• The Crisis and the Social Movement in France

  • By Maryse Dumas , Elisabeth Gauthier , Dominique Crozat | 20 May 09
  • Maryse Dumas, a national secretary of the CGT in an interview with transform! (Elisabeth Gauthier/Dominique Crozat)

    Maryse Dumas is a national secretary of the Confédération générale du travail (General Confederation of Labour, CGT). The CGT is the largest of the five major French trade-union confederations. Maryse Dumas speaks with Elisabeth Gauthier and Dominique Crozat about the work of the CGT and working-class mobilisation in France. 

    Gauthier/Crozat: Trade-union unity in the current mobilisation is an historic first. How would you describe it?

    Dumas: Today’s unity of action has a completely exceptional character in several ways. All of the trade unions have joined the inter-union coordination. The content of the proposals put forward in common aims at promoting solutions to overcome the crisis. It covers at once purchasing power, jobs, public policy, and the control of international financial markets. This is quite unprecedented. An inter-union coordination was created to secure, after four months struggle, the retraction of the “First Employment Contract” (CPE) draft bill. This success partly explains why we were able to rebuild an inter-union coordination of wage-earners. However, in 2006 we were just demanding the withdrawal of a bill or the rescinding of a law – today we have reached the stage of making alternative proposals for the crisis. Another historic precedent is the national agreement on unity of action between the CGT and the CFDT in 1966, but only two trade-union confederations took part. 

    The extent of the crisis (but also certain developments that preceded the crisis and concerned the trade-union movement) explains this joint approach. Over the last few years, all the trade unions have come to realise that if they want to bear upon the situation and be heard by the wage-earners, they have every interest in working with others. The CPE experience showed that unity does not weaken the specific approach of each protagonist, but, on the contrary, enables them to be heard in a context of the overall strengthening of trade-union rights. Conversely, no single union can, by itself, create a sufficient balance of power to carry its own proposals through to a successful conclusion. 

    Furthermore, we have negotiated a development of the rules covering trade-union representation in France. For the first time, the vote of the employees in their work places, by means of professional elections, will determine the list of representatives in that work place, in that particular industry and, at the national level, in that trade. All trade unions must, thus, in some way respond to the expectations of the wage-earners. 

    The founding congress of the International Confederation of Trade Unions had envisaged international action for decent working conditions on October 7, 2008. This action occurred in the middle of the crisis, and we decided to make it the first reaction of wage-earners on an international scale to refuse to be victims of the crisis. Following this action, the CGT proposed to all of the French trade unions that they examine what actions to carry out jointly to extend this mobilisation. The idea of common action was not rejected but postponed, the other organisations feeling that the time was not appropriate because of the industrial tribunal elections in which we were competing. However, we started to work on proposals for common demands. After the CGT’s score (34%) and its growth in the industrial tribunal elections, the reservations were eased and the date of January 29, 2009 was announced as our appointment for action. Our platform of common demands was published on January 5. January 29 saw a demonstration of extraordinary breadth and size for a first initiative, whose level could be compared with the greatest mobilisations of the last twenty years. Wage earners from the private as well as the public sector were there, but also, quite exceptionally, small shop-keepers, self-employed craftsmen and even some owners of small firms. It was really working France that was demonstrating, the France that felt it was being sacrificed to the shareholders or, more precisely, to the world of capital and of shares. We had the feeling of an experience shared between all those who only have their work on which to live.

    The second day of work stoppages and demonstrations, March 19, even surpassed the size of the January 29 demonstration! More strikers, more demonstrations, more demonstrators. It was supported by 3 out of 4 French people.

    This new reality of the total balance of power is causing all ideological debates to be repositioned.

    For several years now, we have had the idea drummed into us that public services must be privatised, that the number of jobs for public employees must be cut. Since January 29, on the contrary, there has been a re-assertion of the need for public services to resist financial speculation and impress other values on society.

    For several years we have been told that France was lagging behind other countries because labour was over-protected and that progress came from flexibility. With January’s action we saw a sort of ideological inversion: if France is resisting the crisis rather less badly than other countries, it is precisely because of its protection of labour, of its public services, or social security, however insufficient they may be. It is not by destroying them that we are going to be better able to resist the crisis; on the contrary, it is by thinking how to modernise them, to make them more effective and efficient.

    Gauthier/Crozat: Can we talk of a tendency to overcome the divisions between the unemployed, casualised workers and wage-earners having steady jobs, or is there a danger that these divisions will be exploited in order to move toward more authoritarian solutions on the political level?

    Dumas: Some divisions are becoming less marked, especially as regards making the unemployed feel guilty. 

    However, other divisions are appearing. Faced with the crisis, the government is generating new divisions to avoid having the very basis of its policy challenged. It is developing measures to compensate partial unemployment (which is very important) – but not all wage-earners facing employment difficulties meet that classification. There are also divisions between wage-earners of major firms that can more easily be unionised and those of firms working as sub-contractors. These are new challenges that must not be underestimated. 

    Ideologically, neither the MEDEF (employers’ federation) nor the government are standing still. Today the government is the first to announce bad news! Even before the unemployment statistics have been published, it gives out staggering figures. There is a wish, on its part, deliberately to increase fears, because fear does not encourage struggle. Behind this “education through fear” is the idea of resorting to a supreme saviour … It is a fairly solid way of enabling the legitimisation of very authoritarian policies. 

    The other aspect is that of the employers. MEDEF’s president at first said that the crisis plunged us all in a state of “dumfoundedness” – a term used to reinforce the climate of fear I have just mentioned. Faced with the very strong calling into question of the whole system, she is now basing her arguments on the classical (indeed caricatured) discourse of a MEDEF with its back to the wall in defence of “the rights of property” (the actual words), refusing any notion of making the firms responsible, of new management criteria or of new criteria of wage / profit sharing.

    Nicolas Sarkozy is also seeking to blur traditional reference points. He is developing the idea of a three-way division between capital and labour. He wants to give people the impression of an almost anti-capitalist President of the Republic who would call into question stockholders’ dividends; he could then appear as a conciliator between the trade unions, which have reckless and ill-considered demands, and MEDEF, with its back to the wall defending its privileges … a President of the Republic capable of embodying, if not a third way, at least a consensus. 

    Gauthier/Crozat: Because of all this, wouldn’t the social struggle be obliged to take on more political issues? 

    Dumas: A poll that was published a few days after the February 18 social summit expresses the situation quite well: 70% of the population does not believe that the measures announced by the President of the Republic will answer the problems. However, only 20% think that the political opposition has better proposals for economic and social revival. On the other hand, 60% think that the way forward is by negotiating the trade-union proposals. Thus, for the majority of the population, the political and economic alternative is in the context of the inter-union coordination’s platform rather than in the proposals of the left parties. The disrepute of the left, therefore, has not yet diminished. In such a situation, it is clear that the inter-union coordination and its actions express hopes that go far beyond those having only to do with the domain of trade unions. 

    Moreover, the conflict in Guadeloupe, after 45 days of mobilisation, has scored a genuine social victory. Yet it was organised by a collective, the LKP, made up of trade-union, political and voluntary associations. Some people feel that it requires only one more step to apply this recipe to metropolitan France.

    However, things are not quite so simple. The present authority of the inter-union coordination is based on three inescapable factors: the genuinely trade-union character of the process, the complete unity of action between all the union organisations and the alternative and open character of its platform that allows for advance by negotiation. Were one of these factors to be weakened the whole dynamic would be impacted. The people who are rubbing shoulders in the strikes and demonstrations have a great variety of political opinion. On the other hand, they are united on what they want to change in the situation. This is the strength of the trade union – this ability to unite people and at the same time to alter the balance of forces and change reality without waiting for the next electoral deadline.

    The CGT does not agree with the position expressed by some unions in the coordination that we should forbid the formation of collectives and support committees. We think that the best way to avoid confusion is for the inter-union coordination to play its part to the full, to be open in its relation to all initiatives and to occupy the whole area that it must hold. The CGT will not prevent the formation of any collective, especially seeing as any large social movement is necessarily accompanied by broad and diverse initiatives other than trade-union ones.

    However the CGT will not let any confusion arise as to what is a matter for the trade unions, on the one hand, and what concerns political parties. Those who think that it is up to the trade-union organisations to solve the problems of the left not only make a fundamental mistake but risk weakening the protest movement by dividing it. It seems to me that one would pose the problem better by raising it directly with the left political parties. It is up to them to discover within the current mobilisations the resources needed for their own renewal.

    Gauthier/Crozat: Are there not stimuli, impulses that can come from other places? In the area of social movements, there are fresh developments. For example, the “Call of Calls” is an attempt to organise, to regroup and to globalise the movement, but not in directly trade-union or political forms. In the fight against the CPE, the call to the unions came from the young people. The boundaries between political and trade-union territory are not as clearly defined as before. The idea of a Popular Front is making the rounds today.

    Dumas: You say that “The boundaries between political and trade-union territory are not as clearly defined as before”. I think the opposite is true. The trade-union movement, as far as the CGT is concerned, has learned from the experience of a century of struggle in which politics and trade-unionism were so intermingled as sometimes to merge.

    During the Popular Front, the strikes followed the left’s coming to power. We are today in a markedly different situation! May 68 is evidently in everyone’s thoughts. But not only did it not lead to any political outcome; it even led to a strengthening of the Right. There were, nevertheless some important social and societal gains. The left did subsequently come to power in 1981. Prior to 1981 all trade-union demands were subordinated to the left’s Common Programme. Today we have the feeling that the left is lagging behind the inter-union coordination’s programme. Neither situation is satisfactory. There is probably another equilibrium to be found so that each of the two sectors acts like itself and lends each other mutual support. 

    Politics and trade-unionism do not, indeed, live in autonomous watertight cocoons, separate from each other. It not even a matter of there being domains reserved for one or the other. It is rather a question of the nature of their objectives and the specific character of their processes. 

    The CGT does not seek to accumulate the discontent against this or that political authority in order to contribute to replacing it with the left at the next election. Its objective is to improve the situation of wage-earners as far as possible, as quickly as possible, regardless of the kind of government in office at the moment. It constructs the relations of forces and brings them together, not in terms of how people have or will vote, but on the basis of demands for changing reality right away. Naturally, due to its identity and its fundamental choices, the CGT does not hesitate to act on major political issues. Its independence is not indifference or neutrality. However, we reject the concept that has prevailed for a very long time in France of the role of the trade union being subordinate to the role of the political party, even guided by it. 

    As for the reference you make to the movement against the CPE, I would point out that the action was led for four months by an inter-union coordination of 12 organisations, of which 8 were wage-earners unions and four were students’ or secondary-school students’ unions. It is true that the concrete mobilisation was “pulled forward” by the students and secondary-school pupils, but it was the inter-union coordination that enabled the encounter between the generations, the intervention of the wage-earners and, in the end, success. 

    I would also point out that most of the time the ad hoc associations that are created for this or that demand, for this or that cause, are formed to support major unitary and trade-union mobilisations. I am not sure that these collectives would have, by themselves, the capacity for mass mobilisation, beyond some media breakthroughs. The CGT does not see these movements as competitors but as sources of emulation, as complements to our activity. The presence at the head of the January 29 demonstration of the “ni pauvre ni soumis” Association (“neither poor nor submissive” – a campaign of handicapped people) is a very strong symbol of this complementarity – but also of the solidarity and fraternity of struggle.

    These single-issue associations alert us to certain problems and, as they are only concerned with the one issue they don’t let go of it, whereas we, as a trade union, are always faced with having to arbitrate between priorities. However, these associations, these movements, express themselves all the better to the extent that they are working in an inter-union environment that enables them to demonstrate. As a result, everyone is connected through the decisions of the inter-union coordination. It is by sticking to our trade-union niche that we can enable the movement to take place and make enable everything that feeds the movement – collectives, associations, political parties – to find its place.

    A last word on this subject: solving the left’s problems is not a problem of the inter-union coordination, which is connected to the fact that French unions do not claim to be left-wing – nor right-wing for that matter. They are trade unions. The debates, the differences, even the divergences between them do not bear on political options but strictly on trade-union ones: the approach to collective bargaining, the balance of forces and the concept of compromise. Relations with the state, to the company, to the market and to Europe are equally important. It is all the more laudable that despite these fundamental differences the unions have succeeded in uniting.

    Gauthier/Crozat: The English have an expression “the market state”. How is the debate on state intervention developing? 

    Dumas: We must fight the idea that neoliberalism means the disappearance of the state or states. Neoliberalism needs the state. The debate is thus not about more or less state but about the nature and objectives of state policies. The liberals, or the representatives of big capitalist interests, turn to the state to get it to help them out of the crisis by massive injections of funds taken from the tax revenues and wage-earners’ salaries. In France, trade unions are demanding compensation for any state aid to the corporations. The inter-union coordination wants to make state aid conditional on wage agreements, including on the quality and volume of jobs. It is the CGT’s position that before the state decides on this kind of aid it should consult the representatives of those employed by the firm or by the bank to find out if this aid is justified and to allow them to check on the way it is used. For example, the automobile manufacturers made their workers work at full throttle, overtime for eight months, enjoying exemptions granted by the government for overtime. The production objectives for 12 months were thus achieved in 8! And the government is giving them billions more! We also have the example of Total, which has made fabulous profits and is now announcing the cutting of 500 jobs – which will mean 2,000 job losses among its sub-contractors. If Total cuts jobs, who is going to create them? Moreover Total, despite its profits, nevertheless enjoys the same lightening of social contributions on the salary of all its employees for all salaries up to 1.4 times the minimum wage. 

    One should not forget the regulatory role of the state. Up to now the political authorities have refused to admit that its policy of deregulating the Labour Code, working hours and public services be challenged. But it must be challenged. 

    Gauthier/Crozat: During Roosevelt’s New Deal, income taxation was increased by 80 or 90%. Should not the demand be raised for a completely different taxation system?

    Dumas: The CGT is calling for a reform of taxation to make it both fairer and more efficient. Recent policies have undermined the progressive character of personal income tax to the benefit of the richest. Social inequalities are increasing. The policies of lightening income tax weaken the distributive potential of taxation. They benefit the richest most and deprive the most vulnerable of active social policies. We should also look at what is happening regarding financial revenues and the revenues of company directors. Stock options are exempted from social-security taxes: social security estimates its loss of revenues at 6.5 billion euros every year!

    The CGT has declared itself for a taxation that obliges the companies to contribute by taking into account their financial revenues and what they demand from society in order to develop. Companies benefit from the infrastructure of road networks, from public services, the fact that the population is educated, that there are schools, nurseries, crèches and social security. They must be called upon to contribute to their financing.

    If France takes fourth place among countries receiving foreign investments, if the hourly rate of labour productivity is the highest in the world, it is precisely because of its services and public infrastructures. This deserves some return from business to the community.

    We are in favour of a freeze on dividends during the period of the crisis. There must be some work on a wages policy; there must be another division between labour and capital calculated directly from the added value. Working conditions and labour productivity must also be improved.

    Turing now to the public services. The post-war nationalisations represented a strong pedestal, along with public services and wage-earner statutes. They were levers for steering and intervening in the economy, in industry and research. Those of 1981-1982 were limited to the nationalisation of capital without changing its logic or its previous management criteria. Thus they could be as easily undone as they had been promulgated. However, the privatisations carried out by the Jospin government attacked the hard core of public services. This is one of the historic reasons for the disaffection with the left, which still persists today. The CGT waged hard struggles on these issues. Today we are thinking how not just to stay on the level of defending the remaining public services but how to make winning proposals for fresh responses to public services. We want to put forward the demand for “publicisation” opposed to the process of privatisation currently under way.

    Gauthier/Crozat: Is there not reason to fear, in the present crisis, an intensification of compelling wage-earners to compete with each other in Europe? How can European trade-unionism play its role? 

    Dumas: The European Trade-Union Confederation (ETUC) has called for a mobilisation on the occasion of the G20 summit in London; it has launched a campaign of European mobilisation against the crisis, with demonstrations taking place on May 14 and 15 in Prague, Berlin and Brussels. However, ETUC is not opposed to the European founding principle of “free and undistorted competition”. But Europe is coming apart at the seams and sinking under the weight of this dogma, which has not let it escape and is paralysing its possible movement to recover.

    The CGT regards as positive an ETUC idea that a certain number of services or activities necessary for fundamental rights should escape the competitive criteria. The more struggles there are in this direction, for increasingly wide and numerous activities to escape the competitive criteria, the more we will be able to spread the idea of winning new areas for public services. Europe must be founded differently. The question of fundamental social rights must become central; a democratic, social Europe must be promoted, a Europe of cooperation. This is very far from present policies.

    We must be sure not to wage the wrong battle. The issue is to secure a new conception of European policy, not to push for a movement of disaffiliation of the states. Withdrawal from Europe by some countries carries major dangers of economic war and of the aggravation of nationalist tensions. Rather than leaving we must act together to build another Europe.

    Gauthier/Crozat: But this requires creating a front against this pitting of national working classes against each other and for another logic by drawing up, for example, a unitary and trade-union platform on the European level. Where are we with this? 

    Dumas: We’ve a long way to go. The social systems are very different and the way the trade unions position themselves in relation to their social systems also very different. France used to be regarded unfavourably because of its interventionist state and its social security. However, debates have arisen regarding the arrival of foreign firms. In Germany and Sweden, etc. non-European firms have set up shop and employ workers without applying Swedish or German collective agreements or conventions, since these firms are not affiliated with the employers’ organisations that had signed them. In the end, the idea that collective agreements are dependent on the law rather than just on the relations between the employers’ and wage-earners’ organisations appears to be a better protective arrangement. The question of the state’s role in the negotiations and collective conventions has already begun to be raised in a different way.

    However, the ETUC has already allowed convergent mobilisation around the services directive and the working hours directive. This is the direction we must tirelessly pursue. Mutually backing one another up while respecting our differences is also part of trade-union culture.

    Gauthier/Crozat: Thank you for the interview.