The Extreme Center and Social Struggles in France: From the Labor Law to the Presidential Elections

Antifas­cist March in Paris, Decem­ber 28, 2016. Image from Paris-Luttes.info.

Against the Labor Law and its World

To under­stand the 2016 French spring, we can start with the slo­gan which fea­tured sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the mobi­liza­tion: “Against the Labor Law and its World.”1 The French strug­gles of 2016 in fact began with protests against the El Khom­ri labor law, but imme­di­ate­ly assumed a much more gen­er­al and exten­sive rad­i­cal­ism which seemed to go well beyond the labor law itself: the labor law and its world, to be pre­cise. And this was not so much because the labor law was ulti­mate­ly a minor reform, or because the protests against this law remained mar­gin­al in the move­ment, but for two oth­er rea­sons.

First, because this law is per­fect­ly com­pat­i­ble with the ensem­ble of exist­ing social rela­tions: it fits with­in the nor­ma­tive and insti­tu­tion­al frame­work of present day French real­i­ty – and more gen­er­al­ly, Euro­pean real­i­ty (this law, hard­ly a year old, might accu­rate­ly be under­stood as the miss­ing piece of the cur­rent “Euro­pean regime” of wage labor). Sec­ond­ly, the link between the labor law and this world, and thus the link between the cri­tique of the labor law and the cri­tique of this world, is impor­tant because work has become more per­va­sive than ever – even more than in the past. 

Since the 1970s, there has been an increas­ing­ly acute sub­sump­tion of human fac­ul­ties and the social sphere under cap­i­tal; an inten­si­fi­ca­tion and exten­sion of the employ­ment of sub­jects and cap­i­tal­ist val­oriza­tion of the social in rela­tion to what has been seen in pri­or peri­ods. The French move­ment thus quick­ly and cor­rect­ly under­stood that the labor law was not the sole prob­lem – that is was the world of which the labor law was the vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion that need­ed to be crit­i­cized and changed. “Against the Labor Law and its World” is a slo­gan and polit­i­cal watch­word that per­fect­ly syn­the­sizes the stakes not only of this mobi­liza­tion, but the broad­er his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture.

The world the labor law belongs to, how­ev­er, is not lim­it­ed to the pre­cariza­tion of the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of life; it also involves author­i­tar­i­an shifts in the state appa­ra­tus. The recon­fig­u­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion and the dis­man­tling of social wel­fare since the 1970s have effec­tive­ly gone hand-in-hand with a reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the state. To put it con­cise­ly: the tran­si­tion from the “cri­sis of the plan­ner-state” to the insti­tu­tion of a state of per­ma­nent cri­sis deter­mined a sub­stan­tial mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the state-form. Over the last few decades, for exam­ple, we have seen a man­date to strength­en exec­u­tive pow­ers, the short-cir­cuit­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies and social cat­e­gories, a fierce unavail­abil­i­ty of med­i­ta­tion, a tight­en­ing of ide­olo­gies and poli­cies of aus­ter­i­ty, the deep­en­ing of repres­sive ten­den­cies and police log­ics, and the dog­mat­ic homog­e­niza­tion of media-dri­ven dis­course. In short, there have been real process of “de-democ­ra­ti­za­tion,” to use Wendy Brown’s expres­sion, that is, the spread of a gov­ern­men­tal ratio­nal­i­ty which oper­ates by sit­u­at­ing itself beyond demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­tion.2 And the cri­sis has only accel­er­at­ed, rad­i­cal­ized, and rein­forced these process­es which have relent­less­ly emp­tied out the form and sub­stance of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. It should also be not­ed that it is with­in the EU that the cri­sis has revealed itself, in a crys­tal clear way, to be a cri­sis of meth­ods of gov­er­nance – although the events which have tran­spired in Brazil, Mex­i­co, the Unit­ed States, Rus­sia and Turkey sig­nal very omi­nous sce­nar­ios.

The recent reforms of the work­place there­fore con­sti­tute a roll­back of the gains of the post-demo­c­ra­t­ic devel­op­ment of our polit­i­cal sys­tems. They aim to elim­i­nate inter­me­di­ary bod­ies, break social sol­i­dar­i­ties, and sub­mit sub­jects to the log­ic of the mar­ket and com­pe­ti­tion: to set the indi­vid­ual and sin­gu­lar work­er against the prof­it require­ments of the transna­tion­al fringes of big cap­i­tal. In this way exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion, or pre­car­i­ty and sub­ju­ga­tion, are two sides of the same coin: the labor law and its world, with the state of emer­gency as one vivid exten­sion. Last year, a plu­ral­i­ty of sub­jec­tiv­i­ties expressed their dis­con­tent against this state of things, through dif­fer­ent prac­tices and through dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions and sen­si­bil­i­ties: stu­dents, youth, the pre­car­i­ous, the unem­ployed, wage earn­ers, etc., assem­bled in the streets and demon­strat­ed on on numer­ous occa­sions over four months, block­ing the uni­ver­si­ties [facs], schools, and work­places, occu­py­ing spaces, going on strike, con­fronting the forces of order. The cortège de tête3 and the union rank and file [bases du syn­di­cat] – despite all their dif­fer­ences in social com­po­si­tion and polit­i­cal per­spec­tive – togeth­er in Nuit Debout, man­aged to draw the main trade unions to their side, if for a moment. The unions were pushed to take posi­tions they would not have nec­es­sar­i­ly tak­en from the start, but ulti­mate­ly did, or else they would like­ly be out­paced by the dynam­ic of social events. These actors thus had a strong influ­ence – a pos­i­tive influ­ence – on union lead­ers. Of course, this is not the only cri­te­ri­on for mea­sur­ing what the cortège de tête, Nuit Debout, and the union rank and file did.4 One of the best qual­i­ties we pos­sessed, how­ev­er, was the fol­low­ing: the capac­i­ty to deter­mine the char­ac­ter of the protest. This is a cru­cial point of empha­sis for any ret­ro­spec­tive reflec­tion.

One Year Later

But in the after­math of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, what remains of the vast process of polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiviza­tion that embroiled France dur­ing the spring of 2016? What were its twists and turns, and more impor­tant­ly, what expe­ri­ences came to light between autumn 2016 and spring 2017? In the first place, after the protests oppos­ing the labor law, after the block­ades, strikes, and occu­pa­tions, after the more than 15 demon­stra­tions of spring 2016, the past sum­mer gave rise to stu­dent-led ini­tia­tives, includ­ing “occu­py your class­room” [“occupe ta salle”] and “dis­rupt your city” [“per­turbe ta ville”]. Then the union rank and file orga­nized the Sep­tem­ber 15th demon­stra­tion – a demon­stra­tion which, con­trary the last three sum­mer demos, was able to artic­u­late a decid­ed­ly high­er degree of antag­o­nism, prov­ing that the will and deter­mi­na­tion to strug­gle was still present at the onset of fall and the new school year [la ren­trée]. And then, imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Sep­tem­ber 15th: in Octo­ber, there were the protests against the demo­li­tion and clear­ance of the Calais “Jun­gle” migrant camp, the march to the ZAD [zone à défendre] in Notre-Dame-des-Lan­des,5 and sup­port for the Goodyear work­ers who were sen­tenced to a year of impris­on­ment for occu­py­ing their plant; in ear­ly Novem­ber there was the evac­u­a­tion of the Stal­in­grad migrant camp and the mobi­liza­tion around Adama Traoré’s fam­i­ly; in Decem­ber, the antifas­cist march­es; in Jan­u­ary, the found­ing of “Généra­tion ingou­vern­able”; in Feb­ru­ary, the riots over the “Théo affair” and the “class­room occu­pa­tions” [occu­pa­tion des salles]; in March, the inter­na­tion­al women’s strike and the “March for Dig­ni­ty and Jus­tice”; in April, protests against Nation­al Front (FN) meet­ings and against the police killing of Liu Shaoyo; and final­ly the “social front” demon­stra­tions, right after the two elec­tion rounds, the clash­es on May 1st, etc.6

If we were to draw up a bal­ance-sheet of the protests against the labor law, the first ele­ment to empha­size would be the polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiviza­tion it deter­mined, par­tic­u­lar­ly among cer­tain sec­tions of youth. Or bet­ter: among cer­tain sec­tions of the pre­car­i­ous youth, since the youth as such is not a polit­i­cal sub­ject. No mat­ter the calls to take to the streets, no mat­ter the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal encoun­ters with autonomous move­ments, the his­to­ry of the 1970s, the renew­al of Marx­ism, and the present con­junc­ture all con­tain an intense desire to wage strug­gles (with thou­sands of peo­ple pre­pared to demon­strate) and a tenac­i­ty to pur­sue equal­ly par­tic­i­pa­to­ry process­es of col­lec­tive learn­ing and self-orga­niz­ing [auto-for­ma­tion] (with hun­dreds of high­ly moti­vat­ed young peo­ple).

Of course, the labor law passed via Arti­cle 49.3 of the French con­sti­tu­tion. But the tra­di­tion­al forces of the extreme cen­ter have crum­bled, with the Repub­li­cans and Social­ist Par­ty hav­ing to regroup around Macron, that is, around an emer­gent fig­ure seek­ing to com­bine the inter­ests of big cap­i­tal with those of the upper lev­els of the state. And fur­ther, there is a renewed resis­tant sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, which has been barred by rul­ing forces over the past forty years of neolib­er­al restruc­tur­ing of labor and the state sphere – there are sub­jects who con­tin­ue to be res­olute­ly against the labor law and its world, as was made clear last year.

From our per­spec­tive, this polit­i­cal cycle can be inter­pret­ed through a remark by Max Weber, cit­ed by Mario Tron­ti in the post­cript to the sec­ond edi­tion of Work­ers and Cap­i­tal (pub­lished a few months after the “Hot Autumn” mobi­liza­tions of 1969), right before tak­ing stock of the class strug­gle in the Unit­ed States dur­ing the 1930s. “Our suc­ces­sors,” Weber writes, “will not hold us respon­si­ble before his­to­ry for the kind of eco­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion we hand over to them, but rather for the amount of elbow-room we con­quer for them in the world and leave behind us.”7 We can thus agree on the fol­low­ing: the mobi­liza­tion of spring 2016 cre­at­ed impor­tant spaces for maneu­ver, more than had been avail­able in 2015; it pro­duced the objec­tive and sub­jec­tive con­di­tions for a more res­o­nant mode of pol­i­tics than what came before; it opened up break­throughs in the wall of the present. Break­throughs which range from the Jean-Luc Mélen­chon cam­paign (the can­di­date who knew how to best cap­i­tal­ize on Nuit Debout) to the most rad­i­cal com­po­nents – with all the sub­jects which find them­selves between these two poles being much stronger in 2017 than in 2015. 

This shared, per­sis­tent effort, deter­mined to acti­vate itself, is thus the key point of depar­ture for any polit­i­cal reflec­tion which aims to under­stand what has hap­pened in France over the past eight months; that is, any reflec­tion which tries to dis­cern the state of semi-per­ma­nent mobi­liza­tion we have expe­ri­enced since the pass­ing of the labor law. How­ev­er, it is also true that in the months fol­low­ing the Sep­tem­ber 15th, 2016 demon­stra­tion, the rank-and-file com­po­nents – to sum­ma­rize quick­ly – became increas­ing­ly sep­a­rat­ed, unable to con­tin­ue agi­tat­ing in a mass, col­lec­tive man­ner. In oth­er words, they were unable to struc­ture and expand this deter­mi­na­tion, that sub­jec­tive will and capac­i­ty to repro­duce the mobi­liza­tion in more effec­tive polit­i­cal forms. As soon as the major trade unions dropped out – and it was under­stood that soon­er or lat­er they would end up doing so – there was a lull in autonomous orga­ni­za­tion as well. Beyond the ongo­ing upheavals and sud­den irrup­tions that have dot­ted the last few months, what has tran­spired since the begin­ning of Sep­tem­ber has shown us that there remains a lot of oil to throw on the fire, but we have ulti­mate­ly not real­ly been able to rekin­dle the spark. 

This was the phase run­ning from Sep­tem­ber 15 to May 1: self-orga­nized groups were the most vis­i­ble ele­ments last spring, but once these groups became iso­lat­ed, along with the union rank and file and rad­i­cal unions (SUD-Sol­idaires, CNT, etc.), they were unable to suc­cess­ful­ly struc­ture a sus­tained mobi­liza­tion in an autonomous fash­ion. We have not man­aged to orga­nize this will, this capac­i­ty and deter­mi­na­tion – which was indeed present – or repro­duce and expand the mobi­liza­tion. The cortège de tête, the dis­si­dent trade union­ists, and Nuit Debout (includ­ing all the lim­its and poten­tial­i­ties of this expe­ri­ence) have made strong, pos­i­tive ref­er­ences to the mobi­liza­tion, have pro­vid­ed it with an impe­tus, rad­i­cal­i­ty, and scale which would nev­er have been attained if the major unions were in charge of things; but after­wards, with­out these unions, it’s been ardu­ous. It’s been rough going, to say the least, and this fact must be acknowl­edged: not mere­ly to com­plain about the obsta­cles, but to go beyond them. 

A Movement With Demands

One year lat­er, thanks to the pass­ing of the labor law through arti­cle 49.3 and in the wake of such a pro­found social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal upris­ing, the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion we must pose is the fol­low­ing: how to sus­tain the social dynam­ics of mobi­liza­tion over time, and how to mul­ti­ply the spaces in which they take place? How to embody, how to chan­nel or struc­ture the sub­jec­tive capac­i­ty, deter­mi­na­tion, and will to car­ry on the strug­gles which have been vis­i­ble since Sep­tem­ber 2016 – with the explo­sion of projects, col­lec­tives, and grou­pus­cules one still sees at work? 

From this per­spec­tive, the com­plete aban­don­ment of the ter­rain of demands, as has been the case since last year (“we demand noth­ing” hav­ing been one of the hall­mark slo­gans of the 2016 mobi­liza­tion), turns out to be a dou­ble-edged sword.8 If this aban­don­ment is an indi­ca­tor of rad­i­cal­ism – which means, at bot­tom, that it revers­es the frame­work of the exist­ing order – then it also risks, at the same time, remov­ing strug­gles from the mate­ri­al­i­ty of their spe­cif­ic bat­tle­grounds, thus pre­vent­ing any efforts towards a polit­i­cal recom­po­si­tion that could build larg­er coali­tions between the plu­ral­i­ty of social sub­jects who, in the present moment, sep­a­rate­ly and on their own con­front a plu­ral­i­ty of dif­fer­ent ene­mies. Recent anti-racist strug­gles are instruc­tive on this count. In the low-income neigh­bor­hoods9 [quartiers pop­u­laires], pow­er­ful new forms of polit­i­cal expres­sion are already being pro­duced, which are at once very pro­sa­ic and very prag­mat­ic in their stat­ed objec­tives. To demand “Truth and Jus­tice for Adama,” we can agree, does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean ques­tion­ing the par­tial­i­ty of lib­er­al forms of law. In the same way, march­ing for “dig­ni­ty and jus­tice” does not nec­es­sar­i­ly imply over­turn­ing the dom­i­nant order; to affirm that “we are not ani­mals,” as the migrants in Stal­in­grad did last Novem­ber, does not in any way require that one estab­lish the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for devel­op­ing the gener­ic capac­i­ties of human beings. And yet, it appears dif­fi­cult to rel­a­tivize the impor­tance of these expe­ri­ences. The con­struc­tion of autonomous path­ways [par­cours] for demands – which involve a both a style of mil­i­tan­cy and the repro­duc­tion of mobi­liza­tions over time – could play a deci­sive role. 

In this regard, how­ev­er, the prob­lem of what kind of demand, or what spec­trum [spec­tre] of demands, aris­es at the out­set. In the con­tem­po­rary moment, if we take into con­sid­er­a­tion what is hap­pen­ing in the world and what is hap­pen­ing in France, there are process­es in motion that are draw­ing up extreme­ly inter­est­ing path­ways for demands, which place ques­tions of gen­der and race at the cen­ter of polit­i­cal dis­cours­es and prac­tices: that is, the glob­al women’s move­ment col­lec­tive Ni Una Menos and, in the case of France, strug­gles against police vio­lence.

The glob­al women’s move­ment has its epi­cen­ter in Latin Amer­i­ca – Argenti­na, more specif­i­cal­ly – but late­ly it has spread out towards the Unit­ed States, Poland, Turkey, Italy, etc. In all these con­texts, the move­ment has involved very polit­i­cal­ly com­pos­ite and social­ly het­ero­ge­neous mobi­liza­tions, with some mil­i­tants more con­nect­ed to the syn­di­cal­ist tra­di­tion, oth­ers clos­er to social move­ments; women com­ing from the mid­dles class­es, oth­ers from the low­er social stra­ta; stu­dents, work­ers, etc. What is tru­ly inter­est­ing in this move­ment, among oth­er things, is the pas­sage that has been made from the denun­ci­a­tion of forms of gen­der vio­lence and bod­i­ly harm (stalk­ing, rape, femi­cide) and the incor­po­ra­tion of issues hav­ing to do with labor, wel­fare, social rights, on the one side and the role and place of women in our soci­eties, on the oth­er. The recast­ing of the strike tac­tic – the gen­der strike – has made this qual­i­ta­tive leap pos­si­ble. And this is not ano­dyne, since it not at all a sim­ple jux­ta­po­si­tion between irre­ducible claims. The women’s strike is the instru­ment that has allowed for a con­nec­tion to be made between vio­lence against women and a spe­cif­ic politi­ciza­tion of con­tem­po­rary forms of exploita­tion and dom­i­na­tion in the spheres of eco­nom­ic pro­duc­tion and social repro­duc­tion. In oth­er words, the women’s strike is the instru­ment that has made the link between forms of gen­der vio­lence and the polit­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic con­text. It is through this recast­ing of the strike tac­tic that this dou­ble aspect can be read and crit­i­cized in prac­tice: spe­cif­ic vio­lences on the one hand, and social con­text on the oth­er, with the women’s strike as the con­nec­tor and cat­a­lyst of this protest move­ment.

To return to the French present: the two anti­so­cial and reac­tionary process­es of restruc­tur­ing labor and the state sphere, which we ref­er­enced at the begin­ning and can be qual­i­fied, with Éti­enne Bal­ibar, as an “extrem­ism of the cen­ter,” have deter­mined the tran­si­tion from the con­trol of sub­jects through wel­fare to a form of con­trol that artic­u­lates work­fare and war­fare.10

This tran­si­tion unfolds through a dou­ble ten­den­cy: 1.) ful­ly pre­car­i­ous under­em­ploy­ment (along the lines of the Ger­man mod­el of the Hartz IV reforms, adopt­ed in the labor law); and 2.) the grow­ing cen­tral­i­ty of secu­ri­ty tech­nolo­gies, from the police and the puni­tive carcer­al regime (the US mod­el favored by the state of emer­gency). In France, because of its colo­nial past and present, post-colo­nial sub­jects are exposed to the most harsh effects of this dou­ble restruc­tur­ing; that is, black and Arab sub­jects. And it was pre­cise­ly these sub­jects who desert­ed the call to arms last spring, who were not mobi­lized en masse, and who did not descend into the streets and squares: not in March, with the high school block­ades and uni­ver­si­ty actions; not in April, with the “occu­pa­tions” of the squares; not in May, with the strikes; and nei­ther in the over 15 demon­stra­tions which have marked the mobi­liza­tion from March until July. If we lis­ten to the col­lec­tives active in the low-income neigh­bor­hoods and ban­lieues, what were the rea­sons for this defec­tion? That we, black peo­ple and Arabs, have expe­ri­enced and lived the labor law every­day for sev­er­al decades. The same goes for the state of emer­gency: police bru­tal­i­ty is the dai­ly bread pro­vid­ed to us, not because of what we do – like you, the white mil­i­tants – but for who we are; not because we protest in the streets, but because we live in our neigh­bor­hoods.

But since last July, in con­junc­tion with the end of the mobi­liza­tion against the labor law, very inter­est­ing path­ways for demands have been built through mobi­liza­tions against the struc­tur­al racism of the French state. These mobi­liza­tions do not crit­i­cize the racist prac­tices of the police, but the prac­tices of the racist police, to cite Omar Slaouti. More broad­ly, they not do seek to ques­tion the racist poli­cies of the state, but the poli­cies of a racist state.11 Nev­er­the­less, these mobi­liza­tions – like the recent “March for Dig­ni­ty and Jus­tice,” for exam­ple – have had dif­fi­cul­ty in mak­ing the qual­i­ta­tive leap the women’s move­ment has been able to achieve. Until now, they have accord­ed clear pri­ma­cy to the crit­i­cism of the strong arm of the state (police, repres­sion, prison, Islam­o­pho­bia, etc.) to the detri­ment of the crit­i­cism of the soft arm of the state: wel­fare, social rights, insur­ance ben­e­fits, edu­ca­tion, health, etc. Obvi­ous­ly, it’s not a mat­ter of aban­don­ing the cri­tique of police vio­lence in favor of the cri­tique of an artic­u­la­tion of the “social ques­tion” and the “racial ques­tion,” but of inte­grat­ing the two per­spec­tives. This is a major stake if one wants to sup­port the autonomous strug­gles of the low-income neigh­bor­hoods and antiracist move­ments. Take two recent exam­ples of police bru­tal­i­ty: Adama and Théo. Adama Traoré’s fam­i­ly was able, thanks to the net­work of activists who act­ed with and for them, to build a very pow­er­ful and effec­tive mobi­liza­tion that was large­ly resis­tant to the repub­li­can nar­ra­tive. Théo Luhaka’s fam­i­ly, on the oth­er hand, who are close to the orga­ni­za­tion­al net­work revolv­ing around the PS – which pro­vid­ed work­sta­tions and legal assis­tance, and thus gen­er­at­ed income – was imme­di­ate­ly co-opt­ed by SOS Racisme and oth­er groups under the aegis of the PS.12

The Presidential Elections

It seems evi­dent, then, that the call to “sup­port the riots” [“soutenir l’émeute”] is not a suf­fi­cient per­spec­tive. It needs to be com­bined – and this is the least one can say – with efforts to build an “applic­a­ble and last­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty” with­in the low-income neigh­bor­hoods.13 In this con­nec­tion, the first round of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions offers us some impor­tant indi­ca­tions. As an edi­to­r­i­al in the Quartiers libres argued: 

From de Trappes to Grigny, the north­ern neigh­bor­hoods of Mar­seille, Depart­ment 93 [Seine-Saint-Denis], Depart­ment 04 [Val-de-Marne], the Over­seas depart­ments, etc.., the Mélen­chon vote came out on top in sev­er­al low-income vot­ing dis­tricts. The results in the low-income neigh­bor­hoods and the Over­seas ter­ri­to­ries show some­thing that many have for­got­ten or neglect­ed: the class vote exists in France. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s num­bers in cer­tain low-income neigh­bor­hoods, which exceed­ed 40%, like his vic­to­ry in the 93, the poor­est and most racial­ized depart­ment in Met­ro­pol­i­tan France, is not insignif­i­cant. It’s not a sign of sup­port for or iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with France Insoumise, but rather cor­re­sponds to a “social” vote from the left, basi­cal­ly a class vote.14

The sec­ond round of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions also gives us a dou­ble polit­i­cal indi­ca­tion. First, the unde­ni­able turnout for the FN: eleven mil­lion French peo­ple, or 16% of the pop­u­la­tion, did not hes­i­tate to sup­port an open­ly fas­cist par­ty and pro­gram, whose imple­men­ta­tion would have had extreme­ly grave con­se­quences for the racial­ized sub­jects in the low-income neigh­bor­hoods.15 After hav­ing obtained 7.65 mil­lion votes in the first round, a marked increase from the sec­ond round of the 2002 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions (5.52 mil­lion) and the vic­to­ry in the 2014 Euro­pean elec­tions (4.71 mil­lion, with 24.86%), the FN made impres­sive inroads with­in the Catholic and Repub­li­can right, which, if it did not dare sup­port the par­ty in the first round, final­ly broke the taboo last month, mak­ing May 7, 2017 a tru­ly his­toric date. And in fact, despite a degree of bare­ly con­cealed dis­sat­is­fac­tion among mil­i­tants and lead­ers, sev­er­al min­utes after the result Marine Le Pen announced a thor­ough renew­al of the par­ty in order to sus­tain its long march through French pub­lic opin­ion.

Sec­ond­ly, the vote for Macron was not in any way a bind­ing choice. High­ly unpop­u­lar before even before arriv­ing at the Elysée, Macron’s man­date rep­re­sents a strong con­ti­nu­ity in rela­tion to Hollande’s term – the most hat­ed pres­i­den­cy of the Fifth Repub­lic.16 The new pres­i­dent promis­es to extend labor reform dur­ing his first months in office, and intends to do so through gov­ern­ment ordi­nances. Since it is unclear before­hand whether he will enjoy a par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty, Macron will be forced to pro­ceed by rely­ing on exec­u­tive pow­ers.17 This will only exac­er­bate the lack of con­fi­dence in the exist­ing insti­tu­tion­al frame­work, in the par­ty sys­tem, and, more gen­er­al­ly, in the elec­toral under­stand­ing of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. This round of elec­tions has pro­vid­ed us with two oth­er sta­tis­tics that should be men­tioned: the 25% absten­tion rate (the high­est num­ber since the elec­toral revolt of 1969) and the record num­ber of blank votes (12%).

Conclusions

The com­ing months already look to be extreme­ly dense, both from the view­point of employ­er actions and social move­ment activ­i­ties. Over and above the esca­la­tion of repres­sive mea­sures against social move­ments already announced by the new pres­i­dent, the gov­ern­men­tal project is clear: to take advan­tage of the sum­mer months to pass anti-social laws con­cern­ing the work­place and social rights, bypass­ing par­lia­ment if nec­es­sary. As for resis­tant and oppo­si­tion­al sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, the present and future chal­lenges are con­sid­er­able. After a short peri­od of pre-elec­toral retreat, the last few weeks have revived the attempt to build a trans­ver­sal force, whose goal is to unite the dis­si­dent union rank and fil­ers with the most deter­mined groups of the pre­car­i­ous youth. Although the rep­e­ti­tion of the “wild demos” [man­i­fs sauvages] in north­east Paris (increas­ing­ly patrolled by the police and gen­darmes) has lost the force of polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiviza­tion it had last spring, the desired resur­gence of an alliance between the “black K-Way jack­ets and red vests18 [K-way noirs et cha­sub­les rouges] announced by the new “social front” could pro­vide a breath of fresh air to the protests.19

At present, no sub­jec­tiv­i­ty has the effec­tive pow­er to take on this encounter alone: not wage earn­ers, not women, not the racial­ized sub­jects, not the youth – even if they are actu­al­ly [pour de vrai] ungovern­able! If we want to con­test the plan of cap­i­tal and the state machine, then we must begin (again) from the dif­fer­ent com­po­nents that, in one way or anoth­er, led the social strug­gles in France from the mobi­liza­tion against the labor law through the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. In effect, as Simona de Simoni recent­ly remarked in a talk on fem­i­nism and Mario Tron­ti, “dif­fer­ences mat­ter no less than con­flict, and con­flict with­out dif­fer­ences points to a path that can longer be trav­eled.”20 In this light, and beyond all the nec­es­sary crit­i­cisms of Mélen­chon, which are not worth dwelling on here, the con­crete social mea­sures advanced in the France Insoumise pro­gram and the ram­pant racism since the 2015 Paris attacks (lat­er accen­tu­at­ed dur­ing this cam­paign) had a major impact in French cities and the ban­lieues. If the union rank and files and the youth move­ments want to build a path of alliance with racial­ized and seg­re­gat­ed sub­jects, it’s nec­es­sary to begin seri­ous­ly inves­ti­gat­ing the ways in which this dif­fer­ent the­mat­ic con­tent can be artic­u­lat­ed, by pro­vid­ing an emi­nent­ly polit­i­cal dimen­sion to con­crete demands.21 The needs and require­ments spe­cif­ic to sin­gu­lar con­di­tions of life can and must become the prin­ci­pal ground of any real renewed antag­o­nism [toute véri­ta­ble relance antag­o­niste]. It would then be the task of this antag­o­nism to push the con­tent of these demands in a polit­i­cal direc­tion, with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly iden­ti­fy­ing with them – as the most suc­cess­ful exper­i­ments of the Ital­ian red years (1968-1977) were able to do.22 Because it is only through the con­ver­gence of eco­nom­ic strug­gles and polit­i­cal strug­gles – fol­low­ing, for exam­ple, the recent case of Ni Una Menos – that we will be able to trig­ger a real cri­sis in the sys­tem of exist­ing social rela­tions, not only by mak­ing the rul­ing class afraid, but also by direct­ly threat­en­ing them. 

– Trans­lat­ed by Patrick King


  1. The present text aims only to open up a debate in France on the prac­tices and forms of orga­ni­za­tion at work with­in move­ments. It stems from a series of remarks made in col­lec­tive dis­cus­sions held since last Jan­u­ary in many dif­fer­ent set­tings: at Michèle Firk, Lieu-dit, Con­séquences, Man­i­festen, La Planète, la Brèche, Cox, Bioslab, and sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ties. 

  2. See Wendy Brown, “Amer­i­can Night­mare: Neolib­er­al­ism, Neo­con­ser­vatism, and De-Democ­ra­ti­za­tion,” Polit­i­cal The­o­ry 34.6 (Decem­ber 2006): 690-714. 

  3. Translator’s Note: A term that is very dif­fi­cult to ren­der in Eng­lish, which refers to the “lead­ing con­tin­gent” of the march­es and demon­stra­tions around Nuit Debout. It car­ries a mil­i­tant con­no­ta­tion, and while both the social com­po­si­tion and con­tentious reper­toire of these protests over­lap with black bloc tac­tics in the North Amer­i­can con­text, there are par­tic­u­lar­i­ties to take into account. It is also sig­nif­i­cant that in many major demon­stra­tions in France, unions often occu­py this space at the head of the march, which was decid­ed­ly not the case last spring. 

  4. Translator’s Note: For oth­er reflec­tions on Nuit Debout, see the inter­view with Frédéric Lor­don con­duct­ed by Stathis Kou­ve­lakis, “Over­turn­ing a World,” Jacobin, May 4, 2016; or the inter­view with Kou­ve­lakis also in Jacobin, “What’s Next for Nuit Debout?,” May 15, 2016. 

  5. Translator’s Note: For an excel­lent his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of the repres­sive mea­sures used by the gen­darmes against the ZAD protests, in con­nec­tion to the death of Rémi Fraisse, see Louise Fes­sard, “Grenades offen­sives: enquête sur le précé­dent de Creys-Malville en 1977,” Medi­a­part, Decem­ber 17, 2014. 

  6. Of course, not all of the same sub­jec­tiv­i­ties were at play dur­ing these mobi­liza­tions… 

  7. Max Weber, “The Nation­al State and Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy (Freiburg Address),” trans. Ben Fowkes, Econ­o­my and Soci­ety 9.4 (1980): 438. See the recent repub­li­ca­tion of Tronti’s clas­sic work in an excel­lent French trans­la­tion: Mario Tron­ti, Ouvri­ers et cap­i­tal, trans. Yann Mouli­er-Boutang (Gene­va: Entremonde, 2016). 

  8. Ulti­mate­ly, one might even argue that this was symp­to­matic of a par­tic­u­lar social com­po­si­tion, which did not have any need for major demands… 

  9. Translator’s Note: I fol­low here the trans­la­tion by edi­ciones ined­i­tos of this valu­able inter­view with an orga­niz­er in the quartiers pop­u­laires, “Our Neigh­bor­hoods are not Polit­i­cal Deserts,” Feb­ru­ary 16, 2017. While the more lit­er­al trans­la­tion would be pop­u­lar neigh­bor­hoods, and this is often used, it los­es a con­sid­er­able amount of accu­mu­lat­ed mean­ing; the cho­sen sub­sti­tute is not per­fect and might be too econ­o­mistic. 

  10. Cf. Éti­enne Bal­ibar, “Du pop­ulisme au con­tre-pop­ulisme: his­toire et stratégie,” Pop­ulis­mus Inter­ven­tions, No. 3 (Thes­sa­loni­ki, 2015), 1-12. 

  11. Cf. “Il est temps de marcher avec notre bous­sole poli­tique’: Entre­tien avec Omar Slaouti,” Con­tretemps, March 16, 2017. 

  12. For an overview of how the French state man­ages these “periph­er­al” ter­ri­to­ries via asso­cia­tive and finan­cial appa­ra­tus­es linked to the PS, cf.the arti­cle on the Quartiers Libres site, “Made in PS,” Feb­ru­ary 27, 2017. 

  13. Cf. respec­tive­ly, “Soutenir L’Émeute,” Lun­di Matin #94 (Feb­ru­ary 23, 2017); and “Pour une sol­i­dar­ité durable et appliquée,” Paris-Luttes.info, Feb­ru­ary 17, 2017. 

  14. See the analy­sis of the first round of elec­tions at Quartiers Libres, “Au Quarti­er, on vote La Classe,” April 28, 2017. For an analy­sis of the social and geo­graph­ic com­po­si­tion of the vote, cf. Roger Martel­li, “X-Ray of a Shat­tered Vote,” Jacobin Mag­a­zine (May 2017). 

  15. Inci­den­tal­ly, the inabil­i­ty of a large part of social move­ments to artic­u­late a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed dis­course, and which end­ed by plac­ing both can­di­dates on the same lev­el – with the slo­gan “Ni patrie ni patron, ni Le Pen ni Macron” as only one aspect – demon­strates once again the dif­fi­cul­ty in con­fronting racism polit­i­cal­ly. It is in fact from the view­point of the racial­ized, and their view­point alone, that one can estab­lish the ter­rain of social strug­gle or latent civ­il war, so as to not be forced to return to the bal­lot box­es in the sec­ond round in order to “block” the FN. Cf. the series of inter­views con­duct­ed by Carine Fouteau with anti-racist mil­i­tants active in the low-income neigh­bor­hoods who chose to abstain, “Vot­er ou s’abstenir: le «cas de con­science» des quartiers pop­u­laires,” Medi­a­part, May 4, 2017. 

  16. Accord­ing to sev­er­al sur­veys (the num­bers vary, but the over­all result is the same), about one-third of the Macron vote was due to his per­son­al­i­ty and pro­gram, anoth­er third due to the nov­el­ty he rep­re­sents (like Berlus­coni and Trump, Macron is a direct prod­uct of the rul­ing class, but pre­tends to pass as “anti-estab­lish­ment”), and the last third stemmed from the attempt to block the FN. What’s more, a sec­tion of the vot­ers who went for Macron would have effec­tive­ly vot­ed for the LR (The Repub­li­cans) if the Fil­lon cam­paign had not been rocked by scan­dals, while anoth­er sec­tion would have hap­pi­ly vot­ed for the PS if the pri­ma­ry results had been dif­fer­ent. In short, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Le Pen vs. Mélen­chon sec­ond round was not in the realm of polit­i­cal fan­ta­sy. 

  17. In a dif­fer­ent man­ner than what has tak­en place in Ger­many, Spain, Greece, Italy, and else­where, where “mixed” coali­tions have pro­ceed­ed to form gov­ern­ments, in France the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of an extreme-cen­ter gov­ern­ment seems to be at hand, with Macron acquir­ing an absolute major­i­ty in the leg­isla­tive elec­tions. This per­spec­tive accen­tu­ates, more­over, the ongo­ing implo­sion [l’effritement] of the two so-called mod­er­ate par­ties. 

  18. Translator’s Note: Cloth­ing often worn by mem­bers of the cortège de tête (black K-Way jack­ets) and dis­si­dent trade union­ists (red vests) respec­tive­ly. 

  19. Like the most pro­duc­tive polit­i­cal expe­ri­ences of last spring, which could be seen in the cortège de tête and dur­ing the autonomous block­ades. 

  20. Simona di Simoni, “Fem­min­is­mo, dif­feren­za e con­flit­to: Genealo­gia e prospet­tive (in dial­o­go con Mario Tron­ti),” Com­mon­ware, May 10, 2017. 

  21. A group of com­rades, includ­ing the present author, is cur­rent­ly attempt­ing to do this. We are rais­ing, for exam­ple, the ques­tion of the social wage or social income [revenu social] in the ban­lieues, but by revers­ing the terms through which the ques­tion has usu­al­ly been posed at least with­in Ital­ian work­erism and autono­mia, which the­o­rized and agi­tat­ed around this issue start­ing from the most advanced point of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, name­ly around cog­ni­tive and intel­lec­tu­al labor, social coop­er­a­tion, etc. To use Bifo’s clas­sic metaphor, in order to grasp the poten­tial of the social wage, it appears we should head to Sil­i­con Val­ley. But in my view, it seems just as impor­tant and all the more impor­tant in the French con­text, with its his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ties to under­stand the social wage in the con­text where process­es of cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing have incurred the harsh­est and most vio­lent effects: name­ly the ban­lieues, the periph­eries of the large metrop­o­les and low-income neigh­bor­hoods, by plac­ing it at the inter­sec­tion of anti-racist strug­gles. We have only start­ed to inves­ti­gate this prob­lem­at­ic over the past sev­er­al weeks, engag­ing for the moment with about a hun­dred high school stu­dents in the north­ern and south­ern ban­lieues of Paris. What has already emerged from these first encoun­ters, beyond a whole series of symp­to­matic con­tra­dic­tions, is the poten­tial for the social wage in terms of polit­i­cal imag­i­nar­ies and per­spec­tives of self-deter­mi­na­tion. To put it very pro­saical­ly: the sig­nif­i­cant flex­i­bil­i­ty to be able to autonomous­ly decide what to do, where to do it, and how with­out being total­ly sub­ject­ed to the con­straints of the labor mar­ket or fam­i­ly back­ground, is an ele­ment that opens up quite remark­able fields of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Among the thou­sands of ways of des­ig­nat­ing social income, I find a recent for­mu­la­tion, adopt­ed by the Ital­ian branch of the glob­al fem­i­nist move­ment col­lec­tive Ni Una Menos, par­tic­u­lar­ly con­vinc­ing: a wage for self-deter­mi­na­tion! See Maria Rosaria Marel­la, “Ni Una Menos: Un Red­di­to di Autode­ter­mi­nazione con­tro lo sfrut­ta­men­to cap­i­tal­is­ti­co e patri­ar­cale,” EuroNo­made, March 8, 2017. 

  22. Cf. Nan­ni Balestri­ni and Pri­mo Moroni, La horde d’or: Ital­ie 1968-1977, trans. and ed. Jeanne Rev­el, Jean-Bap­tiste Ler­oux, Pierre Vin­cent Cresceri, and Lau­rent Guil­loteau (Paris: L’éclat, 2017) 274-75, 282-83, 336, 400, 402, 416-17, 434, etc. 

Author of the article

is a researcher associated with the Sophiapol interdisciplinary group at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. He is currently a post-doctoral student at the Institute for Advanced Study of Pavia, and his work spans political, economic, and social philosophy, theories of money, and the history of capitalism.