French History Strikes Back
As the current unrest in Paris and Marseille proves, the social contract that French workers forged generations ago is still alive -- but how long can it last?
View images of the unrest in France.
View images of the unrest in France.
The images of great rivers of striking workers and students surging along Paris boulevards or blockading petroleum refineries have gripped the French nation and the Western world. With intensifying force since September, hundreds of thousands of French workers have pressured President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to back down on its plan to overhaul the pension system and raise the retirement age — an effort made all the more urgent by his party’s surprise decision to move up the vote on the proposed legislation to Oct. 22.
Despite the timeliness of the protests, as Europe enters a new "age of austerity," the images evoke a much less recent event. Next year France will mark the 75th anniversary of the raucous birth of the Popular Front government in France. The protests that gave rise to the Popular Front laid the foundations for the social contract now at stake in the current confrontation — and anticipated it in some other, more surprising ways.
In the summer of 1936, France was wracked by a series of unprecedented and largely unplanned protests against the deflationary economic policies of the conservative governments of the interwar period. Beginning in mid-May, workers in factories and stores, ports and refineries, joined the protest movement, eventually bringing the national economy to a standstill. By June, nearly 2 million French workers had either walked out of their work places or simply sat down on the job, locking out their supervisors.
French industrial workers had for a long time been caught between the terrifying prospect of being without work and the appalling reality of the jobs they held. The French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil, who worked for a spell as a power press operator at a Paris factory in the 1930s, was ordered at the end of her first day to double her output if she wished to keep her job. The employer, she told a friend, "makes a favor of allowing us to kill ourselves and we have to say thank you."
From the bowels of such factories flowed the visceral resentment that found its public expression in the great waves of strikes that broke across France that summer. Just weeks before the strikes began, the Popular Front had come to power. An uneasy coalition formed by the Socialists, Radicals (who, despite their name, occupied the center of French politics), and Communists, and led by the Socialist leader Léon Blum, the Popular Front carried the immense hopes and aspirations of both urban and rural workers. In fact, the left’s electoral victory helped bring the strikes into being: The workers’ protests were meant to both celebrate and secure this new beginning.
These hopes were not just social and economic, but also political and moral. Right-wing "leagues" (radical movements inspired by Italian fascism), such as the Croix de Feu and Action Française, were menacing, fueled by hatred of foreigners and the conviction that France could defend itself against Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or Stalin’s Russia only if led by an authoritarian regime of its own. When these movements clashed with Parisian police during bloody street demonstrations in early 1934, many believed that the Third Republic itself was in danger. The Popular Front crystallized at this moment, largely forced on national leaders by voters and workers who were no less galvanized by the frailty of the Republic than by the paucity of their paychecks.
Blum’s government acted swiftly. The leagues were dissolved, and the government brokered an unprecedented agreement between unions and employers. Not only did workers secure the right to join unions and bargain collectively, but they also won the 40-hour work week and two weeks of paid vacation. Quite suddenly, the borders of France burst beyond the confines of one’s working-class neighborhood in Paris or Lille, extending as far as the mountains and coasts. For the first time in their lives, men and women could truly know their country.
Ultimately, the expectations stirred by this vast social movement in 1936 were too great a burden for any government, especially one based on so volatile and narrow an alliance. Within a year, the Popular Front had imploded, and the hope it had embodied gave way to disenchantment. The deep and ineradicable ideological differences among the Socialists, Communists, and Radicals — made manifest with the start of the Spanish Civil War — and Paris’s disastrous devaluation of the franc led to the government’s demise scarcely a year after its birth.
Yet few events have greater emotional resonance with the French left today. On Oct. 8, the elder statesman of the Socialist party, Pierre Mauroy, delivered an emotionally charged speech in the Senate defending the right to retire at the age of 60. When he warned that "one does not have the right to abolish history," he meant not just the laws introduced when he was prime minister in the 1980s, but the foundational laws created by the Popular Front.
Is this just an exercise in nostalgia? After all, life has improved dramatically for French workers since 1936. Weil would shake her head in wonder over the very idea of workers striking to keep early retirement at age 60 — an age most of Weil’s co-workers never expected to reach, much less view as the beginning of a new stage of life.
Yet her contemporaries would also see important parallels between 1936 and 2010, beginning with the issue of republican values. The Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s largest union, has roundly denounced the government’s deportation of Roma this summer. The deportations are part of a broader effort by Sarkozy to attract voters who support the National Front, a far-right party with ideological roots in the interwar leagues — a fact that also reinforces the left’s suspicions. From its perspective, while the Republic is not in danger, the same cannot be said for some of its core beliefs.
There is also the nature of the working life, then and now. No one pretends that today’s workplace reflects the "icy pandemonium" described by Weil in 1935. Yet it is equally certain that few union jobs — from pushing crates in a warehouse to pushing paper in a cubicle — offer the stuff for a rich and meaningful life. For France’s workers, life is elsewhere — certainly beyond the workplace, perhaps beyond the age of 60. Tellingly, even now nearly two- thirds of the French sympathize with the strikes. And an even greater majority wants the government, which is entirely focused on reducing deficits (rather like the conservative governments of the 1930s), to return to the negotiating table.
For Weil, those fortunate enough to have never known the life of manual labor "cannot fairly judge the actions of those who bear it all their lives." Sarkozy’s refusal to negotiate pension reform with union leaders suggests he belongs to those happy few. If his party passes the reform legislation this week or next, Sarkozy will make a decisive break with France’s past and make its workers less secure about their future.
They will not be alone: Sarkozy’s handling of the strikes has not helped his dismal poll ratings. It may well be that his own job security will be in doubt come the presidential election of 2012.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
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