France paralyzed by the ‘War of the Lefts’

Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia Times Online. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of "Globalistan" (2007), "Red Zone Blues" (2007), "Obama does Globalistan" (2009) and "Empire of Chaos" (2014), all published by Nimble Books. His latest book is "2030", also by Nimble Books, out in December 2015.
A striking French labour union EDF employee stands near a burning barricade that blocks the entrance of the depot of the SFDM company near the oil refinery to protest the labour reforms law proposal in Donges, France, May 27, 2016 © Stephane Mahe
Paris burns as Hollande fiddles. Take it as shorthand for nationwide protests in France against a proposed labor “reform” while the President poses at the G-7 in Japan as if he’s one of the Masters of the Universe.

France is semi-paralyzed - from dockworkers in the port of Le Havre (a key trade hub) to workers in refineries, oil depots, nuclear power stations (accounting for 75 percent of the national electricity supply), airports, and the metropolitan Paris rail system. This has translated into panic at myriad petrol stations – with much of the French transportation system brought to a standstill.

All this because the cataclysmically unpopular, nominally “socialist” Hollande administration has introduced a draft law that drastically modifies the French labor code and essentially adopts Anglo-Saxon neoliberal “hire and fire” in a deeply regulated, regimented nation where workers’ rights and protections are taken extremely seriously. Hollande and his astonishingly mediocre Prime Minister Manuel Valls defend it as the best way to fight chronic unemployment.

Scrap the bill to unblock the nation

May 2016 in France is certainly no May 1968 remix. It features a vortex of complicating factors, such as the “terra terra terra” psychosis (Paris is in a semi-disguised state of siege); the ongoing Nuit Debout movement at the Place de la Republique – the French version of Occupy Wall Street; and police with their nerves on edge complaining, and even demonstrating, that they are not getting all the love they need from the general population.

May 2016 is essentially configured as a battle between the socialist government and French unions. It’s bound to get nastier. Police figures suggest 153,000 strikers/demonstrators this past Thursday – a huge mobilization day that touched public services and air transport; unions claim there were almost 300,000. The executive is beginning to use force to unblock key refineries. Panic at empty petrol stations is becoming the norm.

The Hollande-Valls duo has gone hardcore; the labor reform bill must be approved, otherwise that’s the end of the government. Valls’ red line is that if the bill goes, he also goes. Yet he’s already been forced to (slightly) backtrack; he’s now allowing “modifications” and “improvements” to the bill.

So this is essentially a battle of the French Lefts – a radical, working-class branch against a nominally social-democratic one in power, actually neoliberal. It’s also a dialogue of the deaf. The Prime Minister is not exactly a participant of social dialogue. For him these two Lefts are irreconcilable. You don't need to be a reader of Barthes or Deleuze to infer that France is running the risk of reaching degree zero of social democracy.

After the eighth day of demonstrations, the secretary-general of the powerful CGT union, Philippe Martinez, is now demanding to be received by the President and the President only – actually throwing Valls into the dustbin. From Japan, Hollande emitted a laconic “I’m being briefed.”

A case can be made that the Hollande-Valls duo is so disconnected from the street pulse that they had no idea this bill would be met with so much hostility. They should have gone for a wider reach – and should have previously invested in a lot of dialogue, not to mention semantic niceties, with the unions.

So what does the French public think about this mess? Essentially, three-quarters of the population is against the bill. And you can’t “modernize” France without the French. Yet this being France, subtle nuances matter. According to one of the latest polls, 69 percent are in favor of the bill being scrapped, to avoid the nation being paralyzed. Another poll shows that 62 percent consider the strikes “justified” despite parts the country being paralyzed. So a sound cross-pollination of these polls tells us that social movements are legitimate even as most people don’t want to see the nation paralyzed.

In a lighter vein, Paris café talk now rules that the Socialist Party better not even try to stage an upcoming presidential campaign; what’s going on is proof that the working class hates their guts. It’s a fact that the current état d’urgence – as in the French version of the US Patriot Act – plus the neoliberal drive made the Socialist Party (PS) lose the votes of artists and intellectuals as well as ‘bobos’ (bourgeois bohemians) which used to be the mainstay of their electoral base. And all this while CEOs so much courted by the PS will continue to vote for the right.

Time to be an ‘indignado’ with a cause

So what next? The sound money is on some sort of compromise; the text of the bill will be amended by the Senate next month, before coming back to the Assembly. This means it will be “retouched” – as even the government is now admitting; and that will mean a victory for social movements. Whatever happens the War of the Lefts won’t be over. And the final result may even come up in the form of a collective suicide – to the benefit of the Right.

Meanwhile, growth in France remains feeble at best. Euro 2016 starts in only two weeks, on June 10. France may expect to receive as many as 1.5 million foreign tourists and profit to the tune of €1.3 billion. The fan zone under construction in front of the Eiffel Tower will attract at least 100,000 people daily.

If there is no solution in the coming days, the Hollande-Valls duo will have to back down. The French security system won’t be able to cope, simultaneously, with a high terrorist alert and policing myriad demonstrations (a huge one is already scheduled for June 14). A lot is riding on the success of the Euro football, not the currency. Football, in this case, is far from politically neutral; if the whole show is a major success, it’s Hollande who will reap the benefits.

Socialists in France, meanwhile, could do worse than take a look at neighboring Spain.
In Spain under Franco, communists and socialists were at the vanguard of democratic resistance, incorporating in their struggle those who created Workers’ Commissions and some of the best intellectuals of the times.

But then came the recent neoliberal drift of the European socialist parties – which led them to lose their historical hegemony. They have not adapted to being able to defend their social base - and the welfare state - and at the same time satisfy the harsh requirements of the financial casino system as well as a European Commission economic policy of fiscal austerity as demanded by Germany and financialization as influenced by Britain.

During Franco and the Cold War, it was common to use “communist” and “socialist” as a disqualification of any political argument. What reigned was the politics of fear. France, for its part, was way more sophisticated politically (and not under a fascist regime.)

What’s left for the ‘Lefts’ in Europe is to pay close attention to the emerging path opened by social movements, bent on rebuilding the welfare state and creating worthy forms of employment; all that has been denied by market fundamentalism and the austerity TINA (There Is No Alternative) mindset.

Among the Spanish ‘indignados’ one finds anarchists, communists, socialists – a microcosm of modern history in Spain rooted in the indignation against dictatorship and social injustice, all trying to reinvent themselves while neoliberalism flounders. If only the French Lefts would pay attention.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.