We Can Learn A Lot From The French
Imagine for a moment that Pete Buttigieg won his bid for Presidency and in essence, that undoubtedly painful image you’ve just conjured in your mind is what the French are dealing with presently. Billionaire-bought, so-called centrist President of France, Emmanuel Macron was elected in the spring of 2017. Since coming into power, Macron has made it his mission to roll back the most important gains made under the strong French social welfare state dating back to the post-WWII reconstruction era. Because of a then strong and still virile Labor movement, France has one of the best social-security and pension systems worldwide. The Macron government’s latest unpopular austerity proposal is to slash pensions by raising the retirement age as well as reducing the amount that is paid out by them.
This isn’t the first time the Macron government has implemented or extended failed neoliberal policies. In late 2018, the now-famous yellow vests movement took to the streets in response to rising fuel taxes which regressively hamstrung middle, working-class, and rural citizens. Also fueling the movement was a speed-limit reduction in rural areas which rural inhabitants saw as yet another regressive tax being imposed via citations which the rich could easily afford and the poor could not. These regressive and paternalistic policies are a subset of a larger pattern exhibited by the Macron government. In fact, the symbolism of using the yellow vest for the movement was born from such a policy. Under French law, drivers must keep a yellow reflective vest in their vehicle and in the event of a breakdown must don said yellow vest. The subsequent ubiquity and nature of the yellow vest made it the perfect symbol to protest the Macron government's eagerness to paternalize and antagonize working people.
Beginning in October of 2018 and peaking in early 2019, the movement had largely fizzled out with only a small core enduring in weekly protests on the weekends. That was the case until last November when Macron proposed gutting and replacing the pension system — a system that has achieved one of the lowest old-age poverty rates in the world — with a meritocratic “points-based” system that would increase the retirement age by two years and reduce the total amount paid out. Essentially, Macron aimed to reform the system to be more reflective of the U.S system, something the French people deem wholely untenable. In response, since last November, there has been a dramatic explosion of class struggle emanating from below culminating in what is now the longest strike in the history of modern France. Strike after strike led by unions have taken place, initially focused primarily within the rail and public transportation industries but now stretching across all sectors fighting for better pay and treatment — be it, firefighters, setting themselves ablaze to combat police, or teachers uniting with garbage collectors, or even ballet dancers performing in the streets of Paris. Despite general strikes virtually shutting down several cities across the country, support is overwhelmingly still on the side of Labor. Unions have even called for a renewal of general strikes on February 17th in order to exert more pressure on the government.
The people of France largely recognize the importance of a radical politics that is synchronized with electoral forces yet can simultaneously exist outside of them and mobilize wide swaths of working people. Similarly, workers in the U.S are beginning to agree as evidenced by the increased strike activity in 2018 and 2019.
In the American electoral context, only Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders has the long-standing record of inspiring and legitimizing class-struggle (especially in the realm of public education) in order to claim credit for playing a role in the fight for worker prosperity. Working people understand this. In fact, the most common occupations that donate to the Sanders campaign are Teacher, U.S Postal worker, Amazon Employee, Starbucks employee, and Walmart employee. Sanders also has the most union support of any presidential candidate by far with 29 total union endorsements — more than the rest of the Democratic field combined. These include endorsements from some of the most militant and active unions in the nation such as the National Nurses Union, United Teachers Los Angeles, UNITE HERE, American Postal Workers Union, and more.
Likewise, only Bernie has unequivocally called for a single-payer Medicare-for-all system which would elevate us to the status of the rest of the industrialized world. The fights for Medicare and the ongoing struggles of Labor against Capital are inextricably linked. What is it that makes the French (relatively speaking) uniquely committed to opposing their government’s attempts to institute austerity, in ways similar to how Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, etc. have? One might be tempted to make essentialist arguments that posit the French culture is the answer and that culture is mostly immutable and therefore not worth studying further. Perhaps there is truth to the French culture being more socially cohesive than that of America’s, but it’s a small piece of the puzzle. The real answer lies in the power of Labor in France. And the power of Labor in France is not pure fanciful cultural phenomena but rather a direct downstream effect of a strong welfare state freeing up resources in unions to pursue further gains for workers. Indeed, not only is the cultural class-solidarity of France not an essentialist trait but rather it is reinforced politically by a strong labor movement. There’s nothing inherent to French culture about this solidarity that cannot be applied elsewhere. We don’t even have to look outside of the U.S. Union based solidarity permeated thousands of communities across the nation for a century up until the 1970s when the neoliberal project first took root.
Despite the upticks in strike activity in the U.S the past couple years, union membership is still at an all-time low making Bernie’s M4A plan all the more crucial to implement if the power of Labor is to ever regain its significance in the U.S.
Not only would this expand many of the great wins won by union members to the rest of the working class but for many union members M4A would be a massive improvement since it would include care for dental, vision, and mental health as well. By taking healthcare off of the bargaining table (which currently occupies a lot of union resources), unions become freed up to fight for better working conditions, better wages, organizing new workers, etc. M4A also neuters the threat of an employer revoking your healthcare which happens all too often currently. Look no further than the 2019 General Motors strike where GM threatened workers with the removal of their health benefits.
With union membership so low, M4A presents the perfect opportunity for unions to place themselves at the center of a broad political revolution, and by fighting for the entire working class; subsequently reinvigorate the entire labor movement. With capitalism being marked by its ‘race to the bottom’, raising up the entirety of the bottom becomes that much more important. The French understand this as well as anybody, and the American labor movement will need to work tirelessly within electoral politics and outside of them to emulate and encourage a similar solidarity if it is to be successful in energizing the working people of this nation once again.