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Wake up, Sarko

As two million demonstrators proved last month, the French are furious, and not only about losing th

There have been many strikes and demonstrations in France since Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in May 2007, but none reached the two million mark like the one on 29 January. For a whole day, more than 200 demonstrations were organised throughout France. By lunchtime, one million people had marched, with the first-estimate figures impressive enough: 200,000 in the streets of Marseilles, 80,000 in Toulouse, 30,000 in Bordeaux, 20,000 in Orléans and Clermont-Ferrand. At 2pm, in the centre of Paris, huge crowds were gathering to walk towards République and end the protest in Opéra. It took six hours for the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to walk the four kilometres from Bastille to Opéra. A radicalised few, about 200 of them, wanted to push the protest up to the Elysée Palace but tear gas and heavy-handed riot police stopped them.

Some demonstrated for the first time in their

lives and many were there “en famille”

Sarkozy, deriding a long French tradition, declared last year that "nobody takes notice any more when the French take to the streets". Since his election, he has indeed been very careful to present demonstrators as privileged "dinosaurs" from the public service, cut off from reality and the concerns of "the other France", the one which, according to him, "wakes up earlier and works harder". On 29 January, the French president had to eat his words. Although organised by a united front of the country's eight main trade unions, many demonstrators from the private sector had answered the calls for a national strike and abandoned their desks to vent their anger alongside personnel from hospitals, universities, schools, public TV and radio networks, as well as lawyers, magistrates, judges, postal workers and employees from public energy utilities such as EDF.

As well as trade unions, all parties from the left had also called for people to show the government their discontent: from the Socialist and Communist parties, the Workers League and the newly baptised Trotskyite movement Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, gathered around the young and charismatic figure, Olivier Besancenot, a 34-year-old postman. The diversity of the people represented on the streets made it clear that the demonstration had mobilised every age and social group, from teenagers to elderly pensioners, from supermarket checkout workers to university professors. Some demonstrated for the first time in their lives and many were there en famille. My generation, born in the mid-Seventies, has taken part in myriad local demos and at least half a dozen grandes manifestations (above one million): in 1986 against university reforms; in 1990 against anti-Semitism after a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in Carpentras in the south of France; in 1995 against Alain Juppé's reforms; in 2002 protesting at Jean-Marie Le Pen's presence at the second round of the presidential elections.

This time, sunny weather provided a radiant backdrop to the happenings and pranks of all descriptions which characterise grandes manifestations. Everybody in the crowd might be clear on one thing - the reason they are demonstrating - but the way they express it will be varied and inventive. A woman with a black wig, red lipstick and black sunglasses personified Rachida Dati, the former minister of justice, with a placard around her neck reading "Justice à vendre". A Sarkozy impersonator held three panting youths on a leash, representing "Health", "Education" and "Media". Quotes from Victor Hugo were painted in big black letters on ten-metre-long banners: "Quand on ouvre une école, on ferme une prison." ("When a school opens, a prison closes.") Stickers with the slogan "Rêve générale" (a pun on grève générale - general strike) were everywhere.

The success of this recent action is obvious to all, though it is more difficult to say how Sarkozy will react. At the time of going to press, he was expected to address the nation on television. He is expected to say that the current economic crisis affects the whole world and not only France, and that it would be inconceivable for his government to stop its reforms in their tracks. He will undoubtedly repeat his mantra: every government before him bowed to the streets, he won't. A meeting with the trade unions is planned for 9 February, though Sarkozy has been warned: if he does not provide them with a plan to boost consumer spending and announce a freeze on public service cuts, he should brace himself for yet another general strike and another wave of demonstrations. After 29 January, trade unions now feel they have a stronger hand, plus the support of 70 per cent of the population, a percentage even higher than during the 1995 three-week strikes which lead to Juppé's resignation.

One thing Sarkozy should be aware of is that the French are furious, and not only because they fear losing their jobs. Most people are extremely critical of his ill-conceived and rushed reforms, many passed by decree in parliament. They feel that traditional counter-forces that maintain the balance of power in a democracy have been systematically weakened. For instance, in parliament, a reform that is being fought by the opposition aims to restrict the amount of time spent debating bills, limiting the ability of the opposition to question the government and propose amendments - all in the name of efficiency.

In the education sector, tens of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs. University staff are also up in arms against a reform which they claim creates unaccountability and undermines the academic ethos - that is, the idea of research free of economic constraints. Forty-five per cent of lectures given at universities were cancelled due to the professors' strikes.

There is a new mood of democracy in France. Sarkozy and his government are entering troubled waters.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times