Is There a French Alternative?

Is There a French Alternative?

France used to be described, particularly in the nineteenth century, as the international laboratory in which political ideas were being tested.


France used to be described, particularly in the nineteenth century, as the international laboratory in which political ideas were being tested. This function comes back to mind as the leftish government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is facing its first serious domestic trial of strength, presiding over a tense confrontation between employers and labor unions in a conference designed to reduce the work-week from thirty-nine hours to thirty-five. The idea now being tested in France is whether it is possible–and how–to resist the repeated attempts to impose on Western Europe a new system of exploitation, based on the absolute reign of profit, the dismantling of the welfare state, the deregulation of the labor market and the growing gap between rich and poor, a system loosely called the American model. The U.P.S. strikers have shown spectacularly that the system can be tackled on its home ground. Rut one successful strike, however good for labor’s mood, does not alter the whole situation. The French experiment will show what problems must be solved and what pitfalls avoided in this common struggle over the shape of the world, of which these are still the early skirmishes.

The snag is that, judging from two recent lengthy articles on the cure in The New York Times by Roger Cohen on September 18 and 19, the reports making it back from the European front are highly biased. The bankers, businessmen and bosses who lent Cohen their insight (trade unionists were conspicuously absent) quite naturally share “the American conviction that lower taxes, deregulation, labor market flexibility and a dwindling social safety net are the route to success in the global economy.” For them, Britain is, naturally, the best pupil of the model. Indeed, the vision of Europe I derived from these pieces is one of an Italy peopled by fraudulent pensioners and a France whose employers are taking flight across the Channel, relocating to escape unbearable tax burdens (how, with their allegedly huge labor costs, the businesses have managed to be major exporters and make profits is a detail the reader is not asked to ponder).

Now, there is no doubt that social services will have to be reformed throughout Western Europe, and not just in Italy. But the problem is whether they will be improved and modernized, or drastically cut and partly privatized. Similarly, the 50 cents of social contributions that a French employer has to add to each dollar of wages, and which so shocked a stooge from Normandy quoted by Cohen, is no novelty. For years these contributions were the financial foundation of the national health system and other benefits of the welfare state, which in France and the rest of Western Europe was presented as the solution to the problems of capitalism and one of the main reasons we need not think of radically altering society. It makes perfect sense that the moneybags would welcome a substitute social contract based on the principle “unto everyone that hath, shall be given.” More relevant, however, is the reaction of the bulk of the European people. The question that Lionel Jospin has really put on the historical agenda is whether it is possible to have capitalism with a human face. (This was taken for granted throughout the so-called Golden Age, but now once more appears to be an illusion.)

For, whatever you may have read about him, Jospin is no revolutionary, and is best defined as a “normalized Socialist.” He was one of the key participants in the transformation carried out by François Mitterrand after 1983, which converted French Socialists to consensus politics and the acceptance of capitalism as the “unsurpassable horizon,” and had them join the cult of enterprise with the acceptance of globalized deregulation. But Jospin the Prime Minister is also the byproduct of the European resistance to the American model. It is not surprising that the test should be staged in Paris, because it was in France that the biggest revolt so far against the allegedly inexorable model took place, in November and December 1995. Paralyzing Paris through a transport strike and shaking the country through huge demonstrations, the French adamantly refused the future they were being offered, despite the official argument that they had no choice. That French winter of discontent, while admittedly not offering an alternative, did change the political climate. It forced the conservative government to yield to the strikers and then prompted President Jacques Chirac to gamble its fate on a snap parliamentary election this past June. It pushed the Socialists to use more radical language on Europe, privatization and immigration and thus facilitated the coalition with the Communists and the Greens. And finally, it led to the victory in the June poll of the “plural left,” headed by the Socialists. But Jospin’s basic contradiction–his acceptance of the system and his refusal of its consequences–is weighing on this government, as can be seen from its performance during the first four months in office.

In a country with some 3.1 million jobless–12.5 percent of the labor force–the main task, everyone is aware, is to bring down unemployment. The social treatment of that issue was entrusted to 47-year-old Martine Aubry, known in the past mainly for I being the daughter of Jacques Delors (former president of the European Commission) but who is fast making a name for herself as the government’s second in command in charge of employment and solidarity. It is her duty to supervise fulfillment of the government’s pledge to create 700,000 new jobs for people between the ages of 18 and 26. Half of those are to be set up in the private sector with state aid, and are yet to be defined. The 350,000 posts in the social-services sector have already been created and are being filled with junior supervisors and computer aides in schools, assistants in libraries and post offices, and all sorts of posts in community services. The contradiction emerges when Minister Aubry claims that in the long run, all these jobs will cease to be subsidized. The new hires are given five-year contracts, during which the state will provide 80 percent of the French minimum wage (now about $1,100 a month); their employer pays the difference, or more. But what will happen when state aid ends? These jobs are shaped in response to social need, while the commercial ones rest on money-backed demand. The two logics clash. Aubry, like other advocates of the so-called third sector, is unable to explain how that sector is going to survive and expand without a radical transformation of the function and organization of work in society.

The gap between electoral promise and fulfillment is widening in another initiative designed to fight unemployment, the proposed rapid reduction of the workweek to thirty-five hours. During their campaign, the Socialists suggested that while employers and labor unions would be allowed to discuss specifics, the government would provide the legal framework, offering nationally binding rules and a fixed timetable. As the date of the government conference–October 10–approached, the employers began to raise objections. They did not mind reductions if those were flexible and calculated on an annual, not a weekly, basis; and if the process were negotiated case by case, without national rules or time limits. The hesitations of the government were revealed when Jospin, in a Le Monde interview, suddenly stated that the slogan “Thirty-five hours paid thirty-nine” was not his, as it was “anti-economic.” But he also said in the same interview that he was in favor of the thirty-five-hour week “without loss of income.” These verbal acrobatics strengthened the impression that the government might be ready to yield to employers unless labor reaction forced it to keep its pledge.

Signs of retreat can also be discerned on the privatization front. The Socialists proclaimed they would be “undogmatic” on the subject, which in this instance meant that they would not follow the fashion of denationalizing industries. Now one is entitled to doubts on the subject. True, the chairman of Air France, a big state company, did resign, allegedly on the ground that he was not allowed to sell at once a majority stake in is an open secret that Air France is not yet profitable be sold, and the Communist transportation minister has now accepted the principle of the sale of a minority stake. More perturbing still is the volte-face on the French telecommunications giant France Télécom. In response to appeals by labor unions, which have the support of the majority of the employees, the Socialists promised to reverse the proposed privatization plan. After a pause in office, it reversed its reversal. Now, in the juiciest privatization deal so far, the government should get some $7.1 billion for 22.5 percent of the company’s shares sold to the public and another 2.5 percent sold to the staff. (Later, about 7.5 percent will be swapped with Deutsche Telekom, its privatized German equivalent.) The government can argue that what really matters, in a case like that of Air France, is that the state will preserve a controlling interest. But the suspicion that this is the thin edge of the wedge is based on the fact that the French left no longer seems to conceive of the nationalized sector as a place where labor is organized differently or as an instrument for a different economic policy. How can a public sector thrive if it has no logic of its own?

Yet how can France develop such a logic within the free-trade framework of the European Union? Here, in fairness, it must be admitted that Jospin never concealed his acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty or his support of Europe’s common currency, the euro. But this acceptance was qualified by serious reservations, two of them particularly significant. Jospin maintained that he was not bound by the deflationary “stability pact,” added to Maastricht under German pressure, which extended a budget-deficit limit of 3 percent of G.D.P. on member nations till doomsday, with penalties for breaches, thus ruling out any Keynesian attempts at economic stimulus. He also argued that since Europe will now have a joint central bank, it must have some form of “government” to control its activity. Once in office, these splendid resolutions vanished. At his first European meeting in Amsterdam in June, Jospin lifted his veto on the stability pact in exchange for a mere face-saving device, the promise of a conference (to be held in Luxembourg) to see how the European Union can fight unemployment and not exclusively inflation. As to the central bank, what started as a proposal to set up an instrument of control will produce at best a toothless organ of consultation due to German insistence on the bank’s total independence. On its own, France could not move mountains, say the official pleaders. But a Socialist government could have come up with concrete, popular proposals by appealing, if necessary, to the people of Europe above the heads of their governments.

I, in turn, may be painting a distorted, because too bleak, picture. Actually, the “plural left” French government is doing well. With a slight economic recovery–including a pickup in exports–it has proved easier than expected to fulfill the Maastricht criteria. The budget deficit will hit the 3 percent target in 1998 and should be only fractionally higher this year. The government reached this objective in decent progressive fashion, raising the tax on big corporations, whose profits are so fat they cannot scream too loudly, and shifting the tax burden slightly from earned to unearned income. Nothing spectacular, but since not much was expected from this government, Jospin is, for the moment, fairly popular. To explain why I am, nevertheless, hinting that the various concessions mentioned above are signs of potential surrender, we shall now have to switch from the issue of unemployment to that of immigration.

Immigration is a hot potato the Socialists do not like to handle, on the unproven assumption that a liberal attitude on the matter is electorally a losing proposition. This is why, despite demands from various associations, Jospin for a long time refused to promise that if he won, he would abolish the anti-immigrant laws bearing the names of conservative former interior ministers. The latest, the Debré law, was clearly introduced this year by Chirac as part of his electoral strategy: Immigrant bashing was supposed to woo the voters from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and put the Socialists in an awkward position. What nobody bargained for was that this obvious pandering to Le Pen at a time when his party had conquered a town hall in southern France would provoke one of those rare outbursts of moral indignation. Several hundred thousand people signed a petition stating that they would disobey the law, which incidentally required that the French act as informers and report to the government the departure of foreign guests. When, spontaneously, without any party infrastructure, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Paris, Jospin was sufficiently impressed to promise, belatedly, that his government would “abrogate the Pasqua and Debré laws.” It is this pledge that he now refuses to keep, although he has agreed to alter the laws by eliminating their worst features. The difference is both symbolic and significant. It makes one believe that, unless it is pushed strongly, this government is not ready to take risks; keen on consensus, it is likely to retreat, to yield, to seek compromise.

Two conclusions may be drawn on the prospects for this government. One is highly pessimistic: that it will go the way of all Socialist flesh–betray its promises and its principles, demobilize the movement and, by disappointing even limited hopes, pave the way for a backlash. There is also a more open-ended and perhaps more realistic conclusion: Nothing is yet frozen. If the labor unions show muscle, official policy on wages and working hours will take a different shape. Should the French people seize the political stage again, as they did in 1995, the Greens would remember that they did not enter government just to stop one nuclear reactor; Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the Interior Minister, would recall that he once was a Maastricht-monger; and the Communists would be mindful that sitting in ministerial offices is not a virtue in itself. Above all, the Socialists would be reminded that the sinister Le Pen, rather than the clumsy Chirac, would benefit most from their failure.

Thus the future of this government is uncertain. But you can already draw from the French experience two lessons for the common struggle against the American model. One is that politics is not simply casting a ballot every few years, nor does it all happen at the top. The Teamsters and Télécom, the daily battles in factories and offices, in hospitals and shops or on campuses, the struggles at the grass roots, do shape the course of events. But the second lesson is that if we want those movements from below to unite and really matter, we must forge a common project, reinvent the vision of a different world. For it is increasingly plain that if we wish to live in an environment with a human face, it is imperative to look beyond the confines of our really existing societies.

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