FRANCE SAYS: ” NON AU RETOUR À L’ANORMAL!”

FACED WITH THE CORONAVIRUS EPIDEMIC HEALTH EMERGENCY AND TWO MONTHS OF CONFINEMENT, FRENCH SOCIETY AS A WHOLE HAS BEEN CONSIDERABLY SHAKEN BY THE CONSEQUENCES.  BUT THIS PERIOD HAS SHOWN THAT IT WAS POSSIBLE TO CLOSE DOWN THE WHOLE ECONOMIC SYSTEM AND MEASURE THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND AIR QUALITY BENEFITS.

This period has shown that those who are the most socially and financially abused are also the essential people who safeguard our daily life: health service operatives, cleaning and sanitation agents, cashiers, etc. Far from withering away in fear of the virus and of contamination, society has shown its enormous resources. With new forms of mutual aid and solidarity, it maintained or rediscovered the vital social bonds between neighbours, in the working-class areas and in the rural areas, demonstrating its formidable capacity to self-organise and meet the most urgent needs.

In this a totally new situation where we had to manage with the lack of means to protect ourselves and others. Many are those who re-examine now our lifestyles, our ways of producing, of consuming, the functioning of the State and the institutions, the political system, the role of the public services, the social utility of the trades, the origin of social and fiscal inequalities. We are therefore witnessing today a multitude of political and civic initiatives that imagine a world other than the one up to now, who propose essential measures for the transformation of society to end the crisis.

A host of citizen initiatives:

Solidarity initiatives have emerged everywhere to deal with the breakdown of social relations, the deepening of inequalities, and to compensate for the lack of response to social need in a situation that worsened exponentially with the closure of businesses, schools, tourist places and convivial spaces. In Paris, the obligation of confinement has relegated entire sectors: homeless people and migrants crowded under tents with no access to food and drinking water; the undocumented piled up in squats or in homes with no way to shield against contamination; the part-time workers and the students cut off from their families and without access to collective catering. All these come on top of the already hungry.

Faced with the lack of financial and material resources in the hospitals, the nursing staff had to reorganize their working environment, each making their service and function respond as best as possible to the patients affected by the coronavirus. They set up cooperation networks with the outside world to overcome the closure of their catering services, the shortage of masks, sanitisers and personal protection equipment. Answering the calls for help, a large part of the population became involved and gave support. The health service put all its strength into caring for the sick, and the population busied itself providing the equipment and the refreshments needed. This was more, therefore, than just applause every night to thank the workers and carers from the windows and the balconies; it was the veritable cooperation of collective intelligence as it had started during confinement.

On 13 April, Emmanuel Macron said in a speech: “We must remember that our country today is entirely dependent on the women and men whom our economies recognise and remunerate so badly“. He also referred to the “the common good” as set out in Article 1 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789.  This said, the only idea that came to him in the way of rewarding these essential workers facing the risk of contamination, was to offer them a medal, and a bonus that varies with the region. All this achieved was to rekindle the anger of people who have been demanding for years not only an upgrade for their categories and wages, but real financial injections in their public hospitals. It is them who shout loud and clear today: “Pas de retour à l’anormal !” [1].

During the confinement, professors and teachers had to organize and experiment with new forms of distance learning. Since few computer resources were available, they did what they could not to leave out the pupils with the most difficulties. They had to this whilst the Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, is trying to force through his School and Teaching Reform – a project which has been called into question by senior officials and executives of the Ministry, who denounce it as a reactionary and aggravating factor of social inequality.

It is during this preoccupying health situation that had to endure, that 63 complaints against members of the government were filed with the Court of Justice of the Republic.  A petition denounced the catastrophic management of the epidemic and the failure to take the necessary and timely measures to contain it. It was signed by individuals, trade unions, Associations, doctors, prisoners … Add to this yet another 47 complaints against X linked to the mismanagement of the health crisis [2] – complaints that have been recorded by the “Pôle de santé publique” in the Paris Prosecutor’s Office.

Acts of cultural solidarity grew from the start of confinement (13 March):  books, plays, concerts, operas, circus performances, museum visits etc. They were put online with direct and free access. Some small companies offered these by remodelling their activities to give solutions at local levels, participate in the solidarity dynamics, give assistance to the caregivers, making themselves useful, avoiding short-time working for their employees.

Many associations and citizen’s collectives moved in to support the most forgotten and vulnerable in society. They helped break the isolation and made sure everyone had enough food. They did the shopping, delivered meals, shortened the links between local farmers and their produces and those in need of fresh products. These initiatives created synergies between people; new food chains appeared outside the main commercial circuits. These are not seen as a simple means of containment, or alternatives to the present health emergency. They are seen as the start of new ways to answer the need for healthy food, the need for seasonal and local food.

These experiences are important because they call into question every big and useless project. They answer the need to enlarge the battle and reclaim the agricultural lands that have been cemented over. The need is to build commonly-owned pools of tools, of seeds and of know-how, and organise the autonomy of territories to be used to produce and supply people. For this to take off and develop, it needs support from the locally elected representatives in the municipalities and the communities. These people must put the needs of the population first. They must help create chains of solidarity and the coordination of actions, or responding positively to the occupation of wastelands where to make communal gardens and vegetable patches of solidarity.

These are new experiences of mutual aid. They put social need first by working together and rediscovering the essence of the human relations. This new notion of what is collective, of what one can do by pooling all the forces together, is being developed throughout the country. You see it in the homes being turned into sewing workshops. You see it in the associative groups that form to make and distribute meals to those who need these most. The satisfaction of knowing that they answer a real need in society gives to the volunteers a new meaning to their lives.

The many platforms for ‘Le monde d’après’ – [3]

Many platforms have been created for the construction of “Le Monde d’apres”, or “the world afterwards”. The aim is to draw conclusions from this pandemic period, and from the neoliberal policies that smashed the public services and deepened the social inequalities. With society under the rule of the market, those policies rendered the State incapable of dealing with the health emergency. Proposals come now from all sides – right and left – with various ideas on how to start a more or less radical transformation society in answer to the challenges of the pandemic and the needs of the populations.

Among the proposals, one notes the document (and petition) “Jamais Plus Ca!” launched on 27 March by 16 organizations, trade unions and large associative networks [4]. It proposes 34 short-term and long-term measures “to rebuild the world”. When these political parties and left movements succeeded in meeting on 20 May by videoconference, they were looking for the first time at the principles for joint actions. But as each maintains their own actions and independence, the different viewpoints have not run away. It is clear, also, that their proposals do not amount to a program for the 2022 presidential elections – this was rejected by the conference’s originators – but its will be the base [..] in the coming months to find some convergence between progressive forces and social movements.

These initiatives express a real need to change the foundations of our society. They show the need to draw closer together and the difficulties in doing so, due to the differing objectives: Break with capitalism or moralise it? Lead an ecological and social revolution, or look for a smooth transition? Democratic rights or measures of social repression? Sharing the riches, or an economy dominated by the power of the multinationals? So many points on which the concepts differ whilst debating them will require time.

Whatever the leaders of the left parties say, they all have their eyes turned to the 2022 presidential elections and the organization of a left alternative, with a return of the ideas of nationalization, economic and ecological planning, re-industrialization, the relocation of businesses, the strengthening of the public services, etc. But for a good few years now, the social movement led particularly by the Yellow Vests has shown that it has no faith in the political institutions to transform society with, elections least of all.

There is a proliferation of collectives and ideas about how tomorrow should be; but each organisation – whether political, industrial or associative – still thinks in the old top-down way. Each one in their own patch and sector. No one looks at the state of the population. But for the latter, the social priorities are its desire to share, its wish to find its real place in society, its search for the new democratic forms that will let it intervene and control those it elects, and at all levels of public life.

Transforming society will only be done with the greatest number and the creation of forms of intervention that break with the old practices. It is therefore necessary to build on the capacity for self-organisation that the citizens have shown during this period of confinement, to gather up and build a new balance of power. This is how it will be possible to re-establish a degree of confidence between the political and the social movements. It is clear however that, on this point, there is still a long way to go.

What will be tomorrow’s world ?

Considering today the measures that we want for tomorrow should not let us forget what the capitalist system is, and how it works. The harsh consequences of the economic crisis, now accelerated by the pandemic, will make all the capitalist countries want to cling to the ‘old world’. And we must not forget either that drawing conclusions from ‘the old world’ is going to be necessary to stop making the same mistakes.

Employers and multinationals took advantage of the break in economic activity to ignore the Climate Paris Agreements and the environmental constraints. They also engaged in a showdown with the European Commission to postpone or cancel the measures of ecological transition specified in the European Green Plan, however limited the latter is already. There are now multinational legal departments preparing complaints against States whose health emergency measures ate into their (multinational) profits!

Macron’s last speeches could have conveyed a certain sense of contrition, but the political aims and choices of his government stay the same. This shows in the measures it took in front of the crisis. The emergency health laws are reducing still further the democratic freedoms, on top of the derogatory measures that give complete freedom to the employers to increase working hours and impose precarious contracts. Until the end of the year, the employers will be able to blackmail people for jobs in this way. And there is no guarantee that these emergency measures won’t become permanent when the government needs them to face social unrest down.

In his speech of 16 March, Macron said that: “no business will be left at risk of bankruptcy” and that financial help would be provided to support businesses in difficulty. But in this period of de-confinement today, the situation looks completely different : Unemployment figures exploding (nearly 6 million people in March 2020) and the State announcement that, from 1 June,  it will no longer support part-time working. According to statistics published by the Ministry of Labour on 12 May, the State financed some 12.4 million employees during lockdown at a cost of €26 billion for the two months. The dropping of this support risks to very violently modify the relations between workers and employers, precipitating considerably the employers’ redundancy and restructuring plans to return to pre-crisis economic activity, or to just manage to survive.

This is already happening in many sectors where 60,000 small businesses are threatened and asphyxiated by the banks. Shops and all sectors linked to tourism experience worrying situations. The automobile industry is a case in point, with large fleets of unsold cars. Although in receipt of a State-guaranteed loan of €5 billion, Renault has just announced it must save another €2 billion over three years, and cut nearly 15,000 jobs worldwide, 4,600 in France. In the regions where economic life is very dependent on just the car industry, the losses are going to be much heavier in car building jobs and related activities.

This is happening in other industries too, like Derichebourg (subcontractor of Airbus) and General Electric in Belfort, where layoffs have been announced. It happens too at Air France-KLM in spite of a €7 billion loan guaranteed by the State. And so, public money is used to bail out an airline whose planes are grounded, but nothing is granted in the way of a counterpart towards maintaining jobs. It is therefore not a rescue plan for the company and its employees, but a plan intended, in fact, to rescue its shareholders.

There is a risk that tomorrow will be worse than before the pandemic. One expects the reactivation of the social movements that have been ‘on pause’ during two months of lockdown. Such movements have already started in the Fonderie de Bretagne [5]  in the Morbihan, and in the Renault factory at Maubeuge where the Intersyndicale has just sent a strike call to oppose the company’s relocation in Douai. It is difficult just now to assess the economic and social effects of the stoppage, but these first announcements suggest a very complicated and violent return to reality.

In the coming period, there is every reason therefore to think that the social movement in all its forms is going to be the determining centre of the necessary transformation of society.

Les Posadistes – May 30, 2020

 

[1] Play on word: “l’anormal” and “la normale” sound the same. The idea being: no return to the ‘normal’ of the past.

[2] X, in this context, means that the body, or the person complained about is not yet named in public.

[3] This may translate as ‘our coming world’ – or ‘the world to follow this one’.

[4] The Petition’s signatories declare that they refuse to see a return to the ‘normal’ economy of yesterday, seeing how it is absolutely unsustainable ecologically and socially. They demand an “immediate engagement” in favor of short-term and long-term public policies, so that “we never have to re-live those things again”. At first, 16 organizations signed the petition. They are: Action Non-Violente COP 21, Alternatiba, Attac France, CCFD Terre Solidaire, Confédération paysanne, CGT, Convergence nationale des Services Publics, Fédération syndicale unitaire (FSU), Fondation Copernic, Greenpeace France, les Amis de la Terre France, Oxfam France, Reclaim Finance, Unef, Union syndicale Solidaires, 350.org. A further group of organisations has now joined : Action Aid France, Droit au logement, Femmes Égalité, Fidl, i-buycott, Il est encore temps, Le mouvement, MAN, MNL, Notre affaire à tous, Partager c’est sympa, Syndicat des Avocats de France, Syndicat de la Magistrature, UNL, Utopia.

[5] The Fonderie de Bretagne is a subsidiary of the Renault group. It plays an essential role in the economy of Southern Brittany. It produces machine parts, safety components, engine and gear-box parts.

Note: confinement was sometimes translated as lockdown.