Evaluate the idea that class conflict is on the decline in contemporary France, paying particular attention to the strikes of winter 1995

Evaluate the idea that class conflict is on the decline in contemporary France, paying particular attention to the strikes of winter 1995.

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Evaluate the idea that class conflict is on the decline in contemporary France, paying particular attention to the strikes of winter 1995.

A critical evaluation into the decline of class conflict in contemporary France requires an in-depth analysis into the various political and economic subject areas which surround the issue of class struggle.

The main objective of this paper is to discuss declination of class conflict in France and to discuss the significance of the 1995 winter strikes. A conclusion is to be reached after a thorough but concise assessment of this movement and its effects on French class struggles.

In order to evaluate this issue there must be a thorough understanding of French political culture in the years post World War II, together with a comprehensive understanding of the specific events and movements that led to an alleged decline.

The implication of European integration and French economy must also be understood, as well as the relation of this movement to the values of the left in France compared to that of the right.

To initiate this evaluation, one of the factors that must be taken into consideration is France’s volatile political culture. One could describe French culture as volatile, because of the numerous changes the French political system has undertaken over the last century.

Some may suggest that they are still suffering from teething problems of a relatively new republic and the episodes of 1995 and the elections of 2002 still prove that the French are a nation who are susceptible to political issues they feel may blur their traditional way of living.

One of the arguments brought forward is that the strikes of 1995 were ‘fundamentally sectional stemming from national fragmentation and French nationalism than any vision of a different future.’1. This is to be discussed in this paper, along with the factors of, economic change in France due to the conditions of the Maastricht treaty; trade unionism and socialism vs. liberalism in relation to the strikes.

Firstly, when mentioned the consensual perception of class conflict tends to be based on the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie. An old argument that has filtered through to contemporary politics via social and hierarchical structures that were originally discussed by Karl Marx. The question in hand asks one to look at a possible decline of class conflict in France. However some would argue that it still remains in France, just not as explicitly as before. Nonetheless the aim here is exploit literature and modern thought to suggest that it has.

A classic definition of class conflict can be found in the ‘Communist manifesto’

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.2

For Marx and Engels, class conflict or class warfare as it is described by Marxists, surrounded the notion of two main classes. This can be seen in the fragment ‘oppressor and oppressed’ and the coupling of the descriptive terms, the bourgeoisie were the ruling class and the proletariat were seen as the submissive class with little or no control over production.

In the case of the France in 1995, these two classes can be identified as Jacques Chirac and his government taking on the role as the bourgeoisie and the numerous activist workers taking on the role as the proletariat.

Here it can be discussed that the view of a socio-political imbalance between those with excessive wealth and those with little wealth is a common thought amongst Marxist’s, but arguably a concept that is declining in contemporary French politics. However, looking back on French politics in the last 50 years, is there sufficient evidence to support this notion? The role of political culture is imperative in this discussion and often gives reason to the actions of the masses under a system of rule by the elites.

The political culture of France has an almost unforgiving tradition of being conflictual alongside a highly activist nature, using previous strikes in 1935 and 1968 as examples. The division in political ideologies into the left and right, arguably goes back to the French Revolution and continues to remain an important characteristic in the contemporary arena. Consensus often has been reached by uniting behind a strong, charismatic leader, de Gaulle is the prime example here, only to be lost when the leader dies or goes into disfavour. Cycles of consensus followed by alienation seem to be typical of the French political culture.3 While there is admiration for the French nation, language and culture, there are also continuing disagreements caused by these traditions. Division over the meaning of these universal symbols leads to political, ideological and partisan fragmentation. The French seem to combine a distrust of politicians and the political system with a devotion to political struggle.4

It becomes apparent that the issue of class struggle was once again thrown into the centre of the French political agenda, because of the essential ‘reform’ that France needed in order to progress as an intergratable nation state, in relation to the EU.

The ‘s�cu’ otherwise known as the social security plan devised by then French Premier Alain Jupp� , was received by the public sector workers, with resentment and anger, with the consensual feeling amongst academics and French citizens that EU criteria for satisfactory budget deficit, was the driving force behind the 1995 strikes.

This plan coupled with the tradition and characteristics of French political culture have been blamed for the uprising of 1995 and the discontent of the French nationals that was witnessed all over the globe.

However just how ‘essential’ was this reform by freshly elected Premier Jupp�? The proposed reforms, were all but too far for the French working class, from the proposals of an increase in work before pension entitlement to the taxation programs suggested, the French working class felt they were being victimised by a bourgeois government, echoing the previous period of revolt in 1968.

By introducing such an austere program it put the new right wing government in a bad situation, which would ultimately, lead the way for devastating repercussions. Nonetheless, this set of measures was seen as crucial for reassuring the foreign exchange markets that France would be able to stick to the Maastricht timetable.

However, these plans were obviously not essential enough for the 5 million citizens that protested against it. Of course, if an individual or a section of society feels that government plans are not in their best interests and will effectively jeopardise their current position, why shouldn’t they protest? However it is this type of attitude that have led some to describe the French nationals as being sectionalist and backward looking.

By using this sectionalist argument in favour of declination, Tony Adreani comments that we are witnessing the disappearance of major social conflicts, the decline of revolutionary ideologies, the replacement of class struggles with single issue and sectoral movements and a general pacification of society’6. However this comment was made two years before the 1995 uprising which in turn, proves Adreani theory as unfounded in this case.

Expanding on this further, it could be suggested that France needed such harsh reform in order to move forward with European integration. The Jupp� plan threatened to sacrifice short term discontent for long term prosperity, unfortunately using proposed tactics that were unfavourable to those from the lower classes. Thus, igniting the issues of class struggle once again. By introducing such a plan a perception was drawn that the elites are too far removed from the lives of the ordinary French citizen.

At this point of the discussion it can be suggested that one may find difficulty in arguing that class decline is present, but class consciousness in fact, is increasing as France becomes more fragmented.

On the other hand, it could be suggested that class decline was present because of the handling of the situation by the lower class. With one of the original definitions of the proletariat being unable to control the means of production and in order to survive they must sell their labour to capitalists. It becomes apparent from these strikes that the workers who protested, have realised their rights to be treated equally and their activism was a direct attack on the government and its ideals. Rather than the working class, settling for reform, they protested to protect their privileges.

To strengthen this argument, the participation in each mobilisation and the support that it received from intellectuals increased the feeling of a unified state. These factors give foundation for the argument, in the sense that the lower classes would not let the ruling class exploit their powers over them anymore.

Although the strike did not involve the private sector, there was enough disruption to immobilise the French economy and force the governments to negotiate with the workers, through the trade unions. Which leads to the next point of evaluation, the role of the trade unions.

The unions play a role of incredible complexity in the movement of 1995. The values of the Left in France, embrace trade unionism and working classes and in a majority of democratic states, the role of mediator between governments and workers should theoretically provide a democratic and logical way of fusing the ideologies and interests between organised workers and the employing classes and attempt to blur the struggles between them.

Trade unionism participation in France is a reflection of the political culture, volatile and susceptible to change. In fact coexistence of more than one union within the same occupation is a fundamental feature of French trade unionism. Which may explain the low level of trade union membership, due to the overwhelming amount of choice.

However, although the Jupp� plan involved the reorganisation of a large part of the public sector, the unions were not consulted.

The undermining behaviour of Jupp� towards the unions, only fuelled the tension between the governments and the unions, which proved to be a catalyst for the resurrection of class struggle. This move by Juppe, saw the unions questioning their role as partners to the government.

The influences of the masses are epitomised by the 1995 French strikes. Illustrated by the way the government tried in vain to stop these strikes, the CGT and the FO would not back down until they were absolutely sure of withdrawal of the welfare reform plan. However, not all unions were united on the movement, as Chris Harman argues, ‘ union bureaucracies always try to end mass strike movements when they go beyond a certain point… Political issues are raised and that requires the sort of political response that the trade union bureaucracy is incapable of making’7 From this, it can be argued that the barriers of political negotiation can be described as a restrictive mechanism for the working class against the elites.

In direct relation to class, trade unions can be described as the basic organisation of the lower class which are “not only a natural, but also an essential phenomenon under capitalism and… an extremely important means for organising the working class in its daily struggle against capital and for the abolition of wage-labour”. But once established, the trade unions cannot confine their sphere of activity to economic demands, but inevitably tend to move into the political plane8. This has been proved by the negotiations which took place after the government backed down.

However the governments tend to have the upper hand when political negotiation is involved. Here, what is involved is not the occasional struggles of individual groups of workers against their employers, but the struggle of the proletariat as a whole against the bourgeoisie as a class, and its state.

In conclusion, the winter strikes of 1995 had a profound effect on the consciousness of the working class in France. The social upheaval that lasted for five weeks involving hundreds of thousands of workers was undoubtedly the highest expression of the class struggle in France since the revolutionary crisis of 1968. The ruling class only narrowly avoided an extension of the strike to the private sector, in which case the movement could have rapidly assumed a pre-revolutionary character. Indeed, it was the growing threat of such a development, in spite of the treacherous role of the trade union leaders, which eventually forced the Jupp� government into an embarrassing retreat.9

The radicalisation of the working class as a whole was an awakening of a formerly immobile section of society and the shift of middle class and rural opinion to the left all indicate that French society is hurtling towards a new confrontation between the classes.

Which finally leads to a conclusive disagreement that class conflict is on the decline. The factors assessed above hold far too much substance to be dismissed and for all classes to come together as a united front. The elites and the working class, will remain apart until there is a common political and ideological consensus, amongst all parties involved.

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Sarah
Danielle
Wilson
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