How to deal with the austerity measures we’ve been told are “necessary” by our governments? In the United States people deal with it by glumly accepting them or staging a few ineffectual rallies and protests. Though, I suppose, many support the cuts against their own class interests at this point. The French, however, have a different way of dealing with proposed cuts:
The unions have brought out a million protesters over the last week in advance of a vote in Parliament to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the broad majority of the French support the strikers! I don’t typically like to make comparisons in the level of political consciousness between countries, but in this case it’s very clear the French understand the ramifications of raising the retirement age – a hard won gain from the 1980s – won’t stop there. Oil refinery workers have blockaded the refineries to prevent fuel from leaving, high school students have engaged in clashes with the police, and what amounts to a mass political strike has shut down the economy for the last six days. I can’t even imagine that occurring here… in fact if it did occur here there would be far more bloodshed one the part of the police and right-wing paramilitary thugs.
The press is mostly discussing the possible impact on the Sarkozy presidency and the power of organized labor unions in France, since the unions are the ones, at this point, playing a lead role in the strikes.
Jérôme Sainte-Marie, head of political research for the French polling institute C.S.A., said, “We are in a situation where government and the unions are losing control, and if something serious happens, it will both weaken the unions and be a catastrophe for the government.”
Why not talk about how the implementation of austerity measures would be a catastrophe for the French working class? Or, how a mass strike that brought out five million, ten million, or more French protesters would serve to radicalize and politicize a debate that has, for now, been strictly on the terms of international finance capital? A century ago Rosa Luxemburg championed the mass strike as the best political education for the working class.
For now, the protests have been aimed at rolling back a very particular policy. If government action were to spark a wider crisis, the entire austerity agenda might be called into question. Successful protests and strikes have a habit of spreading confidence in mass action across national borders. A victory in France might inspire similar action in Germany, Italy, the UK, Spain, etc. Legions of people not organized into unions or political parties might flood the streets – and at this point in history the unorganized outnumber the organized – and radicalize a left that has been on the defensive for three decades.