Pete Jones reports from Paris on the 19th March strike day
Three hundred and fifty thousand people (according to organisers) marched on Paris on Thursday March 19th to vent their frustration at Nicolas Sarkozy’s mismanagement of and complicity in the current economic malaise. Paris factory workers also used the day to picket their workplaces, hoping to put further pressure on the government following a month of factory closures thanks to industrial action.
The march from République to Nation in the unseasonably warm sunshine was very pleasant but its final relevance is up for debate. In contrast, the day’s demonstrations finished with limited but significant rioting at Place de la Nation. Following a series of seemingly arbitrary arrests around five or six hundred youths confronted police chanting ‘Release our comrades!’ and throwing bottles and metal grills. The police responded by firing tear gas to clear the packed Place, eventually arresting around 300 people of whom just 49 will be charged.
Despite its questionable impact no-one present could help but be struck by the sheer presence and vitality of the crowd throughout the day. Scheduled to begin at 2pm at the three key locations of Place de la République, the Bastille and Place de la Nation, République was overflowing with people by 1.30. Unimaginably powerful sound systems boomed anti-establishment tunes across the open spaces, live bands played impromptu gigs on the roofs of trucks, people sold beers and mojitos out of the back of van-cum-bars, barbeques burned and people danced if they could find the room.
There was a real sense of solidarity. Paris is hardly renowned for the politesse of its citizens but there was a tangible spirit of camaraderie as various processions set off on the long crawl to Nation – half of the cortege heading via Bastille and the other half heading straight down Boulevard Voltaire towards the final destination. While this collective spirit might easily emerge in the face of some common foe the infamously heavy-handed French police were nowhere to be seen early in the afternoon.
And yet as the day continued to unravel so did any sense of cohesiveness. It became increasingly apparent that this strike was not really a concentrated social movement with coherent aims and goals and an idea of how to achieve them. It was at best a general (and still worthwhile) expression of vaguely held and partially conceived discontent, but at worst it was a half-cut jolly in the sunshine. Solidarity, yes. But purpose and cohesion? Not so much. We all felt a bit lost and powerless together.
There are manifold reasons for this. It was a general strike – represented on Thursday were workers, students, feminists, sans-papiers, greens and extreme-left groups of all kinds. The lack of a common platform, beyond a shared anti-Sarko sentiment, isn’t astonishing and ultimately this coming-together of diverse anti-capitalists is surely positive.
A relative lack of direction is also due to the waning power of the trade unions in France. They are regarded with a degree of cynicism bordering on contempt after a series of ineffective stands against unpopular policy in recent years. Sarkozy has succeeded in weakening the trade unions since he came to power and despite a huge number of Confédération générale du travail (CGT) flags and banners there was no clear leadership from the union. While it was the trade unions that called the strike – and this is unquestionably to their credit and a sign of some on-going influence – calling it does not amount to leading it. In the interim there has been no-one willing or able to take the reins in recent social movements, with the major socialist and communist parties largely discredited following recent divisions and ineffective, even non-existant, opposition to Sarkozy’s UMP party.
This leadership-vacuum is no bad thing and perhaps adds something to the importance of Thursday’s strike. There is a genuine will for change here, something strong enough to mobilise up to 3 million people across the country, and it comes from the bottom-up. A bewildering array of extreme left political parties, groups, trade unions and federations patrolled the streets, and it was clear that many people were not simply upset with Sarkozy, but with him as a symbol of the capitalist system. These sentiments are not considered particularly radical in France, whereas I suspect a movement on such a scale could not be brought about in the UK on a broadly anti-capitalist platform. A march for Gaza, yes, or for Iraq, yes…but the willingness to question the legitimacy of capitalism is far more widespread and taken more seriously in France than in the UK, hence yesterday’s numbers. Whether or not similar numbers will appear for the London march scheduled for this Saturday (March 28th), which has a similarly broad platform, will either support or make a mockery of this theory.
The large turnout also has something to do with the imbedded striking tradition that exists in France, but this in turn makes what would be a remarkable movement in any other European country have a relatively limited impact. The rest of the French population – the government included – takes little notice of conventional strike action. It is really quite common. Yesterday was, until evening events at Nation, a shining example of the outmoded and ineffective protest strategy discussed in The Commune’s article on mobilisation and militancy from January 11th: ‘That strategy is…[i]n a nutshell, hold peaceful A to B marches, do as you’re told by the police, go home and write to your MP.’
Off the streets and in the offices and restaurants that remained open, even on the boulevards along which the corteges marched, people were scathingly cynical about the strike action. One group of office workers told me: ‘You don’t understand, you’re not French. It’s nothing remarkable. They don’t even know what they’re marching for. They’re just lazy.’
The immediate reaction to the movement has been underwhelming, at best. François Fillon, the prime minister, has confirmed that there will be no new economic recovery plan following the demonstration. The work minister Brice Hortefeux has shown just how dimly the strikers’ radical (albeit unformulated) anti-capitalist message has been transmitted with his dismissive and condescending claim to understand the strikers’ ‘legitimate concerns’ while simultaneously refusing to see the action as anything tantamount to a demand for substantive political change. Of course this is partly government BS, but with trade unions spending Friday morning and the weekend ‘discussing’ the impact of the strike and mulling over where to go from here, the Elysée has the luxury of pedalling such dismissals with little fear of reprisal or backlash.
Hortefeux’s stance is aided by the fact that the demands of a number of the strikers, particularly private sector workers (who demonstrated in surprisingly large numbers – normally it is the public sector which mobilises most quickly and impressively in France) remain largely statist and capitalist, expressing a desire to work with and adjust the existing system, as opposed to the more anti-capitalist stances of some of their fellow protestors in the streets on Thursday. “We are all marching for the same thing: job security and for the protection of public services,” said Marc Amiaud, an information technology worker. “We hope the government will help us. But if it doesn’t, we will march again and again.”
Against this, and to contend that M Amiaud does not in fact speak for ‘all’ the protestors, we can juxtapose the rioting at Place de la Nation, again returning to The Commune’s article of a few months ago: ‘The generation that rioted last night is the generation that witnessed the abject failure of the strategy [of peaceful strike action].’ While similar mini-rioting occurred at Nation after the Gaza marches, it was largely confined to the youth from the neglected Parisian suburbs and its significance was subsequently (and outrageously) dismissed by the French establishment and media, claiming that it was typical of the aggressive racaille (Sarkozy’s infamous reference to the ‘scum’ living in the banlieues) to ‘ruin’ an otherwise ‘dignified’ protest, and therefore of having little social import.
On Thursday, though, the rioters were young, radical, central-Parisian youth. Their protest is in no way more worthwhile than the pro-Gaza homologue, but perhaps it shows that a larger proportion of the french population, among the youth at least, is becoming increasingly radical and aware of the relative impotence of conventional and peaceful social protest. The rioting protestors didn’t seem to be coordinated under any one banner or from any one group – it was a spontaneous and radical reaction in the face of unreasonable police/state force.
For now the impact of last weeks strike, and even the rioting at Nation, remains relatively minor. The worrying aspect from Thursday was probably the sense of directionlessness, the lack of viable alternatives to capitalism being proposed, the mixed messages from different protestors regarding their relative (un)willingness to work with the existing state, and the overwhelming impression that we were all on a bit of a stroll in the sun with cheap grog.
At the same time there was certainly a sense of solidarity, and that lack of direction also meant that this protest was undeniably representative of the sentiments of a vast swathe of the working class in France. The will for change is there. And, if we see the rioting at Nation as the first step towards a more coherent conception of effective direct action in France, perhaps soon there will be the methods to match the resolve.