Tenacious and combative strikes in the public services, millions of demonstrators on the streets, broad support from public opinion: last December’s events in France were a lot more than a strike, indeed it is no exaggeration to call them an uprising by the working, producing, caring, teaching population. For the past several years political pundits and sociologists have been announcing, somewhat carelessly, that conflict had given way to consensus and the classes had dissolved in the grey mass of untrammelled individualism. The clocks have now been set right: class struggle continues and collective action is not a thing of the past.
The popular eruption was fuelled by deep exasperation. People had endured a lot while awaiting a promised tomorrow that, like the horizon, remained forever out of reach. They had wanted to believe in automatic and irreversible progress, but had suddenly discovered, for the first time in fifty years, that the next generation would probably have a harder time than its predecessors.
Behind the December movement’s specific and sectoral demands, its driving force lay in this massive rejection of a future which is no longer a future. It quickly became apparent that the strikers were fighting on everyone’s behalf and that their aspirations placed a choice by society on the immediate agenda. They were struggling to resuscitate hope.
They were also expressing a loss of confidence in rulers and elected politicians, and a wish to be self-reliant. What is described as a parliamentary or political crisis looks, in reality, more like a disarray in democracy itself. The speeches of presidents and ministers, who do the opposite of what they say, are no longer believed. It is no longer possible to tell who is responsible for what, or where the real centres of decision are, what with the national state, the Brussels commission—and soon perhaps the European Bank—and the prerogatives yielded up to international institutions like the World Trade Organization. If the impersonal power of mysterious ‘financial markets’ must inevitably predominate, then it is no wonder that people feel under-represented and the public domain seems drained of democratic substance.
Confronted with the total breakdown of politics, the social movement quite naturally took charge of its own destiny. There is a striking contrast between the movement’s power and the absence of a political alternative. But, paradoxically, the absence of a governmental solution also meant freedom from the electoral scheming and slippery manoeuvres that so often inhibited struggles in the past.
The spark that ignited the powder-keg was the Juppé plan for reform of the social-welfare system. The Prime Minister presented this plan to the National Assembly, without any preliminary public discussion, as an emergency measure to save a welfare system threatened by its accumulated debt of 240 billion francs and an annual deficit running at 60 billion francs. This hurried reform was presented as the first element of a ‘coherent’ policy. Although the government soon claimed that a failure of communication had caused its intentions to be misunderstood, wage-earners understood perfectly what was meant by this alleged ‘coherence’. Apart from some fairly vague tinkering with health policy, the initial version of the plan contained three sound motives for dissent.
First, contrary to Chirac’s promises during the election campaign, the plan was built around an increase in fiscal pressure on wages and household incomes—including those of the retired and unemployed. The proposals for 1996 are eloquent: wage earners are supposed to provide an extra 40 billion francs to finance the social-security deficit, while companies are only expected to provide five billion—half of that coming from pharmaceutical firms. The Juppé plan also instituted a new tax starting this year, the rds (Remboursement de la dette sociale, repayment of the social debt), which was supposed to apply to all incomes but in practice would weigh most heavily on working-class living standards. This made it immediately apparent that the plan was deeply unjust.