The way the French perceive capitalism in the context of the accentuated crisis since fall 2008 rests on a major paradox. At the same time as the social (not just financial or economic) crisis became significantly more acute anti-capitalist forces did not live up to their responsibility. If the Front de Gauche was able to score good results (11 %) in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, the anti-capitalist political or trade-union movements seem to be marking time.
One theory might be that capitalism has been broadly accepted within French society and that anti-capitalist forces are hitting an impassable glass ceiling of support for the dominant system. This hypothesis is false. The bulk of opinion surveys conducted during the last ten years show that capitalism is suffering from a negative image that the majority of interviewees have of it. In 2009, 69 % of the French said they had a ‘negative image’ of capitalism (Viavoice poll for ACFCI, March 2009). In 2013, 80 % of French people judged capitalism as ‘working badly’ (Ifop poll for La Croix, January 2013).
How do we understand the limits of political and trade-union anti-capitalism, even though there is an unprecedented social crisis and the majority views capitalism negatively?
A first series of explanations, fundamental but not determining, have to do with the perceived nature of capitalism. In the first place, perceptions of capitalism predominantly involve positive elements. The French first point to ‘the freedom to take initiative and to create’ (66 %); only then does the negative observation follow that capitalism involves ‘the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small number of people’ (45 %) (LH2 poll for Libération, October 2005).
Second, scenarios of an ‘exit from capitalism’ are associated with the idea of greater costs. The alternative is not discerned. What is more, a majority of the French see themselves as being declassed (Viavoice studies, 2002-2012), and the fear of falling down on the social ladder induces one more to hope for the preservation of what one has than to taking on risks.
Finally, the hope placed in activism is weak because a huge diversity of votes has led people to think that nothing could ameliorate the voters’ conditions since some social movements have shown themselves to be useless (for example in the struggle over the 2010 pension reforms) and because the media’s language does not lend itself to such hope.
This series of explanatory elements is essential, but it does not really take account of the specificity of current perceptions of capitalism and of the obstacles to a greater affirmation of anti-capitalist forces. My thesis involves considering that capitalism, quite often, is not held responsible for the everyday difficulties that people of modest means encounter. In different words, even if capitalism evokes negative images, it is hard for it to be seen as truly responsible for social suffering. There are few connections between it and practical experiences. In the framework of the research that I have conducted (see Les Nouvelles Passions Françaises, Michalon, 2013) I have encountered people from all social milieus. Some of them – though they are rare – attribute their difficulties to the top executives who hold capital assets. However, the majority accuse a category that is at once moral and individual, the ‘bastards’ (les ‘salauds’). The ‘bastard’ is the person who has placed his or her interest above that of society: a small-scale boss who gives himself, but not his workers, a steep raise; a neighbour who is seeking employment but has not completed the steps necessary for finding a job while his benefits are being financed by those who are working; a teacher suspected of absenteeism while he lives on public funds; a foreigner who comes to France to benefit from public services, etc. Thus capitalism is to an extent exonerated from its responsibilities through these daily experiences which allow people to assign meanings to society. It is true that capitalism is questioned once a large corporation carries out a redundancy plan or does not sustain its workers (ArcelorMittal). In this case the big corporations or their capitalist directors are stigmatised. But more often the dominant scenario is one of criticism of the big capitalists for social inequities, for the discrepancy of wealth which places them in contrast to the great majority. However, their responsibility for the social suffering that is personally experienced is not brought to mind.
The article Le capitalisme, jugé très négativement, n’est pas tenu pour comptable des difficultés quotidiennes was originally published in French by L'Humanité on 14 February 2014.
Translation into English: Eric Canepa