An American Revolutionary in Paris: French Workers and the Socialist Party of France (I)

Note from the Editor:

Michael Weinert’s article is appearing in The Socialist in two installments as part of its celebration of May Day 2016. We invite our readers to revisit The Socialist Webzine soon to enjoy the conclusion of Michael’s informative and insightful interviews with major French labor leaders. Also, please keep an eye out for the upcoming May Day issue of The Socialist Magazine.


As a labor economist, revolutionary, and having French fluency, I wished to gain some understanding of the relationship between France’s Socialist Party (PS), the current government, and French workers. I thought I’d also pass it along to others. So, though having done no journalism since my college years, I undertook a bit of it during a recent visit to Paris.

I began by asking what PS’s perspective is concerning the economy, especially as it affects working people. “It is the social-democratic approach in the classic sense,” says Ms. Karine Berger, who is the Socialist National Assembly Deputy from les Hautes-Alpes (the upper-Alps), a member of that body’s finance committee, and a member of her party’s public relations triumvirate and formerly its director of economic affairs. “It encompasses the principles of solidarity, justice, and state regulation of the economy…Integral to this is protecting the purchasing power of consumers…But we recognize that the supply side of the equation is as important as the demand side.”

Following up, my next question acknowledged that the PS was founded to support beneficial social changes for working people. Its end goal was socialist revolution. Yet the party’s current program indicates it is “committed to a robust private sector.” How is it possible to serve both working people and capital?

“It is important to strike the balance so the economy serves all its components,” answered Berger. “There is no contradiction between serving capital and serving working people. When revenues decline, so do earnings for working people. When revenues increase, there is more from which to hire and to provide good pay. Labor and wages are PS’s top priority.”

Labor activists may find it difficult to be critical of an organization that has been an integral part of positive developments, such as the 35-hour work-week, national health care (not health “insurance”), a national pension program providing a livable retirement income, and uniformity in pay and benefits. Socialist revolutionaries or revolutionary labor activists, however, may find troubling the PS’s abandonment of the revolutionary goal. Labor cannot be served without serving capital first? How is that socialist?

I asked what the government was doing to help further improve the lives of working people. Berger invoked the word “solidarity.” She said the term refers to European Union nations working together. This includes eliminating “tax and social welfare competition,” whereby EU nations “dump” problems onto other members. It also means resisting capital’s pressuring for a more mobile labor force. Capital thus forces workers and their families to relocate, instead of locating the means of production where the labor supply already exists. “In this sense,” said Berger, “one could say it means expecting societal solidarity from capital.”

Could there be something different about “French capital?” Is there some distinction between “French capital,” and “American capital?” (To me, it seemed ages since American capital demonstrated any sense of patriotism, much less a commitment to contribute to the betterment of society). Berger added that their definition of solidarity includes the idea that all citizens and national sectors are on the same page. That which serves one stratum or sector of society must also serve society as a whole.

Is PS taking direct measures to further working people’s interests, such as increasing employment? Berger said the Socialist government’s pro-education policies will directly lead to employment increases. Also, their jobs program for youth annually provides 40,000 national – or state-subsidized “employment contracts” in the private sector.

She pointed out that, since France has relatively progressive effective tax rates, especially compared to America. French capital and rich people are, in effect, subsidizing this program to a larger degree than if one were implemented in the U.S., where effective tax rates generally decrease as income or revenue rises.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration (2007-2012) raised the minimum full-benefit age for some public-sector employees, and eliminated full student subsidies for university education. Does the Socialist government intend to undo these changes?

“We already have, with regard to the retirement age for public-sector workers in, how do you say, physically-demanding jobs. But for other public-sector workers, the changes under Sarkozy equalized the retirement situation with private-sector workers, and there is little support to undo those changes…The cut in student subsidies for university education was exaggerated in the media. The majority of university students still pay nothing for their education. Only the children of well-to-do parents must pay anything, and their top cost is only 50 or 75 euros per year; still a bargain.”

In France, would a family of four, with one person working full-time at minimum wage, be at, below, or above the poverty level, the level above which one could, for example, support a family of four? “Oh no, they would be significantly below that figure.” Would the family qualify for social assistance? “Yes, definitely. And multiple forms of assistance.” (So, as in America, French workers earning a living wage are, as taxpayers, subsidizing low-paying employers).

Following the interview, I walked to the Orsay Museum, where a friend and I revisited some favorite galleries. Studying its portrait of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, I noted with special interest how the painting’s label described him as a “socialist theoretician.” His revolutionary proclamation, “Property is Theft,” came to mind. Moreover, I tried to reconcile that bold conclusion with his so-called socialist successors’ support of “a robust private sector.

However, there remain in the PS many members devoted to ending capitalism. There is perhaps no greater mishmash than France’s PS, including America’s Democratic Party. In 2007, five figures vied for the PS’s nomination for presidential candidate. On one extreme, Mr. Laurent Fabius, said his goal was that all French industry be socialized during his first (5-year) term. On the other, Ms. Segolene Royal’s only pro-worker proposal, other than supporting status quo, was to increase, to 40%, the percentage of taxi fares going to cab drivers.

When polls indicated Fabius was leading, Royal worked Fabius’s “young militant” supporters, telling them that, as the PS’s nominee, she would fare better in the election. Having convinced enough of them, she prevailed in the primary. She lost the election, however, to Sarkozy.

How was it that the PS, like most other governing socialist or social-democratic parties in Europe, started out revolutionary, but ended up managing and facilitating capital? Socialists have long run for public office. Karl Marx thought this was foolish; he assumed the winners would not be allowed to assume office. When some were elected and allowed to take office, Marx thought this was a good thing, and encouraged it. However, once in office, socialists did participate in capitalist state’s governance of the society. Gradually, they began to think that, with a parliamentary majority, they could manage capitalism better than the capitalists.

To many working people, they did. Socialist legislators and administrations produced some tangible results, such as unemployment benefits, retirement systems, and health benefit systems. But before long, they became content with those achievements, and gave up the goal of making a radical transformation of society. Catcalls from those remaining radical were similar to Daniel Deleon’s supporters, of the American Socialist Labor Party, who criticized Socialist Victor Berger, who was elected to U.S. Congress in 1910.

What is the psychological motivation behind how socialists conduct themselves when in office? Public servants, at the end of their careers, want to feel their efforts have been appreciated and successful. So it is tempting to implement within a capitalist regime those measures, such as a tolerable work day, that make it more palatable for working people. Given the choice between preparing society for a revolution that may not soon happen, or producing immediate “gains” for workers, is it any surprise, however disappointing, how things went?

What does France’s most influential labor union federation, The General Confederation of Labor (CGT), think about the Socialist government? I asked Ms. Marie-Christine Naillod, CGT’s PR director, if she thinks the current government is more supportive of working people than Sarkozy’s administration. She vociferously responds in the affirmative. Bernard Thibault, CGT’s president through Sarkozy’s administration, had stopped attending labor ministry meetings under that government. Other administrations, including Chirac’s, solicited labor’s input. “But under Sarkozy,” says Naillod, “meetings had deteriorated into the administration telling the unions its plans, and not even pretending to solicit input. So why even bother to attend? …The current government, however, immediately reached out in a big way to the labor confederations, in a spirit of partnership. It is, happily, no longer be the same as it was under Sarkozy.”

I asked about an announcement on the website of the Labor Ministry (the counterpart of the U.S. Department of Labor). It described a process where employees of small employers could, via the Ministry’s web site, vote for a union to represent them. Naillod said a law allowing employees of small businesses to designate their bargaining representative was enacted in 2008 when, during Chirac’s administration, the PS held a majority in the National Assembly. But neither Chirac’s nor Sarkozy’s administration effectively implemented it. Finally, the current government was following through. The percentage of employees working for small employers is much higher in France than in the U.S., and significantly higher than in most other EU nations. The intent of the law is to facilitate the spread of unionization to small cafes and shops, perhaps as much in the interest of standardizing and equalizing working conditions as to raise wages for lower-paid employees of small businesses.

Does the CGT have any issues with the Socialist government? Naillod said France’s pension system discriminates against working women, who don’t continue accruing benefits during maternity leave; in spite of their contribution to society by conceiving, birthing, and mothering its future labor supply. “The proposal has been made to allow women to continue accruing pension benefits during maternity leaves, up to a specified limit. And, of course, we support this. But the new government has yet to place this item on its agenda.”

Mr. Frederique Imbrecht, president of the Trade Unions International of Chemical, Oil and Allied Workers (IPCS), joins the meeting. I asked him what CGT member unions consider their biggest challenges. “The European financial crisis, of course, is negatively impacting what we can do for our members. This situation makes it all the more necessary for all sectors of the economy, labor, business, and government, to work together, in order to bring everyone up.” Imbrecht said preliminary statistics indicate French workers lead the EU in productivity, even outpacing German workers. (Coincidentally, that morning’s newspapers published finalized and corroborating statistics). He said that naturally makes French industry very competitive and profitable. “But French industry needs to share these gains with those who have brought this about: Their workers!”

He speaks of another challenge, “The gains unions achieve are extended to all French workers, but only about 25% of workers, on average, are actual members of the union that works on their behalf. And that hurts us as an organization.” I asked Imbrecht to elucidate. I pointed out that U.S. workers in a bargaining unit, even if not wishing to pay union dues, must contribute an amount representing the costs of bargaining and administering the labor agreements. (In America, this lower amount is called a “Fair Share” assessed as a payroll deduction). He said there is no such thing in France. Though union-won gains are passed along regardless of union membership, there is no obligation for a worker to pay a centime (penny) to unions. Naillod added that the CGT has become “creative” in dealing with this issue. For example, it assembled a network of car-care businesses that provide discounted automobile repairs and service for CGT members, at no extra cost.


Michael Weinert

Michael Weinert writes on labor issues from bases spanning the revolutionary spectrum. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and spent over 30 years as an economist for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. His activism includes membership in the Socialist Party USA. He participated in the Occupy Chicago’s Labor Working Group, doing project work and served as its economic consultant. He has provided a variety of support to strikers and workers organizing, most recently at Golan Moving and Storage in Skokie, Illinois.

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