The epidemic in France has already claimed 2 000 lives, and it is early days yet. Two presidential speeches, Thursday 12th March and Monday 16th March, have transformed life in France, closing school, universities, non-essential shops, parks, cinemas, restaurants and so on. The speeches also transformed French politics, I think, for the next decade, and they posed the crucial question of how this crisis will affect class struggle in a country where class consciousness and activity have been high these last years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime test for the capitalist state, but also for anticapitalists.
Macron has understood the extent and the depth of the present sanitary crisis and of the economic slump which will follow. He is positioning himself as a reliable representative of the medium-term interests of French capitalists. He is finding huge sums of money he had said did not exist, mostly to prop up companies, but occasionally to help workers and their families.
This is the biggest political crisis since the Second World War. Although it is not comparable to the war (despite Macron’s repeating “We are at war” a number of times in his speeches), what is certainly true is that the flourishing of any political or class organization, Left or Right, reactionary, reformist or revolutionary in the decades to come, depends on its proposing now initiatives to defend the interests of its class. In Macron’s case, of course, capitalists; for the Left, the working people.
Shaken by the stock market crash and the real risk of incredibly high mortality from the virus, which could threaten social stability, particularly in a country where workers are used to fighting back and Yellow Vest demonstrations and riots have marked the last year, Macron took some radical decisions. No-one is to leave home without having printed and signed a document saying where they are going and why, and there is only a very short list of acceptable reasons. Funerals and weddings are not allowed.
Huge amounts of money have suddenly been found (and Macron has announced his support for the European Central Bank’s decision to spend 750 billion euros buying up debt). Most of the money will be to help big business, but, for political reasons, Macron emphasized the help for small companies: electricity bills and rent for small businesses and for the self-employed will be suspended. All businesses can postpone their payment of national insurance contributions. There was also money to expand considerably workers’ rights to sickness benefit, to benefit for staying home to care for children, and to benefit if you are laid off (though this is lower than one’s wages).
Macron is doing far less than what is needed. Very little was announced for the homeless, for prisoners and for refugees in detention centres. No massive requisition of the industry necessary to produce ventilators, masks, gel, gloves and other necessities. Indeed, no figures at all for what will be spent on the health system as it comes under tremendous strain. At the end of March, as hospitals are stretched to the absolute limit, it is clear that the government is doing only a quarter of what is needed.
Suddenly forgetting the massive cuts in numbers of hospital beds, which he has presided over, and the vicious police violence unleashed on striking nurses in recent months, Macron hailed health workers as “heroes and heroines” in his second speech, promising state-funded taxis and hotel rooms for them throughout the crisis, and emergency child care provision.
More surprisingly, for those who had not understood the depth of this crisis, was Macron’s announcement on March 16th that all the neoliberal reforms in progress are to be suspended. This includes pausing the vicious attack on pensions which has led to more powerful strikes than we have seen here for decades. (see previous articles here : https://www.theleftberlin.com/john-mullen). It also includes stopping harsh reforms of unemployment benefits and a radically Thatcherite all-out attack on universities, against which resistance was growing.
Macron is hoping to show the bosses and the stock market that he has a plan for the recovery, that, even if it involves spending billions, he has a fighting chance of building sufficient national action and consensus to take France through the next few months without half a million dead or mass rioting in the streets. The markets hate uncertainty, and anything which walks like a plan and quacks like a plan is a relief to them.
A week later, on the 25th March, Macron spoke again, pledging a “massive plan of investment” and higher wages “for all health service occupations”, promising that they would not be forgotten once the crisis is over. Naturally, presidential promises are cheap. Nevertheless, in a context of massive, unheard-of expressions of support by millions in the nightly “clap for health workers” events, the promise represents Macron’s response to a balance of forces, and will make it easier for our side to fight for better wages and conditions in hospitals.
Macron has plenty of political difficulties too. It is becoming clear that he could have announced a lockdown and other measures weeks earlier. The Minister for Health, Agnès Buzyn, who was moved to a different role in mid-February, has now revealed that she warned the government at the end of January of “the tidal wave” which was coming, saying the municipal election campaigns should have been cancelled.
The tremendous unpopularity of Macron’s neoliberal attacks (as well as the low level of local implication of his ramshackle newish party) meant that in the first round of municipal elections, (Sunday 15 March, between Macron’s two speeches) his candidates did very badly. And every day which passes is showing graphically and murderously how useless his neoliberalism is in fighting the deadly virus.
A head of state who announces a highly necessary lockdown might hope to gain some popularity in an atmosphere of national unity, and Macron this week is repeating the word “unity” at every opportunity. It may be too late for him though, since two years of vicious cuts and repression have left him with a very narrow support base. So, on March 26th , an opinion poll shows 59% consider government measures “insufficient” while only 43% are satisfied. 83% think the government is too slow ramping up testing numbers, while an overwhelming 88% think they are too slow getting production and distribution of masks moving.
Macron had in any case intended to make some small reforms favourable to workers in the second half of his mandate, in the hope of re-election. As this unprecedented crisis rolls out, he has the chance to thoroughly test his plans for the survival and the future of French capitalism, using all the resources and legitimacy the presidential throne provides. There will be further radical and surprising measures.
Naturally, Macron will also try to profit from the crisis to move against workers. A law passed this week allows, for the next two years, bosses “in essential sectors”, including transport and freight, to ignore regulations about maximum number of hours worked in a day or in a week. Workers will be made to work up to 12 hours a day and up to 60 hours a week. Sunday work will be deregulated. Rather than hire the unemployed, workers’ health will be put at risk. These measures were bundled up with other lockdown provisions and rushed through parliament. The 17 France Insoumise MPs and the 12 Communists voted against. The 26 Socialist Party MPs abstained.
A crisis where it is best for everyone to stay at home for several weeks presents a completely new challenge to the organized Left, and some of it still seems stunned, leaving some individuals on the Left tempted by multiple versions of what are basically conspiracy theories
There are three aspects that the Left must focus on. Firstly, getting involved in local mutual help schemes. Secondly, demanding that health comes before profit. Housing must be requisitioned immediately for the homeless, production of essential items such as ventilators and masks must be accelerated without respect for patents or profits, companies must be nationalized to avoid mass redundancies, all non-essential production must be closed down until the virus is beaten, the development of drugs and vaccines must be massively funded and organized by public bodies. Adequate health protection for essential workers must be an absolute priority. There will be many more demands.
Finally, we must patiently explain all the ways in which capitalist austerity, the dictatorship of profit, and the division of the world into competing national economies have made this crisis a thousand times worse than it could have been in a real economic democracy, a socialist production system.
Across France, neighbourhood help groups are being set up. A particular symbol is the increasingly popular 8pm appointment, when we all go to our windows to applaud the health workers and other essential workers (this is in buildings which have no real tradition of collective initiative). In my town the Communist mayor has set up a council-led system to make sure isolated or vulnerable people are not forgotten. Even some commercial companies are taking some good decisions – one supermarket chain has set up a toll-free number offering free delivery of groceries for the elderly.
Education unions have generally been able to pressurize the administration to agree that hourly-paid teachers will not lose money even if their classes cannot take place. The CGT has demanded that industry be shut down if it is not necessary to fight the epidemic, and is mobilizing to insist on protective measures for those who must work. Macron declared on the 19th March that any work which cannot be done online must continue (despite the known and massive danger), while one of his ministers accused those wanting to shut down building sites of “defeatism”! At the same time the government is theatrically denouncing people who go out of their homes too often, as if they were the main problem!
The France Insoumise, a left reformist grouping that got around 14.5% nationally in last week’s elections is asking people to sign up “I want to be an activist from home”, and giving advice on how to organize group discussions via internet around FI videos or how to intervene in debates in the national press. One of the most popular of the FI members of parliament, François Ruffin, is collecting people’s experiences and writing a book collectively with others through an online tool where one can read each day where they have got to.
The France Insoumise in parliament voted against the lengthening of the working week, and is proposing that paying dividends to shareholders be banned in France until January 2022. The group has presented a list of 11 key demands, including 10 billion euros for the health system now, requisition of factories for health supplies, mass testing for the virus and an end to hospital charges for all patients.
The New Anticapitalist Party is insisting that workers should have time off on full pay in all sectors of production which are not essential to fighting the virus, and calling for massive recruitment in the hospitals, as well as a ban on all redundancies. The Communist Party support similar demands, while in a series of cases around the country, including lorry drivers, bus operatives, chemical industry workers, bottle manufacturers and Amazon employees, strike action has been called to demand better safety conditions.
Because, over the centuries, working people have fought for rights and respect, our rulers cannot just react to the virus by saying “three percent of the population dying, mostly old people, won’t affect profits too much: bring it on!» But because working people have not managed to overthrow the dictatorship of profit, humanity is fighting the virus with both hands tied behind its back, due to austerity, neoliberalism and nationalism. This crisis will test political organizations and ideas like nothing else has for 80 years, as both capitalists and anticapitalists try to persuade that their vision deserves to guide the future of humanity.
As French airline companies alone are now asking for 185 billion euros in government help to prop up their profit-making (almost 3 000 euros for every person in France – far more than a month’s wage for every worker), we need to unite and fight for the idea that our health comes before their profits.