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.