NICK WRIGHT, writing in the Morning Star, argues that the deliberate escalation of confrontations on the streets to turn the public against the movement may be in the process of backfiring — while the British system is far too wise to risk it

MASSIVE demonstrations, widespread strikes, violent clashes with the police and an air of crisis means Charles Windsor and his long-time consort were stuck in Blighty. With the full pomp of the French state unable to guarantee the passage of King Charles the Unready, President Macron has suffered an enormous blow.

Charles III was due a feast at Versailles. In the intervening centuries since the French beheaded their own king the palace has largely been spared violence — but this time the Mairie in Bordeaux was set alight while Paris has seen the biggest demonstrations and most violent police actions for some time.

Protest in France is frequently dramatic and routinely involves symbolic challenges to authority, blockages, burning signal flares and percussive devices.

The French have a theatrical take on authority. In industrial disputes, factory bosses have occasionally been held hostage by workers. In the course of such a coup de theatre, it is traditional for the workers to assure the media that “le patron” may be imprisoned “but at least he is well fed.”

On one anti-austerity demonstration in Bezier, I watched militants of the CGT union wheel an elaborate device to a statutory 100 metres in front of the demonstration, don ear protectors and safety goggles before detonating an explosive maroon, move the equipage another 100 metres and let off another bang — all with due respect to the provisions of the “code du travail” and the health and safety of their fellow militants.

Right now, the confrontations are far from theatre.

In France as in Britain, it is not unusual, when dissent breaks through the media blanket, that coverage of any associated violence is substituted for a rational examination of the issues.

In a bid to obscure the very large scale of the popular mobilisation and the wide support it enjoys, there has been an excessive political and media focus on the violence.

On cue, the minister of the interior Gerald Darmanin blamed that elusive entity “l’extreme gauche.”

Evidently black-clad and masked protesters have attacked buildings, smashed windows and set fires and clashed with the police.

There is none of the polite fiction that surrounds policing in Britain, no honeyed words about community policing by consent and no gobbledegook about police officers being above political conflict and distinguished from mere state employees by virtue of a warrant held under the crown. The French police are unashamedly emissaries of the state.

Macron’s patrician presidential style sees him styled more like a monarch. When he is forced to rely on the special constitutional privilege to impose a law without parliamentary consent it is the prerogatives that the state exercises in place of democratic consent that the police enforce. They do it in his name.

Darmanin has at his disposal the infamous CRS riot police, but also an additional elite unit of mobile cops, the “Brigades de repression de l’action violente motorisee (Brav-M)” equipped with motorcycles, side arms and batons and mobilised on the organisational principles pioneered by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In France, as everywhere, when power deems it necessary to undermine support for a cause, the state induces violence.

It is impossible to distinguish between agents provocateurs acting in concert with the police, lumpen elements acting on their own behalf — even in the belief that this comprises a blow to the established order — or the plain idiots who infest every popular movement.

Police penetration of popular movements and staged provocations happen here too. During the aftermath of one May Day demonstration a few years ago, I watched a group of black-clad and masked men smash windows while a detail of police looked on and afterwards chatted amiably with the “protesters.”

Just two days before the last big demonstration French communist leader Fabien Roussel warned: “The president of the republic is betting on chaos and violence. He does everything to provoke those who have been demonstrating for months with dignity.

The government “does everything, including toughening its policing policy, to provoke incidents and violence. By wanting to mount public opinion against the unions, he acts as a breaker of the republic.”

Roussel said: “In the space of a few days, in the news, the government went from Messrs Dussopt (labour) and Attal (public action and accounts) to Messrs Darmanin and Dupont Moretti (justice). In a few days, we went from retreats to batons, from legitimate strikes to requisitions, from pacifist demonstrations to broken faces.”

In France, the situation seems to have moved beyond theatrical confrontation between different groups of masked and armed men to a real confrontation between the enraged citizenry and the state.

Last weekend, the police attacked an enormous demonstration organised as a joint trade union initiative. Demonstrators were kettled and subjected to repeated tear gas barrages.

This moves the action beyond the highly stylised confrontations which see small groups in conflict with the police — these can best be understood as theatrical events staged for the media — to a state provocation against the organised working class. This signifies Macron’s understanding that the state’s response to this social rupture cannot be contained within political convention.

Such tactics carry big political risks for Macron whose minority regime is leaking popular support. His judgement that the gains outweigh the risks illustrates the problem neoliberal regimes have in maintaining a measure of popular legitimacy in the midst of a systemic crisis.

Germany’s week commenced with a full-scale transport strike. It ended early enough to allow King Charles a railway grand tour through his family’s country of origin although not, I understand, through his great-grandmother’s Saxe Coburg dukedom.

The governor of the Bank of England goes into exquisite detail to deny there is a banking crisis. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank is on the brink of following Credit Suisse into meltdown. The two alternatives on offer — a takeover by the German state, another (French) bank or a rescue package by the European Central Bank — all have the potential to destabilise the banking systems of the two most powerful EU states, plunge the eurozone itself into terminal crisis and further destabilise Germany’s shaky coalition government.

The British Establishment must be congratulating themselves on managing a transition to a raised pension age without provoking the kind of trouble Macron faces. Aside from the NHS, the state pension is the main universal benefit that social democracy can claim as arising from a century of compromise with capital. But compared to other developed countries our pensions are pretty poor.

Before 1995 the state pension age was 60 for women, and 65 for men. Parliament introduced a phased rise in women’s pension age to 65 while a cross-party parliamentary report recommended a raise for both men and women to 68 to take place between 2024 and 2046.

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition sped up the rise of the state pension age to 66 for both men and women and again to 67 by April 6 2028. It is legalised robbery with a particularly misogynist twist combined with the routine patrician contempt the political class has for working people.

Back in Britain: overcoming our Saxon principles

Here in Britain we have become accustomed to months of piecemeal industrial action. Hundreds of thousands of workers from just about every sector of British economic life — but principally in the public sector — have been in action conducted around separate pay negotiations.

In the NHS there has been a measure of co-ordinated action and in the railway sector, more than a hint of joined-up thinking but the particular organisational character of the trades union movement has shaped the fragmented way that wage struggles have been conducted.

This masks the extent to which these strikes are essentially about the same set of problems rooted in the neoliberal economy. It is government policy that has imposed pay restraint and created a situation where a long-simmering desire for pay to meet the daily needs of both the working class and middle strata has been supercharged by a sharp increase in the rate of inflation caused principally by an unashamed and transparent corporate drive to increase profits.

As Helen Macfarlane, who first published the 1848 Communist Manifesto, wrote in 1850: “How comes it that our French brothers have done so much compared with us? Because they are organised into one compact mass, which, under the guidance of competent leaders, moves like an army of well-disciplined soldiers, steadily onward to a given point.

“That is the reason of it. Frenchmen have the instinct of military discipline. We, on the other hand, carry the Saxon principle of the local management and the infinitesimal division of interests, too far. Absolutely this will not do in fighting a battle.

“Some creed, or catechism, or formula, which rises up like a wall between the unhappy sectarians and the rest of the universe; beyond which it is forbidden to look on pain of damnation, or worse.”

The private appropriation of profits from the public sector was given an airing last week when there was a brief flurry of comment about the explosive growth in revenue and profits for firms supplying contract labour in the NHS.

This is but the latest and most egregious feature of the privatisation-by-stealth that has characterised public services, education, housing, infrastructure, energy supply and health ever since Gordon Brown seized upon Private Public Partnerships to shift capital spending off the books to meet the public spending limits that adherence to the EU’s treaties compelled.

It is not yet clear whether this present phase of popular industrial action — seen as both a negotiating tactic with different employers and a challenge to government policy and the government itself — will subside.

The government has had less success with its tactics of delay and obfuscation than it hoped — but its scope for effective counter-measures against strikers who can count on a great body of support is limited by its own deep unpopularity and the certainty that it will face an election in what for many Tory MPs seems an alarmingly short time frame.

The contrast with the situation in France is striking. Even though recent months have seen extensive action in the workplace and some very large demonstrations, the police have been remarkably compliant, policing both demonstrations and picket lines with a light touch.

The police in Britain feel badly served by the state and the Establishment. Their pay has been constrained by the same factors that limit public-sector pay generally, and at both rank-and-file level and command levels there is a real sense of antagonism with government ministers.

The Police Federation are agitated about what they describe as “the real-terms pay cut which is in excess of 28 per cent for the lowest pay bracket since 2010.”

There is a persistent demand for police to be allowed trade union membership and the present Police Federation leadership deploys increasingly exotic arguments to kick this into the long grass.

If, amid a real crisis of the neoliberal order, neither republican police violence in France nor our kingdom’s “softly softly” style is much use in dealing with popular mobilisations, our ruling classes have a problem.


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