Events in France

Blocking the Economy to Block the Reform

Chat with Olivier Besancenot, Moderated by Caroline Monnot

Olivier Besancenot is a French far left political figure and trade unionist who has become a leading opponent of President Nicolas Sarkozy. He was a candidate for the 2007 French presidential election, for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), the French section of the Fourth International. He gained 1.2 million votes, 4.25 percent, standing as a revolutionary socialist in the 2002 presidential elections. In the first round of the 2007 presidential election, Besancenot received 4.08 percent of the vote, just short of 1.5 million votes, placing him fifth and eliminating him from the race. (Wikipedia)

Esteban: Hello, this Tuesday’s [October 19] action is a symbolic last-ditch stand, isn’t it?

Olivier Besancenot: No! It’s another stage toward the general strike, which is beginning to happen. On Tuesday night, strikes will be renewed, and there will be new demonstrations, as well as numerous blockades. The question posed now is about blocking the economy to block the reform.

Zbeul: In your opinion, is this strike a political strike expressing general discontent or a social strike focused only on retirement?

Olivier Besancenot: The discontent goes beyond the retirement issue, but, at the same time, it is crystallizing through it. Many workers and many young people are truly fed up with the government’s double standards and are indeed seeking, through this strike about retirement, to settle accounts with the Sarkozy government from which they have suffered for too long.

Abdelmallik: What do you think will happen after the trade union action if the law gets passed?

Olivier Besancenot: The law isn’t a law in effect until it appears in the Official Gazette. And even if it gets into the Official Gazette, the social history of our country reminds us that what the Parliament—the Assembly and the Senate—decides can be defeated by the street.

Fred: Even with three million demonstrators, does the street have the same legitimacy as an elected parliament?

Olivier Besancenot: Today, it’s the street that has legitimacy, and the street can be more powerful than a government. That was so in 1995 at the time of the Juppé plan, and equally so in 2006 at the time of the First Employment Contract.

Moreover, our main social gains, from the beginning, were extracted by the struggles and mobilizations of our forebears. If our grandparents hadn’t struck in 1936, today we wouldn’t be the beneficiaries of paid annual leaves.

Odp: Do you then think that the vote of a national assembly matters less than social movements?

Olivier Besancenot: When did a majority of citizens vote for retirement at 67? On YouTube, you can see Nicolas Sarkozy explaining why he wouldn’t touch the retirement age of 60.

Léon: Is the New Anti-Capitalist Party [NPA] pushing high school students to take to the streets?

Olivier Besancenot: High school students are pushing themselves to do so all on their own, and they don’t need anyone else to do it for them. High school student activists can join the NPA.

Furthermore, adults, workers, parents of students are often there at high schools, demanding that security forces leave the premises and stop their provocations. And that’s a good thing.

Roland: Violent conflicts at some high schools risk turning the opinion against the movement. Is it really necessary to get high school students involved?

Olivier Besancenot: Yes, everyone needs to get involved. And young people understand that old people working longer means fewer chances for them to find openings in the job market.

The government, by its repeated police provocations, is looking to cause escalations, thinking that it can calm down the protest by causing fear.

Emilien22: What factors lead you to compare the demonstrations over the last several days to May 68? Is such a movement possible or even desirable for France?

Olivier Besancenot: There is no model that can be exported from its time and place. Each struggle is unique and finds its own dynamic. But I think that a new May 68 in a 21st-century style wouldn’t hurt anyone, except the capitalists and the government. But that isn’t bad. . . .

May 68, beyond the barricades, was a general strike in which millions erupted onto the social and political stage. It’s that eruption that we need today.

Thibaud: Strikers are blockading refineries and transport arteries. Is the strike again actively preventing others from working? Isn’t that closer to your idea of “revolutionary activism?”

Olivier Besancenot: We are not going through a revolution (yet!). We are in a process of spreading strikes, where radicalization and expansion go hand in hand. The movement is gradually getting larger with each day of action, and, at the same time, it is getting radicalized since the government is forcing the struggle to get radical.

Marc: Does the NPA have a concrete counter-project of reform on the issue of retirement? If yes, what is it?

Olivier Besancenot: The NPA says no to rewriting the government’s project, demanding its abandonment pure and simple. We propose retirement at 60 with full benefits and the return to the contribution length of 37.5 years, for all. To finance this project, we propose to increase the share of employers’ contributions to Social Security.

Three percent of the GDP from now to 2050 will be necessary to finance the retirement system, according to the Pensions Advisory Council. On the other hand, every year, 17 percent of the wealth created in the year gets siphoned off in the form of profits, which are monopolized by the privileged few.

It is therefore necessary to share the wealth and to share the work time equally, the currently employed working less, so that everyone who is unemployed can get a job.

Victor: Which sectors do you think should be taxed more first of all, if we want to find the necessary funds to finance retirement?

Olivier Besancenot: Capital’s revenues. What’s more, every year, 23 billion euros gets lost in the form of Social Security contributions forgiven to “create jobs” (you can see how successful it has been!) Those forgiven Social Security contributions create deficits.

Georges P.: How is it that you don’t seem to fear the economic consequences (for employment, growth, etc.) of the movements you are organizing or stirring up?

Olivier Besancenot: The current economic troubles are not the result of the general strike but the result of a system called capitalism, whose crisis, triggered two years ago by the subprime mortgage affair, has fucked up the whole machinery of economy.

What we have is a crisis of overproduction in the Marxist sense of the term throughout the major capitalist economies. One day we’ll have to invent a new mode of production and consumption that can meet the needs of humanity.

Etudiant Tokyo: Do you think a referendum would be a good solution to finally review the whole thing?

Olivier Besancenot: At this precise moment of the conflict, no. That would be a distraction from, and an institutional substitute for, social mobilizations. If there’s a more effective method than an indefinite general strike, you have to tell us, but I don’t see any. The vote of citizens, at the time when the Postal Service was threatened to be privatized, worked as a support mechanism for the struggle. But in any case there’s no substitute for struggles.

Serena: University students are rather weakly mobilized for the moment. Could they play a decisive role?

Olivier Besancenot: Don’t panic, Serena, that’s coming! A dozen of universities are already mobilized, and indeed, university students’ protest can be a decisive element in the expansion of the movement.

MatthieuRecu: So, it’s normal to blockade campuses and to prevent those who want to study from doing so?

Olivier Besancenot: So, it’s normal for me to support the blockades, too.

Zbeul: Can Black Bloc actions be the solution rather than traditional “spiced-up (merguez) [spicy, hot sausage] CGT (General Confederation of Labor) demos?”

Olivier Besancenot: I’d rather be on the side of the Red Bloc. Besides, I very much love merguez, and I favor indefinite general strikes.

GG: Any chance of a true alliance of the Left between the NPA and the Left Front putting pressure on the Socialist Party [PS] in the coming years?

Olivier Besancenot: We propose to gather together all the anti-capitalist forces on the common radical principles, in total independence from the PS. The goal, for me, is not to shift the PS policy or to convert it to anti-capitalism (good luck!), but rather to challenge the PS’s hegemony on the rest of the Left.

There are two major political orientations on the Left: one that is stuck in the framework of market economy, and the other that wants to leave it behind. These two orientations are not compatible in a same government, but our forces can join together to resist the Right, as is the case with the retirement issue.

Laurent F.: Mr. Besancenot, when do you plan on retiring?

Olivier Besancenot: At 60 with full benefits! But, Laurent, you had better believe that I’ll continue to be a militant all the same.

Maroux: And how far will this escalation go?

Olivier Besancenot: All the way to victory. Things are coming together for the victory of the movement on the retirement issue. It’s not a foregone conclusion, and there are still numerous obstacles before us. But, objectively, our camp, the protest camp, is continuing to expand while the opposite camp is becoming isolated and weaker.

The cabinet reshuffle will result in disarray. And, given the ministers already packing up their belongings, ready to leave, the street can win a decisive victory in this class struggle. As Ché said, hasta la victoria siempre! ASK OUR FRIEND TO TRANSLATE

The original article “Besancenot: ‘Bloquer l’économie pour bloquer la réforme’” was published in Le Monde on October 19, 2010. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi.

Monthly Review, November 2010