"Existence… resistance." "Who sows misery reaps rage." It was with such slogans that some 15,000 highly determined unemployed and their companions marched through this city on January 17. There were similar demonstrations in Marseilles, Toulouse and a host of provincial towns, and they were repeated ten days later. Remembering the winter of 1995-96, when the capital was paralyzed and the whole country shaken by mass marches, you may be unimpressed. Yet what is happening now is both a sequel to that winter of discontent and a historic event of its own. For the first time since the thirties in the Western world, the jobless are entering the political stage not as the object of debate but as actors in their own drama, and they show no intention of leaving it.
Whom do the marchers represent? France’s 3 million unemployed? Its 7 million "contingent" and precarious workers? The many more worried about their fate? The movement started at the end of last year with the occupation of employment and welfare offices and the demand of a $500 Christmas bonus for all. Commentators then stressed that, dispersed as they are, the jobless are very difficult to mobilize. What we now discover is that once they are involved, they have plenty of time, nothing to lose and in fact feel a recovered dignity in the struggle. If the stories suddenly intruding in the press or on television about hard times on about $400 a month (once the regular unemployment benefits have run out) are each unique in distress, singular in pain, they bear a common message: We want to work, but you in the establishment are responsible for this jobless society, and as long as you can’t provide employment, you must give us a decent living allowance. The movement is now asking for a complete overhaul of the jungle of benefits and a substantial increase in the minimum allowances.
The left-wing government is torn by this unexpected offensive. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is a normalized Socialist who plays according to the established rules of the game, like Tony Blair or Bill Clinton; his acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty and its stability pact cutting budget deficits for a unified currency is proof of that. On the other hand, his government is a product of that winter of 1995, when the protesters refused to take "There is no alternative" for an answer, without which there would have been no early election. Jospin proposes to give some money to the main victims now and put off the general revision till next year. The jobless reply that poverty has no time to spare. One of the ditties chanted by the marchers ended with: "All they have, they have stolen from us; share wealth, share work or it will all blow up."
Jospin could be tempted to direct the wrath of the movement against the employers, who are fighting a fierce battle against the thirty-five-hour week, except that he wants to reach an agreement with them. Besides, two partners in his governing coalition, the Communists and the Greens, are openly siding with the unemployed. To complete the picture, the French people, instead of cursing the "lazybones and scroungers," are once again on the side of the victims. Indeed, judging by opinion polls, sympathy for the jobless has risen from 63 percent to 70 percent.
Crazy Frogs, clinging to the past and unable to face the realities of our globalized world? What if the patronizing foreign commentary has it wrong, and what is being fought here is not the battle of yesterday but of tomorrow? After all, the workers’ message is quite relevant to our present predicament. It points to the cruel absurdity of a system in which technological progress does not mean more leisure and greater comforts for all but mass-produces more jobless and more working poor, the spreading immiseration looking ever more obscene by contrast with the growing wealth. On January 13, Paris celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Émile Zola’s J’accuse, the splendid revolt of a great writer against one case of injustice, perpetrated against the innocent Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus. It is an author of Shakespearean stature that we now need to spread the message of the French jobless across the world, to write the indictment of a system capable of producing cases of cruel social injustice by the million.