed to increase all salaries by €300 a month, as hospital workers who have been fighting for more than a year are demanding. That said, for the time being, the leaders of the trade union confederations continue to play the game of dialogue. This is also true within the SUD union, the only one to have left the negotiations by slamming the door. But now they are discussing returning to them.

IV — The eruption in response to police violence and racism

On Tuesday, June 2, the international shockwave following the killing of George Floyd reached France. More than 20,000 people — young people of all backgrounds were often the first to demonstrate — responded to the call to take to the streets, launched by collectives supporting the families of police victims, first and foremost that of Adama Traoré. Far from being confined to the capital and its many working-class suburbs, the mobilization against racism and police violence spread throughout France to cities with fewer than 10,000 people. And now, four weeks later, this mobilization has come to a halt — but the whole country seems to have fallen into a “vacation” atmosphere — without knowing when it will resume.

That said, as in other movements, the traditional supervision by social-democratic organizations has proven to be totally outdated. SOS-racism, the organization led by representatives of the Socialist Party, which for a long time had had the upper hand in the fight, called for a rally in Paris and in several large cities. Despite the rallying of the entire reformist left, including the unions, the youth snubbed it. It is true that SOS-racism has been reluctant to denounce the ravages of racism in the police force for the sake of preserving the “republican” order, and has for years ignored the struggle of the families of victims. In Paris, its mobilization barely counted 2,400 people, ten times less than that of Adama Traoré’s family the week before.

The French police force is plagued by racism. Several scandals around the influence of the extreme right in its midst, or about the routine violence of patrols in poor neighborhoods, have erupted. For example, the press revealed the existence of a private Facebook group with 8,000 members, exclusively composed of police officers, exchanging xenophobic and racist comments. Interior Minister Castaner was forced to acknowledge the existence of police violence, which he had previously denied, and to concede to banning chokehold during arrests, which was used in several cases of police brutality. But 48 hours later, he withdrew his statement, in the face of the response organized by police unions and extreme right-wing networks implanted in the police force. They refused to allow Castaner to appear to question their right to do so. In fact, they took advantage of the situation to strengthen their position by obtaining the support of Macron, who positioned himself in a recent televised speech on the same network as the far right and the National Rally party of Le Pen. He stuck to denouncing young people who were demonstrating against police violence, rather than the violence itself. Castaner’s renunciation is an undeniable success for this extreme right, which can only reinforce the brutality of the police when they intervene in working-class neighborhoods.

In fact, the establishment cannot remain undefeated without brutal force. The last demonstration to date was in opposition to the violent arrest of a hospital executive who, pushed to the limit by police supervision and the tear gas thrown during the June 16 demonstration, had thrown stones and hurled insults at the cops.

V — What interventions are possible for revolutionaries?

The lockdown acted as a revelation of social inequalities. It is not a coincidence if tens of thousands of young people of immigrant origin revolted against police violence and harassment that existed far before the lockdown. It is impossible to say whether a lasting movement is maturing, especially since the far left is cut off from this youth of immigrant origin and, in general, from the youth of the working-class cities. But everything indicates that a fraction of the young generation has become aware of the need to fight against racism. It is undoubtedly only at the beginning of its politicization.

The reformist left has nothing to offer to the youth, except to channel their anger towards “republican” dead ends. As for the union leaders, in the face of the wave of layoffs and workplace closures, they swear to defend “French industry.” This even includes relocation, which means nothing other than a call for the transfer of unemployment to outside French borders by repatriating Turkish and Romanian factories to France, following the example of Renault. Far from defending the workers, they are ready to help the employers force the workers to sacrifice (salary, working time, etc.), if they are able to claim that jobs have been saved.

In industry, especially in the automobile industry, no militant core has so far succeeded in making visible and credible a unification of struggles to go beyond the defense of factory-by-factory jobs. This is a sector where revolutionary militants — from Lutte Ouvrière or the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) — sometimes occupy significant positions, leading or playing a major role in the CGT unions in several large factories: at Renault, in the factories of Flins, Cléon, Guyancourt; at PSA, in the factories of Sochaux, Mulhouse and Poissy. Not to mention the Fonderies du Poitou, and other companies related to the automotive industry.

It is impossible, therefore, to hide behind the excuse of “inaction” of the trade union apparatuses! The presence of revolutionary militants in these various factories is obviously not enough to trigger struggle. But it does give them a certain responsibility in preparing the necessary response to the employers’ plans.

In the confusion of deliberately obscure, partial, or even contradictory announcements to divert the anger that is likely to spread, it is not easy for networks of worker militants to mobilize. All the sites have nevertheless had their local mobilizations, which were more or less followed by very large General Assemblies and demonstrations in Maubeuge and at the Fonderies de Bretagne, a demonstration in Choisy, walkouts in Flins, a rally in Lardy, etc.

For the moment, the militant networks are essentially engaged in propaganda. However, it is a question of asserting that the workers have no “industrial solution” to propose to French capitalism, contrary to what all the Renault unions are saying.

Against the plans of Renault’s bosses (supported by all the legal, financial, and repressive structures of the state apparatus), it is of course a question of putting forward measures to safeguard not only Renault’s employees, but the entire working class:

  • Work shared among all with equal salary,
  • The prohibition of layoffs (whatever their form),
  • The definitive hiring of precarious workers (temporary workers, fixed-term contractors, service providers, etc.),
  • The control of the companies’ books.

We can’t remain defending individual companies, searching for local solutions (each one more illusory than the next), or appealing to the state or the public authorities. Those who find themselves directly forced to fight for their jobs must turn towards all workers. All the more so since it is not only the automobile workers who are affected by the layoffs — one only has to look at the aeronautics sector.

Although to many workers layoffs appear distinct from the pandemic, they both illustrate the possibilities of a revolutionary course of action. Even if there is no tidal wave now, the push from below is overflowing everywhere, though there is as of yet no prospect of a real way out.

This situation is not new. Only a few months ago, mobilizations in the context of A&E strikes started with non-unionized but extremely active personnel. They have revived organizational forms that are independent of the unions, including offensive demands for wages and an impertinent attitude towards the government. Early during the pandemic, a willingness not to fight was expressed. On June 16, hospital workers took to the streets independently of leaflets and posters. The unwillingness to act of the union and medical management led to largely spontaneous mobilizations in many places. With the goal of joining forces across sectors, even if this idea is not yet in the public consciousness, the priority is to aim for the emergence of structures representative of the hospital mobilizations. These structures could lead the hospital workers’ struggle to the end and play a decisive role in coordinating the mobilization of senior center employees and other health sectors, as well as the entire working class, which is often left on its own in the face of employer attacks.

Threats of layoffs and plant closures not only demand a joint response from the workers directly affected, but also from those workers who are promised new jobs from layoffs and closures elsewhere. A generalized response from the workers is necessary to fight against the generalized action of the bosses. The anger of the workers at Renault could be an example for others, like workers at the public hospitals, the employees of Air-France, and those in the aeronautics industry. It would be necessary that the struggling workers of large companies like Renault, PSA, or Airbus be a rallying point for the thousands of precarious workers thrown out of work. This overall response should not be expected from the union leadership. Everything shows that they are turning their backs on it. It can only come from the workers themselves, from their understanding of the need to organize and coordinate from one sector to another. Today’s social climate, along with the simultaneity of the employers’ attacks in all sectors, makes this possible.