France, 55 years after May 68

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By VALERIO ARCARY*

The movement against pension reform is no longer just a fight against raising the minimum age

“The secret to walking on water is knowing where the rocks are” (Chinese folk wisdom).

On Tuesday, March 28th, the tenth national day of struggle took place in France. In more than two hundred cities, hundreds of thousands once again took to the streets. The strike by the street cleaners, Paris urban cleaning workers, was interrupted, but in the refineries the strike is widespread and the lack of fuel is getting worse. Student mobilization, both in terms of their presence at demonstrations and the number of schools blocked, more than 500, one in every five high schools.

The resistance force is led by the unions and leftist organizations, with an increase in sympathy for Jean Luc Mélenchon's Insubmissive France, and is reminiscent of the popular impulse of May 68, but without the power of the general strike for an indefinite period, that is, the revolutionary determination to fight to win, which makes a huge difference. Another huge difference is the growing influence of Marine Le Pen's extreme right. Even so, the impasse remains, but it is the Elisabeth Borne government that is on the defensive, despite having survived last week's vote of no confidence in the National Assembly.

The movement against pension reform is no longer limited to a fight against raising the minimum age from 62 to 64 years. What is in dispute is whether workers' social rights will be sacrificed, while France, the European Union's greatest military power, harassed by US pressure on NATO, approves a budget that prioritizes rearmament, due to the new situation precipitated by the war in Ukraine.

The outcome of the fight remains open. It is possible to win. But to defeat Emmanuel Macron, it will be necessary to go beyond street protests. The challenge is the general strike. But insecurity still prevails in the working class, after many years of accumulated partial defeats. Rebuilding broad unity among the working masses and regaining confidence in one's own strengths is the key to daring to win.

Evidently, a victory for Emmanuel Macron and, consequently, social demoralization, would facilitate the way for the extreme right to gain power. Faced with the weakening of Macron's center-right, the strategic challenge is posed: leftist government or fascists, Mélenchon or Le Pen?

Emmanuel Macron's fate looks bleak. The adjustment should have been made in 2020, and was only postponed due to the emergency precipitation of the covid-19 pandemic. Pressured by the majority of the bourgeoisie to make the adjustment, immediately, a year after his re-election, he plunged the Fifth Republic regime by resorting to the decree, threatened with losing the vote in the National Assembly.

In May 1968, fifty-five years ago, France was the scene of a new phenomenon in post-war Europe: a political general strike despite the leadership of the unions and against the leadership of the PS and the PCF, that is, a essentially spontaneous process of anti-authoritarian worker-popular rebellion. It was argued at length that the masses did not want to do in the Paris of 1968, a Petrograd of 1917. In the French May, as in all the revolutionary processes of history, the masses did not launch themselves into the fight with a preconceived plan of how would like society to be. French students and workers knew, however, that they wanted to overthrow de Gaulle. Overthrowing the government is the central act of every modern revolution.

How to explain the social explosion in France in May 1968? The time for the economic crisis that marked the end of the growth of the “glorious” thirty years had not yet arrived. And the defeat in the terrible war in Algeria was behind them. The first acts of great historical dramas often seem trivial. Class struggle in Europe took a predictable and relatively stable form after the defeat of the four-week general strike in Belgium in 1961. Even in France, after the end of the Algerian war, it followed a restrained rhythm: struggles, essentially , defensive, and protests of modest dimensions, which brought together small vanguards.

However, it only took a few arrests after an act in solidarity with the resistance in Vietnam for the trigger of an avalanche to be triggered. Afterwards, just over a hundred students from the University of Paris-X, in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, occupied the University Council room. The student movement was engaged in a campaign against higher education reform. But they were not indifferent to the spectacular repercussions of the Tet Offensive, which managed to hoist the Viet Cong flag on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

The occupation extended to the Sorbonne, and the reactionary and arrogance of Charles De Gaulle's government – ​​an always explosive mixture – led him to commit the provocation of throwing the police over the Latin Quarter (the Latin Quarter of Paris, in the heart of the capital). They were unable, despite an apocalyptic pitched battle, to dislodge the mass of students defending themselves in improvised barricades. The spirit of the revolutionary days of 1848 and 1871 seemed to have been resurrected. A new student movement took to the streets in 1968 and, surprisingly, their flags were red.

When the repression showed the true face of the De Gaulle government – ​​and, without a mask, what was seen was appalling –, the students went to the doors of the factories to ask for the support of the proletariat. They thrilled France and stunned the world. They fired the spirit of the popular majority with their political imagination. They subverted Paris. The walls of the city, which was the cultural capital of bourgeois civilization, were covered with graffiti that were at once irreverent and rebellious, satirical and riotous, such as: merchandise is the opium of the people, revolution is the ecstasy of history; Be realistic, demand the impossible! (Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible!); Let's leave the fear of red to animals with horns! (Laissonz la peur du rouge aux bêtes à cornes!) Run comrade, the old world is after you! (Cours camarade, the world is derriére toi!); Walls have ears, your ears have walls! (Les murs ont des oreilles, vos oreilles ont des murs!); Respect is lost, don't go looking for it! (Le respect se perd, n'allez pas le rechercher!).

A few days later, something like a million people paraded through the streets of Paris in solidarity with the students and against the government. It was a political earthquake that announced that a tsunami was about to arrive: the country went on an indefinite general strike, therefore, a political general strike, but a headless one, without a proposal for a political way out of the crisis.

The movement did not even raise a clear proposal to overthrow the government. The French Communist Party was one of the most powerful in the world. Its hegemony in the organized working class was almost monolithic. And the Communist Party leadership was committed to the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and the division of areas of influence. Any expectation of regeneration of the Stalinist apparatus was buried in May 1968 in Paris. It was an irrefutable historical lesson. Bureaucratic apparatuses, even when implanted in the working class, are irrecoverable.

Not by chance, at the height of the process, Charles De Gaulle fled to a French military air base in Baden-Baden in Germany. Historians traditionally divide the May 1968 course into three phases, a “student period” from May 3 to May 13; a “social period” from 13th to 27th May (date of the Grenelle agreements, negotiated between Pompidou, the Prime Minister and the union leaders, but rejected at the base), and a “political period” from 27th May to 30th June (date of the legislative elections).

Upon returning from Baden-Baden, Charles De Gaulle resumed the initiative by decreeing the dissolution of the National Assembly and calling elections. A reactionary Gaullist tide, expressing the reaction of deep petty-bourgeois France against the red Paris, guarantees a victory for the regime in the early elections of June 30th. The strikes gradually cease during June, and the Sorbonne in Paris is evacuated by the police.

This is not 1968, Macron is not de Gaulle, the French working class comes from a long period of slow but uninterrupted accumulation of loss of rights, and the main political and social opposition force is the extreme right.

But how can we not be moved by hundreds of thousands parading through Paris, supported by tens of millions, singing the Internationale and raising red flags?

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo).

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