In April 1968 workers at a factory of Sud Aviation in Nantes, France, began a strike to protest the decision by the company to cut their hours and wages. A month later, they decided to lock themselves--and their boss--inside the plant. They were soon joined by leftist students, a turning point that transformed a series of youth protests into a nationwide social movement that nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle.
Four decades later, de Gaulle's heir, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is facing massive street demonstrations, a rash of "boss-nappings" and the resurgence of the far left. To be sure, no new French revolution is in sight. But Sarkozy, whose popularity has eroded sharply since his election in May 2007, has warned of France's "eruptive" nature and is careful to remind his fellow citizens constantly that the main culprits of the economic meltdown are Wall Street, greedy bosses and tax havens--not him.
His concern is not so much the two massive one-day demonstrations, in January and March, against the crisis. Or that for the first time since World War II, all major trade unions will march together instead of separately during the May 1 Labor Day celebration. Rather, for someone who won the presidency two years ago on a law-and-order platform, the resurgence of radical actions is far more unsettling. On March 12, the CEO of Sony France was held by workers in a plant that was about to close; he was released the next day after agreeing to pay more generous severance packages. Since then, employees of a 3M pharmaceutical factory held an executive overnight after layoffs were announced for nearly half of them. In addition, three British executives in a Scapa Group adhesive-tape plant; the bosses at Faure et Machet, a printer plant that lost its contract with Hewlett-Packard; and two managers at the US car equipment plant Molex have been "sequestered," according to the authorities--"withheld" in trade-union parlance. At the US-owned Caterpillar plant near Grenoble, workers protesting a plan to sack more than 700 of them blocked the entrance for four days, until they were granted a meeting at the Ministry of the Economy.
Most of those actions have targeted local executives who have little say on the global strategy of the large companies they work for. The only instance of a highflying executive being forced to face the wrath of his underlings was the time luxury-brand magnate François-Henri Pinault's car was briefly surrounded by salesclerks angry about layoffs in his stores, an incident captured by TV cameras.
Sarkozy has strongly criticized such actions as unlawful, although the authorities have refrained from prosecuting the perpetrators. The reason is simple: at least half the French public supports or understands these tactics, according to the polls. But whereas holding executives, invading facilities and violent scuffles between workers and the police were routine from the late '60s to the mid-'70s, today's rerun is far more limited--in scope and in meaning.
"In the '70s, those movements were backed by a political offer on the left that included a program of nationalizations, planned economy and self-management, i.e., a break with market economy," says Guy Groux, an expert on labor relations at the Center for Political Research here in Paris. "Today there is no political alternative; workers are just trying to bargain over layoffs and severance pay."
Antoine Lyon-Caen, a professor of comparative labor law at the University of Nanterre, the birthplace of the student movement in 1968, sees the sequestrations as a telling metaphor. "It's a way to oblige the employers to actually face their employees, to look them in the eyes. There is no escape," Lyon-Caen said. "It so happens that capitalism is on the run right now, and so it is a way to oblige its representatives to see the reality it has wrought."
The outcry over the excesses of financial capitalism has even reached private-sector employees, including at the managerial level. "This is new," according to Jean-François Bolzinger, a senior official with the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), a leading union that was for decades affiliated with the Communist Party. "We are seeing management people inform us about what companies intend to do, especially when it comes to moving factories abroad. Just imagine, those guys are talking to the CGT!"
Jean Kaspar, who started working as an electrical mechanic in a potassium mine at 14, vividly remembers the couple of hours, back in the 1970s, during which he and his comrades locked the factory boss in his office "because he did not want to discuss." Kaspar, who eventually became the head of the leading French Democratic Labor Confederation (CFDT) trade union in the late '80s, notes that the current "withholdings" are undertaken mostly by low-skilled and aging workers in areas suffering from high unemployment--in other words, people for whom finding another job is unlikely and going on strike not much of an option because they are stretched financially.
For Kaspar, who heads a consulting firm specializing in labor issues, the incidents illustrate the breakdown of social dialogue in many companies. "Worker reps should be associated early on with the decision-making process rather than asked to swallow orders and try to mediate their consequences," he said. Moreover, the contrast between the litany of layoff plans and the daily revelations about inflated bonuses and golden parachutes has added fuel to the fire. So has Sarkozy's refusal to budge on some of the free-market policies he put in place. The most symbolic is the so-called fiscal shield, which limits the level of taxation to 50 percent. Sarkozy has for now brushed off calls, even from his own camp, to repeal or amend this measure, which clearly favors the wealthy.
Sarkozy counters that the crisis is a US import and that France's vaunted social safety net has helped the country fare better than its neighbors. And he knows that unlike the massive strikes and demonstrations in 1995, 2003 and 2006, which were focused on specific issues (retirements, job programs), the current street mobilizations have no clear objective and thus pose no threat. He is pinning his hopes on a quick end to the recession and on major trade unions channeling the discontent in an orderly way.
"Sarkozy is playing for time and is betting that people will get tired of the social protests, just like Maggie Thatcher did in the 1980s," says Isabelle Sommier, a sociology professor at the Sorbonne. "But this is a very risky strategy, because we are sitting on a volcano."
In addition to factory shutdowns and sequestrations, a movement of university professors and researchers protesting a reform of their status has unfolded since February, with little input from trade unions. As a result their actions have taken decidedly original forms. For instance, a group of professors from a Paris university are giving "classes" to subway passengers. In front of the Paris City Hall, academics, students and sympathizers have been walking in circles nonstop since March 24 in what they call the "infinite circle of the obstinate." They are taking a page from Italian filmmaker and leftist militant Nanni Moretti, who in 2002 organized girotondi around official buildings to call for justice and denounce the government of Silvio Berlusconi. Professors and students have also held multiple marathon public readings of La Princesse de Clèves, a classic of seventeenth-century romantic literature written by Madame de Lafayette, a tongue-in-cheek response to Sarkozy, who last year tartly remarked that he found reading the book a drag and thought it a waste of time for those preparing to enter government service.
Another original form of action are the "wild picnics" staged by activists, who enter a supermarket, unfold a table and begin eating from the shelves until they are ousted by security personnel. Their goal is to protest the high food prices asked by large distribution chains. The association behind those monthly happenings is close to the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), launched a few months ago by a smallish Trotskyite group in an effort to become the standard-bearer of the far left. Riding the coattails of its young and charismatic leader, Olivier Besancenot, who splits his time between his political activities and working as a postman, the NPA is having a field day, thanks to Lehman Brothers. CEOs have indeed become fair game for most of the French, including Sarkozy, who routinely rails against "gangster thugs."
Ingrid Hayes, a member of the NPA's executive committee, explains that its model of social upheaval is the recent general strike over wages in Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the French Antilles, which ended up forcing the government to compromise with workers. "We know we can't replicate it here for now, but this is what we are seeking," Hayes says.
Besancenot spends a lot of time in factories across the country lending support to strikers and never misses an opportunity to remind his audiences that he himself was on a picket line for several weeks to oppose the privatization of the national postal service. This has struck a nerve among unions, which see factories as their turf. François Chérèque, head of the CFDT, lashed out at the NPA, claiming the party was behaving a "little bit like vultures." NPA officials counter that they are not encroaching on union territory but merely offering bolder responses to the situation.
In broader terms, the party views the social unrest as a quintessentially political moment that deserves a political response--not merely an isolated strike or a street demonstration. "Trade unions are not opening perspectives, and this is not good enough for the more combative sectors," explains Hayes. "We are mindful of the independence of the unions, but we reject the notion of a waterproof separation between the political and the social arenas."
Besancenot, who has replaced the fading Communist Party as the leading force of the "left of the left," is also benefiting from the constant squabbling and weak leadership of the Socialist Party. In this regard, he sees eye to eye with Sarkozy, who is following a strategy that bears a striking resemblance to the cynical game played by his predecessor François Mitterrand twenty-five years ago. At that time, the Socialist president quietly encouraged the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front in an effort to weaken his conservative enemies. Just as Mitterrand warned against the rebirth of the dark forces of fascism but profited from it politically, Sarkozy is denouncing the looming danger of a violent ultraleft as a way to cripple the Socialists. He has, for instance, associated Besancenot with the violent incidents that surrounded the NATO summit in early April. His government also dismantled a group of leftist anarchists who, they alleged, perpetrated a series of crude explosive attacks on the overhead power cables of railway lines. To be sure, the postman-politician fiercely rants against Sarkozy. But at the same time, Besancenot relishes the publicity. "We won't complain that we are polarizing the political situation," says Hayes.
While the NPA is quick to dampen any expectation that it will crack the 10 percent ceiling for the first time in the June elections for the European Parliament (Besancenot received just above 4 percent in the 2007 presidential poll), the party is obviously banking on the tense social climate to help its performance. While those elections are traditionally marked by low turnout, they can be a steppingstone. In the 1984 European elections, Le Pen garnered almost 11 percent of the vote, the first time he had reached double digits. He would go on to match this performance in nearly all ensuing elections, reaching an apex in the presidential poll of 2002, when he obtained 17 percent and beat the Socialist candidate to reach the second round (where he was trounced by the Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac). Ironically, the aging far-right leader is leaving the political scene, bequeathing his nasty blend of nationalist and racist discourse to his daughter Marine. She has tried to tap into the social discontent by reviving the populist stances that enabled the National Front to seduce part of the lower middle class over the years. Some observers predict that the far right will actually end up gaining if violent acts multiply and intensify. In this case, Sarkozy certainly hopes to capture their votes as he did in 2007 and emulate de Gaulle, who was eventually able to turn the tide in 1968 by riding a wave of outrage over the paralysis of the country.
Sarkozy might not like classic French literature, but he knows his contemporary history: it took another thirteen years after the May '68 events before a Socialist became president.