France: The movement is far from over; Olivier Besancenot defends mass mobilisations to defeat Sarkozy

The New Anti-Capitalist Party's Olivier Besancenot.

By Sandra Demarcq

October 23, 2010 -- International Viewpoint -- Since May, the political situation in France has been marked by the mobilisations against changes to the pension law. Days of mobilisation succeed days of mobilisation, the movement against pension "reform" continues to develop and put down roots. It is the confirmation of a profound movement massively rejecting not only [the pension changes] but more broadly French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s anti-social, racist and authoritarian policies as a whole. But also the injustices accumulated and accentuated by the economic crisis, whether among the young or among wage earners.

That is why the mass demonstrations, although repetitive, are not shrinking and are even creating new  records, in particular those on October 12 and 19, 2010, when 3.5 million people were on the streets. The gatherings are increasingly combative and radical. Private sector workers are highly mobilised and now young people (at this stage mainly high school students) have also entered the mobilisations. Because the young people have understood that their access to a job in the short term and to a pension at full rate in good health in the long term are highly compromised by these changes.

Little by little the environment has changed, and very many of us, think that victory is possible, that we can defeat Sarkozy. Already, at this stage of the mobilisation, the government has lost the battle of public opinion. Seventy per cent of the population support the mobilisations and oppose [the pension changes]. Today, the majority of the workers, those in precarious jobs, and young people know that the question of pensions is neither a demographic question nor one of financing as the government has tried to have us believe for some months.

Strike tactics discussed

The strikes have little by little become a feature of the landscape. With each day of strikes and demonstrations, it appears increasingly obvious that staggered strike days are not enough to defeat the government. In fact, ongoing strike action has never been so much discussed in all sectors as in recent weeks, to the point that 61% of those polled favour prolonged strikes. The problem is precisely the leaderships of the trade union confederations who, even if they are pushed by the rank and file to continue, make sure they avoid calling for a general strike.

Since the beginning of the movement, trade union unity has undoubtedly been a gain, a point of support in the success of the days of strikes and demonstrations. But the inter-union coordination has not called for a major social confrontation with the government, and no longer demands the withdrawal of the draft legislation, instead proposing new negotiations and amendments.

Workers in the key sectors of the economy have however decided to launch or broaden prolonged strikes. This is the case, for example, with the rail workers, EDF centres and refineries. In the latter sector this has not been seen since May 1968. Since October 14, workers at 13 refineries are taking ongoing strike action, with a total halt to shipping of fuel to service stations and depots. The strike is huge, renewed with virtual unanimity.

This movement is on the move everywhere, with every day new initiatives, blockade actions (toll points, roads, airports, industrial zones and so on), and local demonstrations taking place in a unitary and inter-professional fashion. Mass meetings of the different mobilised sectors are also taking place every day. While small at the beginning, they are increasingly significant now. But it should also be noted that if there are numerous strikes here and there in the public as in the private sector, ongoing action still remains too scattered and is a minority phenomenon. The rate of participation during the national strike days is high but not extraordinary.

Young people join in

For some days and in particular since the strikes and demonstrations on October 19, young people have participated fully in the mobilisation, with very significant and dynamic contingents and many high schools blockaded. There is a determination and politicisation here that was not there in previous mobilisations. The more [the capitalist media and politicians claim that they are being] manipulated and the more their right to demonstrate is contested, the more young people's determination grows. The mobilisation in the universities is taking off, little by little. It is the big issue in the coming day, on the eve of the high school holidays.

Faced with this situation, the right wing, the employers, the government and Sarkozy remain determined to defend this unjust reform. Sarkozy is intent on a test of strength. The use of force is patent as shown by the police intervention against the refinery strikers or against the high school students, strong-arm tactics in parliament and the rejection of any discussion, even with the most moderate union leaders. [The government's] determination is understandable since [the pension changes are] at the heart of their austerity policy to ensure the crisis is paid for by those who are not responsible for it. Success with this [change] will boost the financial markets but it is also the opportunity in France to change the relationship of class forces and the distribution of wealth in favour of the richest. It is also a chance to get rid of the “social and fiscal burden" which is the legacy of old struggles and to bring the most resistant sectors to their knees. The key element for Sarkozy is also to rally his own camp some months prior to the presidential election. However, he is still far from victory and he has not broken or silenced the resistance.

The breadth of these mobilisations indicates the possibility of defeating the government. That is why the overall unity of the social and political left in this struggle is imperative. That is the meaning of the commitment of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste [NPA, New Anti-Capitalist Party] in all the unity and political initiatives allowing regroupment of our forces, and in particular through the national collective initiated by the Fondation Copernic and Attac.

But this unity around the slogan "Pensions at 60 and withdrawal of the draft law” does not hide certain disagreements on the basis and on the strategy of action, in particular with the Socialist Party. The latter defends the pension at 60 but voted with the deputies of the right wing on increasing the number of years a worker must work to 41.5 before they are eligible for a full pension, which in fact destroys the idea of defending the pension at 60.

Also, faced with the growing mobilisations, we must prepare for the 2012 presidential election. When there are divergences on the left of the left, in particular with the Parti de Gauche [Left Front] of Jean-Luc Melechon, they concern essentially action strategy. The latter defends the immediate perspective of a referendum which would shift the mobilisation from the streets to the institutional level at a time when the social test of forces is still before us!

The NPA has appeared since the beginning of the mobilisation as a party organising struggle, seeking unity around political objectives and demands: the withdrawal and undoubtedly now the abrogation of the law and the resignation of those responsible for the social crisis, Sarkozy and Woerth. We also develop anti-capitalist perspectives though an emergency social and political plan to beat the crisis.

The coming days will be decisive. The law will be [passed] but that will not silence or halt this mobilisation because for all those who are today on the streets, on strike, this regime is illegitimate. Also, we know that a law which is enacted can be withdrawn in this country -- this has already happened with the First Employment Contract [Contrat Première embauche] in 2007.

One to watch, then...

[Sandra Demarcq is a member of the executive committee of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France, and a member of the leadership of the Fourth International. This article first appeared at International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Fourth International.]

Besancenot: `Blocking the economy to block the reform'

A chat with Olivier Besancenot, moderated by Caroline Monnot. From Le Monde, October 19, 2010. Translated by MRZine's Yoshie Furuhashi.

Esteban: Hello, [the October 19] action is a symbolic last-ditch stand, isn't it?

Olivier Besancenot: No! It's another stage toward the general strike which is beginning to happen. On Tuesday night, strikes will be renewed, and there will be new demonstrations, as well as numerous blockades. The question posed now is about blocking the economy to block the reform.

Zbeul: In your opinion, is this strike a political strike expressing general discontent or a social strike focused only on retirement?

The discontent goes beyond the retirement issue, but, at the same time, it is crystallising through it. Many workers and many young people are truly fed up with the government's double standards and are indeed seeking, through this strike about retirement, to settle accounts with the Nicholas Sarkozy government from which they have suffered for too long.

Abdelmallik: What do you think will happen after the trade union action if the law gets passed?

The law isn't a law in effect until it appears in the Official Gazette. And even if it gets into the Official Gazette, the social history of our country reminds us that what the parliament -- the National Assembly and the Senate -- decides can be defeated by the street.

Fred: Even with 3 million demonstrators, does the street have the same legitimacy as an elected parliament?

Today, it's the street that has legitimacy, and the street can be more powerful than a government. That was so in 1995 at the time of the Juppé plan, and equally so in 2006 at the time of the First Employment Contract.

Moreover, our main social gains, from the beginning, were extracted by the struggles and mobilisations of our forebears. If our grandparents hadn't struck in 1936, today we wouldn't be the beneficiaries of paid annual leave.

Odp: Do you then think that the vote of a national assembly matters less than social movements?

When did a majority of citizens vote for retirement at 67? On YouTube, you can see Nicolas Sarkozy explaining why he wouldn't touch the retirement age of 60.

Léon: Is the New Anti-Capitalist Party [NPA] pushing high school students to take to the streets?

High school students are pushing themselves to do so all on their own, and they don't need anyone else to do it for them. High school student activists can join the NPA.

Furthermore, adults, workers, parents of students are often there at high schools, demanding that security forces leave the premises and stop their provocations. And that's a good thing.

Roland: Violent conflicts at some high schools risk turning opinion against the movement. Is it really necessary to get high school students involved?

Yes, everyone needs to get involved. And young people understand that old people working longer means fewer chances for them to find openings in the job market.

The government, by its repeated police provocations, is looking to cause escalations, thinking that it can calm down the protest by causing fear.

Emilien22: What factors lead you to compare the demonstrations over the last several days to May 1968? Is such a movement possible or even desirable for France?

There is no model that can be exported from its time and place. Each struggle is unique and finds its own dynamic. But I think that a new May 1968 in a 21st-century style wouldn't hurt anyone, except the capitalists and the government. But that isn't bad...

May 1968, beyond the barricades, was a general strike in which millions erupted onto the social and political stage. It's that eruption that we need today.

Thibaud: Strikers are blockading refineries and transport arteries. Is the strike again actively preventing others from working? Isn't that closer to your idea of "revolutionary activism"?

We are not going through a revolution (yet!). We are in a process of spreading strikes, where radicalisation and expansion go hand in hand. The movement is gradually getting larger with each day of action, and, at the same time, it is getting radicalized since the government is forcing the struggle to get radical.

Marc: Does the NPA have a concrete counter-project of reform on the issue of retirement? If yes, what is it?

The NPA says no to rewriting the government's project, demanding its abandonment pure and simple. We propose retirement at 60 with full benefits and the return to the contribution length of 37.5 years, for all. To finance this project, we propose to increase the share of employers' contributions to social security.

Three per cent of the GDP from now to 2050 will be necessary to finance the retirement system, according to the Pensions Advisory Council. On the other hand, every year, 17% of the wealth created in the year gets siphoned off in the form of profits, which are monopolised by the privileged few.

It is therefore necessary to share the wealth and to share the work time equally, the currently employed working less, so that everyone who is unemployed can get a job.

Victor: Which sectors do you think should be taxed more first of all, if we want to find the necessary funds to finance retirement?

Capital's revenues. What's more, every year, 23 billion euros gets lost in the form of social security contributions forgiven to "create jobs" (you can see how successful it has been!). Those forgiven social security contributions create deficits.

Georges P: How is it that you don't seem to fear the economic consequences (for employment, growth, etc.) of the movements you are organising or stirring up?

The current economic troubles are not the result of the general strike but the result of a system called capitalism, whose crisis, triggered two years ago by the subprime mortgage affair, has fucked up the whole machinery of economy.

What we have is a crisis of overproduction in the Marxist sense of the term throughout the major capitalist economies. One day we'll have to invent a new mode of production and consumption that can meet the needs of humanity.

Etudiant Tokyo: Do you think a referendum would be a good solution to finally review the whole thing?

At this precise moment of the conflict, no. That would be a distraction from, and an institutional substitute for, social mobilisations. If there's a more effective method than an indefinite general strike, you have to tell us, but I don't see any. The vote of citizens, at the time when the postal service was threatened with privatisation, worked as a support mechanism for the struggle. But in any case there's no substitute for struggles.

Serena: University students are rather weakly mobilised for the moment. Could they play a decisive role?

Don't panic, Serena, that's coming! A dozen of universities are already mobilised, and indeed, university students' protest can be a decisive element in the expansion of the movement.

Matthieu Recu: So, it's normal to blockade campuses and to prevent those who want to study from doing so?

So, it's normal for me to support the blockades, too.

Zbeul: Can Black Bloc actions be the solution rather than traditional "spiced-up (merguez) CGT demos"?

I'd rather be on the side of the Red Bloc. Besides, I very much love merguez, and I favour indefinite general strikes.

GG: Any chance of a true alliance of the left between the NPA and the Left Front putting pressure on the Socialist Party [PS] in the coming years?

We propose to gather together all the anti-capitalist forces on the common radical principles, in total independence from the PS. The goal, for me, is not to shift PS policy or to convert it to anti-capitalism (good luck!), but rather to challenge the PS's hegemony on the rest of the left.

There are two major political orientations on the left: one that is stuck in the framework of market economy, and the other that wants to leave it behind. These two orientations are not compatible in a same government, but our forces can join together to resist the Right, as is the case with the retirement issue.

Laurent F: Mr. Besancenot, when do you plan on retiring?

At 60 with full benefits! But, Laurent, you had better believe that I'll continue to be a militant all the same.

Maroux: And how far will this escalation go?

All the way to victory. Things are coming together for the victory of the movement on the retirement issue. It's not a foregone conclusion, and there are still numerous obstacles before us. But, objectively, our camp, the protest camp, is continuing to expand while the opposite camp is becoming isolated and weaker.

The cabinet reshuffle will result in disarray. And, given the ministers already packing up their belongings, ready to leave, the street can win a decisive victory in this class struggle. As Che said, hasta la victoria siempre!

[The original article "Besancenot : 'Bloquer l'économie pour bloquer la réforme'" was published in Le Monde on October 19, 2010. The translation by Yoshie Furuhashi appeared at MRZine.]

Thank you for this interview.The news in Canada are diatorted even when radio programs (usually fairly good).For exemple a journalist in Paris talk to the CBC and mentioned only the shortage of petroleum saying no word on the deep reasons behind the protests ( not the retirementonly )


I really appreciated this post. Although I am American, I hold France close to my heart as I have spent time living there. I have to say that given the evidence, I am with the support of the people and their rights to a decent pension. It's difficult enough in this day in age to make a living and think about retirement, but to make it so hard that even the young students have to stand up and protest for their future is really shocking. I hope the protests work and Sarkozy is defeated.