Black Tuesday and the Communists

That’s what they were calling it on Monday — the planned nationwide protests scheduled for Tuesday, March 28th.  Inter-city transport in Paris was pretty heavily affected, but not the metro.  I was able to move all around Paris yesterday without problems, although the trains were running somewhat more slowly.  I decided not to visit any of the manifestations, because there had been some unsavory elements (casseurs, or violent demonstrators) hanging around the previous ones, stealing peoples’ bags.  This time, demonstrations went off without serious incidents.  The mainstream, peaceful protesters (very quietly) collaborated with the police to nip the casseurs in the bud.   

According to today’s papers, the organizers claim up to 3 millions protesters, and even the police put the figure at more than a million all over France, making this one of the biggest protests in French history.  It’s impossible to tell how the government will react.  Publicly, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin continues to insist that he’s willing to adjust the law, but not to withdraw it outright, which is what the protesters and unions demand.  They’ve scheduled another day of protest for April 4 if the law hasn’t been withdrawn by then.

Here’s a reasonably balanced wrap-up of some of the international press coverage, courtesy of the Washington Post:

[The protestors] are living in a fantasy land, says [conservative American] columnist Steven Pearlstein. "Rather than supporting the reforms that might generate more jobs and more income," he says the protesters "have bought into the nostalgic fantasy of a France that once was, but can never be again."

In the French media, the discussion is less disdainful, more anguished. The new law enabling employers to fire workers less than 26 years old without cause during the first years of employment has plenty of supporters, especially among the right of center news sites like Le Figaro (in French).

At leftist news sites like the Liberation (in French), observers acknowledge that France needs to reform its social model but cannot figure out how to do so.

But even those commentators who favor the new law (known by its French acronym CPE) are less dismissive of the student strikers and more critical of the government than U.S. counterparts. The BBC’s translation of opinion from French commentators found widespread criticism of the government of Dominique Villepin for implementing the law in a high-handed way.

Here’s a blog written in English by French-speakers, on a website called lib.com (for "libertarian communist" (!)), which provides detailed coverage and links from a perspective sympathetic to the students.

I met with a French friend of mine yesterday, a very smart fellow who’s sympathetic to the students.  He had a lot of interesting things to say about how the Left views the issues.

The most visible institution of the French left is surely the Parti Communiste Français (or PCF).  It’s not violent or subversive.  They participate in elections, and even have a website.  Their share of the vote fluctuates wildly, averaging around 10-15% (much lower recently).  They’re not all grumpy, pissed-off radicals; in fact there’s a PCF storefront near my hotel, where friendly people hand out literature and pamphlets and explain their ideas.  In his wonderful 1982 book The French, the English historian Theodore Zeldin devotes an entire chapter, and more, to the PCF.  Coming from a country that has no ideological left-wing political parties, I’ve always found the question of how hard-left parties operate in parliamentary democracies interesting. 

According to Zeldin, The PCF draws its support not only from traditional French distrust of capitalism, but from its effectiveness in building an alternative social world for those excluded from France’s hierarchical, incestuous "official" status networks.  You joined the PCF not necessarily because you were a convinced revolutionary, but because you come from a working-class family and feel intimidated or condescended to by your boss, or because you’re a recent immigrant, and feel outcast.  The PCF was one of the only social institutions in France that worked hard to be open and welcoming to all regardless of class.  It also took care of its members, organizing strikes to protect their jobs, schooling them in Marxist theory and other, more practical subjects, building community centers and even running Communist-only vacation resorts.  Come for the solidarity and inclusion, stay for the ideology and organizing!

The Communists also tried to overcome the suspicion attached to their political label by being good public servants when elected.  Communist mayors mingled with the common people, cooperated with other political actors, avoided petty corruption, and worked hard to make local government work for the people.  The PCF has participated in French governing coalitions before, and has handled serious portfolios such as transportation. 

This is not intended as a hymn of praise to the PCF — there are many unsavory chapters in its history (such as its welcoming of the Hitler-Stalin pact).  It’s intended to help to explain why sensible people might vote Communist, a choice that probably seems absurd or inexplicable to people coming from countries without any mainstream Communist parties. 

The PCF, along with France’s unions, which are very close to the PCF, is, naturally a main organizing force behind the demonstrations.  To someone on the left of the left of the French political spectrum, the demonstrations are a welcome sign of political activity among young French people.  The French "left of the left" has a pretty clear approach to globalization.  The first order of business is to work against the idea that globalization is "inevitable."  This idea is regarded by the left as part of a classic propaganda campaign — an attempt to convince people that there are simply no other options but to hastily dismantle social-welfare protections before Chinese competition crushes us. 

Of course, smart people on the left realize that France cannot hold out against the forces of internation competition forever.  They want to hold out as long as possible, however.  According to my friend, the short-run task is to fight the dismantling of the social state, and insulate the French social model as long as possible.  While that’s happening, the left needs to work on developing a workable compromise model that will enable the survival of as much of the social welfare state as possible when the walls of protection against world economic forces begin crumbling.  Right now, the best ideas on the table are a Scandinavian compromise, in which the need for workers to change jobs is recognized, but the state moderates the blow by (1) making social welfare benefits portable from job to job; and (2) restructuring assistance programs to focus not just on paying benefits to the unemployed, but helping workers train and transition as old fields of employment disappear and new ones open.

So that’s my spur-of-the moment analysis of how the left sees the situation.  Before you start commenting, please remember that I’m not personally endorsing all of these arguments; I’m just trying to give readers a fair picture of them.  I personally still find the exclusively negative tone of the demonstrations a little discouraging.  The left has made it very clear that they’re against the dreaded bogeyman of "liberalism," but when they begin talking about what they’re for, we often get a lot of woolly rhetoric about "solidarity," and precious few specific suggestions that bring the debate forward.  But perhaps that will change at some point.

In the meantime, that’s enough politics for now.  In my remaining days in Paris, it’s going to be all flamboyant Gothic cathedrals, stained-glass windows, and music.  I’ll report on that as time permits.

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