March 28th 2006: French workers and youth mobilise on a scale never seen since 1968

Today’s strikes and demonstrations brought over three million workers onto the streets of France, with 700,000 marchers in Paris and 250,000 in Marseille. In the last 60 years, this movement has only been equalled by those of the revolutionary events of May and June 1968. It is provoking serious divisions right at the top of the ruling class, a clear symptom of revolutionary developments.

The strikes and demonstrations which took place on March 28th represent one of the most powerful expressions of mass action in the entire history of the French working class. Over three million workers took to the streets all over France, with 700,000 marchers in Paris and 250,000 in Marseille. Neither the demonstration of May 13th 2003 against the attacks on pensions by the Raffarin government, nor even that against the “Juppé plan” on December 12th 1995, were anything like as impressive as this. Throughout the last 60 years, this movement has only been equalled by those of the revolutionary events of May and June 1968.

This was the fourth and by far the most successful day of action in protest against the Contrat première embauche (CPE), which is an attempt, on the part of the De Villepin government, to reduce young workers to little more than slaves, to be hired and fired according to the whims of employers. Under the terms of this new type of labour contract, employers no longer need to give any reason or explanation for sacking employees under 26 years old. Joining a union, falling sick, or the slightest complaint will mean immediate dismissal.

This outrageous provocation has unleashed a storm of popular protest, strike action, university occupations, school students demonstrations, and also — on the part of the enraged and desperate youth of the poorest districts in and around the largest towns and cities — to a new wave of rioting. Attacks against the police, and in particular against the hated brigades of the CRS, have taken place throughout the country. Clearly, the ruling class is losing its hold upon society. It is difficult to say whether this movement will reach the scale of that of 1968. For the moment, however, events are definitely moving in that direction. The eyes of the workers of the entire world should now be fixed on the events in France. We are standing before the prospect of a pre-revolutionary situation as an immediate possibility. If the government backs down and abandons the CPE, it may still be able to avoid the approaching cataclysm. If it tries to resist — as the initial reaction of De Villepin to the events of the day would seem to indicate — it may well find that events will take such a turn that even the withdrawal of the CPE will not suffice.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the splits opening up in the ruling class is the behaviour of Nicolas Sarkozy, the present Interior Minister. This rabid reactionary upstart has spent years forging his reputation as protagonist of implacable, uncompromising action in the interests of the rich and powerful. The more hesitant representatives of the ruling class who — through fear of provoking a social explosion — have tended to postpone or soften the blows directed against the workers have been subjected to the most scathing criticism from the “strong man” Sarkozy. And yet this same man has publicly turned against De Villepin, who now stands accused of having been too dogmatic and too uncompromising. There is more to this division than the personal rivalry between Sarkozy and De Villepin. Sarkozy is giving voice to the very real fears of the capitalists, who can see that the situation is spiralling out of control. History has given them good reason to fear the militant and revolutionary traditions of the French workers.

The leadership of the Socialist Party, under intense pressure from below, has repeatedly asserted that it will immediately scrap the CPE if the left wins the next elections, to be held in March 2007, if events do not bring them on sooner. From the point of view of the capitalists, therefore, by its stubborn insistence on the CPE, the government — their government! — is taking the risk of a repetition of 1968 for the sake of a measure which will be abolished in any case in less than a year from now. The MEDEF, which represents the interests of big business in France, has also tried to distance itself from the government. Such divisions are in themselves a classical symptom of a developing pre-revolutionary crisis. Should the schism at the top of society widen any further, and break out into an open conflict, this will be taken as a sign that the existing order has lost its balance, and will open the floodgates for a movement from below.

The “moderate” Socialist leaders have no alternative but to take a clear stand against the CPE. Even the treacherous leader of the CFDT, François Chérèque, who in 2003 cynically betrayed the struggle against the pensions reform by signing an agreement with the government within hours of the May 13th demonstration of that year, has been obliged to adopt an uncharacteristically militant posture. The CGT, the CFDT, FO, and all the political and trade union organisations of the workers are being pushed sharply to the left.

Over the next few days, the ruling class on the one side, and the workers and youth on the other, will be drawing a balance sheet of the events of the last month, and in particular of the strikes and demonstrations of March 28th. President Chirac has been keeping a fairly low profile until now. He may intervene and order the government to retreat. That would be a devastating blow to the latter, which was only installed nine months ago, after the dismissal of the discredited Raffarin government. However, if the need to conserve governmental prestige should lead Chirac into maintaining the CPE, the intensity of the struggle between the classes is likely to be raised to an even higher level.

March 28th will have served to strengthen the morale and the fighting spirit of the workers and youth. They can see that their enemies are in difficulty, and are beginning to fight among themselves. That is a highly dangerous state of affairs from the point of view of the ruling class. In any case, whatever the immediate outcome of the present struggle, France is clearly heading towards a new and gigantic revolutionary upheaval, which will shake the whole of Europe, and indeed the entire world. 

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