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Is France on the verge of another May '68?

Demonstrations and strikes, uproar in the universities and the emergence of a new anti-capitalist pa

I have been living full-time in Paris for the past four years and reporting from the city for nearly 20. I have, therefore, become accustomed to frequent street protests. But I have never seen anything quite like the anger that has been building up during demonstrations over the past few months against the government of Nicolas Sarkozy. The most recent of these was a protest I attended in Montparnasse on 14 May, which was led by hospital staff angry at proposed health service reforms.

The reforms are based on the so-called “Loi Bachelot” (Bachelot law), named after Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, the politician in Sarkozy’s government who devised the health reforms and is trying to push them through the National Assembly. It rests on the principle that managers will decide the level of medical care appropriate to a particular hospital. This proposal, long familiar as a fact of life to readers in the UK, has provoked a furious reaction from all sections of French society.

Yet, on the surface, all seems well when I arrive at the demonstration: as I park my bike, a line of black and Arab nurses dances a salsa past the Métro Duroc. They are accompanied by rappers, trade unionists, an anarchist jazz band and stern, bossy matrons and white-coated psychiatrists from La Pitié – the hospital where the young Sigmund Freud attended Charcot’s lectures in psychiatry. It is a surreal snapshot of 21st-century life on the Left Bank, and all suitably festive on a warm spring morning.

But you don’t have to scratch too hard to find real rage lurking beneath the surface – a rage that motivates most of these demonstrators. “We are sick of being told we have no control over our own lives,” Rachida Ahloulay, one of the dancing nurses, tells me. “It’s not just that the government is giving managers the power over medical staff,” she says, “but it means that we are degraded as citizens. And that is why France is on the edge of a serious rebellion. Anger is everywhere!”

This kind of rhetoric is being echoed all over France: in the universities, which are now permanently blockaded by staff and students; in the railway unions; among postal workers; and even in the prison service (warders recently began a series of strikes, which had never happened in France before). Little wonder that the mainstream journal Le Nouvel Observateur recently devoted an entire issue to what it called “The French Insurrection”, or that there is now serious talk in most sections of the media of a “New May ’68” – a reprise of the strikes and riots that brought France to its knees and almost felled the government of Charles de Gaulle more than 40 years ago.

The unlikely figurehead of this new popular revolt is Olivier Besancenot, a 35-year-old postman from the outskirts of Paris. Besancenot’s boyish good looks, fashionable clothes and fluently easy manner on television have made him the nation’s favourite revolutionary. Until February of this year, he was a leading figure in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (the LCR, or Revolutionary Communist League). In what is now looking like a very smart piece of PR, the LCR was then dissolved, re-emerging as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA, or New Anti-Capitalist Party), a much broader coalition, formed with the aim of contesting the European parliamentary elections in early June.

Besancenot, who is now official spokesman for the NPA (there is no leader), commands a 60 per cent approval rating from French voters right across the political spectrum.

During the demonstration against the Loi Bachelot, I caught up with Omar Slaouti, a 42-year-old university professor of chemistry and long-standing colleague of Besancenot’s who is also the NPA’s candidate for the European elections for the Île de France region. Slaouti is slightly built, but has the streetwise slouch of the tough kid who grew up in the French suburbs. He also talks with a non-Parisian accent, which marks out his origins in the banlieue. I am told he is a big hit with the NPA girls.

I ask Slaouti whether a new May ’68 is really on the cards, or is it just hype? “In France now,” he says, “everything is worse than May ’68 in lots of ways – more unemployment, racial violence, real poverty, and so on. The French middle classes are poor, too – maybe the poorest in Europe. And that’s when things might change.”

This is the line that the NPA has been peddling ceaselessly, especially on television. It accounts for the party’s popularity with voters who would never normally associate with the extreme left. I spoke about this with Dr Bernard Granger, a professor of psychiatric medicine who is also the president of SCCAHP, the union of clinical heads and hospital assistants. This is a large, but historically moderate, grouping that has now sworn to bring the government down if the Loi Bachelot is passed.

“France is at a real crisis point,” Granger told me. “And the real issue is about control – who controls the daily lives of ordinary people. There is no issue more fundamental than health. Everybody knows if this law is passed, ordinary people will die.” This is the kind of grass-roots appeal that has kept the NPA’s bandwagon rolling across France.

It is likely that the NPA’s impact on the European elections will be statistically insignificant – the party is unlikely to garner more than 4.5 per cent of the vote; but as a cultural phenomenon its impact has been enormous. The NPA describes itself as being “from the street”: its celebrity supporters include the rapper JoeyStarr and the footballer Franck Ribéry (as well as the decidedly un-street Ken Loach). That accounts for why the NPA is the favoured political choice of more than 40 per cent of young people in France, the vast majority of them having shown no previous interest in Trotsky, but who now proudly declare their membership of Génération Olivier.

This has created problems for the parties of the left. The Parti Socialiste (PS), the biggest party on the left, is losing young voters to the NPA in large numbers, and fast. The next most important grouping on the left from an electoral point of view, the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), has tried to make headway in a coalition with the Greens called the Front de Gauche. Most young people are cynical about and bored by both parties.

“Who cares?” said Jocelyne, a Senegalese girl from the suburb of Montreuil. “It’s the same old faces – Ségolène [Royal] and her pals. They don’t care about us. They don’t know us.”

A few hours after the demonstration in Montparnasse, I watched a group of youngsters, most of them claiming allegiance to the NPA, barge their way into the entrance to the faculty building of Sciences Po on the rue de Saint-Simon, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Sciences Po is a grande école, a well-funded elite institution that has mainly stood apart from the strike action which has paralysed the rest of the higher education sector. “You rich bastards!” shout the students, under the banner of a red flag with the logo of the NPA. “Why don’t you fucking come out and join the revolution?”

The Sciences Po students, most of them in neat, preppy clothes, giggle nervously, and soon retreat behind a line of heavily armed police. Yet even here, in what has historically been a rather conservative institution, a faction of the NPA is exerting a growing influence, spreading pro­paganda, daubing the walls with situationist slogans and regularly disrupting classes.

I asked one of the militants at Sciences Po, “Frédéric” (he didn’t want to give me his real name), why he supports the NPA. “The NPA understand this generation better than anyone else,” he said. “They know that our degrees are worthless, that we have all been ripped off by capitalism, that we will never have proper jobs, that there is no future. They promise a different way, a real alternative.” What did that mean? “The NPA is a cultural revolution,” he said. “They are not afraid to challenge the basic principles of our society. That’s why they are exciting – they promise something real that we can make happen.”

Omar Slaouti echoed this. “What I find positive is that all of the energies, all of the anger in French society, are now flowing in the right direction, towards real change.” He said this to me as we walked down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, in the slipstream of the Bachelot demonstration. But was Slaouti seriously talking about revolution? “But of course. We are not scared of the word ‘revolution’ – that’s why young people love us. We are not afraid to say it. It’s the same in Greece, in Guadeloupe – everyone of the young generation can see that capitalism has failed and they are young enough to believe in an alternative.”

One thing is clear: the NPA may not change the world, but it is already changing French society. Government insiders now say that Nicolas Sarkozy has for the first time started to take an interest in history and, in particular, the history of the French Revolution. Given the incendiary climate on the streets of France, he might also do well to keep a weather eye on his own political future.

Andrew Hussey is the author of “Paris: the Secret History”, published by Penguin (£9.99)

Europe: the left of the left

Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste
(New Anti-Capitalist Party)
Country: France
Leader: Olivier Besancenot (official spokesman, pictured below)
In February 2009, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was formally disbanded and reborn as the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, with the intention of fighting the European elections in June. Aiming to unite the disparate movements of the far left, the NPA already boasts more than 9,000 registered members, compared to the 3,200 of the LCR when it was dissolved. Its official spokesman, Olivier Besancenot – the party has no leader – scored an impressive 4 per cent of votes in his two presidential campaigns, and commands an approval rating of 60 per cent among French people of all political persuasions.

Die Linke (The Left)
Country: Germany
Leaders: Oskar Lafontaine and Lothar Bisky
Formed in 2007 after a merger between the Party of Democratic Socialism and the Labour and Social Justice Electoral Alternative, Die Linke is now the fourth-largest party in the Bundestag, with 53 seats. The party has more than 76,000 members, but its popularity has dipped recently, with opinion polls ahead of September’s federal elections putting support for it at roughly 10 per cent.

Socialist Party of the Netherlands
Leader: Agnes Kant
The SP arrived as a major political force when it won 25 seats in the 2006 general election – an increase of 16. It made further strides in the 2007 local elections, securing 54 provincial seats. With more than 50,000 members, the SP is now the third-largest party in the Netherlands.

SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left)
Country: Greece
Leader: Alekos Alavanos
Formed ahead of the 2004 general elections, SYRIZA caused a shock when it increased its vote by 120,000 in 2007. Its popularity peaked in 2008, when opinion polls put support at almost 20 per cent, taking it past Pasok, Greece’s established left-of-centre party. However, its stock has plummeted since then – recent polls indicate support may be as low as 5 per cent – allowing Pasok to reclaim ground.

Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc)
Country: Portugal
Leader: Francisco Louçã
Founded in 1999, the bloc is a coalition of left-wing parties and smaller organisations. Its share of the vote rose from 3 per cent in the 2002 general elections to 6.5 per cent in 2005, and with eight MPs it is the fifth-largest party in Portugal. The bloc is a founder member of the European Anti-Capitalist Left.

AKEL (Progressive Party of the Working People)
Country: Cyprus
Leader: Andros Kyprianou
Descended from the Communist Party of Cyprus, AKEL successfully modernised its policy and became the largest party on the island when it won 20 of 56 seats, and 35 per cent of the vote, in the 2001 general election. In the 2006 elections it won 18 seats. Its former general secretary Demetris Christofias is the current president of the republic.

Izquierda Anticapitalista
(Anti-Capitalist Left)
Country: Spain
Leader: Raúl Camargo (spokesman)
With the Spanish far left riven by infighting, the newly formed Izquierda Anticapitalista is following the example of its sister organisation the French NPA in contesting the European elections.

Red-Green Coalition
Country: Norway
Consisting of the Labour Party, Socialist Left Party and Centre Party, the “red-green” coalition was formed in opposition to the centre-right government and came to power four years ago. It has been called
the most left-wing government in Europe, having developed Norway’s welfare state and prevented the privatisation of state-owned companies.

Research by Neil Clark and Dominic Sullivan

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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