This article originally appeared in the December 25, 1999, issue.
France, and the world, are periodically reminded of the social and political power of working people. For the second week in a row, as we went to press, virtually no trains were running in the country. With no subway and no buses, Paris lay paralyzed, and during the extended rush hours the city was surrounded by hundreds of miles of traffic jams. With the strike spreading to the post office, to public utilities, to schools and even to private industry, France was slowly coming to a standstill. Add to that the numerous demonstrations by the strikers, particularly prominent in provincial towns like Toulouse and Marseilles, and student occupations of their school offices all over, and no wonder the French were haunted by the memory of May 1968, when students and workers joined to raise the issue of the future of their society. The current confrontation is at once less dramatic and potentially more significant.
Imagination has not seized power so far. In ’68 the students, 600,000 strong, wanted to reshape the university and the world at large. Now, a solid 2 million and living with the prospect of unemployment, they are asking for more teachers and better equipment. Similarly, in ’68 the working people were on the offensive: Surprised by the discovery of their own strength, they had to be bribed by huge wage increases. Now, they are clearly on the defensive. The latest strike was precipitated by an attack on the pensions of public employees (increasing from 37.5 to 40 the number of years required to get a full pension) and by a proposed overhaul of health and other social services. Indeed, workers and employees interpreted the cutback as a general offensive against public services as such, against the welfare state, against all their precious conquests of the postwar period. As a striking railwayman put it on television: “We must fight–our backs are to the wall! It’s now or never!”
The wage and salary earners also feel cheated, and the political trickery perpetrated by the government has been so naked that the stoppage started with wide backing of the populace (62 percent were in favor). After all, it was only last spring that Jacques Chirac ran his presidential campaign on a “progressive” platform of struggle against unemployment and social injustice, promising demagogically, among other commitments, that money would not be allowed to interfere with the health of the French people. True, he was also saying–less loudly–that France must balance its books in order to join the common European currency. But suddenly cutting the budget deficit by tightening the working people’s belt has become the categorical imperative, while the social pledges have been not only forgotten but reversed. Did Chirac really think the French wouldn’t notice such a somersault? Did he miscalculate and would he try to seek a compromise, sacrificing his prime minister if necessary (Philippe Seguin, president of the National Assembly, is waiting to take over)? Or would he determine to stick to his line and tough out a confrontation? The answer to these questions could not be put off for long, since unlike Maggie Thatcher, Chirac cannot rely on time and the weariness of his opponents, faced as he is with railwaymen rather than miners and with the prospect of a general strike.
Whatever Chirac’s disposition, this will not be the end of a story that, incidentally, is not confined to France. For well over a year now the international financial establishment has been telling European governments that, in this deregulated world, they can no longer afford the luxury of a genuine health service, of a more or less decent minimum wage and other forms of social protection. Whether they like it or not, they are urged to go down the American road. A year ago the Italian government, under Silvio Berlusconi, made the first attempt to dismantle the country’s pension plan. Frightened by huge popular demonstrations, it retreated and reached a compromise. Now it’s France’s turn. But these French skirmishes must be seen as part of a bigger battle over the welfare state and, really, over the social shape of Europe. That’s why the conflict is, potentially, so crucial. As students raised their demands, as the strike spread through the public services and beyond, as tempers rose with the stakes, the one obvious link with 1968 was the slogan famous at the time: Ce n’est qu’un début… Clearly, ’tis but a beginning.