Mayday: A Day of Disunity

Arthur Goldhammer
1 May 2018

Mayday has always been problematic for the French left but never more so than this year. It is problematic because some unions, primarily the CGT but also at times the FO, have been wont to use the occasion to emphasize that the struggle of labor is always and everywhere a political as well as a workplace struggle. It has been problematic in the past because of the CGT’s links to the Communist Party, which was then anathema to certain other unions. It is problematic because the political parties that have courted labor’s support cannot identify themselves exclusively with the interests of labor, whose numbers do not by themselves add up to a majority.

This Mayday is more problematic than ever because Macron has so effectively split the unions and divided the left. The unions could not agree on labor code reform. Jean-Claude Mailly’s readiness to accept a compromise has led to his replacement by Pascal Pavageau, representing a more militant anarcho-Trotskyist faction that vehemently rejects Mailly’s milder approach. Some workers want to keep their powder dry in order to join the anti-Macron rally, ironically dubbed the Fête à Macron, that the Insoumis François Ruffin has called for May 5.

Meanwhile, the political left is tearing itself apart over laïcité. Once again Macron provided the catalyst for division by delivering a shrewdly calculated speech on laïcité. Mélenchon rose to the bait, as did Manuel Valls, who has hung his political future to this issue, and Le Printemps Républicain. At bottom lies the question of how best to integrate Islam into la culture laïque: Must Islam bend, or should the state recognize that the issue facing the Republic now, in contrast to 1905, is not how to keep at arm’s length the power of a religion that was once deeply intertwined with the sinews of state power itself but rather how to meld the deeply secularized culture of France with the multiple cultures of immigrant communities formed by histories in which the relation between temporal and spiritual powers was very different. The complexity of the issues affords a great deal of space for unhelpful gesticulation and posturing, and the political entrepreneurs of the left, short of ideas on other matters, have rushed in to exploit emerging divisions, almost as if they thrived on disunity, which offers their only hope of maintaining visibility at a time when Macron alone has the monopoly of actual influence on policy.

The beautiful spring weather has already sprouted another seasonal perennial, with violence breaking out at the head of the Mayday march. But as yet the much-discussed “convergence des luttes” seems as distant as ever, with signs that the railway strike is petering out, with division at Air France between striking pilots and stranded groundworkers crippling the labor movement there, with hospital workers forgotten amid the disruption of transport, and with the heart of the left torn over the rebirth of the religion question.

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1 Comment

  • brent says:

    When Macron visits the archbishops to call for rebuilding the ties between the Republic and the Church, he is hardly asserting secular republican values. Rather, he is playing an old game: winning points with social conservatives who use ‘Catholic France’ as a slogan and a shield for retrograde social policies and repression of Muslims today (and Jews in the past). The omission of this Catho-conservative position from your account of a secularized France struggling to enlighten the faith-besotted Muslims replays a right-wing trope. Franco-francais Islamophobes, like the Catholic church itself, don’t need to be acknowledged as a particular interest, because they are just there, like the French soil. Macron’s initiative may have been ‘bait’ for the Left, but it was a candid appeal to this timeless (white, Christian) France about which Marine LePen and Francois Fillon spoke so movingly.
    I’m puzzled by claims of a schism. Most on the Left support Mélenchon’s (among many others} lucid take-down of Macron’s egregious assault on la laicité. Valls of course is no longer of the Left (if he ever was), and is adept at wielding the secular club against Muslims (but not Catholics or Jews), as other right-wing demagogues have done. Wauquiez should watch his back, but the actual Left is finally pretty clear on what la laicité means.

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